With one meaningless game remaining, the Bengals put this preseason to bed with much on their minds. Rattled early by injury, players and coaches had to put more consideration on team health than team improvement and the consequence became a rather timid and slow-footed squad.
The first-team defense, especially the secondary, could hang with neither the Green Bay receivers nor Aaron Rodgers on scrambles Thursday night. Nate Clements was particularly disappointing in his effort to even evade blocks when Rodgers took off. Clements can tackle when he gets there, but he seems like he needs a cane this season, running two steps behind everyone so far. Terence Newman can only use small bursts of speed, but burns out fast. With the stockpiling of veteran cornerbacks, we knew a speed drop-off would be a possibility, but with the younger portion of the position out with ailments, the mileage on these men is evident.
Compounding the issue of the slow secondary is the absence of Carlos Dunlap. That last sentence has already been typed too often for the youngster's career. Michael Johnson has some moves and some quickness, but he can't regularly disrupt like Dunlap. Geno Atkins is perhaps the best pass-rushing defensive tackle in the NFL and he will always give tremendous effort, but there needs to be more fire coming from the edges for him to excel at his job in the middle. The collection of defensive ends gets a little blasé after Dunlap. Robert Geathers? Jamaal Anderson? Another notable gripe about the ends is that they have been killed on play-action this preseason. I realize determining who has the ball in a nanosecond is difficult, but their prime objective is to "set the edge" to prevent whichever player has the ball from running free to the outside.
So if the edge speed rushers aren't getting to the quarterback, and the corners aren't holding up in coverage, the linebackers either become pass-rushers or zone guys. I've seen quite a few linebacker blitzes from Mike Zimmer already—and I like them—but they have to be controlled in their pursuit. On the first Rodgers scramble, Thomas Howard overshot on his blitz and it opened up a pasture of running room. Vontaze Burfict also continues to overflow to the ball—more on runs than on blitzes. Twice I noticed he could not change direction to stop what ended up as eight-yard Cedric Benson runs. Conversely, Roddrick Muckelroy did a terrific job of staying controlled on his blitz and moving with the quarterback on his sack. Blitzing, by nature, is a wild action, but it can't be executed wildly. Like everything in the NFL, it must be done with the right technique and focus.
Offensively, a lot has been written about the lack of running production we've seen from the Bengals. There are some factors to consider about this before panicking becomes necessary, however.
First, the team's best running backs are out. Seems pretty important.
Next, this isn't the Cedric Benson scheme anymore. The down-and-distance situations, the personnel packages and the method of delivering the ball to the running backs will all be used differently this season. If anything, it seems to me like they are moving more toward a New England-type of offense, even bringing in their former back, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and like New England, the Bengals have a mix of interesting running styles, each which can be used in their own ways. It's the West-Coast offense and it doesn't need a 25-carry running back in its equation to succeed. Jay Gruden is primed to expand his playbook and test the outer limits of Andy Dalton's capacity to absorb more football. I would think that Brian Leonard and Bernard Scott will not get too dusty on the shelf when Gruden is running his script on Sundays. I doubt anybody runs for a thousand yards in Cincinnati this season, but I think the team will be better for it.
Another reason I am optimistic about rushing is the work of two specific blockers: Donald Lee and Chris Pressley.
Chris Pressley is not a Patriots-type of player, or even a West-Coast offense one for that matter. He is a bruiser, but he is hard working, fearless and smart. I watched him open up two nice holes for Brian Leonard on really the only good runs of the evening. There is nothing better than watching a battering ram fullback plow the fields for his running mate behind him. Pressley's presence indicates a smash-mouth element that the offense can switch to in certain situations.
Donald Lee's name has been previously mentioned in these pages as an impressive blocker and he has continued to concrete such a reputation with his play. On Andy Dalton's scramble, he was the only eligible receiver to recognize what was happening and get just enough of a block to spring him for a long gain. He does a good job of sealing his edge and appears strong. He did drop a nice pass from Dalton on a seam route, but I don't think that's a chronic disorder. On the other hand, rookie Orson Charles does not look at all strong and may be another tight end draft pick with blocking concerns. From what has played out so far, putting Charles on the practice squad and keeping Colin Cochart on the active roster makes a lot of sense.
There are still concerns about the two young guards, but they will get better as the weeks go on and I don't think either has played too poorly. I feel like both Kevin Zeitler and Clint Boling are pretty athletic guys who can move around and pass-protect, but might have strength issues against the burly 3-4 defenses in the AFC North. That, of course, will make running the ball even more difficult, but the aforementioned play-calling style can circumvent that problem, at least for a while.
In general, it appears that the defense just wins out as the most concerning side of the ball. The good news is that Mike Zimmer is in charge over there and he usually knows what he's doing. The bad news is that it was supposed to be the strength of the team heading into the offseason and the Bengals built around that theory accordingly. Now they have what seems like a lot of defensive problems cascading into one another and all the outside world seems worried about is not running the ball and Andy Dalton's arm strength.
I don't know if any team ever looks all that impressive in the preseason, honestly. Preseason optimism reminds me of expectant parents thinking that they're ready for the real deal. No team is fully ready. They can just practice for two more weeks and hope for the best on opening day. In the Bengals case, that means two weeks of healing up and maybe even getting a little excited for a Monday night divisional game on the road. I want to sense more urgency from this team, more passion.