Even in the preseason, the return game came to the rescue of the Chiefs once again.
While the Chiefs’ first-team offense had trouble picking up first downs, and the secondary had problems as feared Thursday night, the return game was in fine form in a 41-39 victory over Cincinnati in a wild preseason opener at Arrowhead Stadium.
The Chiefs picked up where they left off from last year when they led the NFL in return touchdowns with 11 — seven on defense and two kickoffs and two punts — and no other team was close.
On Thursday, rookie De’Anthony Thomas returned a punt 80 yards for a touchdown and defensive backs Sean Smith (36 yards) and Malcolm Bronson (51 yards) returned interceptions for touchdowns, masking any shortcomings for an offense that scored two touchdowns and had three turnovers — fumbles by quarterbacks Alex Smith and Tyler Bray and interception thrown by Chase Daniel.
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“We want to score touchdowns in all three phases of the game,” said Chiefs coach Andy Reid, “and we were able to do a nice job of it tonight. But in return, you have to cut back on some of these turnovers we had on the (offensive) side.”
Indeed, the Chiefs turned the ball over just 18 times all of last year, tied for second-fewest in the league, and Alex Smith wasn’t happy with the offense’s performance.
“That’s certainly not playing up to our expectations,” said Smith, who fumbled when hit by the Bengals’ Robert Geathers, who overpowered left tackle Eric Fisher on the play. “It’s tough to win football games like that. You have to bounce back … mistakes are going to happen. It’s always about the next play.”
The Chiefs bounced back thanks to their special teams and defense that set up a field goal and produced two first-quarter touchdowns on a night the first-team offense managed two first downs in its quarter of work.
After the Bengals worked over right cornerback Ron Parker for a 10-0 lead, the return men went to work.
First, undrafted rookie Albert Wilson woke up the small crowd announced at 70,951 with a 65-yard kickoff return that set up a 27-yard field goal by Ryan Succop.
Then, the Chiefs scored two touchdowns in a 16-second flurry.
Thomas, the diminutive fourth-round pick, electrified the fans with a scintillating 80-yard punt return that tied the game.
Thomas, who returned four kickoff returns and one punt for touchdowns in college, spun out of the clutches of Dre Kirkpatrick, sprinted to his right and outran the Bengals coverage team, escorted by first-round pick Dee Ford.
“There were just guys out there making great blocks,” said Thomas. “I was just being patient and waiting for that ball to come down, looking it all the way in and getting in that end zone.”
On Cincinnati’s first play following the punt return, Smith, who had been displaced by Parker as the starter, jumped the route on a pass intended for Hamilton and returned it 36 yards for a touchdown (or 64 yards shy of his club-record 100-yard return at Buffalo last year). That gave the Chiefs a 17-10 lead with 22 seconds left in the first quarter.
The Chiefs gave that touchdown right back when Daniel sailed a pass high over the head of 6-foot-5 Travis Kelce early in the second quarter, and Kirkpatrick returned it 40 yards for a touchdown, tying the game at 17.
Rookie Cairo Santos, who is challenging Succop for the place-kicking job, gave the Chiefs a 20-17 lead with a 28-yard field goal, but the Bengals made it 24-20 with a 26-yard pass from Jason Campbell to Dane Sanzenbacher, who was free of cornerback Phillip Gaines and safety Jarron McMillian.
Daniel atoned for the interception when he found Kelce wide open on a skinny post. Kelce, who missed all of his rookie year last season with a knee injury, outraced the Bengals secondary for a 69-yard touchdown and 27-24 lead with 21 seconds left in the first half.
Parker, who has made just one start in his four-year NFL career, was no match for the Bengals wide receivers. Cincinnati’s $116 million quarterback Andy Dalton hung a 53-yard pass down the middle to A.J. Green, who had several steps on Parker that set up a field goal.
Campbell also picked on Parker, who would have been called for a hands-to-the face penalty had Brandon Tate not made the catch for a 9-yard touchdown. Parker later was called for illegal contact on another pass play.
The Bengals drew to within 34-31 early in the fourth quarter on a 9-yard touchdown pass from third-team quarterback Matt Scott to rookie James Wright.
Bray, the Chiefs’ third-team quarterback, drove the Chiefs on 13-play, 77-yard touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter, capped by Cyrus Gray’s 2-yard score.
The Bengals cut it to 41-39 on Scott’s 12-yard touchdown pass to Conner Vernon with 51 seconds to play, but the Chiefs’ Darryl Surgent recovered the on-side kick.