The Bengals went to Josh Malone on a big play late Sunday.
As the Bengals put away Sunday's game in their last drive, they provided a glimpse of the future with a pair of 21-year-old rookies at the center of it all.
Running back Joe Mixon fittingly finished off his first 100-yard day with three bruising runs that gave him 71 of his 114 yards coming after contact, according to profootballfocus.com. And even though quarterback Andy Dalton had thrown to wide receiver Josh Malone just twice in the last three games, he didn't hesitate to go up to him with the game on the line.
"Absolutely," Dalton said Monday. "We talked about it during the week. If we had an opportunity with (Malone) we were going to take the chance and at that point he was supposed to make the play and obviously he got the penalty."
Third-and-five from the Browns 40 with 3:57 left. The Bengals clinging to a 23-16 lead. An incompletion and the Bengals have to punt. Malone, an early out of Tennessee, showed the size and speed that drew the Bengals to him with one of their extra fourth-round picks. He beat cornerback Jamar Taylor down the left sideline and could have drawn two penalties as he somehow snatched the ball with his left hand over his shoulder.
Malone got the one flag when rookie safety Jabrill Peppers hit him in the chin and the ball with his helmet, jettisoning the ball and Malone out of bounds. But if Taylor didn't pin Malone's right arm, Malone figures he would have been able to hold on with two hands despite Pepper's hit.
"He got his helmet on the ball, too," Malone said.
A lot of offensive coordinators may have been peeved that Dalton didn't take the safe throw to his most reliable target, wide receiver A.J. Green. But Bill Lazor, who wanted his team to win the game and not kill the clock, was all for it.
"I thought A.J. Green did a fantastic job getting open. He was a shorter route that would've gotten the first down," Lazor said Monday. "But you just have to believe if they're pressing one on one and the safety's in the middle -- obviously the safety proved that he could have pretty good range to get over there -- if you had that shot, (take it). On that play, that's part of Andy's choice, that you have this available to you. And we felt like the matchup was good and we took it.
"Watching the film, it looks like if Josh's right arm isn't getting held -- usually when they hold someone for that long it can get a flag -- but if he had two hands on the ball then I think he protects himself in time. But because he had one hand and he's getting pulled, he wasn't really able to protect himself from the hit. But I thought he did a nice job. That's a couple times he's run past people. So I think as he continues to develop, you've got to feel good about it. And I'm glad that Andy saw him one-on-one and said OK, I work all of this."
Both Malone and Dalton shrugged. That was the play.
"That's the look we wanted," Malone said. "It was one-on-one. I know at that point I've got to get open. That's what I'm thinking."
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is thinking the same thing.
"We are leaning on these young guys and getting positive plays from them, and we have to keep it up," Lewis said. "They're important to us. They're big parts of (the offense), particularly with the vertical speed they have."
After the game, Malone was pleased Dalton went for him in such a big moment even though he hasn't had a catch in a month and just two targets in the last three games,. Still, he's clearly emerged as the third receiver in the last three games, taking 30, 18, and 27 plays the last three weeks. The last play showed why he's on the field. He gets the separation they hope they eventually get from first-round pick John Ross.
"But I've got to watch it again and see why I didn't hold on," Malone said Sunday. "I've got to make that catch."
On Monday, Malone had his answer.
"He got his helmet on the ball," Malone said. "If I had two hands, yeah, I think I can hold on to it."
Lazor liked Dalton's answer.
"Actions speak louder than words, so Andy showed what he thinks of him," Lazor said.
Cincinnati Bengals host the Cleveland Browns at Paul Brown Stadium in week 12 of the regular season.