KANSAS CITY, Mo. - The defense never looked right, there were 115 yards in penalties and when has a Darrin Simmons special teams left three punts on the deck in a season? Never mind the first three quarters?
But in the wake of Saturday night’s 38-17 loss to the Chiefs in head coach Zac Taylor’s debut, the offense he brought from the Rams to Andy Dalton not only started in the chill of preseason, it hummed. Not only that, it hummed with some borrowed parts.
Dalton, who took over the Bengals offense four systems ago when Taylor was a Texas A&M assistant, looked as good as he’s ever looked in a pre-season opener. He hit seven of nine passes (one was a drop) for 80 yards and didn’t come close to getting touched despite converting all three third downs to three different receivers in a drive extended to 14 plays when left guard John Jerry was called for holding.
And none of those balls went to A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, John Ross, Joe Mixon or Giovani Bernard because they didn’t play.
“I’ll take it,” Dalton said.
That’s because it could have been a little dicey. Not a lot of experience and it was on the road and there was new Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo over there and Dalton wondered what he had up his sleeve after being out a year.
“It turned out to be Vanilla Zac vs. Spags Pudding. Not much, Dalton said, but Spags showed a few wrinkles to give it a bit of a bite.
“That’s how you want to start the game,” Dalton said. “We feel like we have talent on this team. We feel like we have depth. Without some of the guys we have starting for us this year, I thought we did a great job … It’s one thing I’ve talked about from the beginning. It’s just not one guy. You spread it around in this offense. You get a bunch of different people involved. That’s a big part of what we do.”
Without Green and Ross, it was left to two asterisks in the wide receivers room the last few years and both Josh Malone and Cody Core converted third downs on the drive. So did rookie running back Trayveon Williams when they needed 11 and he got 13 dancing on a screen opened by right guard John Miller.
“He made a great run,” Dalton said.
Taylor had given Dalton a brief checklist. Get it out of your hand quickly. Don’t take a hit. And take a shot down field some point in the drive. It turned out that wide receiver Auden Tate, last year’s fan favorite training camp rookie, got the shot when Dalton lofted a 26-yarder to the goal line that the 6-5 Tate yanked down on one of his classic contested catches.
“I told him next time don’t go down on the one-yard line. Get in the end zone,” Dalton said. “That’s what he can do, with his size and his ability and playing the ball in the air, that’s to his advantage. Put it up there and give him a chance.”
And, oh yeah, Tyler Boyd saw it, too. Boyd had three of the catches in the drive and while he dropped a fourth he also had a vintage 12-yard catch on a second-and-17 slant that made things easier. The offense everybody has been staking everything on worked. Even with Green in Cincinnati.
“It was huge,” Boyd said. “Without the guys that weren’t playing we still managed to move the ball efficiently and continue to make plays and move the chains. It says a lot about Zac’s offense, and what he’s trying to do and utilizing the players that we have. If we can do it without them, I can imagine how it’s going to look when we fully recover.”
Taylor didn’t show his hand, but he staked his claim. All but one of the 14 plays was run out of his base offense. 11s. Three wide receivers. One tight end. One running back. Sometimes all five were spread. Sometimes two receivers were lined up right next to each other. Sometimes all three were bunched. And there was always motion.
“I feel really comfortable with everything they’re asking us to do,” Dalton said. “I feel like it fits me really well. When you go out there and get everybody to play fast and be on the same page, it allows you the opportunity to be good on offense.”
Dalton wanted that one throw back. The one when Malone was wide open on first-down play action. It would have been a 39-yard TD to Malone, one snap after Malone ran a nice sideline route for ten yards on third down. He went to the other side and ran past cornerback Bashaud Breeland. Wide open.
“It surprised me a little bit. I really wasn’t ready to get out there,” Dalton said. “Unfortunately I left it short. It shouldn’t have been a (14-play) drive. It should have been a ten play drive.”
Taylor gets to call another game in four days, so he’s not immersed in what-ifs. He says he’ll build off the positive, although he did call himself out for putting back-up quarterback Jeff Driskel in bad position in the last minute of the first half and took the blame for back-to-back sacks.
But the first drive is what center Billy Price called “a good foundation.”
“I was really impressed with the focus those guys had,” Taylor said. “Andy was playing on time. We had a big play down the sideline we had a chance to make we didn’t make, and we turned right back around and hit a play down the other sideline. I thought they did a great job communicating. Good to get seven points there to start the season.”
How about that? Not bad for Taylor. First NFL head coach drive. First play calls. First TD.
“It was good. I’m happy for him,” Dalton said. “To take the kick, drive down and score, first time being a head coach calling plays for us, you want to score every time you get the ball. For us to score on the first one was big.”