Even though the Bengals lost 17-7 Friday night in New Orleans, we watched several storylines unfold. Many of which we'll address throughout the weekend and into the week. First and foremost, we were most concerned about the offensive line; would the unit step up and protect Carson Palmer and would they open lanes for a reborn rushing offense? I rewatched the first quarter -- when the starters got the bulk of their work.
Let me say. They passed their first test with flying colors.
You could see and hear the communication along the line. On rushing downs, the line fired out and aggressively attacked the front four. In fact, the Saints front four were routinely neutralized throughout the first quarter. Pass protection was great. On several downs, Palmer had at least four seconds of protection on long route developing plays, and throughout the first three drives, Palmer was relatively clean and upright. During the team's fourth possession, he was drilled twice. Let's quickly examine those plays to see where the breakdown happened.
- With 3:43 left in the first quarter, the Bengals needed five yards on third down to sustain a drive that only happened because of the great effort by Andre Caldwell and Andrew Whitworth hustling after Jonathan Vilma, who picked off a pass that was terribly thrown behind Caldwell. Now this part is important. At the Cincinnati nine-yard line, Palmer lined up in shotgun with Caldwell flanking his right. Scott Fujita lined up on the left and blitzed. Caldwell, a wide receiver trying to block a blitzing outside linebacker, dove at Fujita's legs, who momentarily stumbled but regained his footing to take out Palmer. Thankfully, Palmer had released the ball a step away from the blitzing outside linebacker, hitting Chad Ochocinco for an 18 yard gain and a first down. In truth, Caldwell shouldn't be blocking a blitzing outside linebacker; he was simply overmatched.
- With 1:41 left in the first quarter, on third and five, Palmer took his last snap of the game. Setting up in shotgun at the Cincinnati 32-yard line, Palmer took the snap. Cornerback Randall Gay blitzed off the left side (the right side from the Bengals perspective). Anthony Collins stuck with the defensive end, who delayed his rush monetarily. Instead of looking outside at the blitzing cornerback, Collins went after the defensive end and Randall Gay came unblocked, knocking Palmer down and causing a mild ankle sprain. In truth, if Collins doesn't pick up the defensive end and goes after the cornerback instead, then the defensive end comes in unblocked. Nate Livings blocked the defensive tackle with Kyle Cook's help. This is likely one of those instances where someone should have changed the blocking scheme, having everyone shift to the right.
In truth, if there were missed blocks with the offensive linemen, it wasn't a matter of being overpowered or outmatched. When guys locked into defenders, those defenders rarely shed off blocks. The front four was routinely neutralized and several times unblocking offensive linemen stepped into the second level and took on linebackers.
When Cedric Benson fumbled on the fourth play of the Bengals first possession, the offensive line opened a massive hole up the middle. Livings, Cook and Williams blocked both defensive ends inward, while Collins blocked his man out. Jeremi Johnson took out linebacker Mark Simoneau and Benson was nearly through the second level when safety Darren Sharper struck Benson in the gut, knocking the football out. Jonathan Vilma recovered and returned the football 47 yards. (A quick note: even the Saints returned the ball to the Cincinnati six-yard line, they came away without any points)
Even Daniel Coats had a good performance. With 7:29 left in the first quarter, the Bengals lined up at their own 49-yard line on first and ten. Benson got the handoff and ran wide outside to the right. With the line firing out, turning their guys inward, Coats sealed the edge. Jeremi Johnson blocked a gap further in from where Benson's point of attack took place causing defenders to attack the wrong gap. Benson picked up eight yards outside.
Even they missed a block, they didn't always give up. On the next play, Benson took the handoff with the point of attack behind Livings and Cook. Livings and Whitworth doubled the defensive end, before Livings shed off into the second level. Coats worked on the outside linebacker. Cook was assigned the right defensive tackle. At the snap, the RDT took an inside slant, surprising Cook. In a last ditch attempt to make the block, Cook dove at the RDT's legs, knocking him over just enough to clear out the lane for Benson. Livings neutralized Vilma just enough for Benson to pick up eight yards on the play.
For the most part, I thought the starting offensive line came through, making their blocks, protecting Palmer and opening up lanes for Benson, throughout the first quarter. If you were to call this a test, I graded them passing with flying colors.