Michael Johnson puts the pressure on Denver QB Brady Quinn. (Bengals photo)
Updated: 10:15 p.m.
Rookies Jermaine Gresham and Jordan Shipley keyed the No. 1 offense's first touchdown drive of the year and the backup defense scored a touchdown as the Bengals rebounded from a shaky first quarter Sunday night to score 17 unanswered points on the way to a 33-24 victory over Denver in the Paul Brown Stadium preseason opener.
On the first play of the fourth quarter during wide receiver Jerome Simpson's big second half, he drew a pass interference call on cornerback Tony Carter on the goal line and that set up running back James Johnson's one-yard touchdown run that made it 30-17 with 12:47 left in the game as the Bengals eased away to go to 1-1.
Before 51,287 the Bengals emerged from the cobwebs of last week's Hall of Fame Game with a solid effort from their backups and special teams while quarterback Carson Palmer's first offense got a rookie show three days after the rookie skits on the last night of training camp.
After backup running back Bernard Scott jetted down the sideline for a 38-yard run that set up the first and longest of Dave Rayner's four field goals, a 36-yarder that cut the Broncos lead to 14-10, backup cornerback David Jones stepped in front of Denver quarterback Brady Quinn's ill-advised shotput of a pass to the left sideline and Jones had nobody in front of him for a 24-yard touchdown return.
"Sometimes things just break right for you," Jones said. "It seemed like slow motion almost. It seemed like a practice play. But it was right there, and I was able to take it in."
That gave the Bengals a 17-14 lead with 2:15 left in the first half.
"Offensively our tempo and production were obviously better than last week, but on third down - both offensively and defensively - we were not where we need to be," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "It was good to see several of our young guys get out there and perform. They made some plays for us, and we're going to need that this year. I thought our quarterback played very well."
Two consecutive pass interference calls on rookie cornerback Johnny Sears in the final two minutes gave Denver the chance to tie it on Matt Prater's 28-yard field goal. Still, the backups nearly forced a Quinn interception on the last two snaps before the field goal when linebacker Michael Johnson tipped a second-down pass at the line and then on the next play rookie defensive tackle Geno Atkins forced Quinn out of the pocket and David Jones and linebacker Brandon Johnson both got hands on it before the pass fell incomplete in the end zone.
The Bengals rebounded from a downer of a first quarter when their No. 1 defense kept alive both Denver touchdown drives with third-down penalties and their offense faltered in short yardage to fall behind, 14-0.
Throw in Rayner's badly missed 44-yard field goal and a forced timeout on another field-goal attempt when the Bengals didn't have enough men on the field and Lewis clearly wasn't pleased because he sent Palmer and his first offense back on the field with 59 seconds left in the quarter and kept them in the game until 8:03 left in the first half when they scored the No. 1s' first touchdown of the season.
Lewis was rewarded with a 13-play drive. The team's No. 1 pick, Gresham, lined up as the tight end in the slot and ended the first quarter with a 19-yard catch over the middle and Shipley did the rest. Shipley, the Texas wide receiver taken in the third round, had three catches for 39 yards in the drive, two of the balls converting first downs in the middle of the field, to set up running back Cedric Benson's one-yard touchdown run to cut the Denver lead to 14-10.
"I really like the way this guy plays," Palmer said of Shipley. "He's been making plays all his life, I think. He knows how to get first downs, and that's what we're going to need out of that receiver spot.
"It wasn't perfect, but it was better than last week, and that's what we're looking to do – improve every week. We got some points and more yards, but we've got to finish all the drives. Cedric looked really good, I thought, and the pass protection was great."
Palmer finished the night 12-of-15 passing for 105 yards with no sacks, but the Bengals did lose center Kyle Cook on the drive with an ankle injury and rookie Reggie Stephens had to finish.
"Brat did a great job with the scheme, getting the ball to different people," Palmer said of offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "When guys' numbers were called, they made plays."
The Bengals arrived Sunday fretting about their offense, but the defense offered virtually no resistance on the game's first series when they allowed Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton to slice them up in just six plays for 72 yards to take a 7-0 lead in the first 2:41.
Orton completely fooled the Bengals defense on a play-action fake on the game's first play to hit a wide open wide receiver Jabar Gaffney for 31 yards and on the first play after defensive tackle Tank Johnson kept the drive alive with a personal foul penalty Orton hit wide receiver Eddie Royal running wild across the middle matched up against middle linebacker Dhani Jones for a 12-yard touchdown pass.
The Bengals looked to be off the field on a third-and-six from the Cincinnati 25 when Brandon Johnson knocked away a pass in the end zone, but Tank Johnson was called for roughing Orton.
The Bengals first team put together their longest drive of the season on Sunday's first series, but it could have been more. Palmer had wide receiver Terrell Owens in his sights beyond the first-down stick on third down at the Denver 10 but he couldn't get his hands on it.
And then Rayner missed the 44-yarder on a screeching low liner to the left. The big plays were Benson's 21-yard run behind the left side that was sprung when he deked unblocked safety Darcel McBath and wide receiver Chad Ochocinco's four-yard catch that converted a third-and-four working against perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey.
Then Bengals cornerback Adam Jones had a nice two-play sequence. He knocked away a third down pass on the sideline when he snuffed out a timing route to wide receiver Brandon Lloyd and he popped the ensuing punt return down the same sideline. Using patience and one shift move, he busted it for 28 yards. Jones left late in the first half with a headache.
But the Bengals couldn't do anything with the return. Gresham did make like a basketball-boxout in the middle of the field to convert a third-and-10 for a 15-yard catch, but on a third-and-one from the Denver 32, the middle of the line got blown up and Benson lost a yard. When Michael Johnson was late coming on the field for Mike Nugent's 50-yard field-goal try, the Bengals called timeout and decided to go for it on fourth-and-two, but Owens couldn't get away from Bailey on a route over the middle for just a yard.
Nugent never did get back on the field as Rayner went 4-for-5 on field goals, his longest coming from 36. The duo started the game alternating kicks and Nugent had two extra points but the coaches appeared to back him off because it was his first game since he hurt his groin.
On third-and-10 from the Denver 32 late in the half, Orton stepped up against a Bengals blitz and found Gaffney beating Hall deep and when Hall didn't turn his head while throwing in an arm, he was called for a 40-yard pass interference penalty. Then, isolated on Lloyd on the perimeter on a quick pass, Hall missed the tackle and Lloyd walked in for a six-yard touchdown that made it 14-0 with 59 seconds left in the first quarter.
But the Bengals backups owned the second half. Scott raced away from the field with a 46-yard screen on the second half's first possession and Simpson's 21-yard catch set up Rayner's first of three second half field goals, a 27-yarder, to give the Bengals the lead for good at 20-17 just 3:34 into the second half.
A muffed Denver punt return resulted in another short Rayner field goal when rookie long snapper Mike Windt, trying to show he can cover punts as well as he can snap them, recovered the fumble at the Broncos 12. But backup quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan got sacked and Rayner chipped in a 31-yarder to make it 23-17 with 4:48 left in the third quarter.
Defensive highlights in the second half: Atkins got 1.5 more sacks and rookie safety Jeromy Miles blew up Denver rookie quarterback Tim Tebow on a blitz to force a fumble that turned into defensive end Frostee Rucker's stumbling-bumbling 34-yard touchdown run that got overturned because the play was ruled an incomplete pass.
Linebacker Dan Skuta, who worked at fullback in the second half, left with an ankle injury but could have returned.
PREGAME NOTES: With the Bengals' first offense expected to work as much as a quarter Sunday night against the Broncos, left end Robert Geathers (foot) and safety Chris Crocker (ankle) were out of the starting lineup when it was announced at Paul Brown Stadium 90 minutes before the game.
In their place were Jon Fanene and Chinedum Ndukwe, respectively. Also out was rookie guard Otis Hudson as he undergoes a battery of tests after collapsing at Thursday's practice. Also out was wide receiver Maurice Purify (tendinitis) and rookie cornerback Brandon Ghee (thigh bruise). Runnng back Brian Leonard (foot) and fullback Fui Vakapuna (shoulder) were also out, but the backfield did have running back Cedric Peerman dressed even though he didn't practice for much of the last week or so with a hamstring issue.
Also out were safety Tom Nelson (knee), who hasn't been active all camp, and center Jonathan Luigs (hip), who has barely practiced.
Right tackle Andre Smith (foot/conditioning) also has been inactive and was out Sunday, but he looked like he could be close to ready as he ran up and down the field a few times during pregame. Head coach Marvin Lewis, not pleased with Smith, is going to have to be convinced if he's going to clear him as soon as this week.
Terrell Owens got his second straight start at wide receiver with Antonio Bryant (knee) shelved again. Linebacker/fullback Dan Skuta was in his new No. 47. He was a game captain, as well as defensive tackle Tank Johnson, right guard Bobbie Williams, tight end Reggie Kelly, and safety Roy Williams.
Some backup players who might see action against better competition are rookie defensive tackle Geno Atkins and veteran wide receiver Matt Jones.
The Broncos had some high-profile players not dressed, such as linebacker Elvis Dumervil, running backs Knowshone Moreno, LenDale White, and Correll Buckhalter, safety Brian Dawkins, linebacker D.J. Williams, and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas.
There were some tough moments in pregame. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who suffered the sudden loss of wife Vikki last season, received the Pro Football Writers of America's George Halas Award for overcoming adversity. PFWA chapter president Joe Reedy of *The Cincinnati Enquirer *made the presentation moments before there was a moment of silence for the son of former Bengals running back Ickey Woods. Jovonte Woods, 16, died of an asthma attack Saturday as he was about enter his junior year at Princeton High School.
The Bengals starting offense was announced, appearing in all white, on a night that rain hit about two hours before kickoff but by the time Bengals kicker Dave Rayner teed it up the sun was out with the temperature at 74 degrees.