There were 33 players making their Cincinnati Bengals debuts Friday night, and at times it seemed as though they were playing a game of “top this.”
On a night full of impressive debuts, the most impressive belonged to third-string quarterback Jeff Driskel, who threw for one touchdown and ran for another to rally the Bengals for a 23-12 comeback victory against Tampa Bay at Paul Brown Stadium.
Driskel completed 8 of 9 passes for 97 yards, including an 8-yard scoring strike to rookie wide receiver Josh Malone, in addition to rushing for an 18-yard touchdown.
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Here are five things to know about the victory:
Rookie running back Joe Mixon has been one of the stars since training camp began July 27, so no one was surprised by what he did against the Buccaneers.
Instead it was Mixon who got the surprise, when his mom showed up unannounced to watch her son’s NFL debut that featured him averaging 5.2 yards per carry with a long of 13 in addition to turning a routine check-down pass from AJ McCarron into an electric 11-yard gain in which he broke three tackles.
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“I remember going through the tunnel and her calling my name, and I recognized that voice and turned around and there was my mamma,” Mixon said. “That was fun. At the end of the day, winning is fun. So if you win, I’m sure you’re going to have some fun.”
Toe for toe
If Randy Bullock and Jake Elliott keep this up, the Bengals are going to have an extremely difficult decision on their hands on cutdown day.
The competition for the kicker job that already was neck and neck coming into Friday’s game got even closer when Bullock hit field goals of 54 and 49 yards and converted his only extra point attempt, while Elliott made a 45-yarder and a PAT.
“I think I’m pushing Randy, and I think Randy’s pushing me,” said Elliott, the rookie fifth-round pick. “I think it’s bringing out the best in both of us and we’re both kicking pretty well in camp and both had good nights tonight.”
Despite missing a 52-yard field goal and extra point in last week’s intrasquad scrimmage, Elliott would seem to have the advantage given that the Bengals spent a fifth-round pick on him, making him only the second kicker the team has drafted in the Marvin Lewis era.
But Bullock, who spent the final four games of 2016 with the Bengals after the team waived Mike Nugent, is performing like it’s his job to lose.
“I came in here with a good opportunity,” he said. “I’m trying to take full advantage of it. I worked really hard in the offseason and I’m just having fun with it.”
It’s one thing to shine in practice during training camp. It’s another to come out and keep it going in a game.
Unless you’re Chris Smith, then it’s all the same.
The fourth-year defensive end, who was making his Bengals debut after the team acquired him in an offseason trade from Jacksonville for a conditional 2018 draft pick, registered two quarterback hits and had a tackle for loss that forced a fumble.
“I wish I would have gotten a sack — especially on that strip sack attempt,” Smith said. “It was fun to be out there with a new team and new atmosphere. It felt like Christmas to me.”
The Bengals registered seven quarterback hits in all, with rookie third-round defensive end Jordan Smith also recording a pair, including one of the two sacks the defense record.
Defensive tackles Pat Sims, DeShawn Williams and rookie fourth-round pick Ryan Glasgow also recorded quarterback hits.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was progress for an offensive line that entered the season as the team’s biggest question mark.
With three of the projected starters, and a possible fourth, playing the entire first half, the Bengals did not allow a sack while opening holes that led to a 4.0 rushing average.
“There’s been so many question marks about this O-line, but I feel like we meshed well,” said Trey Hopkins, who started in place of the injured Andre Smith at right guard and played the entire first half. “Everyone knows there is a question mark there, but we know we have a point to prove and we’re going to prove it. We’re confident in what we know, confident in each other.”
The Tampa reserves recorded a pair of sacks in the second half against the Bengals backups, but the starting unit was solid.
“I think we did a great job of stacking guys on top of each other,” right tackle Jake Fisher said. “We did the things that were necessary with our game plan and in the end it worked out well.”
The biggest disappointment on an otherwise positive night was the way the opening possession ended, with quarterback Andy Dalton throwing an interception at the 1-yard line after driving the first-team offense to the Tampa Bay 5.
Dalton was a perfect 4 of 4 for 38 yards before Buccaneers cornerback Vernon Hargreaves jumped in front of wide receiver Brandon LaFell for a pick on third and 2.
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“I shouldn’t have (thrown) it on my back foot, and I held on to it a little longer than I should have,” said Dalton, who did not throw a red-zone interception in 2016 and has just six since entering the league in 2011.
After Tampa Bay went 92 yards in 14 plays to open the game with a field goal, and the Bengals appeared poised to top, or at least match it with Dalton driving them 70 yards with completions of 8 and 13 yards to A.J. Green, 4 yards to Tyler Eifert and a 13-yarder to LaFell to convert on third and 3.
“I thought we moved the ball well,” Dalton said. “I thought we ran the ball effectively (seven carries, 27 yards), we picked up a few third downs. I thought it was a great drive. We just didn’t come away with a touchdown. It was my fault. I can’t make that throw.”
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