Andy Dalton completed 11 of 15 passes in his debut.
DETROIT — As he picked through the remains of what was left of his NFL debut and reflected on Friday night's jumbled football, Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton showed his signature poise.
But after the 34-3 mess at Ford Field, Dalton's perseverance (and six midseason bolts from running back Cedric Benson) was the only thing a shell-shocked offense could hang its hat on heading into next Sunday's game's in Jersey against the Jets.
"Obviously it's not good enough. We've got a long way to go as we knew we did," said offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. "He didn't have a chance on some of those plays. He's got to get better. We all have to get better."
If the Bengals want Dalton to become the quarterback they think he can become, they need to protect him. He had Carson Palmer's cool, but David Klingler's blocking. The Bengals' inability in the interior to handle the Lions tackle tandem of Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams was glaring and jarring. On Thursday night, head coach Marvin Lewis challenged his offensive line to step up against a line that generated 39 sacks last season, and it didn't happen.
"Playing quarterback you know you're going to get hit," Dalton said. "You know (Suh) got a couple good plays where he got me quick and he hit me pretty good. You can't let that bother you; you've got to go out and play the next play."
Suh roared past right guard Bobbie Williams to interrupt Dalton's first NFL pass to rookie wide receiver A.J. Green running past cornerback Chris Houston. But it was inside, short and picked. Later Suh would rip off Dalton's helmet after a hurried incompletion and Williams would beat left guard Nate Livings for a sack.
After the pick Dalton completed 11 of 14 passes, but for just 69 yards as the first-team Bengals offense could muster only 107 yards and Mike Nugent's 27-yard field goal despite working to the two-minute warning of the first half.
"It definitely isn't the kind of day I wanted to have," Dalton said. "We didn't score on offense. That kind of leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I'm not used to that. I want to come in and score points every time I have the ball. There's definitely room for improvement, but I guess that's what the preseason's for; come in and see where you are and we'll fix those mistakes when we watch the film and move on from there."
Gruden got the offense back into sanity after the interception by calling five straight runs to Benson for 35 yards, primarily behind Williams and right tackle Andre Smith after the coaches raved all week about Lions right end Kyle Vanden Bosch. When Gruden pulled Benson he joked, "I'm sick of seeing you run." Benson, who felt he was snubbed by last year's offense, appreciated the message.
"I love it. I'll make sure I'm ready if needed to carry the team in that way," Benson said. "It's what I do ... it was good to get out there and be physical."
Benson knows why he got so much condensed work early.
"He was kind of forced into it," Benson said. "Suh was doing a good job against us in the pass game, so we tried to move it running the ball and we stuck with it."
The hat will have to be hung on Dalton's fourth and final drive of the night when he took the Bengals from the 11 on 8-of-9 passing to the Lions 24, where the drive got blown up on Livings' holding call and Nugent's field goal miss from 42 yards.
"We can build on that," Gruden said. "He got into a rhythm. He kept his poise. At least he didn't panic. He didn't have a scared look in the eye."
The play that offers the Bengals hope and gets them through the week is the third play of the last drive, a third-and-five on which Dalton and Green both saw a blitz and while Green broke off into a hook, Dalton zipped it to him for a seven-yard gain on the perimeter.
"He's got a lot of poise back there," Green said. "For us to put together a drive like that in our first time playing together, I think we're going to have something special. He's a natural leader."
Then on third-and-six Dalton got the Bengals to the Detroit 24 when he hit slot receiver Jordan Shipley on a 10-yard gain down the seam before the mayhem of the Livings hold and Nugent miss.
"I think we all knew going in that we needed a drive, moving the ball and all that kind of stuff," Dalton said. "I felt like we did that on the last one; getting the ball out of my hands quick, getting the ball to our guys, moving the ball down the field. We had a penalty at the end of that drive that hurt us. We got to the red zone quite a bit; we just need to go in and capitalize."
Sound familiar? The Bengals, who struggled in the red zone last year with different personnel and a different offense, couldn't punch it in from a first down on the Detroit 14, courtesy of a roughing call on Suh for pinballing Dalton's helmet. Benson got two yards and on third down Dalton lofted a jump-ball fade to well-covered wide receiver Jerome Simpson and he caught it, but he landed out of bounds.
Gruden thought it was a good throw, but clearly the big play was missing with the Lions content to drop a seven-man blanket while their front four frolicked. Dalton's longest throw was an 11-yard flip to Green that he turned upfield.
Green finished with four catches for 29 yards and a pep talk from Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson after the game. Green knows he's similar in stature and style and couldn't help notice the 26-yard touchdown catch Johnson muscled out of the air over Bengals cornerback Leon Hall to open the night's scoring.
"I've worked out with him a couple of times," Green said. "He told me to keep working hard and I can be great."
The Bengals can only hope that solves their woes. This is the kind of night it was:
Green, who lost Dalton's pick in the lights, later lost his shoe on that last drive and was replaced by someone named John Standeford. Standeford barely made the trip Thursday after signing off the street and he hadn't been able to practice with the team. But there he was suddenly wearing The Ocho's 85 and running a post that got broken up at the goal line by cornerback Brandon McDonald. On a night six receivers couldn't go because of injuries, the new kid had Cincinnati's longest play of the night on an 18-yard throw from Bruce Gradkowski.
"I knew he was in the game," Dalton said. "He ran a good route and he made some good plays for us."
Lewis is looking for those guys to come back in a hurry. Gruden said he ended the game with one wide receiver in Bart Johnson, although Dalton did have the three of Green, Simpson and Shipley. Still, the Bengals played the second half with virtually just the New Kid and Johnson and they had to pull Standeford with a bloody foot. Rookie Ryan Whalen (hamstring) and Andre Caldwell (abdominal pull) dressed but didn't play.
"Hopefully we'll get some of the guys back that are injured and out and saw no action tonight," Gruden said. "That will be helpful and just kind of begin to start to form a personality."
"Hopefully" was the operative word Friday night.
"The first play wasn't how I wanted it to happen, but I felt like after that, we came out and drove the ball well and moved the ball," Dalton said. "We had some completions in there, we did some good things, but it definitely wasn't the way we wanted to play. We felt like we were pretty physical up front, but there's definitely a lot we can improve on and get better at for the rest of the preseason."
Benson summed it up best when asked about lights and tunnels.
"With the positive plays in the running game, there's a glimmer," he said. "But it's still pretty dark. We have a long way to go."