It took John Ross’ 17 frustrating rookie snaps and Thursday night’s disastrous slip that turned into a Bears’ pick-six before he grabbed his first big-play NFL catch to symbolize the mastery of the Bengals offense in taking a 23-14 half-time lead in a pre-season opener they won, 30-27, on rookie wide receiver Auden Tate’s 33-yard touchdown catch with 2:04 left.
And Ross’ catch way back early in the night was one to remember, too, and worthy of the ninth pick in the 2017 draft. Ross’ spectacular 20-yard catch-and-run that left the Chicago secondary transfixed highlighted the Bengals’ first-team offense methodical two touchdown drives the three times they had the ball at Paul Brown Stadium.
When wide receiver Tyler Boyd sliced inside cornerback Kyle Fuller for a three-yard touchdown pass with 2:16 left in the first quarter, the Bengals’ first team offense had two touchdowns in the year’s first dozen minutes after not finding the end zone all last preseason.
The rest of the club fed off a dominating effort by both the first offense and defense. Safety Clayton Fejedelem, who joined quarterback Andy Dalton and defensive tackle Geno Atkins for the opening coin toss as the special teams captain, ran a fake punt 49 yards on fourth-and-four to set up the first of Randy Bullock’s two field goals.
“I thought we did pretty good overall on both sides of the ball," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "On offense, I feel like I’ll need to look at the tape for sure, particularly with the running game, to get a better feel for how we did. On defense, other than the penalties, we did a pretty good job. We just have to get things cleaned up.”
Bullock’s backup, Jonathan Brown, converted his first field goal (24 yards) and first extra point ever in a game on any level.
The Bengals also reversed another trend from last season when they scored at the half-time gun instead of their opponent on a Bullock field goal set up by linebacker Brandon Bell’s interception of a tipped Chase Daniel pass with 22 seconds left. Bengals back-up quarterback Matt Barkley hit wide receiver Josh Malone for 23 yards on the sideline and Malone drew a flag in coverage a few snaps later for 17 yards to produce another Bullock chip-shot field goal.
Dalton was mid-season sharp behind his overhauled offensive line on six of eight passing for 111 yards and and two touchdowns and it should have been seven of eight with the only miss a first-down pylon shot from the 3. But on the first snap of the second series, Ross slipped as Dalton fired it to him on the right hash mark. It hit the surprised Fuller in the hands and he ran it 47 yards for the touchdown to tie at seven with 6:33 left in the first quarter.
But Dalton looked to who else? Three plays later on third-and-six, Dalton had time to seemingly throw it through cornerback Marcus Cooper Sr., to Green’s back shoulder for a 26-yard play down the left side to book-end his 22-yard catch on a shallow crossing route during the first drive.
“I thought we did a good job moving the ball," Dalton said. "We had an interception, and we have to limit those in the regular season, but we put the ball in the end zone. So, it was a good start.”
That new O-line then made some room for running back Giovani Bernard scooting for eight- and 11-yard runs up the middle and held up on third-and-four when Dalton played pitch-and-catch with Malone on an easy eight-yard side-line throw.
After Bernard’s 11-yard run, Dalton hurried them to the line and found Ross on the left sideline with a quick throw and when Ross head faked to the sideline and then whirled to the middle of the field, he froze Cooper for his 20-yard run to set up Boyd’s TD.
Running back Joe Mixon, the other offensive crown jewel of that 2017 draft who, like Ross, had a tough rookie year, also signaled he wanted to make this a different season.
And this is why you throw the ball to Mixon. On that opening drive Mixon broke two tackles on the way to converting Dalton’s flip into a 24-yard touchdown. With Mixon split wide, Dalton sent out five receivers out of an empty backfield on first down and dropped a little throw to Mixon four yards down field.
He made Fuller miss in space and as he went down the right sideline, he juked a linebacker and when he spun toward the middle of the field, he nearly went down at the 10. But barely before his knee hit the ground, he gathered himself with an amazing athletic play that allowed him to go into the end zone untouched 6:32 into the season
The Bengals’ three top sackers were on display as the first defense manhandled the Bears on their two series, holding them three yards on three carries and four yards on two of four passing.
Left end Carlos Dunlap beat right tackle Bobby Massie on third-and-nine on the game’s third play but was called for roughing the passer when he merely tapped quarterback Mitchell Trubisky on the shoulder pads. But defensive tackle Geno Atkins promptly got it back with a sack of Trubisky on a second-and-five play. Then on third-and-23 slot cornerback Darqueze Dennard blew up a screen for a one-yard loss.
On the second series, Dunlap marched into the backfield for a two-yard loss on second down and on third down right end Carl Lawson chased down Trubisky to hit his arm as he threw an incompletion.
Even after Dalton left following the touchdown pass to Boyd, the first offensive line remained in the game for a few more series. They couldn’t hammer it in after Fejedelem lugged it to the 25 and then got the benefit of the first use-of-the-helmet penalty that put the ball on the 13. Rookie running back Mark Walton could only get a yard sweeping right and two more up the middle before Barkley threw behind Boyd to bring on Bullock for a 28-yarder.
When the No. 2 offensive line checked-in, Barkley survived leaky protection from left tackle Jake Fisher and right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi to convert a third-and-nine with a ten-yarder over the middle to tight end C.J. Uzomah and a third-and-seven on a circus catch wide receiver Alex Erickson took to the ground as Barkley fired through a maze of rushers.
But when they reached the Bears 6, tight end Tyler Kroft dropped a pass at the goal line and Ross couldn’t get his other foot down on a nice leaping catch on the back line and they settled for Brown’s debut field goal.
The Bengals went to quarterback Jeff Driskel for the entire second half and kept Ogbuehi at right tackle, Alex Redmond at right guard and Christian Westerman at left guard. Kent Perkins, who got called for a hold and gave up the Bears’ first sack with four minutes left in the third quarter, went to left tackle while veteran T.J Johnson and rookie Brad Lundblade took turns at guard and center.
It was tough sledding for the offense that point with little running room and Driskel not getting much time. In the third quarter they had just 22 yards rushing on seven carries, 28 yards passing and one first down.
The Bears cut the lead to 23-20 on two field goals in the third quarter as the Chicago offense worked largely against rookies. With rookie backers Malik Jefferson and Chris Worley on the field, the Bears got a 69-yard run from running back Ryan Nall and they avoided rookie cornerback Darius Phillips getting beat for a touchdown on a terrible throw by quarterback Tyler Bray.
It was tough night for some of the rookie defenders. The Bears took a 27-23 lead with the help of another big play. Rookie linebacker Junior Joseph was part of a trio that included veteran safeties Josh Shaw and Brandon Wilson giving up a 56-yard pass to tight end Daniel Brown down the middle. That set up wide receiver Demarcus Ayers’ three-yard jet sweep around rookie right end Sam Hubbard for a three-year touchdown with 9:30 left in the game.
Scrambling, rambling quarterback Jeff Driskel sped backward, moved forward and then bailed right before lofting it to Tate at the goal line, where he leaped over falling cornerback John Franklin III to cap a four-play, 91-yard drive.
The Bengals secured the win when Bears kicker Cody Parkey went short and wide right on a 52-yarder with 45 seconds left.
“We flew around pretty well. We got the three-and-out we wanted, but then got penalized," Dunlap said. "But we responded to that penalty by getting three-and-out again. Things happen in the regular season that can set you back, but it’s how you respond and reset that determines whether or not you’ll be able to do what you want to do. This was a good pre-season test.”
PRE-GAME NOTES: Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis’ list of players not participating in Thursday night’s pre-season opener didn’t include WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict and tight end Tyler Eifert, although neither of the two erstwhile Pro Bowlers are expected to play against the Bears.
Lewis ruled out Burfict earlier in the week after Burfict practiced for the first time this training camp on Monday and Tuesday. But he kept everyone guessing on Eifert even as the Bengals were slow to activate him for camp in order to protect his troublesome back.
He ruled out four backups fighting for a roster spot shelved by health: cornerbacks Tony McRae (ankle) and Sojourn Shelton (thumb-wrist) and defensive tackles Josh Tupou (knee) and rookie Andrew Brown (hamstring). Shelton appears to have the most serious injury with torn thumb ligaments and a break that could land him on season-ending injured with what may be a recovery of a couple of months. Tupou and McRae are fighting sprains for the next couple of weeks and Brown could be back as next week’s game in Dallas on Aug. 18.
Second-year man Jordan Evans figures to start in place of Burfict, as he's expected to do during the first four games of the regular season while Burfict serves an NFL suspension.