JACKSONVILLE - While the Jaguars were losing the most games in the NFL the last five years, the Bengals were one of four teams who went to the playoffs every one of those seasons and Sunday night had the same kind of feel at EverBank Field despite Jacksonville taking a 26-21 victory with 23 unanswered points.
The Bengals first offense and defense hit all their cues in the pre-season dress rehearsal as they built a 14-0 edge by outgaining the Jaguars, 125-14, in the first 17 minutes before taking a 14-3 half-time lead and sending the starters into mothballs before taking them out for the Sept. 11 opener in New York.
They extended it to 21-3 in the first minute of the second half when rookie receivers Cody Core (53-yard bomb down the right sideline) and Alex Erickson (21-yard TD) clicked with backup quarterback Andy Dalton. But then the Jaguars backups went off against the Bengals and crawled to within 21-19 with 11 minutes left on two touchdowns and two extra points.
It was a tough night for the Bengals' Pro Bowlers. Special teams guru Cedric Peerman suffered a fractured left forearm when he offered a stiff-arm running a play from scrimmage.
And they dodged a bullet earlier when wide receiver A.J. Green bruised his knee midway through the first half and limped off. Later his injury was categorized as not serious and that he'd be able to play next Sunday if it was a regular-season game. Green told NBC during the game that he simply banged the knee and that he would be OK.
They hope that's the situation with cornerback Adam Jones, who grabbed his leg after he strained his calf in pre-game warmups and was a scratch, turns out to be the same thing.
"It was a good outing for us. Two touchdowns in the first half of a preseason game is pretty good, and we got them both ways," said quarterback Andy Dalton after he hit six of 10 passes for 77 yards. "We got the quick score on the pass to Gio (Bernard) after the turnover. That was a good play where we got a couple of great blocks. And then we had the long drive where we were able to sustain some things. It's a good feeling to do it both ways."
The Bengals defense came up with another dominant effort and began it when they translated a Jaguars' fumble into running back Giovani Bernard's 19-yard catch-and-run touchdown three minutes into the game.
Bengals defensive lineman Margus Hunt came charging through the middle to pressure Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles, forcing him to throw a dump pass to running back T.J. Yeldon. Bad move. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga was able to strip the ball and linebacker Vincent Rey was able to pick up the bouncing ball for a 16-yard return that put the ball on the Jaguars 22.
"I'd say it was just an instinctive play. Just trying to be an athlete and read your keys," Maualuga said. "It was a good play to start off the game for us. It got some mojo going and we didn't allow much the rest of the way. Vinny did a good job scooping up the ball and gaining some yards. We had good pass pressure before they threw it to the guy. So everybody did their part and when you do that, good things
On third-and-seven, Dalton sent out Bernard as his widest receiver and he hit him on the sidelines on a quick-hit screen. Bernard sliced between the perimeter blocks of left guard Clint Boling and tight end C.J. Uzomah for the touchdown.
The Bengals held the Jags to 14 yards in the first 17 minutes and followed up the fumble with back-to-back three-and-outs and the second set up the Bengals' 18-play, 69-yard touchdown drive that made 14-0 with 12:54 left in the first half.
Erickson returned the first two punts in his bid to make the team and he got pretty good results. He broke the first one for 18 yards when he made a defender miss in the middle of the field and then took it up the left sideline.
But he should have picked up the second punt, a short one. Erickson opted to let it go and it rolled all the way to the Jacksonville 31.
(Forget all that. In the game's dying minutes he popped another for 38 yards that probably locked up a roster spot.)
From the 31 they rode the running of Bernard racking up 27 yards on the next three snaps, the last an 11-yarder capped off on a spin move that buffaloed linebacker Telvin Smith. Then the Bengals overcame a false start on center Russell Bodine to get a first down on fourth-and-five when Dalton hit rookie wide receiver Tyler Boyd having a no contest against linebacker Paul Posluszny in the slot.
Dalton then set up a goal-line situation when he double pumped about three times on third-and-four and dove for the first down.
"Tell the fans don't worry," Dalton said. " Sometimes you have to tuck it and run. I got down at the end, didn't get hit too hard and it was a first down."
On his first target as a Bengal, wide receiver Brandon LaFell drew a pass interference penalty on cornerback Prince Amukamara in the end zone and that resulted in running back Jeremy Hill's one-yard touchdown run on a Gio-like move that made it 14-0.
A snap after old friend Dan Skuta stoned him when he tried to leap over the pile, Hill veered from going up the middle and outran Skuta and Telvin Smith to the left pylon. For the second straight game Hill scored a TD and for the second straight game he didn't celebrate.
"I do feel faster this year because I feel healthier," Hill said. "I had a few nagging things last year that I thought slowed me down some. They didn't keep me out, but I do feel better now."
The Jags didn't score until they wait against a mish-mash of Bengals 1s and 2s and even then they needed a 29-yard field goal to make it 14-3. Jags head coach Gus Bradley sent out Bortles and the 1s with 1:50 left in the half and the Bengals forced another three-and-out that featured right end Michael Johnson's monster bull rush on left tackle Luke Joeckel.
Dalton rolled up a 117.5 passer rating on a night the first unit again had no turnovers. Bernard and Hill raked the Jags, with Hill adding a 28-yard catch off a screen where Bodine jettisoned a linebacker. When McCarron came into the game, LaFell stayed in with the second unit in his first game and had an eight-yard catch when he cradled the ball on the sidelines.
But it is the young wide receivers that keep impressing. In the first minute of the third quarter, Core ran by cornerback down the right sideline and McCarron lofted it right there for the 53-yard play. Then Erickson made another bold move for a roster spot that seems to be edging closer. For the second time this preseason McCarron found Erickson for a touchdown, this one on a quick slant out of the slant where no one could reach him in space for a 21-yard TD that made it 21-3.
What more can Erickson do? Two touchdown catches. Three punt returns of 80, 30, and 18 yards before he tore off another for 38 yards with 8:30 left in the game.
That highlighted the second half because the Bengals backups didn't offer very much as they gave up a 16-0 run that cut the lead to 21-19 with 11 minutes left in the game. The defense couldn't stop running back Joe Banyard with a standing seven-yard touchdown run and then Denard Robinson went in standing up on a two-point conversion to make it 21-11 in the third quarter.
Then early in the fourth quarter, Bengals rookie cornerback Darius Hillary was called for a hold that negated a third-down stop. Jags quarterback Chad Henne turned it into a touchdown when tight end Neal Sterling had a 23-yard catch and the three-yard TD.
It was sloppy and it wasn't helped when backup center T.J. Johnson went out in the concussion protocol, forcing a revamping of the backups. In one stretch the line gave up two tackles for a loss and a holding call on right tackle Aaron Epps.
Then came the coup de grace with 7:48 left when Bengals backup quarterback Joe Licata started down the flat and gave up a 62-yard interception return by Jacksonville linebacker Hayes Pullard III for the go-ahead TD at 26-21.
PRE-GAME NOTES: Pro Bowl cornerback Adam Jones strained his calf in warmups before Sunday night's third pre-season game against the Jaguars and was scratched.
It's unclear when Jones did it. He was catching punts, but never made it to the secondary drills. It's doubtful he would have been returning punts in Sunday's game, when it's believed rookie wide receiver Alex Erickson returns the first punt after popping returns of 80 and 30 yards in the first two games.
Jones' injury probably puts Chris Lewis-Harris in the starting lineup opposite Dre Kirkpatrick. With Darqueze Dennard (ankle) and William Jackson III (pectoral) already out, Lewis-Harris has had a meteoric rise up the depth chart. Josh Shaw, the No. 1 slot corner in place of Dennard, also figures to see time on the outside.
Running back Rex Burkhead, star of the last outing, also wasn't expected to play. It's unclear why Burkhead didn't go because he practiced all three days last week. But in leading the Bengals in rushing and receiving during the 30-14 victory in Detroit he sustained a shoulder injury.
Also not expected to play with an unknown ailment was backup SAM linebacker P.J. Dawson. Other than that, those expected not to player were expected, led by WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict, the two draft picks (Jackson and defensive tackle Andrew Billings), as well tight ends Tyler Eifert and Tyler Kroft, Dennard, backup right tackle Jake Fisher, and backup wide receiver Mario Alford.
Head coach Marvin Lewis' captains were A.J. Green, Andy Dalton, Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap, and Derron Smith, courtesy of his 50-yard interception return for a touchdown in Detroit.
Cincinnati Bengals travel to take on the Jacksonville Jaguars in week 3 of the preseason 8/28/2016