When the Cincinnati Bengals drafted running back Giovani Bernard No. 37 overall during the 2013 NFL draft (thanks to the Carson Palmer trade), they had envisioned something special. Following a ho-hum debut against the Chicago Bears, Bernard shinned under the Monday Night Football lights, scoring the team's lone touchdowns during Cincinnati's 20-10 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Yet it wasn't the start that Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden had hoped for, especially for the struggling Andy Dalton. Once the anxiety of playing on Monday Night Football dissipated, Cincinnati's offense settled. It started when Andy Dalton found a wide open Tyler Eifert down the seam with 2:22 remaining in the first quarter, gaining 61 wide-open yards before he was tackled from behind. Following a Mohamed Sanu reception that he nearly broke out for a score, Giovani Bernard followed his blocks inside the guards for the touchdown -- the first of his career.
On their ensuing possession, Mohamed Sanu put Cincinnati back on schedule after a Jermaine Gresham false start with a 14-yard reception, followed by a BenJarvus Green-Ellis run that added another 14 yards during the first play of the second quarter. Eventually the Bengals abandoned the running game with four straight passes and the final three falling incomplete. Mike Nugent converted the 41-yard field goal to give Cincinnati a 10-3 lead with over 13 minutes remaining in the second quarter.
The early game-plan featured a pass heavy offense, but Dalton struggled. The third-year quarterback attempted 32 passes in the first half. Consider this: Dalton attempted less than 32 passes in 17 career games. With a flawed game plan utilizing a struggling quarterback, one would hope that Jay Gruden (the guy that generates so much attention for vacant head coaching jobs) would adapt the game plan to trends. Instead, the Bengals called two passes, and Cincinnati punts after going three and out to open the second half.
Or maybe it just took longer than usual.
Cincinnati reverted to a more balanced philosophy with over 11 minutes remaining in the third quarter. On three first downs throughout the possession, the Bengals called handoffs to Giovani Bernard, gaining 11 yards combined. When the Bengals needed a third and short, Cincinnati called in the heavy duty badass formation with Domata Peko at fullback and BenJarvus Green-Ellis gaining two yards on third and short to Pittsburgh's 38-yard line with over eight minutes remaining. In between those runs, Dalton showed beautiful bro-man-love with Jermaine Gresham, who powered his way upfield for a beautiful 26-yard gain, along with an eight yard pick-up with over seven minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Everything setup a first and ten from Pittsburgh's 27-yard line with over six minutes remaining in the third quarter. Dalton takes the shotgun snap with Bernard running two yards pass the line of scrimmage. Dalton lobbed the pass to the rookie, who accelerated to warp speed down the left sidelines for the touchdown. Bernard's second touchdown (his first career receiving) gives the Bengals a 17-10 lead with over six minutes in the third quarter.
Giovani touched the football nine times and gained 65 yards (27 receiving) and scored both of Cincinnati's touchdowns.
In the end, it was the Bengals defense that helped Cincinnati secure the win. With over five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Reggie Nelson intercepted a deflected Ben Roethlisberger throw. Mike Zimmer's group also held Pittsburgh to only 278 yards of offense (214 yards before the final possession) while limiting the Steelers to only three of 12 on third down opportunities (they were one of ten before the final possession).
BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran seven times and gained 15 yards during the Bengals final offensive possession, converting one first down while LaMarr Woodley was flagged for unnecessary roughness, giving Cincinnati another set of downs.
The Bengals will host the Green Bay Packers next week in a game that will truly test Cincinnati's secondary.