Andy Dalton, who channeled John Elway and Dan Marino in his first two NFL starts, finally looked like, well, Alex Smith in his third Sunday in the Paul Brown Stadium opener when the only player that got into the San Francisco end zone was 49ers punter Andy Lee for an end-of-game safety.
The rest of the game plan held strong. The Bengals thought they could overcome such rookie moments with a defense that didn't let San Francisco cross midfield until seven minutes left in the third quarter, held Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore to 42 yards on 17 carries, and sacked Smith five times. Throw in punter Kevin Huber's three missiles inside the 20 and almost everybody hit their marks.
It was one of those how-do-you-lose stat sheets. The Bengals outgained the Niners by two yards and had half the penalties and lost, 13-8.
"There really wasn't one positive at the end of the game where we can say, 'Hey, we did this today,' because we really didn't do good at anything today," said offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. "First down, second down … ."
The script just never took into account going 1-for-10 on third-down or a quarterback with a 19-31 won-loss record named A. Smith leading a winning 72-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter on the road.
"We played well, we played fundamentally sound, we were in our gaps," said middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, who forced the fumble that gave the Bengals their best chance to win it. "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."
Dalton needed some help in the fourth quarter to finish and overcome the first two NFL interceptions of his career in the final 3:54.
Just like it did in Cleveland in the opener, the defense blew coverage on the tight end on a rollout, throwback pass in the middle of the field for Vernon Davis' 20-yard catch to the Bengals 7 that set up the winning touchdown.
And Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham said he should have looked to his back shoulder for Dalton's second pick, a throw down the middle to the Niners 14 that was caught by sliding safety Reggie Smith.
"Pressing a little bit. The main thing had been—knock on wood—he does not throw an interception," said head coach Marvin Lewis.
The Bengals knew there would be days like this when they drafted Dalton back in April and made him the starting quarterback. His performance in the first two games validated their confidence when he became the first quarterback since Dan Marino in 1983 to start his career with 100-plus passer rating games.
But as the great Ken Anderson cautioned earlier this week, "He's played two NFL games. He's going to have his ups-and-downs."
With Anderson, the Bengals all-time leading passer, saluting the crowd from a suite, Dalton staked the Bengals to a 3-0 lead by hitting all five of his first five passes for 61 yards on the game's first drive in Andersonian fashion. But then it disappeared until the last desperate drive when he completed three straight passes for 47 yards. Other than that, Dalton was 9-for-24 for 49 yards and those first two pro picks.
"He forced some passes he shouldn't have," said offensive coordinator Jay Gruden of the bitter end.
Dalton said he never should have thrown the first one, an out route to wide receiver Andre Caldwell where Caldwell said cornerback Carlos Rogers "beat me to the route."
"The first one was a bad decision on my part," Dalton said of the Rogers pick. "He undercut the route and I should've never thrown it. The second one was a little miscommunication. We've got to get that fixed. There first one — I can't do that. I can't turn the ball loose, especially when we have a chance to go down and score and tie the game. It was a bad decision on my part and I've got to correct it."
He's also going to need help fixing third down because he's not the only one struggling. Of the 10 third downs, half were 10 yards or longer and Dalton ended up 4-of-10 for 24 yards. In his effort to keep the top-ranked Niners run defense in check, Gruden called 15 passes on 25 first-down snaps. The run never did get into sync with running back Cedric Benson finishing with just 64 yards on 17 carries.
"If you don't score a touchdown in a football game, there's a lot of blame to go around," Gruden said. "Usually, it's on the offensive coordinator, which is me, and I've got to get it fixed.
"I think our defense was playing outstanding, so I didn't want to press the issue and take a ton of shots," Gruden said of keeping it close to the vest. "I wanted to try and get the running game going. But when you do that and you're not successful, you're second-and-long. If you throw on first down and you get sacked like we did one time today, you're at second-and-20. If you get a holding penalty, you're at second-and-20. I think everyone was pressing a little bit too much today instead of just coming off the ball and doing what we're good at."
The Bengals knew their kids might press. But clearly they are still trying to get a feel for their young offense. Two rookies got benched in favor of veterans Sunday, tight end Colin Cochart for Donald Lee before the game and Clint Boling for Mike McGlynn at right guard on the second series. But as Gresham said, there were 'nitpick things" that kept tripping them up as he pointed to himself for missing blocks on the first drive that could have resulted in touchdowns.
One time it was a first-down sack, when former Bengals linebacker Ahmad Brooks appeared to shoot past the outside of right tackle Andre Smith. Another one came early in the fourth quarter in a 3-3 game when Benson mashed for 12 yards to the Niners 47, but the series blew up on left guard Nate Livings' hold.
The Bengals knew there would be days like this with their rookies. No. 1 pick A.J. Green, off a marvelous 10-catch day in Denver, had two false starts on third down, making the downs third-and-12 and third-and-15, respectively.
"I don't think they were poised to not have us run on them," Benson said. "We were still able to find some success I think. We just have to stick with it."
The Niners extended their streak to 25 straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher but the Bengals pretty much held old friend Justin Smith in check at tackle with two tackles. It was linebackers, like NaVorro Bowman with 11 tackles and safety Dashon Goldson with eight, that killed them.
"They were the best running team that we've faced so far," Smith said. "They have a great scheme with good players up front. They have some big fellas, and they run the ball."
But the Bengals couldn't mash it in the red zone. The real killers came there. Two trips. Two field goals when two TDs would have won it. The back-breaker came when Maualuga forced the fumble at the Niners 16 early in the fourth quarter and it was recovered by Jon Fanene (Herculean with two sacks) at the 16.
Benson then ripped off a 10-yarder on the power play with Livings pulling right. And then, well, let Gruden take you through the next three plays.
"We ran a power (for a yard). On second-and-goal at the (five), we tried a bootleg and (49ers linebacker Patrick) Willis sniffed it out perfectly. I thought it was going to be there, but Willis made a hell of a play. And on third-and-goal, we tried a fade route to (wide receiver) Jerome (Simpson), but (Dalton) overthrew him at the back of the end zone. We have to do a better job — not just in the red zone, but all over the field."
The Bengals knew there would be days like this with the kids. They just thought they'd get more than two field goals.
"We don't want it to happen, but it's going to happen anyway," Green said. "We're all (learning) a new offense, (we have) a rookie quarterback, rookie receivers and first-year receivers playing, so we're going to have some growing pains. We just have to fight through them and not shoot ourselves in the foot."
On Sunday, the Niners took a couple of toes.