Five things we learned on Sunday isn't necessarily in any logical order -- it's not about importance, priority or anything chronological. It's just five things we learned from Cincinnati's 27-17 win over the Cleveland Browns to kickoff the 2011 regular season; though it's not really just about five things either (I've been told I'm kind of wordy, let me prove that to you).
5. Bengals defense won the second half
Sure. You could point to A.J. Green's 41-yard touchdown reception or Cedric Benson's 39-yard touchdown as Cincinnati's defining moments in the second half. Honestly, we'd be lying.
What's particularly amazing isn't so much a consistency of domination throughout all four quarters. It didn't happen like that. Though the Bengals defense was strong in the first quarter, team's second quarter struggles mirrored the offense; it was so troublesome that as the first half concluded, it was evident that the Bengals were in trouble. Don't tell me you didn't think to yourself, "we're in for it again."
That feeling was compounded when Andy Dalton didn't return with the rest of the team after half time and a Bruce Gradkowski led offense going three-and-out to start the second half.
Additionally the Browns offense moved the football from their starting field position at their own 47-yard line to begin their first possession of the second half.
Seven plays and 50 yards later, the Browns established second down at the Bengals three-yard line. Quick pass to Evan Moore five yards deep in the endzone near the left sidelines was swatted away by Leon Hall. Nate Clements mirrored Hall on third down, swatting away an attempted pass to Joshua Cribbs on the right. The Browns were forced to kick a field goal; a critical forced decision willed by the Bengals defense.
During Cleveland's following six possessions to finish the game, the Bengals defense forced the Browns to punt four times, turn it over on downs, capped by a Michael Johnson interception that sealed the game. In fact the Browns never snapped the football on Cincinnati's side of the field in the fourth quarter, posting only five first downs and their most successful drive (seven plays, 23 yards), died at Cleveland's 34-yard line.
4. Cedric Benson is the pulse of the Bengals offense
Same thing we've said since the Bengals drafted Andy Dalton. This offense will only be as good as Cedric Benson. During Cincinnati's first two possessions, which resulted in 10 points, Benson ran the football on 10 of those 17 plays on both drives combined.
Benson would only run the football 15 times during Cincinnati's ensuing 11 drives. He didn't touch the ball on three of those drives and Bernard Scott substituted Benson during Cincinnati's third possession of the game.
The breather was beneficial however. In the fourth quarter, Benson posted 66 yards rushing on eight carries, including a coffin-nailing 39-yard touchdown run.
This is the third time in five career games against the Browns that Benson posted over 100 yards rushing as a Bengals running back. He loves facing the Browns.
3. Bruce Gradkowski did exactly what he's expected to do
As we'll point out in the next point, backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski didn't have a great start. Hell you could say he didn't even have a great game; four of his first five possessions led to punts.
It was that fifth possession that defined him on Sunday however. Bengals down 17-13 with 6:12 remaining in the game. Gradkowski observes that the Browns are blitzing during his presnap read. The backup quarterback shouted a call, took the snap and watched the Browns blitz. Running back Brian Leonard flair out in the right flats, all alone, hauling in Gradkowski's touch pass, picking up 22 yards down the right sidelines.
Two plays later the Bengals are at Cleveland's 41-yard line with 11 yards needed to convert a third down. The Bengals quickly sprinted to the line and snapped it. By the time the football was in Gradkowski's hand, the Browns finally realized that the Bengals snapped the football. Gradkowski found A.J. Green all alone down the right sidelines, scoring the eventual game-winning 41-yard touchdown.
"The defense wasn't set," said Gradkowski. "A.J. made a great play. I would have been pretty upset with myself if I didn't make that play. That was the easiest touchdown ever. I was looking for a flag."
Gradkowski might not be the quarterback to produce 300-yard outings or 100-plus quarterback ratings. But Gradkowski did exactly what's expected; replace an injured Andy Dalton, keep the offense from making mistakes and score a touchdown to win the game. Not too hard. Right?
2. In the face of adversity, Bengals bring rushing offense back
Obviously we have to give Gradkowski the benefit of the doubt for the slow start in the third quarter. It's tough for a backup quarterback to enter the game, after having a very limited number of snaps during the week, to suddenly come in and make an effective presentation.
During Cincinnati's first two possessions with Gradkowski at the helm, the Bengals went three-and-out in each possession with Gradkowski completing only one of four passes for five yards. In fact Gradkowski would only complete three of six passes in the third quarter for 29 yards and a quarterback rating of 63.9.
It was almost like a re-imaging of a Bob Bratkowski called game. During his reign, especially later during his career as the Bengals offensive coordinator, the Bengals became so one-dimensional during games after experiencing adversity, running the football to Bratkowski was a complicated answer to a crossword puzzle.
The Bengals finally picked up momentum with 5:13 left in the third quarter with Jay Gruden wisely easing the rushing offense back into the game. Gradkowski handed off the football on five of the next seven plays, picking up 20 yards with a Jermaine Gresham 22-yard reception sandwiched in between.
Though Gradkowski was sacked for a seven-yard loss on third down, the Bengals re-implemented the rushing offense that would benefit the Bengals in the long-run (see #4).
1. Fourth overall draft pick only catches one pass; but it was kind of a big play
Drafted fourth overall by the Cincinnati Bengals, Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green was expected to become that receiver; catch 50 passes per quarter, dive 20 yards in mid-air to catch a third down pass and to make startling catches on Monday Night Football, even though the Bengals already played for the week. None of that really happened on Sunday (though Monday Night Football hasn't played yet so we can't say none).
At one point, Green slammed his helmet on the ground in frustration after the Bengals punt team was forced to replace the offense after another stalled drive.
But as they say, it's about quality, not quantity.
Green's one reception, a 41-yarder with 4:31 left in the game, gave the Bengals a 20-17 lead that would eventually become your game-winner.
10 plus 1 quick observations:
- If offensive MVP wasn't about quarterbacks, feature backs (namely Benson) or wide receivers, then how could you go wrong with fullback Chris Pressley?
- Though Reggie Nelson allowed a 56-yard Mohamed Massaquoi reception early in the game, he led the team with nine total tackles, a quarterback sack, another quarterback hit and two passes defensed. Defensive MVP?
- Chris Crocker was one of two safeties (Nelson being the other) that posted a quarterback sack against the Browns. Crocker's sack also forced a fumble that Colt McCoy recovered.
- Jonathan Fanene is a bastard; he single-handedly dropped Peyton Hillis for a four-yard loss and snuffed out an end-around that could have gone for a big gain, turning it into a loss.
- Michael Johnson has the longest arms in the history of human arms, knocking down three passes at the line of scrimmage.
- Leon Hall played well enough on Sunday to prove he's the team's best cornerback and deserved of his contract extension (at least for a game).
- Carlos Dunlap didn't register a quarterback sack, but did knock down Colt McCoy twice.
- If one needed an explanation why rookie Robert Sands had the day off, backup safeties Gibril Wilson and Jeromy Miles each led the team with two special teams each.
- If Andre Smith was trying to prove that he belongs in the NFL, this would be the first game he shows.
- The Browns did showcase some impressive talent, including cornerback Joe Haden, who largely shutdown anyone that he covered; though he was really good at hiding some of the plays he yanked as the opposing receiver's jersey.
- Biggest difference from the 2010 squad: When the Bengals were faced with adversity on Sunday, they weren't dictated by it. They rose above it.
Honorable Mention. Brandon Tate Is Good, But...
Note: Wrote this as one of the original five things, but was squeezed out at the post developed.
As the Bengals defense excitedly jogged off the field, the Cleveland Browns were loaded with questions on how they put themselves into fourth-and-32 with 6:39 left in the first quarter; a four-yard stuff by Jonathan Fanene, combined with 18 yards in penalties tends to do that. Brandon Tate danced, shimmied and juked his way down the left sidelines to return the ensuing punt 15 yards. We welcome you, Brandon Tate.
Though Tate wasn't without his own opening day issues. After Phil Dawson opened the second half with a pitching wedge -- essentially allowing Cleveland's coverage team added time to get downfield -- Brandon Tate hauled in the kickoff eight yards deep in the endzone. Rather than taking a knee at the sight of the converging Browns coverage unit, Tate takes it out, tackled at the Bengals ten-yard line. Bruce Gradkowski and the Bengals offense went three-and-out and Kevin Huber's 60-yard punt was returned by Joshua Cribbs to the Browns 47-yard line. Dawson converted a 20-yard field goal to give the Browns a 17-13 lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, Dawson crushes a sand wedge, allowing even more time for the coverage team to converge on Cincinnati's kickoff returner. Tate caught the ball five yards deep in the endzone, breaking the goalline just as Cleveland's coverage unit passed the 15-yard line, dropping Tate at the Bengals nine-yard line. Gradkowski and the Bengals offense were unable to reach the 12-yard line, punting after another three-and-out. We wouldn't blame you if you wanted to point to the blocking on special teams with at least partial blame for the lack of a return game (at least in the second half).
It actually wasn't all bad for Tate, however, on kickoff returns. With 9:17 remaining in the second quarter, Tate took the kickoff after Benjamin Watson's 32-yard touchdown reception 35 yards after hauling in the kickoff five yards deep in the endzone. Tate would follow that up with another 25-yard effort after McCoy's two-yard touchdown pass to Evan Moore.
Captains of the game
Andrew Whitworth and Nate Livings were named captains for the offense, Leon Hall and Domata Peko for the defense and Jeromy Miles on special teams.
Quote of the game
Domata Peko on the defense coming into the game:
"It gives you a pretty big chip on your shoulder. It makes you angry. It makes you want to prove everybody wrong, and that's what we did today. The game plan was to shut down (Peyton Hillis) and to get in (Browns QB Colt) McCoy's face. It was good to see him lying on the ground a couple of times, especially in the fourth quarter."