Updated: Aug. 28, 12:45 a.m.
As well as the Bengals played last week in New England, they were as sloppy during Thursday night's Paul Brown Stadium preseason opener the Rams bounced them around in Cincinnati's 24-21 loss.
With one preseason game left next Thursday night here against the Colts, head coach Marvin Lewis said if quarterback Carson Palmer's ankle is healthy he'll play but he wouldn't elaborate on his status. He said the only injuries against the Rams were the shoulders of safety Chinedum Ndukwe and wide receiver Laveranues Coles but he indicated they weren't serious.
Lewis said he wasn't sure if he'd play some of the starters next week even if they're healthy, but he's looking at an offense that has turned it over eight times this preseason.
The game was summed up simply. With a fourth-and-one from the Rams 26 with five minutes left, Bengals running back James Johnson was dumped for a two-yard loss, a sight the crowd of 52,312 saw often on this night.
Or, try this one moments later: After Rams kicker Josh Brown missed a 51-yard field goal, the Bengals reached the Rams 29 thanks to wide receiver Maurice Purify drawing a 23-yard pass interference penalty. But with one play left before the two-minute warning, left tackle Gus Parrish let defensive end Eric Moore drill quarterback Jordan Palmer in his back that turned to be the Rams' sixth sack and the Bengals' fourth turnover of the night on the third lost fumble.
"When you turn the football over, you have a difficult time winning," Lewis said. "Regular season. Preseason. Junior high. Sixth grade. Whatever it is. Every time we began to mount a drive we either had the ball intercepted or stripped from us."
Lewis vigorously defended how his offensive line handled the intense Rams pass rush. A quick survey of the locker room suggested the line got the blame for just one of the sacks, Parrish's miscue at the end.
"The protection things were from other parts," Lewis said. "The quarterback put it in the wrong spot a couple of times and those are things they have to get corrected.
"The pressure came from other spots. It's not neccessarily the linemen's people. You just can't sit there and watch the game and say that. Once we didn't have the quarterback put us in the right spots and we didn't have anywhere to go with the football and he's going to have to run or get down. They blitzed a lot. They got a lot of pressure. Normally we'd have a game plan together and go over their heads."
After watching fellow rookie Quan Cosby return a punt for a 49-yard touchdown early in the game, defensive back Tom Nelson answered with a 44-yard punt return of his own (complete with a stiff arm of punter Donnie Jones) that put the Bengals in great shape to tie the game early in the second half at 21.
But Palmer underthrew wide receiver Chris Henry down the sideline (Palmer thought a good throw would be a TD) and Rams cornerback Quincy Butler intercepted it for Cincinnati's third turnover of the game. To make matters worse, the Bengals second offense had no idea to tackle him until Palmer did it himself 68 yards later. That set up Josh Brown's 38-yard field goal with five minutes left in the third quarter that made it 24-14.
Things got worse the longer the Bengals played.
With the Bengals pinned on their three-yard line early in the fourth quarter, the offense committed three penalties and Palmer recovered his own fumble on the 2 after the fifth Rams sack.
But then they made a stunning turnaround. On third-and-21, rookie running back Bernard Scott (54 yards on eight carries) made a wondrous 22-yard run leaving two linebackers flat-footed in the backfield with a couple of jukes on a sweep left and he got the first down with a dive at the stick on the left sideline.
Palmer then found Henry for the receiver's third touchdown catch of the season (one in each game) with a 54-yard floater down the sideline in which Henry absolutely fried third-round pick Bradley Fletcher, a cornerback out of Iowa, to cut the lead to 24-21 with 9:58 left in the game.
The big play? James Johnson picked up the blitz to give Palmer and Henry time.
On the play before, Palmer had gone to the tight end.
"We were going to be able to hit the bender to the tight end like we did, or they were going to play man where they bump and (run)," Palmer said. "And you're stupid if you try to bump Chris Henry. He proved it. It was his third game in a row catching a deep ball, and that is what he does best."
But Henry clearly is still trying to convince Lewis he deserves more time despite averaging 16.7 yards on his 13 catches.
"Chris scored another touchdown and also Chris didn't make a tackle on the interception return and had a number of plays that weren't very good," Lewis said. "There's more to playing football, receiver, than just catching the ball. There's a lot of other things that have to occur."
Lewis responded to the uninspiring performance by sending most of the first offense back on the field for the first series of the second half and it didn't get much better. On third down it looked like center Kyle Cook got pushed back as quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan got sacked for the third time.
The Bengals did cut it to 21-14 with 6:12 left in the first half when running back Brian Leonard scored on his old Rams teammates with a one-yard run a snap after St. Louis cornerback Ron Bartell was called for interfering with wide receiver Chad Ochocinco in the end zone.
The Rams pressured the Bengals on nearly every pass (they tipped two at the line) and Cincinnati's touchdown drive looked to be stopped when O'Sullivan (who a few plays before kept the drive alive with a 14-yard scramble on third-and-10) had another pass tipped at the line on third down. But the Bengals got a life when the Rams were called for illegal contact in coverage.
Leonard then tortured his old mates again when O'Sullivan stepped up against a blitz and then what seemed to be an afterthought, he flipped the ball underhand to Leonard for a 25-yard gain.
Earlier in the drive O'Sullivan had wide receiver Andre Caldwell open coming across the middle and he looked ready to split the defenders, but it went off his fingertips at the Rams 30.
O'Sullivan didn't put up a triple-digit passer rating for the first time this preseason and left with a 77.1 on 7-of-13 for 94 yards.
The Bengals lost their third and fourth fumbles of the preseason early in the first half, the last when Rams free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe simply stripped the ball from the arms of rookie running back Bernard Scott at the Rams 31 and strong safety James Butler went 73 yards for a touchdown for St. Louis' third unanswered touchdown.
Scott also fumbled a kickoff before picking it up, giving him two muffs in one night after two years at Abilene Christian he says he had two fumbles on his 610 touches.
"It won't be a problem," he said.
It was too bad because Cosby did more than just catch the punt.
A few days after Lewis said he was just looking for a punt returner to catch the ball, Cosby, a free agent rookie wide receiver, went 49 yards for a touchdown for the Bengals' first punt return for a touchdown since Peter Warrick torched the undefeated Chiefs on Nov. 16, 2003.
And it was a few days ago that Cosby, who averaged more than 11 yards returning punts last season at Texas, expressed some frustration at how pro punters tend to kick to the sidelines and take away returns. Here he was in a roster battle with guys like Nelson and of his three previous returns, one was a fair catch and one went for a yard.
Cosby took a line drive punt from the Rams end zone, made two Rams miss, veered to the left sideline and outran punter Donnie Brown for the last 15 yards to give the Bengals a 7-0 lead just 1:06 into the game. But it didn't last very long as the Rams parlayed the first fumble into a touchdown and a 14-7 lead with 4:51 left in the first quarter.
"That was huge. That's what I said; if we can get a punt in the middle of the field away from the sideline, there's an opportunity for big things to happen," Cosby said. "My eyes lit up when I saw it wasn't two yards from the sideline. Just one (move). When you have guys working out there like our guys do and the pride they take in it, that's usually all you have to do and you turn it into positive things."
The Bengals defense continued its red-hot play on the first series when left end Robert Geathers dumped running back Steven Jackson for a one-yard loss and Ndukwe, starting for injured Chris Crocker, batted away a pass headed for tight end Randy McMichael. On third down, Ndukwe just missed a pick when cornerback Leon Hall knocked down a high pass.
But Cincinnati's first defense followed up that with its worst drive of the season when the Rams tied the game at 7 with 8:18 left in the first quarter when backup running back Samkon Gado cut back to the left on 16-yard touchdown run. No one got off a block as SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga got tied up with the tight end going in motion.
Jackson had an 11-yard run in the drive, and about nine came after rookie defensive end Michael Johnson missed a tackle and Jackson hurdled him.
On a third-and-eight, backup quarterback Kyle Boller hit wide receiver Ronald Curry running underneath strong safety Roy Williams one-on-one and when Curry cut back, Williams couldn't get him on a 14-yard run.
"We've got to get off the field," Williams said. "That's what our defense is about, forcing those three-and-outs. We just have to make sure we focus and get off the field. It's about how you bounce back and I think the defense really bounced back even though we were kind of on the minus side of the field; we still fought and didn't hang our heads. That's a positive thing."
The turnovers translated into 17 points and the Bengals were pretty stingy in allowing just 243 yards of offense in giving St. Louis just 3.3 yards per rush.
"Then they settled down and played good the rest of the night," Lewis said after the Rams 11-play touchdown drive.
Then the offense came up with its worst series of the season. The Rams blitzed one too many than the Bengals had blocking and O'Sullivan took a three-yard loss before he fumbled the next snap from Cook and Rams rookie middle linebacker James Laurinaitis recovered the offense's third lost fumble of the season at the Bengals 20.
"Starting like that for me was just working uphill all night," Cook said. "The calls and the communication were there. When we ran the ball, we ran it well and I think we were pretty firm in protection."
The Rams needed just five plays to cash, the big one a third-and-two on which wide receiver Laurent Robinson got inside Hall on a seven-yard slant and Gado followed that by scoring on a two-yard shovel pass that sucked the front into the backfield.
The offense struggled because it allowed pressure on O'Sullivan on almost every snap. On third-and-6 he hooked up with Caldwell for a 23-yard gain but running back Cedric Benson's 16-yard run up the middle got eliminated when Cook was called for holding a linebacker at the second level to blow up the drive.
Bengals rookie punter Kevin Huber then did his best to flip the field with a 54-yarder, and the defense came up with a three-and-out when cornerback Johnathan Joseph came up to make a tackle on a third-down pass.
But the ensuing Bengals drive melted on Scott's fumble.
"If you look at it," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth, "without two fumbles, we win the football game. Once again, I don't feel people are stopping us. I feel like the only thing we have done is stop ourselves. The fumbles are hurting us, and little mistakes in the passing game are hurting us, too."
On the Bengals' first-half touchdown drive, Scott Kooistra went into play right tackle as they tried to get guys work with the first unit. But Anthony Collins came back in for the two-minute drill to end the half. The Rams brought heat again and Huber's line-drive 44-yarder with 1:29 left gave the Rams hope near midfield, but Brown missed a 50-yard field gun at the gun.
The Bengals had to come into the game thinking they could run the ball. The Rams, who gave up a franchise-high 2,475 rushing yards last season, had just arrived from a game against the Falcons in which Michael Turner torched them for 65 yards on seven carries in a night they allowed 5.6 yards per rush.
The Bengals did manage 3.9 yards per rush on 14 carries in the first half, but they also had some minus plays. Benson had just 17 yards on five carries and they had six runs of either minus or no gain in the game.
PREGAME NOTES: Rookie defensive end Michael Johnson got his first NFL start Thursday night when ends Antwan Odom (Achilles) and Frostee Rucker (hip) were scratched from the Bengals' third preseason game against the Rams in the Paul Brown Stadium opener.
As expected, J.T. O'Sullivan got the start in place of Carson Palmer (ankle) at quarterback. Unexpectedly, Chinedum Ndukwe got the the start at free safety in place of Chris Crocker, out with a hamstring injury.
Also out for the Bengals are the two rookie defensive tackles, Clinton McDonald (ankle) and Pernell Phillips (leg) as well as kicker Shayne Graham (groin). The other scratches have yet to play in the preseason: Cornerback David Jones (foot), tight end Ben Utecht (concussion), wide receiver Antonio Chatman (ankle), and tight end Matt Sherry (shoulder).
The Rams starters are also relatively healthy. Besides quarterback Marc Bulger shelved, so are left guard Jacob Bell, wide receiver Donnie Avery, and defensive tackle Adam Carriker.
Head coach Marvin Lewis sent out the defense for mass introductions and the captains, in all white uniforms, were Chad Ochocinco, Laveranues Coles, Johnathan Joseph, Leon Hall and Darryl Blackstock. The Rams won the toss and new Bengals kicker Sam Swank kicked off to the 5.