INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Marvin Lewis expects his defense to play aggressively.
It also comes with a danger — as the Cincinnati Bengals found out Sunday.
They overcame the first-quarter ejection of safety Shawn Williams and three more personal foul calls during the season opener to hold on for a 34-23 victory after Williams’ replacement jarred the ball loose and returned a fumble 83 yards for a touchdown with 24 seconds left at Indianapolis
“There’s a lot of stuff we can do better. Too many penalties in critical situations,” Lewis said. “We did a nice job with that all summer and now, today, it cropped in there, so it really could have hurt us.”
Williams was tossed in the first quarter after helmet-to-helmet contact with Colts QB Andrew Luck — becoming the first player to be ejected this season.
The NFL has sent a clear message to players everywhere that it intends to eliminate dangerous hits.
And for a while, it looked as if the Bengals would pay a steep price with eight penalties, three of which led to first downs.
Somehow, they managed to regain their composure, avoided any defensive penalties in the fourth quarter and overcome the loss of Williams to snap an eight-game losing streak at Indy.
Oddly enough, Clayton Fejedelem, Williams’ replacement, wound up saving the game after Pro Bowl tight end Jack Doyle appeared to convert a third-and-15 into a first down by contorting his body around the Bengals 15-yard line.
Instead, Fejedelem, the second defender on the play, delivered a textbook lesson by knocking the ball out, quickly scooping it up and sprinting down the sideline for the clinching score.
“You don’t get time to hiccup or flinch,” Lewis said. “You’ve just got to keep playing.”
The Colts learned that lesson the hard way, too.
After taking a 23-10 lead midway through the third quarter, it appeared the Colts might finally end the second-half troubles from last season. This time, they unraveled again.
A.J. Green split Indy’s two deep safeties — Clayton Geathers and Malik Hooker — for a 38-yard TD catch and after Adam Vinatieri’s rare miss on a 55-yard field goal, the Bengals capitalized by driving for Joe Mixon’s leaping 1-yard score to take the lead. Indy was called for three defensive penalties on the second series, including an inexplicable pass interference call on Geathers on third-and-15.
“I thought we played good, just penalties in the end killed us,” Colts defensive end Margus Hunt said after recording two sacks against his former team. “We just need to keep playing football.”
Doyle has been one of the Colts’ most reliable players over the past few seasons.
So the fumble was out of character and teammates quickly came to his defense, starting with Luck.
“Jack cares about this game as much as any guy I’ve ever played around,” he said. “He’s an incredible person, an incredible teammates and he’s a great friend. So you give him a big hug. He’s going to be all right. He’s going to be fine.”
The Bengals and Colts have new offensive coordinators and revamped offensive lines, and both showed promise after slow starts.
Andy Dalton and Luck were each picked off on their first passes of the afternoon before settling down and delivering more typical performances.
Luck was 39 of 53 with 319 yards and two touchdowns in his first regular season start since having shoulder surgery in January 2017. Dalton was 21 of 28 with 243 yards and two scores.
Each was sacked twice.
GIVING IT AWAY
The Colts lost seven halftime leads in 2017, falling one game short of matching the NFL record.
And a coaching change didn’t help Indy find its finishing touch Sunday. The Colts gave up 24 points over the final 20 minutes, allowing the Bengals to spoil Luck’s long-awaited return.
While the passing games appeared to be in sync, the ground games left more to be desired.
Mixon carried 17 times for 95 yards , but the Bengals only had three other rushing attempts and wound up with 101 yards.
Indy, meanwhile, relied heavily on rookies Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines in their pro debuts. Wilkins carried 14 times for 49 yards, while Hines had five attempts for 19 yards and caught seven passes for 33 yards.
Both teams need to be more effective on the ground this season.