After A.J. Green and Andy Dalton fired their 21-point salute in honor of the 1988 AFC champions being feted at Thursday night’s Paul Brown Stadium opener, foot soldiers Trey Hopkins and Joe Mixon took over to lead the Bengals to a 34-23 victory that bruised the blitz of the Ravens’ top-ranked defense.
The Bengals’ re-built offensive line constructed a beauty as they fended off the Ravens’ dizzying array of pressure looks and by the time they had leads of 21-0 (on Green’s three TD catches) and 28-7 lead worthy of Norman Julius Esiason and the ’88 swashbucklers with three minutes left in the half, the Ravens backed off.
Even though Esiason wasn't here, his no huddle was at various key junctures that appeared to wear down the Ravens with 70 plays in 31 minutes of possession. Dalton's four first-half touchdowns turned out to be all they needed.
And as Baltimore suddenly went Mike Zimmer dropping seven into coverage, guys like Hopkins and right tackle Bobby Hart froze the Ravens’ heat.
While Hopkins played center for the first time in an NFL regular-season game in his battle-field promotion in the wake of rookie Billy Price’s ankle injury early in the first half, Hart blanked Ravens’ franchise-sack leader Terrell Suggs four days after he allowed two sacks to old friend Margus Hunt. The Bengals allowed no sacks to a team that dumped Bills quarterbacks six times last week. Better yet, no sacks to a team that sacked Dalton five times in last year’s opener.
Now hear this. The offensive line the Ravens swallowed in last year's opener is no more. They dished it out physically as well as they got.
“The guys played so fast tonight. That was the key,” said Hopkins, who thinks he took one snap at center Texas in a long-ago blowout. “They got back in it, but there was no panic in anyone’s face.”
Hart praised the work of offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and Frank Pollack in a short week. Word was that they simplified the response to the Ravens’ endless looks. And with Green scoring his three touchdowns all lined up inside, well, they made it hard on Baltimore to find them.
“That was the game plan. We knew they bring a lot of funky looks and try to confuse you with stuff. I can’t say enough about our coaches and they way they prepared us on a short week for all the blitzes,” Hart said. “The way we got prepared in that short week, it says a lot about them and their dedication to their craft going forward.
“We stuck to the things we knew well, and we were comfortable with that we wanted to do. The results were there — just running our bread-and-butter plays, running the things where you don’t have to worry about different looks and stuff. Just getting it and going. I’m proud of the guys.”
After Dalton shredded the blitz in a first half he fired four touchdown passes, he turned to the gutty, limping Mixon to win a game Baltimore had cut to 28-23 with 9:35 left. In the second game of his second season, Mixon is evolving into a respected, tough pro after coming back twice in a division game he tweaked his knee. Not only that, he went nose-to-nose with Ravens cornerback Tavon Young after he took what he felt was a cheap shot on Dalton.
“It’s great. I love the way he did it. They’ve got my back,” Dalton said. “That’s how we want to play. Everybody playing for each other. Obviously it was great. Nothing stupid happened. I love he reacted that way.”
Mixon admitted if it hadn’t been so close, he wouldn’t have gone back in. As it was, he needed a man-to-man talk to go back in. With himself.
“I had to talk myself to going back in,” Mixon said. “It’s mental toughness. It was real hard… It felt weird. The knee was hurting. The mental side of it is you always want to play 100 percent. When it’s bothering you, it’s hard mentally. I just had to check back in mentally and tough it out physically.”
Mixon said he was told if he didn’t feel right don’t go back in. But he said it was all right.
“I think I would have played it safe,” said Mixon when asked if he would have sat with a bigger lead. “At the end of the day it was crunch time and I had to deliver and that’s what we ended up doing.”
Mixon delivered the punch line on first down from the Ravens 37 with 5:59 left. He was going right, but got hemmed in, reversed field and saw Green and Dalton getting in position to block for him. That was a 21-yard gain and led to Randy Bullock’s 29-yard field goal for the all-important eight-point lead.
“I was just trying to see their blocks, “Mixon said. “I couldn’t finish it going outside, so I had to put my foot in the ground and try to out run (safety Eric) Weddle. He had a great angle and made a good tackle.”
Green was immense in that first half. Dalton hit him three times for scores while he was lined up inside and caught two more for 69 yards.
“It’s hard to double me in the slot. It’s hard to take me away in the slot when I have so much freedom because I have much have so much freedom to run all over the place,” Green said. “I think they backed off (the blitz). We were gashing them a couple of times. We just played sound offense in the first half and made the plays in the second half were what we needed.”
Hart thought picking up the blitz so effectively was team-wide.
“It not only says something about the (line), it says something about the receivers getting their right depths and Andy getting the ball out, the backs helping us in protection,” Hart said.
Hart says he felt more comfortable at home after struggling with the crowd noise Sunday in Indy. He’s also getting more comfortable playing next to right guard Alex Redmond for two full games.
“The more snaps you get, you get even better communication, shore up some of that stuff with me and Redmond,” Boyd said. “The sky’s the limit with me and Redmond being on the same page and playing off each other. Redmond is big and strong. That’s my boy.”