INDIANAPOLIS — Even though quarterback Andy Dalton was out there for only six snaps Thursday night in the preseason finale at Lucas Oil Stadium, it was his most successful first drive of the year when he manufactured two first downs and threw three straight completions before exiting with the now infamous "Red Scare."
In fact, it was the best the offense looked all summer from top to bottom in the 20-16 loss to the Colts because the first and second groups finally ran the ball effectively with running backs Brian Leonard and Cedric Peerman combining for 54 yards on nine carries while the rookie receivers both showed why the Bengals think they've got something here with fifth-rounder Marvin Jones catching a touchdown for the second straight game and Mohamed Sanu catching him for the team preseason receiving title with eight catches for 80 yards.
"We were moving the ball OK," Dalton said when he was able to answer questions not related to his bruised arm. "Even on the play (I got hurt) I had Donald (Lee) open on the route. It's good to see. In the last game you wanted to get into the groove, give the offense a nice drive and I thought we did that."
Of course, it ended in anarchy when Colts linebacker Robert Mathis pinned Dalton's arm as he tried to throw. Dalton left flexing his arm but was fine, and the Bengals got a 37-yard field goal out of it from Mike Nugent when Bruce Gradkowski relieved Dalton.
"Yeah, we ran it well … it was good to stay with the running game the whole game. That's going to propel us into the season," said Leonard, who had 27 yards on three carries after coming into the game with just 44 yards on 16 carries.
Yes, it was one of the more brutal and meaningless games in Bengaldom with the roster virtually set and the game taking a nails-on-the-blackboard three hours and 14 minutes with 24 penalties.
But the rookies looked good. Jones did the same thing he did last week and worked a check at the line for a touchdown against press coverage. Sanu did what he did at Rutgers as the Big East's all-time leading receiver when he bodied up on a fourth-and-one to make a leaping catch on the sideline for five yards to keep alive Jones's touchdown drive. With Leonard and Peerman coming into the game with just 76 yards on 30 carries at barely two yards per pop, rookie center Trevor Robinson anchored the team's effective first half.
With the Bengals just 11 days removed from their Sept. 10 opener in Baltimore, head coach Marvin Lewis harped on a fast start and got it.
"You've got to start fast in this league and we did; it was good to see," Leonard said, and wide receiver A.J. Green offered, "Coach preached all week about getting off to a fast start and we did."
Of course, Green liked it because he got the ball on the first play when Dalton straightened up on the first snap and rifled it right to him along the line and Green danced for 14 yards.
"I like to get the ball with something short," Green said of early in the game. "I can make some moves and get upfield. I think we're ready. Overall, we're ready."
Dalton led one touchdown drive in the preseason (it was a 50-yard TD to Green) and he had just a 70 passer rating and competed 45.5 percent of his passes. But he felt good about how it feels going into it.
"We need to get a little better in the run game and we need to be more effective in the pass game with just a few little things," he said. "But I thought we did a good job this preseason."
Green, who just turned 24 himself, can look at the future and feel pretty good with what's going to be around him. Jones, 22, has burst into camp with a rookie performance at wideout that almost rivals what Green did last year, with the one big caveat being that Jones has worked against backups. But if he doesn't look like the No. 2 receiver of the future (or maybe even this November), who does? Jones averaged 16.7 yards per his nine catches this preseason and scored two TDs.
And Sanu, who turned 23 last week, smoothly moved in and out of the slot Thursday night to make all sorts of catches, like the fourth-and-one, and finished the preseason with 12 catches and a touchdown.
Throw in Ryan Whalen's four catches for 41 yards Thursday, and Friday's final cut to 53 is the most competitive at wide receiver. But the toughest call may not be who to keep, but how many to dress on Sept. 10 against the Ravens.
"Our young receivers did a great job out there. That's the thing we want to see as we keep coming into the season," Lewis said. "Their ability to keep coming and be ready to play when we get called upon."
The intriguing thing is that Sanu or Jones may not be active for the opener. Typically the Bengals keep five receivers active for games and after Green, Andrew Hawkins and Brandon Tate are big special-teamers. Plus, Armon Binns has been running with the Ones.
But they keep impressing.
Sanu's fourth-and-one catch had wide receivers coach James Urban saying, "That's the guy that played at Rutgers. That's the guy we drafted."
That's because Sanu is starting to feel like himself.
"Being me. Focused on playing the game I know how to play," he said. "It's a matter of getting into the flow. I got to play a lot longer and that helped out a great deal."
"Doing all the dirty work," he said as he explained how he made the leaping catch on fourth-and-one on the throw from Gradkowski. "It was just an out. I outflanked him. I tried to get on his inside shoulder and run trying to get my body position on him and running the out route."
No. 3 quarterback Zac Robinson went to Sanu five times in the second half and Sanu caught all five for 62 yards.
"He just knows how to get open; he's got a great feel for things," said Robinson, who had a nice night himself with 16-of-22 passing for 140 yards. "He can beat press coverage. He can play inside, he can play outside. He probably played half of this game in the slot."
Jones has looked like himself from the opener, when he caught a 45-yard bomb. He may be a bit raw when it comes to running routes and he may need to develop a bit physically, but there's no doubt he can run and catch. For the second straight game he fried a cornerback in one-on-one and made the adjustment to the back shoulder throw on Thursday's 10-yard touchdown catch.
"He gets one on one and he has a knack for making that play when it gets thrown behind him," Urban said. "It was a great release (by Jones) and a great throw by Bruce."
"It was similar," Jones said of his 15-yard TD against Green Bay last week. "It was similar to the play before."
A few snaps before, Jones easily ran past corner Josh Gordy in one-on-one and it was another back-shoulder throw. But he dropped it in the end zone when he let the ball get in on his chest.
"I lost it in the lights," said Jones, who admitted he didn't even know he had it until it was on the ground.
"It was embarrassing," he said. "That never happens. But we came back on the same drive and did the same thing. It worked out. It's trust Bruce and the quarterbacks have in me and our receivers."
Jones came into the NFL out of the fifth round looking for consistency and his first four games have been all of that. He's either caught a ball of at least 40 yards or caught a TD.
"I want to be consistent and make the big plays they expect me to make," Jones said. "And I expect to make that 100 percent of the time. I let one slip away. It happened on the same drive, so I'm glad I got another opportunity. ... (I'm trying to be) that guy people can lean on to make a big play."
How soon he can do it against the Ones is the question. Earlier in training camp it looked like Jones would be the sixth receiver and start the season inactive. But how can the Bengals not dress him on Sundays now? Or Sanu? Or Binns?
But while the offense clicked, there are big questions hovering over it for the next 11 days. Their projected Opening Day center, Jeff Faine, won't get on the field with his new team until Monday and won't have a full-scale practice with the offensive line until Wednesday.
And while running back BenJarvus Green Ellis (foot) could have played, he was held out, meaning his seven preseason carries came 31 days before he faced the Ravens.
"I'm not worried," Green said. "Whenever you're on the big stage, you want to be a playmaker. I think these guys will step up. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, he'll step up and be ready. I'm not worried about him. There no pressure on him."