The last preseason game is upon us which means we've seen all that's worth watching from the Bengals for now. The real deal is but a dozen or so painfully slow days away, and things are looking up. The team's core is solidly in place, injuries have been manageable, and the first-team has looked pretty sharp. Aside from five or six guys in limbo, I think everyone knows what this roster will look like on September 12.
That being said, we can now really dig into this team and look at its guts (sorry for being gross).
The offense looks improved from the end of last season. What's most encouraging is that the new weapons—Terrell Owens, Jermaine Gresham, and Jordan Shipley—have been used in sensible ways with play-calling that highlights their respective talents.
TO has been featured in a variety of ways this preseason; from end-arounds and inside slants, to deep bombs and sideline patterns, the guy has performed well. Because of his strong showing with Cincinnati thus far, New England and others will be forced to consider him as a number-one receiver, benefiting Chad Ochocinco who is, of course, a number-one guy himself. TO is exactly the opposite of Laveranues Coles, and is much more the preferred style of target for quarterback Carson Palmer. Owens has already showed the ability to catch high passes and takes hits across the middle; there was no one on the roster who could effectively do that late last year.
As for Gresham, he too is a draft horse-like target who brings a new element to the Bengal offense. He has out-jumped a defender for a catch, has caught a pass when flexed out to the wide receiver slot, and converted a first-down on a screen. His touchdown catch may have been the least impressive of the preseason which speaks to the quality of his limited work thus far. His run blocking still has room for improvement but he has the size, strength, and mentor (Reggie Kelly) to soon reach his potential in that category as well. Gresham is a versatile weapon not seen in these parts perhaps ever.
Then there is Shipley, who has been lauded with praise so far for his attention to detail on his route-running and study sessions. While he's not the big and tall variety of receiver, it's clear that Carson Palmer feels more than comfortable throwing the ball in his direction. Shipley has been compared to Wes Welker and if he can even come close to the possession specialist that Welker is, Carson will have a real pal on third downs. What has encouraged me the most so far from Shipley is his ability to get open—something that both Coles and Andre Caldwell could not manage at all in the wild-card loss to the Jets.
Having these three upgrades in the passing game, coupled with the health uncertainties at the fullback position, suggests that the Bengals will use a three-wide receiver set with no fullback as their base formation. That isn't necessarily new for this team as Chris Henry made three-wide formations a common look for Cincinnati before he broke his forearm and ultimately passed away last year. The ability to put four legitimate threats on the field at the same time will challenge the defensive backfield depth of opposing teams, and an improved air attack seems imminent as a result.
Of course, Cedric Benson will get plenty of chances carrying the load on the ground. The superlatives seem endless when talking about CedBen, and he adds a certain amount of toughness that became a trademark for the Bengals a season ago. With the expected production increase in the passing game this year, Benson should find the second tier of the defense (linebackers and secondary) more spacious as teams back off the run so they aren't beaten for big gains through the air. Cincinnati will still at times show the unbalanced-line formations that features three tackles, just to prove to teams that they can play power football when they choose to, but it will be damn-near impossible to keep all of their receiving threats off of the field all that often. Outside of Benson, change-of-pace back Bernard Scott will also benefit from the attention the receivers get, and should find more room to operate in the flats on screens, delays, and pitch plays than he did in 2009.
Early in the preseason there was a lot of concern surrounding the offensive line's ability to pass-protect, and while the second-stringers still appear unpolished and perhaps even worrisome, the first-stringers have put together quality showings since the Hall-of-Fame game against Dallas. Teams will still bring pressure on blitzes to try and rattle Palmer and the line, but by doing so, they risk leaving one or more of the weapons previously mentioned wide open, and that risk could prove costly to the outcome of the game. When that does happen, the tight end and running backs kept in to block will become instrumental to the success of this offense. The offensive line is still the biggest question mark on that side of the ball, but my worries about that group have been eased somewhat as the preseason moves along.
There are more reasons why this offense will excel rather than falter. There hasn't been this much talent stock-piled around Palmer since the days when he threw 4,000 yards in a season. The big-play ability is there, the power-game is there, and the possession receiving game is there too. With such a daunting schedule for 2010, it will be imperative that the Bengals win the time-of-possession battle and keep those other great quarterbacks off of the field. This is a team that can do such a thing in a variety of ways, and if they stay healthy, there is no reason why that shouldn't happen (that comment is directed at you, Bob Bratkowski).
Therefore, with so much excitement and hype surrounding the offense, one may wonder: what about the defense?
I'd like to say that I have no concern about Mike Zimmer's gang and that the Bengals will be as brutal as last year on that side of the ball, but for vague, fuzzy reasons, I'm not totally convinced.
I haven't been exactly wowed by any particular player on defense—outside of Geno Atkins; that guy is exciting—and the best trait they have displayed thus far is forcing running backs to the outside where they have been stopped for minimal gains and even loss of yards, but they haven't appeared all that aggressive as of yet. The pass rush, or lack there of, has been well documented by close observers, and teams have found success throwing on the Bengals. The cornerback trio of Leon Hall, Jonathan Joseph and Adam Jones, are mighty impressive on paper, but that talent hasn't manifested itself in any spectacular fashion thus far. I know it's only the preseason and of how dangerous it is to read too deeply into games that don't count, but if this is to be the strongest part of the defense, we should see tighter coverage right now.
Another small problem with this defense could be its overall speed. Only Joseph is known for his foot speed, and others—Dhani Jones, Roy Williams, Chris Crocker, and even Hall—have been knocked for their lack of it.
This is especially true of Dhani. For the past two seasons, I have promoted replacing Jones. I do recognize that he is a good tackler, plays very well within the hash marks, and is an effective blitzer up the the middle, yet when he is forced into coverage or has to move to the outside, he becomes a liability. Right away, I can think of two touchdowns allowed by Jones already this preseason because he wasn't fast enough. The first was against Denver when Eddie Royal juked Jones on a route and Rey Maualuga was unable to change directions fast enough to prevent the score. It's unfair to expect most linebackers to cover any wide receiver one-on-one, but most linebackers would not have been beaten so severely that they have no chance of effecting the play at all. The other was against Buffalo when Roscoe Parrish simply outran Dhani horizontally on a shallow cross. It was zone coverage, and he was no where close to getting even a hand on Parrish once the Buffalo receiver entered his zone. This occasion was not due to a juke move or anything fancy; it was simply a slow man unable to cover a quicker one.
Once again, I know that it's the preseason and one should not get carried away making conclusions based on their performance in these games, but like coaches say, you can't teach speed, or the lack there of. Dhani is 32 and not getting faster. He has been reliable and tough with the Bengals, taking on some hard mileage along the way. He also has agreed to do two seasons of a tv show where he engages in extreme physical activities around the world during the NFL offseason. I like the guy, and I think he would be a cool person to have a beer with—he could become the most interesting man in the world someday—but as the middle linebacker of my favorite team, I would rather see him used as a backup due to his aging body and decreasing speed.
The coaches have put Rey in the middle some this preseason, and I think that is the sensible, and somewhat inevitable move. With Maualuga in the middle, Brandon Johnson should then become a starter, who, in my opinion, has earned such a promotion due to his consistent, solid play both in coverage and against the run. Also in the realm of potential starter is the immense Michael Johnson, who Zimmer continues to tinker with at the outside linebacker position, but has admitted that Johnson is still confused with various assignments of his new role.
Obviously this defense can grind it out with toughness and brute force. They are good tacklers, and are disciplined about keeping plays in front of them. Last year, they were strong in the fourth quarter which is a testament to their endurance. There is a lot to proud of when it comes to these guys, but the slower players will be attacked by the opposition, and that could lead to some frustration by both Zimmer and the team's fans. It's up to the coaching staff to scheme around this potential deficiency, and it will be interesting to see if it factors into how much Mike Zimmer decides to blitz.
The special teams play, on the other hand, has been outta sight. Kick and punt returns are suddenly very exciting and a handful of players are now capable game-breakers. Adam Jones is an electric kick returner and is showing flashes of his days at West Virginia once he gets the ball in his hand. Although less spectacular, the kick-coverage team has also played well. The Bengals have collected a nice group of gunners with Kyries Hebert still leading the charge. The kicking situation is a bit murky with two nomadic kickers battling it out, but each has kicked-off fairly well and Nugent made a 54-yarder. For as hard of a time as I've given Darren Simmons over the years, he deserves credit for what appears a very capable unit heading into Week 1.
There will always be the overarching concerns of this team, like excessive penalties, turnovers and injuries, and the curious game-management of Marvin Lewis, but the Bengals are built well from top to bottom. I like the depth at most positions, I think the coaching staff is superb and the front office has demonstrated a commitment to win this season. Now that the seriousness of it all kicks up a few thousand notches against the Patriots, I feel very good about these Cincinnati Bengals I see before me. I say they go 10-6 again and play once more on Wild-Card weekend. Let the madness begin.
Mojokong—the orange and black windbag.