INDIANAPOLIS - Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell didn’t make the trip to Cleveland. But a guy that brings the same type of dynamic got on the Bengals’ bus for the drive to Lucas Oil Stadium as they rode on the back of running back Joe Mixon in Sunday’s 34-23 Opening Day victory over the Colts.
Now, everyone was praising everyone else for changing the momentum in one of the biggest road comebacks in the Green-Dalton Era. It certainly had to be the most gutty and resourceful, given they survived an ejection, and two turnovers by their stars in a brutal first quarter, overcame a 13-point deficit with 20 minutes left to win by 11 and watched two backups (safety Clayton Fejedelem and middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson) team up for the winning play.
- Left end Carlos Dunlap’s sack that pushed back Indy’s Adam Vinatieri to a 55-yard field goal that was short on the next to last play of the third quarter.
“We didn’t dwell on any bad plays,” Dunlap said. “We just kept resetting and going out there and worrying about what’s coming next, worrying about the next play and making that our next best play.”
- Quarterback Andy Dalton refusing to slide on a third-and-six scramble and getting popped while converting the first down by a yard with 5:42 left in the third quarter and down, 23-10.
“Anytime you see your quarterback lay it on the line, that can’t help but get everyone going,” Dunlap said. “Huge play. Game-changer.”
- Two plays later it turned into wide receiver A.J. Green’s diving 38-yard touchdown catch in the end zone on a post that cut it to 23-16. That could have been it. Typical Opening Day stuff for Green, who averages six catches and 103 yards in openers. He overcame a first-quarter fumble to post six catches for 92 yards Sunday. The big play came in the slot getting inside safety Malik Hooker.
“I just ran right through the safety and Andy made a great throw,” Green said. “If I’m outside, they can cloud my side or roll the safety over there, so it was just good to move me around a lot.”
This is Green’s eighth opener, so he gets it. They usually are ugly and come down to resiliency.
“First game. Roller-coaster up and down. It was tough. A lot of adrenaline, emotions running high,” Green said. “You expect that stuff.”
Green also gets Mixon after he saw him run for 95 yards on 17 carries and catch five balls for 54 more and a Bell-like 149 total yards.
“You mention him with Le’Veon or (Todd) Gurley,” Green said. “He’s there with those guys.”
Mixon, trying to become their first Opening Day 100-yard rusher since Cedric Benson in the first game of the Green-Dalton Era in 2011, just may have given them the momentum on the first play after Vinatieri’s miss. On the last play of the third quarter he bolted behind the left side for 13 yards. That ignited a 55-yard TD drive in which he ran for 21 and caught 15. When he followed rookie defensive end Sam Hubbard playing his first NFL scrimmage snap as a fullback, he scored on a leaping one-yard run on third down that gave them the lead for good at 24-23 with 11:04 left.
“He made some explosive runs and he is so talented, he can do it all,” Dalton said.
It was an ugly game of adjustments. Dalton’s first pass of the season, a screen to Mixon, was blown up for a pick by rookie center Billy Price letting in pressure as he fell.
“We changed the technique and were good to go,” said Price, who then set up Mixon’s 21-yard catch-and-run on the next series.
Mixon tipped his hat to everyone from Hubbard to his receivers to his line.
“Sam was excited about that package all week. We were talking about it all week. How we would attack it,” Mixon said. “It wasn’t anything we hadn’t seen.”
Mixon said they made adjustments at the half that involved mixing up the inside and outside runs.
“I kept telling the receivers to keep doing their thing,” Mixon said. “On the perimeter they were running the guys off or keep blocking and holding them off. I’m very excited. Marvin (Lewis) came in here (at half) and told us to settle down. Can’t beat ourselves. We re-grouped and went one drive at a time. The line was great. They were grinding it and pounding it.”
It was tough, just the kind of game that is symbolized by a big, hard-charging back they didn’t have last year. It took Mixon three games to get to 95 yards last season.
“I think it wasn’t a pretty game,” Dalton said. “There’s a lot that we’re going to be able to look at and we’re going to do better. But to come out with a victory like that, to win by two scores, is big because it wasn’t that way going into that last drive that they had. I think it gives us confidence and we just got to keep pushing.”
They kept pushing. Right tackle Bobby Hart gave up two sacks to old friend Margus Hunt, who had 1.5 sacks as a Bengal in four seasons. They kept pushing. Safety Brandon Wilson had a tough penalty in the kicking game. They kept pushing. Green had two fumbles, but a big play and had the look of a man who knows all you have to do is survive openers.
“Trying to do too much,” Green said. “Last year we didn’t score until the third game of the season. Now we can go back home without people asking when are you going to score a touchdown. It’s good to get this out of the way.”
Mixon, who averaged 3.5 yards per carry last season and 5.6 yards Sunday, no doubt felt the same way.