Tyler Eifert looks for running room during Monday's joint practice with the Falcons.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Bengals offense survived a sleepy start, the searing heat of Georgia in August, and the obligatory verbal jabs of cornerback Asante Samuel on Monday to feel pretty good about their first of two workouts against Samuel's Falcons.
Not only that, quarterback Andy Dalton also had to overcome the absence of half of his 2012 receiving staff to string together a solid 5-for-7 effort in the last period of the day that was a team drill highlighted by wide receiver Mohamed Sanu's touchdown catch from about 20 yards away.
This Green-less summer without (A.J.) has opened up spaces for people, and with Andrew Hawkins (ankle) sidelined indefinitely and Marvin Jones still nursing a sore hamstring, you can't tell the players without a program.
"Early on we were a little concerned. We thought we struggled a little bit with the tempo. I think everybody was not really sure what to expect," said offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. "But once they got in the flow and started competing, everybody started to play better. Guys made some plays. It was good to see. Different guys made plays, too, it just wasn't one guy, it was a lot of guys. Sometimes when you have A.J., you focus in on A.J. and now you get in here and you spread the ball around."
Rookie running back Giovani Bernard picked up a sizeable gain over the middle in that final drill, and caught a safety-valve pass, and wide receiver Brandon Tate continued his fine camp by catching a long one over the middle. That one came off play-action, as did the touchdown to Sanu. Wider receiver Ryan Whalen also had some big catches over the middle from both Dalton and backup quarterback Josh Johnson. Sanu, Tate and Whalen combined to catch just 36 passes last year while Bernard was lighting it up in Chapel Hill, N.C. as the Bengals flexed their depth.
"Everybody had their share of shining moments, but as always we have to go back to the film and make sure we correct the dismal ones and there were some of those, too," Gruden said. "Atlanta did some good things against us. We'll have to take the good with the bad and just get better."
The gregarious Samuel wasn't offensive, just joking around but Dalton knew it was coming.
"Right in front of you, 14," Samuel yelled from the sideline after he apparently thought Dalton missed an open receiver. "You'll throw it to him in the game, right 14?"
Dalton just smiled.
"He's known to be a guy that likes to talk but I wasn't too worried about it. I'm sure he's wanting the ball as much as possible," Dalton said.
Samuel did offer a hand to rookie wide receiver Cobi Hamilton after he caught a ball on a good comeback route and walked near the Falcons sideline.
"I like it 87," Samuel said.
Samuel talks to everybody. He caught Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis's eye during the practice and said, "I was wondering when you were going to say hello."
"He's been a great player for a long time. Mike (Smith) told me he wants to make sure everyone knows where he's at," said Lewis, who can't ever remember talking to Samuel before Monday.
Lewis and Falcons head coach Mike Smith both choose to watch their offenses in the team stuff that went on at the same time on adjacent fields and Lewis seemed to like what he saw.
"We're pleased with the tempo. Mike was with his offense and I wanted to be with mine," he said.
Except for a brief shove-grab-and-then-staredown with Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict and Falcons running back Steven Jackson, things went smoothly. Falcons defensive tackle Corey Peters is a good gauge. A college teammate of Cincinnati's John Conner and DeQuin Evans at Kentucky, Peters trains in the offseason at the suburban Cincinnati gym Ignition Sports with several Bengals.
"Usually when you have these mixed practices, it usually is like that until something bad happens; then all the rules are out the window," Peters said. "The coaches did a good job of setting the ground rules and getting us prepared. I know Smitty did; making sure we understood what was expected of us. "
The tempo was a problem early on for the Bengals. Sanu said the Bengals were used to going faster and it took them time to adjust.
"The tempo was good. We didn't start as fast as we wanted," Dalton said. "You have to figure how things are going. We'll definitely start faster tomorrow now that we know what to expect. We haven't watched any film of those guys. We're getting used to what the defense is doing."
The Bengals struggled in that first team drill with Dalton going 3-for-6, but he warmed up in the 7-on-7 drill (with no rush) when he missed just one of 10 balls, an overthrow to rookie wide receiver Roy Roundtree on the sideline.
"We came out a little rough; we were feeling everything out," Sanu said. "I was just trying to feel out the tempo, figure the tempo out. We played at a good pace and we made a lot of plays."
A little shot of Sanu can make everything smoother. On the next-to-last snap of the last 11-on-11, Sanu fried rookie free agent cornerback Terrence Johnson for the touchdown.
"He did a good job getting the guy over the top of him, got underneath him and had just enough space for him to put it," Dalton said. "That's how you have to do it. Tight windows. I expect him to make those plays."
Sanu: "Andy threw a terrific ball. It was a little shake route. Sell the post and get out to the corner."
Sanu has been perceived as the No. 1 slot receiver, but with Hawkins out indefinitely his responsibilities have broadened.
"You just have to step up as a unit. We've got a lot of guys that can fill the role of Hawk," Sanu said. "We just have to step up and make plays when they come because that's our job. Once Hawk comes back, we'll take a step forward and build on everything."
It was a little different. How often do you see rookie tight end Tyler Eifert and third-year wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher drop balls? Dalton would have finished 6-for-7 if Sanzenbacher didn't drop one over the middle and Eifert dropped a couple early.
"I think it is just getting used to guys grabbing and holding," Dalton said. "That's what you have to get used to. Tyler has been consistent.
"It's good to see that the talent we have. Good to see the guys get the work. They wouldn't be getting the work if it wasn't for injuries. They've done good things."