The NFL is as trendy as a teen clothing-store at the mall, and the current fad on display around the league is the 3-4 defense. The Bengals will face a 3-4 defense 11 times throughout their schedule including five in a row to open the season. In order to prepare and coach against the “cool” kids and their sexy formations, the Bengals must have been pleased to defeat a stout version of the 3-4 from New England on Thursday night.
With Carson Palmer on the sidelines in sweatpants, J.T. O'Sullivan posted his second straight start in which he looked sharp and very much in control. Marvin Lewis talks about how the coaching staff has encouraged O'Sullivan not to worry too much and play within himself and the offense, and the advice seems to be working. While O'Sully doesn't appear to be a quarterback that breaks fingers on his throws, he does have a nice touch to his passes, he makes smart reads, and he and his receivers are playing with rhythm---even if it is only preseason. It's still the hope of every Bengal fan that he never plays a down in the regular season, but it's nice to know that the team is in better hands now than it was a year ago at the quarterback position.
One receiver who has helped the appearance of O'Sullivan's play is Chris Henry. Backup secondaries can't hang with Henry as he torches second and third-stringers in the preseason. Slim has caught touchdowns in both games so far and rarely seems out of breath on the field. Nickel-backs might have a hard time with a dynamic match-up problem like Henry this season.
The other receiver of note thus far is, of course, Ochocinco. Outside of his kicking abilities, which are suddenly legitimate, impressive, and beg for an encore performance, he has all the shine and glimmer of that top-5 receiver we knew as Chad Johnson. The man with two numbers is lightning fast, runs crispy routes and stiff-armed Teddy Bruschi like a champ on his way to a 35-yard scamper after the catch.
Another player who spent the evening in Foxborough scampering around the field, and as a result, further complicating the running back picture, was DeDe Dorsey. DeDe looked like his old self, pin-balling off defenders, spinning, hurtling and most importantly, not going down. The bouncy guy who averages over seven yards a carry in his career, made the most of his four touches with 60 rushing yards against the Pats.
Dorsey is too explosive to cut. If the focus of the off-season was to improve the running game, why not keep four different kinds of backs and play them to their strengths? Dorsey is slippery, Brian Leonard is powerful, Bernard Scott is patient and Cedric Benson is both strong and fast. Benson has fumbled in both preseason games. Chris Perry can speak of the horrors of fumble-itis, but hopefully Benson will get it out of his system before the boos remind him that these things matter.
Aside from the fumbling, the running game looks alive and on its feet this season---as opposed to slumped over and struggling to breathe like last season---and much of that credit goes to the offensive line. The ragtag bunch of big bellies up front created running lanes and pass-protected well. Question marks on the line like Kyle Cook and Anthony Collins have encouraged fans and coaches that the offense will at least be able to compete in 2009, and with the weapons still on this team, a capable line could make Sundays fun again in Cincinnati.
The last time Marvin Lewis had this kind of talent along his defensive line, he won the Super Bowl. While not quite as heralded as the legendary Ravens defense of 2000, this group of linemen has the potential to quietly sneak the defense into a top-10 ranking.
The defensive tackle rotation of Domata Peko, Tank Johnson and Pat Sims is particularly encouraging. Sims was beastly Thursday night, moving nimbly sideline-to-sideline and proving difficult to block on his way to seven tackles and a sack. The second-year player seems ready to improve upon an impressive rookie season last year.
And how many fans perked up when Robert Geathers sped past Nick Kaczur and slammed Tom Brady into the Foxborough turf? If Geathers does that all season, and puts up the promising sack totals that he's capable of producing, this line will quickly gain the respect of the rest of the league.
Yet for all the talented players on the line, the Bengals’ best defensive player, up to this point, has been Keith Rivers. The second-year pro coming off a season shortened by a broken jaw played strong, fast and smart, took excellent tackling angles to ball carriers and looked good in coverage. Early in the game, Rivers came untouched on a blitz where he forced Brady to throw the ball out of bounds. This should have resulted in an intentional grounding call. A lot of optimism swirls around Rivers and for good reason; it would come as a major surprise to me if he doesn't end up as the team's leading tackler this season.
With Rivers showing up all over the field, his college teammate Rey Maualuga can just run downhill and obliterate the poor saps in his way. Rey gave fans a sneak preview of the chaos to come as he blitzed the quarterback well, stopped the run at the point of attack and dissected a screen pass for a loss. His tackling form looks sound as he crouches low before erupting square into ball-carriers, and he always, always runs through the tackle the way coaches preach to youngsters today. If Rey can stay healthy and endure the physical rigors of the NFL, he will be an elite player at his position sooner rather than later.
Speaking of up-and-coming defenders who must stay healthy to become Pro-Bowl caliber, Johnathon Joseph is sticking to receivers like carpenters’ glue. Marvin has talked about his tackling ability and he and Leon Hall are the division's best cornerback tandem. The depth behind the starters remains an issue, but while Joseph and Hall are in there, this defense has a luxury in pass-coverage.
When defense is discussed concerning the AFC North, the brutes of Pittsburgh and Baltimore will still get the spotlight, but this bunch of no-names in Cincinnati could be right up there with the big dogs in the end. Still, as every Bengal fan knows, the team will have to prove itself one game at a time before anyone starts to notice.
Mojokong---geeked for the real thing.