Bills receiver Steve Johnson sifted the Bengals defense for three scores.
Starting safety Roy Williams went out with a concussion with 2:16 left in the first quarter. Starting left cornerback Johnathan Joseph was done when he reaggravated his high ankle sprain returning an interception for a touchdown that gave the Bengals the lead at 28-7 with 10:10 left in the second quarter. On the next snap, starting safety Chris Crocker is feared lost for the year after landing awkwardly on his knee making a tackle.
That left one healthy starter in the secondary, right cornerback, Leon Hall, and when rookie cornerback Brandon Ghee aggravated a groin problem early in the second half, the Bengals were left with five DBs against a Bills offense that loves to spread it out four and even five wides in Sunday's 49-31 loss at Paul Brown Stadium.
"They go spread 60 percent of the time on third down, so we were expecting that," said cornerback Rico Murray, a transplanted safety playing in his eighth NFL game and third this season. "We had some miscommunication. We'll look at the film and correct it. This is a tough league, but you still have to perform when called."
The Bengals were really in trouble once Crocker went down since he plays both safety and slot corner. With third cornerbacks Morgan Trent and Alex Erickson already on injured reserve and Ghee hurting, safety Tom Nelson played the slot corner for the first time since the 2009 preseason while backups Chinedum Ndukwe and George Iloka went the final 40 minutes at safety.
When the dust cleared the Bills had the biggest comeback in NFL history and they had the first 300-yard passer, 100-yard receiver and 100-yard rusher against the Bengals since the Browns sifted them 51-45 back on Sept. 16, 2007.
Naturally, the man who took advantage was a former Bengal. For just the third time in history a Bengals quarterback started against the man he backed up and Ryan Fitzpatrick hit 14 of his last 17 passes, four of them touchdowns, to finish with 316 yards. Wide receiver Stevie Johnson caught three of the touchdowns and finished with eight catches for 137 yards while running back Fred Jackson had 116 yards on 21 carries.
"I think it obviously hurt them," Fitzpatrick said of the injuries. "They were depleted in the secondary, but at that point we had to throw the ball. We were losing by so many points, that no matter who was in there, we were going to go after them. That probably helped us with the injuries that they had, but we still had to go out there and make the plays, and we did."
But Fitzpatrick picked on the best, too. On second-and-10 from the Bengals 11, Johnson beat Hall on a fade that gave the Bills the lead for good at 35-31 with 14:13 left in the game.
"A false step early on," Hall said. "You can't do that in the red zone. It's just a bad deal."
Fitzpatrick kind of drew it up in the dirt.
"It was. 'Stevie, go make a play.' That's what it was," Fitzpatrick said. "That was on Leon Hall. That's their number one corner, and we made a nice little connection. He made a nice catch."
"They did a good job of getting (Johnson) the ball in different situations," Hall said. "Inside. Outside. They just put him in different areas. Nothing different than they'd been doing."
It was a bad deal all the way around in the secondary. After a three-and-out and a 23-yard Kevin Huber punt, it took Fitzpatrick just three plays to score from the Bengals 49 with 11:36 left in the game, giving Buffalo 28 points in 14 minutes and a 42-31-which-way-did-they-go lead. The touchdown came on a 32-yard touchdown pass in which Johnson crossed the middle of the field wide open at the 10. It appeared Hall slipped, but he also said it wasn't his man. Murray thought it was a miscommunication because Johnson was so open.
"He knew the safeties were having a hard time overlapping," said Bills head coach Chan Gailey of Fitzpatrick. "They had some new secondary people in there. I felt like he took advantage of those guys on some critical third-down throws. And, of course, the next-to-last touchdown (the crossing route to Johnson), that was a big throw.
"What happened was the corner bit, and Lee (Evans) ran a great route and took both of (the safeties). Stevie ran and beat the safety, which was what we were trying to do; attack that front-side safety. Fitz just stood there, hung in there, the protection was great, and we were able to get the touchdown."
The undermanned secondary wasn't helped by another weak pass rush. The Bengals again offered no pressure. They had just one sack, the eighth game in which they've had zero or one sack. And Fitzpatrick flashed his M.O. that made him the NFL's second-highest rated passer on third down. He wasted no time unloading it.
"They were hitting us with a lot of play-action stuff, (bootlegs) and screens," said right end Michael Johnson. "He was getting it out fairly quick. The play-action slowed (the pass rush) down."
Even when they got there it wasn't good. The officials said Johnson hit Fitzpatrick in the head on his first pass of the game, which was intercepted by middle linebacker Dhani Jones. But it was overturned on a roughing the passer caller that had Johnson wondering.
"They told me I can't hit him in the head. I didn't even know I hit him on the head," Johnson said. "I had my head up. I was coming down. I don't know how else to make contact on somebody. I'm 6-7. I was coming down. I was looking down on him. I wasn't coming in at him."
Like he did all day, Fitzpatrick shook it off. Even the pick to Joseph that put them down 28-7.
"He was a great teammate of mine for two years; he's a really good player," Fitzpatrick said. "The second one, they caught me in a blitz and I had to throw hot and J-Joe jumped it and ran it in to the end zone. You have to shrug it off. Quarterbacks have short memories, just like everyone else has to. I wasn't going to stop throwing. I wasn't going to stop giving my guys opportunities to make plays. That stuff really doesn't affect me. I have to limit it. I can't do it. We came back in the second half and they ran the same blitz that they ran when I threw the interception to J-Joe, and that was the touchdown I threw to Stevie. We adjusted. They gave me the look for the second time. It's not about hanging your head, but it's about doing what your coach (says). It's about going out there and reacting to what you're seeing and everybody believing in each other."
Of course, he threw three touchdowns to Johnson, all after Joseph was out. That one appeared to be his first one to Johnson, a 28-yarder on third-and-seven from the Bengals 28 that cut the lead to 31-21 on the first series of the second half. Joseph said on his pick it was a blitz by a backer and safety that made Fitzpatrick hurry it.
But it was a play earlier in that drive that had Gailey talking.
"There were a couple of things I thought Fitz took advantage of," Gailey said. "When they were trying to play the pass and roll the corners up and the safeties had deep path, he would hit them on a little hole on the sideline. He had a huge completion on third-and-six on the first drive of the third quarter — it was in that hole, to Donald (Jones). I thought we just felt like we could take advantage of some of the things they were doing there."
It was actually a third-and-10 from the Bengals 49, one of three third-down passes in the drive.
"Sweet. It wasn't just another game for me," Fitzpatrick said. "It was such a rough start, but I knew the guys would stick with me and that huddle was confident the whole time."
There was no such confidence in the other huddle with battlefield promotions galore. Hall knew what the team lost with Joseph out of there. Earlier in the season he missed two games with the ankle injury, but that was before the Bengals lost Adam Jones, Trent and Crocker.
"It's unfortunate when you don't have your starters out there, but you have to make plays regardless of who's one the field," Hall said. "He was having a great game. He's one of the great players on our defense. For him to go down, it's obviously going to hit us a little bit. We had some young guys that had to step in there and try to make some plays. But any time he's out, it's really hard for us."
CHIPPY DEBUT: With the Jeff Reed talk refusing to go away, rookie Aaron Pettrey figures he's here until someone tells him otherwise. In his NFL debut, Pettrey was able to warm up with three extra points before hitting a 19-yard field goal with no time left in the first half to give the Bengals a 31-14 lead.
"A half-yard shorter than an extra point," observed long snapper Clark Harris and Pettrey said, "It was nice of the offense to ease me into it with a couple of nice chip shots."
He said his best hit was the one he missed, a 43-yarder he hooked left with 5:28 left in the game and the Bengals, down 11, trying to make it a one-score game.
"The wind kind of grabbed it," Pettrey said. "My fault. I should have aimed it a little more outside the right upright instead of right middle. That's what happens when you deal with the environment."
Pettrey, the Ohio State product and Kentucky native, has grown up in the environment and brought plenty of Bengals fans with him. And, yes, he was nervous.
"Oh yeah," Pettrey said. "I think I used my nerves in the right way instead of letting them take over and getting scared."
He's got his first six NFL points, but he doesn't know if he'll get a chance Thursday for his seventh in Jersey as the Bengals mull their kicking vacancy left by the knee injury to Brandon LaFell.
"I could be here tomorrow and gone Tuesday," Pettrey said. "All I know is I'm going to do whatever I can to help this team get a win."
RED ZONE KILLERS: The red zone is where the Bengals went to die again. For all of Fitzpatrick's winging and flinging, the biggest play was Bengals quarterback Michael Johnson's first red-zone interception of the season on a third-and-five from the Bills 5 with 3:11 left in the third quarter. If it is a touchdown to wide receiver Terrell Owens, it is a 38-28 Bengals lead. But safety George Wilson came up with the Bills secondary's first interception of the season five yards deep in front of Owens and returned it to midfield to set up the go-ahead touchdown, 35-31.
Palmer said he shouldn't have thrown it as the play broke down when Wilson jumped the route, observing it was the look the Bengals expected until late in the play.
The Bengals couldn't bang in a touchdown in the last 20 seconds of the half from the 1 on two Bernard Scott runs and had to settle for Pettrey's field goal. Clint Boling had walked in from the 1 about 10 minutes earlier, but he had been on the sideline since with blurry vision. He did come back for the second half.
"It was a hit I took," said Benson of a shot in the first quarter. "It was nothing serious. I wasn't dizzy. My vision got blurred. It wasn't diagnosed as a concussion. I did it the drive (before his touchdown), so I figured I'd mention it to the staff."
For the first time in 10 games, the Bengals lost when Benson carried 25 times and lost for just the second time in 31 games under Marvin Lewis when a back carried it at least 25 times. Benson finished with 124 yards, his second 100-yarder of the year.
"It was 25? Oh wow," Benson said after he made a critical fumble on his first carry of the half. "It was fun, but you've got to eliminate the errors to get a win. This is a game of very small margin of error. They tend to (hurt you), especially when you're a struggling team."