It all looked so easy for the Cincinnati Bengals' first-team offense.
Whenever Andy Dalton and company took the field during the first two games this preseason, touchdowns and field goals were more than drive-by-drive goals, they were drive-by-drive results. The Bengals' starting offense in its basic, vanilla setup had one focus: to score.
Each of the four times the group had the football through Weeks 1 and 2 of the preseason, it did score. The offense was so efficient in the second game against the Jets that Dalton had a perfect passer rating of 158.3 after going 8-for-8 with 144 yards and a touchdown in the 25-17 loss. Turnovers and poor execution from the back of the depth chart contributed to the eventual evaporation of the 17-3 lead Dalton's group had built.
At Arizona on Sunday night, things weren't as easy for the starting offense which couldn't seem to get out of the shadow of its own goal line the entire game.
Field position created adverse conditions. Conditions that, because of the easy success the Bengals had begun the preseason enjoying, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said they needed. With a much more taxing regular season on the horizon, he was right.
"Like I told them [Saturday] night in the meeting, I said I hope something like that does happen because you have to overcome that when it's not going good," Jackson said.
That echoed sentiments after Jackson witnessed a ragged-looking practice during training camp. He challenged his offense to respond the next day with better effort and execution.
Little went well for Cincinnati's first-team offense Sunday until it went on a 10-play, 78-yard drive across the final four minutes of the second quarter. After beginning the drive on their own 4 -- one of three Bengals drives that began inside Cincinnati's own 10-yard line -- the offense marched into range for kicker Mike Nugent to bury a 36-yard field goal that put the Bengals up 13-3 just before halftime. The Bengals' only touchdown in the game came from cornerback Terence Newman, who returned an interception 54 yards for a score in the first quarter.
In his post-game news conference, head coach Marvin Lewis considered that drive a momentum changer. Jackson said he learned as much off it than he has any other drive this preseason.
"Our guys kept their poise, the quarterback was outstanding," Jackson said. "Anytime you don't turn the ball over, you've got a chance to win. There was a lot of good in that. Now, we like to finish drives for touchdowns. You're in the scoring zone, you need to finish."
Jackson said he'd rather have the trade-off of what he witnessed Sunday night, though. His offense may not have ended up in the end zone, but it didn't have a single turnover and still won. Turnovers were the bugaboos in the first two games, and although the Bengals' offense scored a lot more easily and efficiently, the turnovers contributed to the losses. Both the Chiefs and Jets capitalized off them. The reason Jackson was giddy over Dalton's 13-for-21, 157-yard passing performance and even respected Giovani Bernard's 10-carry, 17-yard rushing night, was because the ball stayed off the ground and out of the hands of Cardinals defensive backs.
"If you look at what's the common denominator here, there was no offensive turnovers," Jackson said. "You win the game that way. Now we've got to do some of the stuff we did the first two games -- score points -- and don't turn it over, and you see what we have the potential of being."
Dalton, as we've seen throughout his career, will put up video-game numbers for stretches, but he'll also have those nights where with poor run-support and bad blocking, it doesn't all click. It's in those times when the Bengals have to simply play a clean game and keep trying to move the ball.
"We were on the road, long flight, Arizona, different stadium. It's a big game, it's Sunday night football, and we won," Jackson said. "That's what you look for at the end of the day."
Perhaps this experience will come in handy in October, November and December.