Mohamed Sanu came up big all day, like his 34-yard TD catch.
The next man up for the Bengals turned out to be a cast of thousands as they put up their biggest offensive day in seven years without their starting wide receivers during Sunday's 37-37 slugfest with the Panthers at Paul Brown Stadium.
Without three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green (toe) and running mate Marvin Jones (ankle), Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton wasn't supposed to be able to win a shootout with quarterback Cam Newton. But while Newton rushed for 107 yards and passed for two touchdowns, Dalton countered with hitting 76 percent of his passes for 323 yards and two touchdowns as six different receivers caught at least four balls.
He should have won. At the very least he went toe-to-toe with the Pro Bowler and 2011 draft classmate and drove his team down the field twice in overtime to give them chances to win and get the 12th winning drive in regulation or OT of his career.
Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu had a career-high 10 catches for another career-high 120 yards.
Wide receiver Brandon Tate caught his first touchdown pass in two years. Rookie wide receiver James Wright's first NFL catch was the last and maybe biggest of the day, that 24-yard crossing pattern to the sideline that put Mike Nugent in position for the winner. Running back Giovani Bernard had a career day with 118 yards, 89 of them coming from the Bengals' second longest run ever from scrimmage.
And God love Jermaine Gresham, who had seven more yards than he had the entire season with 68 yards on six catches.
Throw in the longest return of cornerback Adam Jones' star-studded special teams career, a 97-yard kickoff, and what more could they have done without Green?
"That's what happens. Other guys have to step up," Dalton said. "Mo had a big day and was able to step up, and he's a guy who has been around for a while and we have a good feel for each other. Jermaine did a good job stepping up today. Brandon Tate scored a touchdown. At the end of the game, James Wright had a big catch to put us in position. There were so many guys that stepped up. I feel like we have a lot of depth on this team and we showed that today."
The criticism is going to be they couldn't score a touchdown on the last series of regulation, when two penalties on right tackle Andre Smith forced a field goal when a touchdown probably would have won it. And on the first series of the overtime when a touchdown, by rule, would have won it. But the Bengals couldn't run the zone read as well as Newton when Bernard lost two yards on second-and-five from the Panthers 19, and they gave up their only sack of the day when five receivers couldn't get open right away.
"We had our chances," Dalton said. "It's not a win — that's the thing that's tough. We played hard, and that was shown today. Guys fought really hard and played until the last second, so that was good to see. You want to come out with a win, but it wasn't able to happen."
But the bottom line is this. Without three of their top passing options (tight end Tyler Eifert is also out), they generated 513 yards, their most since the 531 in the Mistake on the Lake during the 51-45 loss to the Browns. On Sept. 16, 2007. Without Green, their best player, they got their first combined 100-yard rushing game and 100-yard receiving game since Nov. 25, 2012 against Hue Jackson's Raiders.
Jackson, the former Raiders head coach and first-year Bengals offensive coordinator, pushed buttons all game long. They reeled off six of their first seven third downs and finished with an astounding 10-for-16 for the game. Sanu was immense with a career day, catching 10 of his 14 targets. He almost came up with a miracle one-handed grab on the sideline late, but it slid off only because of his sweat as he hit the ground.
It was Sanu that came up with two cold-blooded back-to-back catches for 56 yards and a touchdown that first tied the game at 24 with 11:38 left in regulation and bailed them out of one of their 13 penalties, their most since the second game of the 2009 season when they had 13 in Green Bay. After left tackle Andrew Whitworth was called for an illegal block above the waist, they were looking at a first-and-20 from their own 44.
But then Sanu got loose. On the last one, a lovely over-the-shoulder-throw from Dalton from 34 yards out, Sanu ran past cornerback Melvin White, went up, and used his body to attack the ball at the goal line. During the fourth quarter he was waving his arms for more.
"I knew what I could do," Sanu said. "Hey, let's eat.
Gresham came into the game with eight catches for 61 yards and under extreme heat for his spotty play highlighted by last week's touchdown drop in New England. And he'll get more. Twice he was nabbed for an illegal motion on the last drive of the first half when they had to settle for a field goal and a 17-10 lead instead of 21-10 after a 32-yard pass to Sanu was negated on one of the penalties.
But he also made some big catches late that put them close.
"We executed really well," Sanu said. "We hit the plays that coach called. We just have to keep working on the little things….I should have caught the other two I didn't."
The touchdown was pretty basic. And A.J.-like.
"He was pressing," Sanu said of White, "and I was able to step on his toes and get around him. Andy threw a wonderful ball."
Bernard's touchdown wasn't as planned, but it was executed just as well as he brought the PBS crowd to its feet with the longest Bengals run since Corey Dillon bolted up the middle for 96 in Detroit in 2001. On this one the right side of the offensive line pulled and caved the middle for Bernard to pop through. He pinballed off fullback Ryan Hewitt lead blocking as he got through the middle stiff-arming end Charles Johnson and safety Thomas DeCoud and shot to the left sideline. As he got inside the 5, turned and clawed at cornerback Antoine Cason to keep him away and tumbled into the end zone.
It was a breath of fresh air for a running game starving for a big play after four games where the longest run had been Bernard's 16-yarder. The knock will be take away that run and the Bengals running attack continued to be pedestrian with 3.5 yards per 30 carries. But as the stat men say, you can't take it away.
"The mood on the sideline is always up tempo and upbeat. We have a lot of leaders and savvy veterans," said rookie running back Jeremy Hill, whose three-yard run tied it at 31. "We knew we were going to have to go out and make plays on offense. Obviously we would have liked to make that kick at the end, but we just have to live to fight another day."
Sanu had some pretty good advice for everyone else who has to be the next man up.
"I was trying not to do too much," he said. "Do my job. Just let everything happen."