It was the kind of game a defense embraces and dreads. The Bengals unit carried the day during Sunday's Paul Brown Stadium opener, but it came down to one drive, one guy, one play to mar it all in a 13-8 loss.
The Bengals suffocated the three Niners running backs with 70 yards on 29 carries and generated their most sacks in 32 games with five. But the one guy they needed to cover on 49ers quarterback Alex Smith's big drive in the fourth quarter, tight end Vernon Davis, they couldn't find. After already catching seven balls for 94 yards, Davis was wide open for a 20-yard gain that put the Niners on the Bengals 7 and set up running back Kendall Hunter's seven-yard run for the only touchdown of the game.
It was the same kind of play that burned the Bengals for tight end Benjamin Watson's 34-yard touchdown catch in Cleveland two weeks ago. Smith rolled right on a play-action fake, stopped, and threw across to the left to a wide-open Davis.
"Different defense, but similar play. It was a shorter throw. We didn't play it very well," said cornerback Leon Hall, who was so surprised to see Davis coming his way after the catch that the usually sure tackler missed him.
Safety Reggie Nelson slipped on the play, but he was probably too far away to break it up. Davis, who led all receivers with eight catches for 114 yards, said the play is designed to be open so much and 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said the play had been in development for three weeks.
The Bengals said Davis is known for lulling teams to sleep, holding at the line as if he's going to block, and then releasing at the last possible instant. Defensive tackle Domata Peko called it "a tight end delay."
"He has some special gifts," said cornerback Nate Clements, Davis' former teammate. "We knew he was going to get the ball. You've got to limit when he does get the ball. They did a great job getting him into position."
Clements didn't know what kind of score it would end up being against his old mates. But it was one the Bengals felt they should have had against a first-year coaching staff coming across country for its first road game for a franchise that had won four non-division road games since 2003 with a quarterback that had a starting record of 19-31.
But that can get negated quickly with a rookie quarterback.
"A little bit, you know," Peko said when asked if a game like this is expected. "But with a rookie quarterback and a rookie wide receiver, we've got to get that running game going on offense. I'm on the other side of the ball, so I can't say too much about offense. All I know is that, on defense, we'll be ready to go next week."
The Bengals got some big-time efforts on defense. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga rang up eight tackles and forced a huge turnover when he ripped the ball from running back Frank Gore at the 49ers 16 in a 3-3 game.
Defensive lineman Jon Fanene, who had two sacks, recovered it but the Bengals could only get a field goal. Peko was all over the place with eight tackles and a forced fumble himself while the young Niners speed merchants never got past their old 31-year-old buddy Clements. He came up with five tackles, one for a loss, and a pass defensed.
And he took a big-time shot on Alex Smith when Smith bravely strayed from the pocket a week after he got a concussion against the Cowboys.
"I heard the crowd and watched the replay. It looked pretty good, but I felt fine," Smith said.
With a young offense playing on the margins, it came down to one drive. One play.
"I knew we were going to fly around, give effort, execute and play with technique," Clements said. "We did those things, but we just have to manage doing it the whole game."
"That's all it takes," said Hall of the last drive. Just one drive. We have to play better for one drive. When you tell me we played well, you know I'm going to say we have to play well for 60 minutes."
Maualuga tried to finish, but he was dragged to the locker room with cramps and he couldn't be on the field for the last drive.
"We played well, we played fundamentally sound, we were in our gaps," Maualuga said. "It's like last year. Most of the games we lost by a couple of points. A touchdown. A field goal. We're almost there. We don't have that finish we're looking for. We have the qualities of having a good team. We're just not finishing. Coach says the best teams win in the fourth quarter. We did a good job up to it, but we left some on the field. We didn't capitalize on things that were handed to us."
The kind of game you love and hate if you play defense.
"At the end of the day, we're 1-2, whether we played good or played bad," Hall said. "The fact is we're 1-2. We just have to keep working, obviously look at the film, and try to keep building and getting out of this two-game (losing streak). We have to get going and get back on the winning train."
CROWD FACTOR:After playing in front of the smallest home opener crowd in 30 years (43,363), the players know what will bring them back.
"If you win, they come," said wide receiver Andre Caldwell. "That's not a focus for us. We're trying to play hard and win a game."
Maualuga knows there are a lot of factors at play.
"It's something we can't control," he said. "Based on our record lately—I can't say I know how it feels to come to a game and watch a team lose—they have every right not to purchase a ticket … with the economy these days … we just have to come out and control what we can control and win games and play."
Running back Cedric Benson feels badly for the fans that can't see the game on TV.
"It's slightly unfortunate that we can't get more support in the stadium, but these are hard times in America," Benson said. "Maybe what we have to do is formulate a string of wins and hopefully we can turn it around and figure out a way to get fans here."
BENSON HOPEFUL: To say that Benson is livid about how the NFL Players Association handled his three-game suspension is a slight understatement. Anchored by high-profile sports attorney David Cornwell, Benson is filing a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board after he found out the league and the NFLPA agreed that eight players could be disciplined for legal incidents during the lockout.
Not only does Benson think he shouldn't be disciplined during the lockout ("I didn't even have a contract," he said), he also said he was surprised he was considered a repeat offender after meeting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in August 2010 and never thought he'd back in his office Tuesday to appeal anything relating to it after Goodell decided not to suspend him following an incident in a Texas bar. Last month Benson served five days after being charged with assault during the lockout on a former roommate lawyers said was trying to extort him.
"It kind of falls on the (Players Association). You would think they would support you and have your back. That's what a union does," Benson said. "We've got a lot of good cards to play. A lot of evidence. A lot of facts to back me. We'll present those things and hopefully it will be the best outcome."
Benson heads to New York on Tuesday hoping he'll get the nod to play at PBS against the Bills next Sunday. Despite finding out about the agreement this week that he was one of eight singled out by the league and NFLPA, Benson thought he was ready for the top-ranked 49ers run defense. He ended up with 64 yards on 17 carries.
"I wouldn't be human if I'd sit here and say I didn't think about it more so than I would have liked to," he said. "(But) I knew I still had a game coming up. I knew I was playing a tough defense and I still wanted to get 100 yards on them and get a win. It was a challenge to disregard those things and stay focused. I think I managed."