Bengals, rookie QB hoping to usher in new era
Winning consistently has never been a strong suit for the Bengals, but they're hoping a pair of talented rookies could begin to change that. After performing well in a close loss last week, quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green make their home debuts Sunday against the 49ers hoping to usher in a new era in Cincinnati.
The Bengals have registered just two winning seasons since 1990, including a 10-6 finish two years ago. They followed that by going 4-12 in 2010, but that gave them a chance to snap up Green with the No. 4 overall pick in this year's draft and grab Dalton early in the second round – one pick before the 49ers selected their rookie quarterback, Colin Kaepernick.
With Carson Palmer embroiled in a dispute with the franchise, Dalton has been given the chance to jump into the starting lineup immediately. He'll make his home debut in the latest regular-season home opener in Bengals history.
After throwing for 81 yards before leaving with a wrist injury in his pro debut at Cleveland, the former TCU quarterback nearly led his team to a comeback victory at Denver last Sunday, setting a franchise rookie record with 332 yards passing. He also became just the second rookie quarterback since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger to begin his career with back-to-back starts with a passer rating of 100 or higher.
Cincinnati fell behind 17-3 early in the third quarter, but Dalton threw a pair of touchdown passes to pull the Bengals within two points with 11:17 left in the game. That's as close as they got, though, failing to get inside the Broncos' 35-yard line on their final three possessions in a 24-22 defeat.
Dalton completed 27 of 41 passes. Green caught 10 of those for 124 yards and a TD. The former University of Georgia star scored a 41-yard touchdown on his first NFL reception during a season-opening victory in Cleveland.
"They're showing they've grown quite a bit in the short training camp we had and the last couple of games," said running back Cedric Benson said, who ranks ninth in the NFL with 180 yards rushing and will test San Francisco's No. 1-ranked rushing defense.
The rookie duo will try to continue that growth against a San Francisco team that blew a chance last week to remain unbeaten under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh.
The 49ers held a 10-point lead midway through the fourth quarter Sunday against visiting Dallas, but gave up the final 13 points in a 27-24 overtime defeat. The 49ers allowed 432 yards passing in the defeat, and Dallas quarterback Tony Romo shredded their secondary for 185 yards passing on the Cowboys' final three possessions that led to the game's final 13 points.
"We have to be mentally tough. We have to keep looking each other in the eye, keep preparing," Harbaugh said. "This is not going to defeat us."
Harbaugh's team will try to bounce back without receiver Braylon Edwards, who needed surgery after injuring his right knee in the loss to the Cowboys. His timetable for returning is unknown, but he'll be out until at least October.
Michael Crabtree, however, should be back after sitting out last week's game. The third-year receiver aggravated his surgically repaired left foot in a 33-17 Week 1 win over Seattle.
The Bengals, meanwhile, have their own issues among their receiving corps. Slot receiver Jordan Shipley, who led all AFC rookies with 600 yards on 52 receptions last season, tore his left ACL in the loss to Denver.
Jerome Simpson is questionable to play Sunday as authorities are investigating a 2½-pound package of marijuana that was tracked to the fourth-year receiver's home earlier this week. Authorities also found another six pounds of pot inside the house. Though Simpson hasn't been arrested, he missed practice on Thursday and Friday.
Those absences could mean more playing time for Andre Caldwell, who caught a 10-yard touchdown pass – his first since 2009 – last Sunday.
"You saw once Jordan was out of the game, (Andre) stepped in and caught a couple passes, caught a touchdown. So the play didn't really drop off," Dalton said. "He came in and played well. So he does have the experience and he understands what's going on. We're sad to see what happened to Jordan, but you have to have guys step up."
The 49ers have won eight of 11 regular-season matchups – including a 20-13 home victory in 2007, the last meeting between the teams – against the Bengals, their opponent in two of their five Super Bowl victories.
The 49ers began their two-decade dynasty with a 26-21 victory over the Bengals in Super Bowl XVI in 1982, then seven seasons later beat Cincinnati again 20-16 with a thrilling late touchdown drive in Super Bowl XXIII.
San Francisco, though, has dropped its last two games in Cincinnati and is making its first visit there since Dec. 14, 2003. The 49ers have also dropped five straight road games against AFC opponents. San Francisco was just 1-7 on the road last season.
To end that drought, they could use a better performance from Frank Gore, who is gaining just 2.5 yards per carry – the second-lowest average among the 18 NFL backs with at least 30 carries.
In his only matchup with the Bengals, Gore rushed for 138 yards on 29 attempts. The 49ers could use a similar breakout this week to jump-start their offense, which ranks 31st in the NFL after starting the season with two games that produced 209 and 206 total yards.
Walsh invented West Coast system with Bengals
The Bengals and 49ers have only played each other 13 times, but their histories are intertwined, particularly of late.
The late Bill Walsh learned much of his football under former Bengals owner and football icon Paul Brown, and when Brown passed over Walsh to be his head coach in the 1970s, Walsh went to Stanford and eventually moved down the road to build a dynasty with the 49ers.
Nevertheless, Walsh developed his West Coast scheme as the Bengals' offensive coordinator under Brown in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Walsh was forced to improvise in 1969 when rookie quarterback Greg Cook began to lose arm strength due to an undiagnosed shoulder injury. With Cook's inability to throw deep passes, Walsh went with short, horizontal throws and hence the West Coast offense was born.
Cook's foundational 1969 season was recently brought up after current rookie Andy Dalton threw for more than 300 yards in his second start. The last Bengal to do that was Cook.
Niners also coveted Dalton
Bringing it back to the modern day, Dalton was a player the 49ers coveted in April's draft. Coach Jim Harbaugh worked him out and when the Bengals took him with the 35th overall selection in the second round, that's when the 49ers traded up to get Kaepernick so they wouldn't be left without getting a top-prospect quarterback in the draft.
"Very good football player, great college career." Harbaugh said of Dalton. "We had a high evaluation of him. (He's) playing with good poise. Throwing the ball with accuracy. Very good timing. He's getting it out of his hand very well. He's managing the game extremely well. Playing with a cool head, making good decisions."
Said 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio: "He's a good quarterback number one. He was a highly-thought-of guy coming out of college, won a lot of games at TCU and his career there. He's very efficient. He's got a really good understanding of the game. Gets the ball out of his hands quickly. He's an accurate passer. I don't think the aura of playing in the NFL has affected him like it kind of affects some rookies at times. He's capable and he's ready, and he's a good quarterback. They've made a good pick there, and I think he'll be a good quarterback for them for a long time."
Dalton is just one of many players both teams liked. In the prior draft, the Bengals called the 49ers about moving into the 49th overall spot in the second round because Cincinnati wanted to pick USC safety Taylor Mays. Instead, the 49ers chose Mays with that pick.
When Mays faltered with the 49ers, he was traded earlier this summer to the Bengals for their 2013 seventh-round selection. Mays sprained his right knee during the preseason, but he might be ready to play special teams in this game against 49ers.
Former Niners/Bengals trading places
Mays is also the third 49er from last year who's now a Bengal.
Linebacker Manny Lawson signed with the Bengals in free agency, and cornerback Nate Clements was picked up by the Bengals after his release from the 49ers. Both are now starters.
"We know all their tricks," 49ers receiver Josh Morgan said of Clements, Lawson and Mays.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis basically said the same thing of the 49ers.
Three of his former players with the Bengals – defensive end Justin Smith, safety Madieu Williams and rush linebacker Ahmad Brooks – used to play for Lewis in Cincinnati. Lewis also said he has studied the 49ers during the offseason because he knew was going to face them in the third game of the season.
Also, Lewis is familiar with Vic Fangio and the 49ers' scheme after serving as the Steelers linebackers coach from 1993-95. Fangio uses the same Dom Capers-like 3-4 defensive philosophy.
"I was part of that since the inception," Lewis said. "So I understand that inside and out -- the principles and things that are trying to be done."
Niners won't return home until October
When the 49ers packed up at their Santa Clara facility Friday and jumped on a plane headed for Cincinnati, it began a 10-day road trip that won't see the team return to California until October.
The 49ers will spend the intervening week between the Bengals and Eagles road games in Youngstown, Ohio.
"I feel like we have a team that enjoys each other's company," Harbaugh said. "This is a chance for them to be close to each other all week leading up to a big game. Also, families that are in the Midwest and East Coast, let them be around and be a part of it."
The 49ers felt the week they spent in London last year before playing Denver did wonders for team chemistry. The team picked Youngstown because that's where the DeBartolo and York families are from and they have lots of connections to Youngstown State, where the team will practice.