Posted: 4 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
MORE BENGALS-JETS COVERAGE:
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Before 77,230 at The Meadowlands, steel-belted Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer responded like a 10-year veteran in his first NFL start, but threw an interception with 1:51 left to thwart Cincinnati's tying touchdown drive in its 31-24 loss here in the opener.
Palmer, who completed 18 of 27 passes for 248 yards, two touchdowns and the interception, tried to hit Pro Bowl wide receiver Chad Johnson at the sideline at the Jets 34, but rookie safety Erik Coleman cut in front to make the play.
"If I had to do it over again, I would have checked down," Palmer said. "I never saw the safety. I didn't know he was going to jump it.
Palmer pulled the Bengals to 31-24 on a 53-yard touchdown pass with 6:24 left in the game on a brilliant tumbling catch by Johnson on a bomb into the end zone.
"That's the best catch I've ever seen on a throw I've made," Palmer said. "I want to see that again. I think he hit his head."
But head coach Marvin Lewis doesn't want to see a defensive effort like that again.
For the third time in the last five games dating back to last season, the Bengals allowed more than 200 yards rushing when running back Curtis Martin racked up 196 of the Jets' 219 yards. Jets quarterback Chad Pennington hit 20 of 27 passes for 224 yards and a passer rating of 123.1.
"It's unacceptable," said Lewis of the Bengals' third straight opening day loss. "But last year at this time I had 20 guys who wanted to play. Now I just walked out of that locker room and there are 51. We didn't give up. This team is going to be fine."
Martin gave New York a two-touchdown edge with 9:35 left in the game at 31-17 when he swept around the Bengals' right side from 24 yards out and didn't get touched until he got shoved across the goal line. That gave Martin 157 yards on 24 carries, the fourth time in the last five games the Bengals have allowed a 100-yard rusher.
"If makes me sick to keep saying the same thing," said strong side linebacker Kevin Hardy. "But the offense played well and we didn't do our jobs. That's the disappointing thing. We came out to stop the run and didn't do it."
Penalties on offense, young mistakes on defense, and a rare but devastating fumble by running back Rudi Johnson put the Bengals into a 21-10 hole to the Jets in the first four minutes of the third quarter.
Palmer calmly rallied the Bengals on the next series when he converted a third-down pass to backup running back Kenny Watson for his first pro touchdown pass, a six-yarder with 6:20 left in the third quarter that cut the Jets lead to 21-17. He hit four of five passes, and scrambled 11 yards to convert a third-and-eight.
"If Carson had flinched or blinked, this game would have been a blowout," said Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson. "We wanted to win. That was the goal. But you guys have seen enough Bengals games to know a game like this on the road would have been a blowout. But this is a different team."
Rudi Johnson, who never fumbled all last season in 238 touches, had trouble finding room behind a revamped offensive line that allowed him to eke out just 17 yards on 10 carries in the first half. On their first series of the half, the Bengals let linebacker Sam Cowart get into the backfield and he poked the ball away from Johnson wide of the line of scrimmage. Cornerback Donnie Abraham scooped up the fumble and went 41 yards for a touchdown that made it 21-10.
"He got me as I was trying to make a cut and made a good play," Johnson said.
Center Rich Braham, just 12 days removed from arthroscopic knee surgery, started the game but couldn't get through the second quarter. Larry Moore moved from left guard to center and the injured Eric Steinbach (elbow) moved to left guard in the second quarter.
Braham said he couldn't move laterally, but is hopeful he can play next Sunday night at home against the Dolphins.
When Johnson did get some room in the first quarter, a holding call on right guard Bobbie Williams wiped out a first down.
Despite the mayhem in the first half, the Bengals weathered the storm to trail by just 14-10 at halftime when the dormant running game against a defense that finished 28th in rushing last season rustled late in the half. Watson's 25-yard run after he avoided a tackle in the backfield highlighted the 12-play drive that featured eight runs.
It stalled when the Bengals couldn't punch it in once they got inside the Jets 5 when Palmer got blitzed at the 4 and had to get rid of the ball on third down, and they had to settle for Shayne Graham's 22-yard field goal that made it 14-10 with 3:17 left in the second quarter.
Palmer held up well in his first half of NFL action with seven completions in 12 attempts for 77 yards. The Bengals quarterback also had a 43-yard completion to wide receiver Chad Johnson wiped out when right tackle Anderson's holding call was part of off-setting penalties.
Anderson said he held on purpose because Jets defensive end Shaun Ellis went offside and Anderson held him so he wouldn't hit Palmer.
"If I don't hold him," Anderson said, "Carson would have gotten killed. They should have blown the play dead on the offsides."
With the Bengals forced to turn to two rookies to replace injured defensive starters Brian Simmons at weak-side linebacker and Deltha O'Neal at left cornerback, Pennington hit five of his first six passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns in the game's first 12 minutes.
Lewis said he's encouraged about the possibility of Simmons and O'Neal returning next week.
"They could have played some this week," Lewis said. "But we wanted to give them another week."
A total of 77 yards came when Jets wide receiver Santana Moss ran by rookie cornerback Madieu Williams for a 31-yard completion on third-and-eight to set up one touchdown, and then on the next series wideout Jonathan Carter raced past Williams to catch a 46-yard touchdown that made it 14-7 with 3:09 left in the first quarter.
Martin, the 11th-most prolific rusher in NFL history, padded his Canton numbers in Jersey with 100 yards on his first 18 carries, and he got 21 of them when the Jets ran right at the other rookie making his first NFL start, weak-side linebacker Caleb Miller.
Pennington, who finished the half sifting the secondary on 12-of-16 passing for 176 yards, converted his first four third-down tries. But when they had a chance to get that deadly third touchdown, Pennington misfired on two wide-open third-down passes.
On a Jets fake punt that failed on fourth-and-5 from the Cincinnati 36 midway through the second quarter, the Bengals rookies showed there will be some bright spots, too. Miller's fellow third-round linebacker, Landon Johnson, forced a fumble when he smelled out the fake.
And Williams did contribute to the Bengals' 7-0 lead in the first 2:24 of the season.
Williams helped force a Jets turnover on the opening kickoff that turned into cornerback Reggie Myles' recovery at the New York 25, and moments later running back Johnson followed left tackle Levi Jones' block on Jets defensive end John Abraham for a nine-yard touchdown run.
But in typical rookie fashion, Williams quickly went the other way when Moss ran by him for a 31-yard completion on third-and-eight as New York came back to tie the game at seven with 8:48 left in the first quarter.
Moss's catch was compounded by defensive end Justin Smith's roughing call on his shot to Pennington's head. The Jets scored three plays later on third-and-two when middle linebacker Nate Webster missed a tackle on Martin in the flat.
A pair of first-day draft picks get a taste of the NFL on their first day, although Williams made his fourth straight start in place of O'Neal after O'Neal injured his ankle in the Aug. 14 preseason opener in Tampa.
Williams also came back to make the play to get the ball back for Palmer's last shot when he broke up Pennington's third and four pass from the Bengals 47 intended for Jets wide receiver Justin McCareins with 4:03 left in the game.
Miller started in place of Simmons after the seven-year starter had arthroscopic knee surgery 13 days ago. Landon Johnson rotated with him in that spot.
The club's first-round draft pick, backup running back Chris Perry, was inactive with a hamstring injury.
Moore got the nod in place of Steinbach (elbow) at left guard, but Steinbach had to back in when Braham couldn't finish because of knee soreness.
Tight end Reggie Kelly, who has been hampered by a broken thumb even before the pre-season games began, didn't start. Like he has during the games last month, Tony Stewart got the start in place of Kelly.
Backup fullback James Lynch (hamstring) was also inactive, as were rookie backups, defensive end Robert Geathers, right tackle Stacy Andrews and cornerback Greg Brooks.
The Bengals still had nine defensive backs active, including third-year veteran Rashad Bauman, picked off waivers from the Redskins last week.
Steinbach had Tommy John surgery over the offseason to repair a ligament in his elbow, but he feels he may have come back too early to participate in the May and June minincamps. He had athroscopic surgey the week training camp started in late July, but only took a few snaps all preseason before leaving after a handful of plays against Atlanta Aug. 28 complaining of weakness in the elbow.
Moore, a seven-year veteran signed to back up center Rich Braham, made his first start at left guard after making 32 starts at right guard and 40 at center for the Colts and Redskins. The offensive line was an obvious concern with new Jets defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson heavily blitzing Palmer. Palmer did hit his first two passes, including a 10-yard slant to wide receiver Peter Warrick on third-and-four in the touchdown drive.
Braham started even though he is a dozen days removed from arthroscopic knee surgery and didn't return to practice until this past Friday.
Head coach Marvin Lewis sent out right tackle Anderson for the offense, tackle Tony Williams for the defense, and safety Kevin Kaesviharn for special teams for his captains.