Old friend Hue Jackson arrived at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium Sunday with his winless Browns and bottomless bag of gadgets, but his former student delivered the final nail in when Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton oversaw a big-play offense that included a 48-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to A.J. Green and a 74-yard touchdown run by running back Jeremy Hill in a 31-17 victory over Cleveland.
The 3-4 Bengals stopped a two-game losing streak and had a chance to crawl within a game of the Steelers in the AFC North by breaking 30 points for the first time this season and giving Hill his first 100-yard game since the final game of his rookie season in 2014 with a career-high 168 yards that was part of their best team rushing effort in nearly 16 years with 271.
Green, who came leading the league in catches, put on another clinic, racking up 169 yards on eight catches against Cleveland’s young, Joe Haden-less secondary. Dalton tipped his hat to Jackson with a 308-yard day and 128.3 passer rating and two TD passes of 40-plus as the Bengals fired up their most yards in 26 years and two weeks with 559.
Still, the Bengals head to London next week with some questions. Right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, rotating every two series with Eric Winston, gave up two sacks, Mike Nugent missed field goals of 40 and 45 yards, and Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth left with a head injury, although head coach Marvin Lewis said he’d be ready for the next game.
As expected with Jackson in town, it was a tractor pull even though midway through the second quarter he lost rookie quarterback Cody Kessler with a concussion and had to turn to his sixth quarterback this season. And Stanford rookie Kevin Hogan, making his first NFL appearance, proved to be puzzling for the Bengals, particularly early on and his zig-zag 28-yard scramble for a touchdown on a slew of missed tackles that cut the Bengals’ lead to 21-17 with 10:43 left in the third quarter.
Hogan ended up with 104 yards on seven carries, the first quarterback to rush for 100 yards against the Bengals since Carolina’s Cam Newton two years ago.
Hill, playing sparingly with a smattering of bruises didn’t need many runs to impact the game. He needed just nine for the biggest day for a Bengals back since Cedric Benson had 189 against the Bears on Oct. 25, 2009 and said he could have kept playing.
On their first series of the second half, they pulled Whitworth next to Winston and tight end C.J. Uzomah and they paved the way for Hill steamrolling as he outran the secondary for the 74-yard run and a 28-17 lead one minute after Hogan scored.
The Bengals then began to shut down Hogan and the running game, featuring left end Carlos Dunlap’s fifth sack of the season.
The series after they went up 28-17, Green fried rookie free agent cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun deep downb the right sideline, pulling in a bomb one-handed with the right one to set up Nugent’s 36-yard field goal with 4:19 left.
Green, the world-famous juggler, saved his best for a mind-numbing catch off a 48-yard Hail Mary from Dalton on the last play of the first half for a 21-10 half-time lead.
With seven seconds left and the sell-out crowd grousing about a disjointed last drive, Dalton dropped back and lofted a rainbow into the end zone for his five-time Pro Bowl target. With four Browns around him, Green, an avid juggler in his off-field moments, tipped it toward his body with his right hand at the top of his jump and then tipped it about three more times with either hand before pulling it into his body with his right arm as went to the ground in what may be his greatest catch ever.
Green ended the half with six catches for 106 yards on his way to moving past Carl Pickens into third place on the Bengals’ all-time receiving yardage list. Dalton lit up the Browns in the half on 15 of 20 passing for 232 .yards. He wasted no time exploiting the limited Browns’ secondary, hitting Green and wide receiver Brandon LaFell on all 10 targets for 189 yards.
The Bengals took the lead back at 14-10 on the LaFell Drive. Dalton hit him down the middle for a leaping 21-yard catch that held up under Jackson’s challenge flag. Then on the next snap cornerback Tramon Williams Sr. tried to play bump-and-run on LaFell split wide to the left and missed him. Dalton lofted it in the air and LaFell did a good job tracking it over his head for a 44-yard catch that was LaFell’s team-leading fourth touchdown and gave them a 14-10 lead with 4:09 left in the half.
But it was a struggle. Before Kessler got hurt, Hogan replaced him on consecutive zone reads for 15 yards and fullback Malcolm Johnson picked up 21 yards on a screen pass and the Bengals defense had no answer in a drive capped by running back Isaiah Crowell’s untouched one-yard touchdown with 6:20 left in the first half for a 10-7 lead.
Hogan, a rookie out of Stanford was originally a gadget for Jackson, but not with Kessler oncussed on a weird play in the red zone. Kessler had plenty of time in the pocket but could find no one open and at the last desperate instant shoveled it 11 yards to tight end Gary Barnidge to get Crowell close.
It was a shaky first half for the Bengals defense, which gave up 94 yards rushing on 6.3 yards per 19 carries for the NFL’s No. 24 rushing attack. Crowell had 45 of them on seven carries. But they shut it down once they got settled. Crowell got 18 the rest of the way on five carries and Hogan could manage just a 26.4 passer rating on 12 of 24 passing for 100 yards.
The Bengals gave Jackson a dose of the offense he helped cultivate here for the past two seasons with a stunningly easy opening touchdown drive featuring Hill’s 40-yard run as the Bengals took a 7-0 lead less than three minutes into the game.
Hill, back in the starting lineup, also had a 13-yard catch over a wide-open middle in a drive the Bengals started with a tip of the hat to Jackson on a tackle wide formation. Green picked up 12 yards behind Ogbuehi and it all set up running back Giovani Bernard’s untouched five-yard touchdown run.
That allowed Bernard to go wide, cut it back, and then run through linebacker Demario Davis’ tackle at the goal line. Hill also went wide right on his big run and his screeching cut to the left had safety Ibraheim Campbell whiffing the tackle and Hill took off for the left pylon.
After the defense forced a punt on its first series when Kessler couldn’t connect with wide receiver Terrelle Pryor covered by cornerback Adam Jones on a third-and-two slant, Hill did the heavy work in the second offensive series. He picked up 11 yards and a first down on a catch and run when he ran through linebacker Christian Kirksey’s tackle.
But Dalton took a coverage sack on first down and Nugent missed his third field goal of the season, a 40-yarder that had plenty of juice but yanked left.
That breathed life into the Browns. Even though they came in 24th in rushing, Crowell gashed them for 21 yards over left guard on the first snap after Nugent’s miss and then on the second snap linebacker Vontaze Burfict missed Crowell in space on a pass that picked up 11 yards.
Then on third-and-11 defensive lineman Margus Hunt drilled Kessler as he was about to throw a check-down pass and the ball wobbled to running back Duke Johnson and when linebacker Karlos Dansby didn’t get there in time, Johnson picked up the first down to set up Cody Parkey’s 28-yard field goal that made it 7-3.
Hill, nursing chest and shoulder injuries, had only three carries in the first half but he did start the second half. Oogbuehi, who gave up a sack to rookie Emmanuel Ogbah in the last drive, didn’t open the second half and Winston was at right tackle.
Bengals Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert, who hasn’t played since he injured his ankle in the Jan. 31 all-star game, got the nod Sunday in the seventh game of the year against the Browns at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium.
Since all four tight ends were active, it’s believed Eifert would be used about a quarter of the time and who would could blame them if they used him only in the red zone? With Eifert’s 13 TDs last season, including three in the PBS victory over Cleveland, the Bengals finished fifth in red-zone touchdown percentage. Without him they came into Sunday’s game 28th.
And the Browns are extremely banged up in the secondary, where five of their seven active players have three years of experience or less, including the recently acquired Darious Hillary, a rookie free agent cornerback who went to camp with the Bengals and spent time on their practice squad. The Browns are without two secondary starters in cornerback Joe Haden and free safety Jordan Poyer.