The vaunted Bengals offense that rolled to an average of 400 yards per game in its three-game winning streak couldn't keep it going Sunday against Miami's exhaustive defense in a 17-13 loss before 61,162 at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium.
Facing a fourth-and-five from the Dolphins 23 with 3:05 left, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis eschewed going for it even though Mike Nugent's 41-yard field goal would only cut the lead to 17-16. But Nugent sliced it right for his first miss of the season after hitting nine straight.
Lewis later said he thought his defense would get the ball back after a successful kick, and they did, but it the drive ended like most of them on Sunday: with nothing.
Facing a third-and-nine with 2:39 left, Dolphins rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill took a shot at wide receiver Brian Hartline at midfield. It was incomplete, but Bengals cornerback Terence Newman was called for pass interference and the Bengals couldn't get the ball back until 1:45 left from their own 20.
Dalton overthrew wide receiver Andrew Hawkins on a second-and-20 (after center Jeff Faine had been called for a hold) and safety Reshad Jones picked it off with 1:22 left to end it.
The Bengals went into the fourth quarter with no touchdowns, unsuccessful on nine of 10 third-down tries and just 162 yards passing from Dalton and 62 rushing yards. Dalton finished with 234 on 26-of-43 with a touchdown, two interceptions. and a season-low 63.5 passer rating while the running game mucked out 80 yards on 19 carries. Take out running back Bernard Scott's 29-yard run in the first 10 minutes and there wasn't much.
But the Bengals defense wouldn't give up on it. Late in the third quarter defensive tackle Geno Atkins came up with his team-leading sixth sack to force Miami's Dan Carpenter to try a 53-yard field goal that he missed left.
That brought the offense to life. Hawkins ran a shovel pass for 10 yards and wide receiver A.J. Green, stifled all day by cornerback Sean Smith and a relentless Dolphins two-deep pass coverage, finally got open for a long one when Dalton hit his back shoulder for an 18-yarder, his longest catch of the day.
Green then caught a two-yard touchdown in the right corner with 14:15 left when he finally got enough separation from Smith that cut the lead to 17-13. It was Green's 100th career catch and gave him eight receptions on the day before he finished with nine for 65 yards.
But the Bengals couldn't sustain it. After the defense got them the ball back on a three-and-out, the offense gave it right back when Dalton took a coverage sack on third down, dropping the Bengals to 2-for-13 on the day on third-down conversions.
But the defense kept getiting it back. After Atkins and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga dropped running back Reggie Bush for a gain of just one on two carries, cornerback Adam Jones made a great third-down hit and pass defensed with 6:01 left to force another punt. Dalton then hooked up with wide receiver Armon Binns for 12 yards over the middle and Hawkins made a leaping, juggling catch for 24 more to put the ball on the Miami 28 with 3:45 left. The drive stalled after Green's last catch, a five-yarder over the middle. The Bengals capped off the third-down miseries on third-and-5 from the 23 when Dalton had to hurry an incompletion to wide receiver Brandon Tate as unblocked blitzer closed.
That made it 2-of-14 on third down a week after going 2-of-11 in Jacksonville.
The Bengals got pushed around early in the second half. On the first drive Dophins defensive tackle Randy Starks, a la J.J. Watt, plucked an interception out of the air at the line of scrimmage at the Bengals 36. Miami promptly turned that into running back Reggie Bush's 13-yard touchdown that made it 14-6 with 12:18 left in the third quarter.
Dalton's next pass got batted down by Starks on the right side as he tried to take a shot at Green. Then on third-and-eight the usually reliable Hawkins dropped a wiide-open ball that would have been a first down.
After Atkins made a great hustle play to trip up a screen pass from behind to running back Daniel Thomas a yard shy of a first down, the Dolphins had to settle for Carpenter's 46-yarder that made it 17-6 with 8:35 left in the third.
But the offense never caught fire from the defense's effort. On third-and-one, Dalton had Green working on Smith on the right sideline and the 6-3, 218-pound Smith muscled up the timing and it went incomplete.
The Bengals got two turnovers during Sunday's first half and stuffed the Dolphins on third-and fourth-and-1, but their offense couldn't make Miami pay and went into halftime with just two field goals trailing, 7-6.
Miami brought its physical style on both sides of the ball. The Dolphins knocked Scott out of the game with a knee injury after he picked up 40 yards on five carries and Green injured his ankle late in the half but returned in the second half.
Cincinnati started one drive at the Dolphins 26 when the Bengals recovered a fumble, and had a first-and-goal from the 4 on another drive and could only get Nugent field goals on both drives.
Meanwhile, the Dolphins were more stout in their successful red-zone trip after they partially blocked Kevin Huber's punt to start a drive at their 37. Rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill beat the blitz on third-and-10 for a 24-yard completion down the middle to tight end Charles Clay. He then found tight end Anthony Fasano wide open for a 13-yard gain to set up two smashes for a touchdown by Thomas that gave Miami the 7-6 lead with 6:54 left in the half.
Tannehill played solid with no touchdowns and no interceptions for a 92.3 passer rating on 17-of-26 passing for 223 yards and the Dolphins kept him clean for the most part with two sacks. The defense did what it had to do and made Miami one-dimensional by holding the Dolphins to 68 yards on 35 carries, but the offense didn't respond in kind.
Dalton and his offense bore no resemblance to the group that rolled up 99 points in their three-game winning streak. With the Dolphins daring the Bengals to run into a two-deep zone designed to take away Green, Cincinnati could get no traction in the running game and Dalton couldn't get clear windows to find his receivers. And when he held onto the ball, he got hit by a rush that sacked him twice in the first half and three times for the game.
Dalton, who had his first back-to-back 300-yard passing days at the start of this winning streak, had just 83 yards passing in the half on 11-of-18. Green, covered mainly by Smith, had four catches for just 26 yards.
Dalton threw a bad ball to wide receiver Armon Binns on third down late in the half that would have been a first down if it hadn't been low and away. Binns fumbled it when he went to his knees and the Dolphins recovered it at the Bengals 47.
But on third-and-one from the Bengals 38, Maualuga and safety Nate Clements stuffed Thomas, and then on fourth down 258-pound fullback Jorvorskie Lane was drilled by safety Reggie Nelson and rookie linebacker Vontaze Burfict with 2:49 left in the half.
But there was nothing happening against the swarming Dolphins defense. On third-and-two from the Dolphins 44, Dalton took a shot at tight end Jermaine Gresham down the middle but they couldn't connect in the bracket coverage.
The Bengals stung the stingy Dolphins run defense on a first-quarter drive with Scott's 29-yard run and Dalton's 20-yard throw to Gresham on fourth-and-two.
But the Bengals couldn't finish it off for a touchdown despite a first-and-goal from the Dolphins 4. Scott injured his knee when he got dumped for a three-yard loss on first down.
Dalton then had nowhere to go on second down and overthrew Green running across the back of the end zone. On third down it looked like Hawkins pulled away from safety Jimmy Wilson running to the corner, but Wilson tipped it away at the last instant to force Nugent's 24-yard field goal to make it 6-0 with 13 seconds left in the first quarter.
Scott ripped off a 29-yard run against the NFL's top-ranked run defense that hadn't allowed a run longer than 14 yards when he broke a gang tackle led by left end Jared Odrick. Then when the Bengals faced a fourth-and-two from the Dolphins 35, Gresham got loose while covered by linebacker Kevin Burnett for the 20-yard play.
The drive came courtesy of Cincinnati's second turnover of the game when Clements came up with a huge forced fumble when he put the shoulder on the ball carried by Lane at the Bengals 11 and it was recovered by Newman.
The Bengals got a big play in the game's opening moments for the fourth straight week when Burfict recovered a Bengals punt at the Miami 26 and Nugent translated it into a 42-yard field goal that gave the Bengals a 3-0 lead 4:25 into the game.
Burfict alertly hopped on the ball before it slid out of bounds after it bounced off the back of Reshad Jones. But the Bengals couldn't finish it off when right tackle Andre Smith false-started on first down and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis couldn't get anything on a run when Starks knifed into the left interior of the Bengals line to make the stop. On third down Dalton took a shot at Hawkins covered in the slot over the middle but it was overthrown and Nugent came on.
The Bengals defense also had a big start. On the first Dolphins series, Newman fought off Hartline's block and stretched out Bush for a two-yard loss on the right perimeter. Then on third-and-10 right end Michael Johnson and Atkins worked a stunt and Johnson came free for a sack when the Dolphins double-teamed Atkins. It gave Johnson his fifth sack to briefly tie Atkins for the team lead.
The Bengals gave up just 34 yards rushing in the half, but Tannehill found 101 across the middle on 7-of-10 passing.
PREGAME NOTES: The Bengals had their top-line secondary intact for the first time in three weeks Sunday, at least for the beginning of the game against the Dolphins before a Paul Brown Stadium sellout.
They were hoping that right cornerback Leon Hall's injured hamstring would hold up for the entire game, as well as the calf that safety Nate Clements injured in the Sept. 23 victory in Washington. Hall went full in practice Friday for the first time since he injured his hamstring in the Sept. 19 practice. Clements also went full Friday for the first time since he made his first NFL start at safety against the Redskins.
Head coach Marvin Lewis went that way again Sunday when he lined up Clements opposite Reggie Nelson for that second NFL start at safety next to those 161 at cornerback and Terence Newman got his second straight at Clements's old cornerback spot and fourth of the season.
With a full complement in the secondary, Lewis sat wide receivers Marvin Jones and Ryan Whalen, cornerbacks Jason Allen and Dre Kirkpatrick, safety George Iloka, defensive tackle Brandon Thompson, and tight end Richard Quinn. Allen (quad) and Kirkpatrick (knee) are injured.
The Dolphins deactivated new wide receiver Jabar Gaffney as well starting cornerback Richard Marshall (back).
The Bengals came out in their all-black uniforms and Lewis had the defensive starters announced as they come off their best outing of the season. Brian Leonard, Chris Pressley, A.J. Green, Carlos Dunlap and Terence Newman were the game captains. The Bengals won the toss and deferred so the Bengals would get the second half kickoff.