Even though they lost 17-16 to the Vikings in Friday night's pre-season opener before 50,737 at Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals had to feel encouraged about their young wide receivers.
Rookie free agent Alex Erickson of Wisconsin scored both of their touchdowns, the last a scintillating 80-yard punt return where he broke four tackles and cut Minnesota's lead to 17-16 with 2:45 left in the game.
Head coach Marvin Lewis went for the win and fourth-team quarterback Joe Licata got off a good back-shoulder throw on the two-point conversion to the right corner of the end zone but rookie free agent wide receiver Antwane Grant couldn't quite haul it in.
The Bengals did everything to Mike Zimmer and Company in the first half except score and when the Vikings wriggled off the hook they were able to bolt to a 17-7 lead early in the second half in a drive Minnesota's first-round wide receiver Laquon Treadwell converted a fourth-and-three. The play, against rookie cornerback Corey Tindal, set up running back C.J. Ham's 10-yard touchdown run through some poor tackling that staked Minnesota to a 17-7 lead with 1:44 left in the third quarter.
While the Bengals defense greeted Minnesota with a three-and-out, the offense had the ball for all but 1:43 of the first quarter, had 116 yards to just one for the Vikes, and took 25 of the game's first 28 snaps.
But not only did the Bengals' Mike Nugent barely miss a 48-yard field goal to the right to end their first possession and Cincinnati couldn't convert a fourth-and-one on the 22nd play of their second possession, the Vikings escaped what looked to be a lock safety when running back Jerick McKinnon was able to slither out the back door left open by end Margus Hunt and linebacker P.J. Dawson on the left side for 10 yards.
That's all the Vikings needed and the backups tacked on to a 10-7 half-time lead, but it didn't mar a night the Bengals young receivers showed up.
With the clock ticking down to the last minute of the first half, rookie wide receiver Tyler Boyd made a diving straight-over-his head catch from backup quarterback Andy Dalton for a 40-yard play.
Boyd, a second-round draft pick, set up McCarron's tying three-yard touchdown pass to Erickson, with 47 seconds left.
But that was enough time for backup Vikings quarterback Shaun Hill to go after the Bengals' backup secondary just like starter Teddy Bridgewater did. That set up Blair Walsh's 51-yard field goal that bounced off the crossbar at the gun on a play Bengals cornerback Chykie Brown was judged off-sides.
It was Brown that Bridgewater torched for the game's first time touchdown, a wide-open 49-yarder down the middle of the field to wide receiver Charles Johnson with 5:43 left in the half.
"I was pleased with some things we did tempo-wise," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "We moved the ball and got some first downs early in the game. We converted some third-and-ones. But in the end, obviously, you've got to put points on the board. We've got to convert that fourth-and-one."
Revived after the near safety, Bridgewater went to work against safeties Derron Smith and Josh Shaw and hit leaping wide receiver Adam Thielen over the middle for a 22-yard play on third-and-seven. Then Johnson easily ran past Brown even though Brown was called for illegal contact.
The Bengals' Pro Bowlers up front wasted no time asserting themselves on their first and only series. They pummeled Bridgewater on all three snaps to force a three-out.
On first down Bridgewater somehow avoided a sack by defensive tackle Geno Atkins with a stiff-arm before he unleashed a three-yard pass. But Atkins got his revenge on the next snap when Bridgewater started to scramble and Atkins dumped him for a two-yard loss before Bengals defending sack leader Carlos Dunlap came around the edge from left end to beat old friend Andre Smith and bat the ball from Bridgewater.
"We just wanted to get after the quarterback and do what we could in a brief opportunity to start setting the tone for the season," Dunlap said. "It seems like it's been a long six months since the last game, so we were anxious to get out there again and start getting after the quarterback. It was just three plays, but that's all we wanted to play, because we knew the ones probably were going to get only the one possession."
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and his first offense got off crisply with Dalton hitting his first four passes, three of them going to wide receiver A.J. Green on quick throws for a total of 26 yards. But they couldn't connect on their fourth try, a third-and-three slant from the Vikings 30 that sailed over Green defended by cornerback Trae Williams.
That was it for Dalton and Green, but the first offensive line did more than protect McCarron on that second series. The Bengals converted four straight third-and-ones with running backs Giovani Bernard (the first two) and Cedric Peerman (the second two) working behind converted college linebacker Jeff Luc at fullback. The Bengals ran it 13 times and got a great throw by McCarron on third-and-five to wide receiver Brandon Tate. Tate got inside Waynes for a 20-yard play and they got another huge third-down conversion on third-and-seven when wide receiver James Wright made his first play in 21 months on an eight-yard catch near the sideline.
But on fourth-and-one from the 3, Peerman lost a yard on the power player when he tried the outside on a power play of pulling left guard Clint Boling teaming with Luc. McCarron, who was 11 of 16 for 125 yards, has been raving about Boyd all preseason and he found him beating cornerback Jabari Price down the left sideline. McCarron then found Erickson wide open running across the goal line to the left corner.
" Nothing really too special about it," Boyd said. " Just a basic route that we've been running a lot in practice. I just wanted to make it a situation of me and the defender and the ball, and track it the best way so I come down with the possession. I had a chance for one in the first quarter and I didn't come down with it, so the next time my number was called I wanted to make sure I got it."
Cody Core, Boyd's fellow rookie receiver drafted in the sixth round, also had a good first NFL first half with three catches for 33 yards to go along with Erickson's two touchdowns
And Mario Alford, another young wide receiver looking for a spot that now looks to inhabited by Erickson, ripped off a pretty good nine-yard punt return when he adjusted and took the kick all the way across the field.
In the second half yet another rookie wide receiver, Canadian free agent Rashaun Simonise, took a short pass over the middle from Licata and raced 47 yards down the left sideline. Licata also hit Grant for 14 yards after he hit first year tight end Matt Lengel for 22 yards, both plays over the middle. That set up Nugent's 23-yard field goal with about five minutes left in the game that made it 17-10.
PRE-GAME HITS: The Bengals' preseason started with no surprises when Pro Bowlers Andrew Whitworth (shoulder) and Tyler Eifert (ankle) along with Vontaze Burfict (per Marvin Lewis) headed the list of players not expected to play against Mike Zimmer's Vikings.
Also expected not to work are the rest of the injured: kicker Zach Hocker (leg), starting slot cornerback Darqueze Dennard (ankle), backup tight end Tyler Kroft (knee), backup linebacker Trevor Roach (hamstring) and rookie draft picks Williams Jackson (pectoral) and Andrew Billings (knee). Defensive tackle Brandon Thompson is still rehabbing his torn ACL and is expected to start the season on the physically unable to perform list (PUP).
For the first time since they were drafted in the first two rounds in 2015, right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi and left tackle Jake Fisher were teamed together at tackle. They're expected to play longer than most of the starters and maybe for as long as the entire first half. As he'll do in the regular-season opener in 30 days in New York against the Jets, Vincent Rey started in place of Burfict at WILL linebacker.
The Vikings sat five starters, including Pro Bowl running back Adran Peterson and former Bengals cornerback Terence Newman. Also out were defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, middle linebacker Eric Kendricks and right guard Brandon Fusco.
Cincinnati Bengals face off with the Minnesota Vikings at Paul Brown Stadium in week 1 of the preseason 8/12/2016