Updated: 8-15-09, 12:40 a.m.
NEW ORLEANS - Quarterback Carson Palmer stepped on a field for the first time in 313 days and he left again early with a mild left ankle sprain in his fourth and last possession of the Bengals' rocky preseason opener Friday night at the Superdome in a 17-7 loss to the Saints.
But he's expected to be back next week.
"It's not bad at all. I just got it rolled up on a little bit after I threw the ball," Palmer said. "I have no doubt I'm ready to go next week."
He said he tweaked the ankle on an incomplete pass with 6:04 remaining in the first quarter. He went forward with his throwing motion but tried to pull it back and his arm went forward enough to force the incompletion. Palmer played eight plays after that and then took himself out as he had reached his limit of plays that was designated prior to the game. He showed up to his postgame press conference in a boot but said it was purely precautionary, calling it a high ankle sprain and "nothing bad."
Despite head coach Marvin Lewis' offseason demands of no big plays, the Saints scored twice on big throws and took a 14-7 lead midway through the third quarter when backup quarterback Mark Brunell hit wide receiver Robert Meachem for a 64-yard touchdown pass as he raced past cornerback Jamar Fletcher.
Palmer, who completed seven of 11 passes for 133 yards, also suffered an interception on an ill-advised ball to linebacker Jonathan Vilma in traffic on third-and-five that ended the third drive.
He left in the middle of the game's fourth drive after throwing a 55-yard pass to wide receiver Chad Ochocinco. Palmer went to the sidelines and had his ankle wrapped but backup J.T O'Sullivan couldn't get the Bengals into the end zone after he was sacked. Shayne Graham then yanked a 30-yard field goal to the left early in the second quarter.
A relaxed Palmer had a smile on his face as he spoke with trainers and Lewis said, "Carson should be fine. He should be able to play next week."
Early in the drive, Palmer took a hellacious hit in the end zone on third-and-five after throwing an 18-yarder to Ochocinco that had some of their old timing as The Ocho came back for the ball. Palmer found The Ocho again on third-and-five, this one a quick pop in which The Ocho basically spun away from cornerback Jason David showing some the quickness he never had last year and then raced the ball down the sideline to the Saints 13.
"The spin move was something I did in the (boxing) ring (in the offseason). It was getting out of the corner. It was like a swing, a dodge. That's a more T.J.-ish, I like to say, than Chad-ish," Ochocinco said in reference to former teammate T.J. Houshmandzadeh. "And me being able to add that part to my game the way I've worked this offseason, it's going to be bananas."
Two of the Bengals' first three drives ended in turnovers. With 5:05 left in the first quarter on third-and-five from the Saints 30, a tentative Palmer floated a ball into traffic and didn't appear to see Vilma as he picked the ball off and went 65 yards before Bengals wide receiver Andre Caldwell dragged him down and forced a fumble that was recovered by left tackle Andrew Whitworth.
"Right when I was getting ready to throw it, he stepped in front of Andre," Palmer said of Vilma. "He just made a good play. I thought I had him open, but obviously I didn't. I'll take a look at it on film and see what I did wrong. Next time I'll take off and get the first down."
The play on the part of both Caldwell and Whitworth impressed Palmer.
"That's what we're about," Palmer said. "That's a huge positive to see Andre run all the way down. He arced around the last guy and was getting blocked and still made the play and Whit was running a 4.6 down there. There aren't many tackles that can do that. You love to see that by a young guy in Andre. So it's a never-give-up attitude that you love to see by a young guy like Andre and by one of our veterans and one of our better players."
On the first snap of the second Bengals possession, Palmer threw a 16-yard bullet to new wide receiver Laveranues Coles and on his first play in stripes Coles got rocked by safety Darren Sharper and he had to be led off the field by trainers.
He was OK and came back, but the drive went nowhere when Palmer couldn't click on a quick slant to The Ocho, an end around to Caldwell only netted three years, and Palmer could only get a five-yard dumpoff to tight end Dan Coats on third-and-seven.
Palmer got good pass protection and on the year's first snap from his own 25 he uncorked a bomb to Ochocinco that got broken up by cornerback Roman Harper at the Saints 30. He converted a third-and-10 when he hit wide receiver Chris Henry out of a four-receiver set for a 27-yard gain. Henry's longest pass reception all of last season was 22 yards. Last season in four games Palmer did not complete a pass to a wide receiver longer than 26 yards. Friday he had two, the 27-yader to Henry and 55-yarder to Ochocinco.
But the running game was stuck in mud. On the first carry of the year Benson got nothing on a play to the right where Saints defensive end Charles Grant and tackle Sedrick Ellis won their scrum with the right side of the offensive line. Right tackle Anthony Collins was later called for a hold, and that set up Benson's run on first and 20. Benson made a nice cut up the middle on an 11-yard gain, but Sharper forced a fumble and Vilma returned it about 40 yards to the Bengals 6.
The Bengals defense made a nice stand where safety Chris Crocker and cornerback Johnathan Joseph combined to stop a quick pass in the flat to wide receiver Robert Meachem on third down to force a 20-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley that was no good.
The running game got rolling on the third series. Benson ripped off two runs for 16 yards. But on first down from the Saints 35, Palmer threw an incompletion when he pulled back on a pass and pumped it into the ground. Then the Bengals had to call a timeout before getting the next play off, which was a five-yard screen to Benson.
"There were some good signs. I thought there were some pretty good holes," Benson said.
The Saints scorched the Bengals with two long balls of 55 yards by quarterback Drew Brees to tight end Jeremy Shockey, the last a 22-yard touchdown pass in which Shockey was working against backup safety Marvin White and backup middle linebacker Abdul Hodge to give the Saints a 7-0 lead early in the second quarter.
It was a sloppy debut. Collins, Caldwell, Whitworth and right guard Bobbie Williams were all called for holding fouls in the first half and Williams was called for being illegally downfield.
But O'Sullivan got the second offense rolling in two-minute fashion at the end of the half as kept going to Henry. He converted one third down on a pass to running back Brian Leonard and then facing third-and-four from the Saints 14 he lofted a touchdown to Henry beating David one-on-one to the corner.
Henry, the New Orleans native playing in his first preseason game since 2007, had seven catches for 100 yards, while rookie running back Bernard Scott went for five yards per pop on his six carries.
"We did some good things on both sides of the ball," Lewis said. "The offense made some good first downs, and we got the ball off the goal line. The thing that hurt us, obviously, was turnovers. We had a lot of yards in the first quarter, but no points. The defense stopped them the first time they had the ball inside our 20, and that was good."
Fullback Fui Vakapuna didn't return after injuring his lower left leg in the second quarter.
Brunell, the 17-year veteran backup, put up some big numbers against the young Bengals defensive backs. Looking to take a 21-7 lead on the goal line early in the fourth quarter after a 35-yard bolt through a zone to wide receiver Rod Harper, he drew a defensive holding call on safety Marvin White that negated linebacker Jim Maxwell's end-zone interception.
But safety Corey Lynch forced a fumble near the goal line and cornerback Morgan Trent recovered.
Still, it only set up a miserable series in which they twice narrowly avoided giving up two touchdowns. One was a fumble a by running back DeDe Dorsey recovered by quarterback Jordan Palmer and the other a near interception by cornerback Danny Gorrer on a quick throw in the flat on third down.
Standing in his own end zone, rookie punter Kevin Huber could only connect on a 39-yard line drive and the Saints were able to turn it into special-teams points when Hartley made a 54-yard field to give New Orleans a 17-7 lead with 10 and a half minutes left in the game.
A 35-yard punt by Huber on the next series gave New Orleans the ball at midfield, but after making the tackle on the punt rookie defensive end Michael Johnson teamed with lineman Jon Fanene for a two-yard loss on third down.
But wide receiver Jerome Simpson's hold on the ensuing punt put the Bengals in another hole and their backups had a tough time on offense in the second half. Cincinnati's biggest play of the half, Jordan Palmer's 21-yard pass to Simpson, got wiped out when tackle Augustus Parrish was illegally downfield.
"The disappointing thing is we did a lot of good things on offense, we got first downs, we made yards, but we hurt ourselves with both penalties and turnovers," Lewis said. "The first defensive group did a nice job. They played good sound football and they did a nice job on the goal line. In the third quarter we had some guys who have been with us who didn't make good judgments and weren't where they need to be, and that was disappointing."
But with six minutes left in the game, Jordan Palmer made some nice throws to get the Bengals on the move, one a 17-yarder to Simpson and an eight-yarder to Maurice Purify.
But Dorsey got dumped for a two-yard loss and Simpson couldn't hold on to a batted ball that eventually got picked off by linebacker Jonathan Casillas at the Saints 32 with less than five minutes left.
"It was a good start," Lewis said. "We've got a lot of work to do. We know what we've got to work on. We were sloppy with our hands in different situations. Our specialists can and will play better."
All in all Palmer felt good about his team's effort in the preseason opener.
"I think we did a great job in pass protection and there were some big holes for Cedric to run through," he said. "I thought we did a good job up front. You could tell from play one that we were pretty bored of training camp. Up front we were ready to hit some guys. So were they. It was a very physical, very serious game-like preseason game."