While watching Sunday's game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns, I had this feeling I've never felt before. By the second half I felt so confident that the Bengals were going to win this football game, that I stopped moaning about failed pass protection schemes or the play-calling. Oh, we're going to punt it so our defense can play? The same defense that hasn't allowed any team to gain 100 yards rushing in seven straight games? The same defense that's allowed a third down conversion rate of 22% in the three games leading up to Sunday? The same defense that's only allowed two touchdowns once in a game since losing to the Houston Texans?
Please, bring it.
There's no doubt that the offense is struggling to put up points. Since scoring 45 against the Chicago Bears, the Bengals offense has scored an average of 16.8 points per game. The ten points scored in the second quarter against the Browns is the first time the Bengals have scored double-digit points in any quarter since the 14 points in the first quarter against the Ravens on November 8. Carson Palmer went 12 quarters without throwing a touchdown pass before completing a four-yard pass to tight end J.P. Foschi in the second quarter against the Browns. Palmer's on pace to record 3,384 yards passing, which is only 500 yards more than his career low his first season as the team's starter (not including injury-filled 2008). Even then, he missed three games. His efficiency is down. His touchdowns are down. His yards-per-attempt is down (6.9).
And yet, the belief has always been that the Bengals have to rely on Palmer's arm to win. My cousin called me Sunday night and asked me, do we rely on Palmer anymore? If Palmer were to go down to injury for the season, how much would this team lose? We saw what happened last year. But as he observed, the team was built around Palmer and the passing game. It wasn't until late in the season that a Palmer-less offense started to become efficient by successfully rushing the football with a rising defense.
What if Palmer would go down this year? It would hurt, because defenses still gameplan the Bengals passing game; always a threat, always able to score from anywhere on the field. The truth is, this Bengals team is built to succeed without Palmer. This team is built to run the football. You can see that with the talent they have at running back. You can see that with an offensive line that's built to rush block first. How many Jumbo formations have we seen with at least one extra lineman? Did you see Dennis Roland going into motion against the Browns?
My point, as some may irrationally conclude, isn't anticipating an injury to Palmer. My point is that this team can win any football game, no matter who's playing. Carson Palmer is off? Well, the Bengals only have three running backs with 100-yard rushing games under their belt (how many teams can claim that?). The offense has no rhythm and can't pick up a first down? Oh, there's that defense again, who since allowing 28 points in the loss to the Houston Texans, have only allowed 11.2 points per game and, check this out, only 232.8 yards-per game.
As of this posting, the Bengals have the best scoring defense in the NFL.
I just checked that again.
The Bengals have the best scoring defense in the NFL, allowing 15.8 points per game. There's a chance that New England takes that lead after Monday Night Football. However, the Patriots will have to hold the Saints to ten points or less. Fat chance.
If this isn't the most complete team that the Bengals have fielded since the Sam Wyche era, then I'm afraid I'll never know what a complete team is. More people stand up on this team, contributing towards a winning brand of football than we've seen in ages. This team isn't built or about a single person. This isn't about how well Palmer does, or how he's supposed to put up 30 points a game. Sure, it would be nice if the offense exploded every week. What fan in this world in any sport wouldn't love that? But that's not the reality right now. They're not an explosive offense. They are an efficient offense that consumes the clock, converts third downs and wins field position.
And then there's the defense, whose scoring defense still ranks first in the NFL. I just checked again.
What do most people say about championship football? You win by running the football and stopping the run. Again, this defense hasn't allowed any team to gain 100 yards or more in seven straight games. The Bengals offense has rushed for 100 yards or more in eight of the season's 11 games. Furthermore, the Bengals rushing offense has recorded 150 yards or more five times and 200 yards or more twice.
Powerful rushing offense. Dominant defense. Isn't that championship football? If you're still not convinced, or have a Christmas list of concerns, let's go quickly gloss over some reminders. The Bengals are 8-3. The Bengals are 6-0 in the division. The Bengals have won 11 of the past 14 games. The Bengals have a three-game lead with five games left. The Bengals, as of now, would have the second seed in the playoffs, which means a bye during wild card weekend and hosting at least one home game. Furthermore, the Bengals are a fluke pass and a fumble away from being 10-1. It's that close.
Now, that is what we've been begging for for 20 years. Soak it in. Enjoy it.
Wait. You want Carson Palmer to throw more? With five games remaining, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer is on pace to record 489 passing attempts. As disbelieving as this may sound, that's only 20 less pass attempts than he had during the 2005 season where the Bengals made the playoffs.
Admittedly, the issue isn't just Palmer, if one can even make that assessment. No. It's all the parts. It's the offensive line struggling on stunts and blitzes on the outside. It's receivers not catching passes, or penalties that negate 15-20 yard passing plays because someone was flagged for offensive holding.
Take Sunday's game. On the Bengals first play of the game, the situation is first-and-ten at their own 20-yard line. The offense lines up off-set I with Daniel Coats motioning right. Cleveland brings their front three with eight sitting in coverage. Andrew Whitworth latched onto Robaire Smith, who took an outside step while the left tackle was clipped by Bernard Scott going into his route, knocking Smith free. Palmer, barely completing a five-yard pass to Laveranues Coles, was knocked down by Smith. A few Bernard Scott runs and a first down later, the offense lines up off-set I, strong side left. Kamerion Wimbley lines up at left outside linebacker over Dennis Roland. Wimbley took an inside slant on Roland who clearly lost the battle within the first two steps. Bernard Scott tried to help, but in his mind, he had his own blitzer to worry about in Mike Adams. Wimbley tackled Palmer as the quarterback released the pass to Jeremi Johnson for a for a five-yard gain. Furthermore, Browns cornerback Eric Wright was called for defensive holding. First down.
Two drop backs. Twice Carson Palmer is on the ground. It wasn't that Palmer was on the ground all game -- NFL's Game Center shows he was knocked down six times. However, it shows that Palmer was pressured all game long, most of the time making throws he didn't want to make.
After Larry Johnson's consecutive first down runs (more on that later), Palmer takes the snap under center. Matt Roth sprinted from the outside linebacker spot and sacked Palmer for a four-yard loss. The problem here is miscommunication by the offensive line. Defensive end Kenyon Coleman slanted in, which caused Dennis Roland to move inward with the end. Typically, Roland should have handed Coleman off to Bobbie Williams and picked up Roth, the blitzing linebacker on the outside. Williams saw the problem and pulled out as quickly as he could from his guard position take out Roth on the edge. It was a split-second too late, as Roth sped rushed far enough that there was nothing Williams could do.
Sometimes the issue was miscommunication between Palmer and the receivers. On first-and-15 at Cleveland's 29 yard line, Palmer dropped back threw it to the right with no Bengals receiver in the picture frame. Coles' route went in while Palmer looked for Coles to go out.
But mostly, it was pressure -- whether it was really there or not.
On third-and-17 at the Browns 31-yard line, Palmer takes the shotgun snap, feels pressured on the edges and scrambles up the middle. The Browns only rushed three guys. Wimbley took a wide angle around Roland, who locked up with the defensive end six yards behind the line of scrimmage. Wimbley used his upper body strength to make continued progress -- it was like Roland really wasn't there -- showing up in Palmer's peripheral vision. That was enough for Palmer, who ran for 12 yards, finished with a terribly uncomfortable dive into the turf, setting up the game's first score of the day.
And sometimes you can only say, it was a bad throw.On third-and-five at Cleveland's 47-yard line with 14:02 left in the second quarter, Palmer takes the shotgun snap. With a great pocket, Palmer overthrows Coles, nearly picked by Brodney Poole. Bengals punt. On first-and-ten at the Bengals 34-yard line, Palmer drops back and feels pressure that wasn't there. He rushed the throw to Coles running a crossing pattern, which also fell incomplete.
And sometimes you just take the hit. With 9:12 left in the first half, the Bengals lined up first-and-ten at Cleveland's 42-yard line. Palmer faked the handoff to Larry Johnson. Dennis Roland locked up with Matt Roth, who bull-rushed Roland into the pocket. Palmer saw the pressure, moved up and sidestepped behind Roland. Kamerion Wimbley lined up at the right outside linebacker spot, latched onto Daniel Coats. Once he saw the play-action, Wimbley shrugged off Coats, readjusted to Palmer stepping up and leveled him. Palmer tried to make a throw to the left in an area without any Bengals receivers -- except for Chad Ochocinco about eight yards away. Intentional grounding. On the next play, Palmer watched defensive back Mike Adams come off the edge, unblocked. Palmer let go of the football well before he was ready, forcing a terribly underthrown football to skip to a waiting Laveranues Coles. On third-and-20, Palmer drops back. Protection was very good. He had time. However, being knocked around that much that early in the game causes one to have alarm bells violently ringing in ones head well before they should. Palmer takes off, reaching the line of scrimmage and throwing across the field to Coles in the middle of the field. Incomplete. Drive comes to a merciful end. Thank the lord. Bengals punt.
And sometimes there's nothing left to do. With 11:43 left in the third quarter, Palmer completed a third-and-six pass to Chad Ochocinco for a 15-yard gain. Wimbley came off the right side, using his speed to put Whitworth in a predicament. Either hold the hell out of the defensive end, or let him crush Carson Palmer. Whitworth held, negating a 15-yard pass and a first down. Cincinnati would punt after a six-yard screen pass to Brian Leonard.
As mostly everyone else, I would love for this offense to explode. However, sometimes you have to take what you're given. And the Bengals have been given a powerful rushing offense that's working nearly every week, whereas the passing offense is struggling mightily. So the question shouldn't be why aren't the Bengals throwing the football more. We already know why. It's because it's just not working right now and forcing it to work would be -- in the great words of Mr. Mackey -- "bad, mmmkay?"
Carson Palmer said it best after the game.
“We came in with the game plan that we wanted to take some shots, but they were going to play a certain way and against two shells and have two high safeties. We had a couple plays where we were going to take some shots, but on one of them I scrambled on for seven or eight yards, and the other we took a check-down. They weren’t going to come out of what they were doing defensively. They weren’t going to give us single high looks and let us throw the ball over their heads. They let us run for 200 yards. We stuck with the game plan once we figured out what their game plan was and kept pushing the ball.”
Where the passing offense struggles, the rushing offense flourishes. Let's realize a few things. Cedric Benson has missed back-to-back games and the last 10 quarters. He's still in the top ten with 859 yards rushing. Benson's getting healthy again and when he returns, he's going to run with very, very fresh legs. If that's not scary exciting, then I don't know what scary exciting means. Actually, I don't know what scary exciting means anyway.
Benson has missed the previous two games. What have the Bengals done in Benson's absence? They've averaged 193.5 yards rushing -- which is the best two-game stretch all season. Let me put that further perspective. Before Oakland, the Bengals had the league's 11th best rushing offense, averaging 122.3 yards-per-game. With a Monday Night Football game left, the Bengals are now ranked seventh, averaging 135.3 yards-per-game. They've jumped four points in the rankings, and added 13 yards to their average.
All without Cedric Benson. In the great words of Cleveland, "that's nasty."
But as impressive as Bernard Scott was last week, Larry Johnson's performance against the Cleveland Browns was great. And guess what? It wouldn't have happened with the great effort by the Bengals offensive line.
On third-and-one at the Bengals 44-yard line with 8:34 left in the first quarter, Cincinnati lines up double tight end single back formation. Palmer does his funky right-handed exchange to Larry Johnson. Within the first frame after the ball is snapped, the Bengals offensive line had opened a hole at the point of attack. Daniel Coats and Andrew Whitworth sealed the right side. Bobbie Williams turned Shaun Rogers. Kyle Cook neutralized Cleveland's inside linebacker and the left side of the offensive line eliminated any trailing defenders protecting cutback lanes. Johnson squeezed through the hole between Williams and Whitworth on the right, dodged a tackle by Abram Elam and fell forward for a ten-yard gain and the first down.
On the next play, Johnson gets the handoff. Andrew Whitworth sealed the inside linebacker. Bobbie Williams and Kyle Cook slowed the defensive end and tackle respectively while Jeremi Johnson punishes the outside linebacker for the gull of trying to make a play in the backfield. Johnson sidestepped behind Jeremi, cut back to the right behind Williams' block and ran down the right hashmark for another 12 yard gain.
On second-and-ten at the Bengals 34-yard line with 10:59 left in the second quarter, Palmer hands the football off to Johnson. Cincinnati lined up big-formation with Andrew Whitworth outside of Dennis Roland at right tackle and Anthony Collins at left tackle. Every offensive lineman had a hat on a defensive player. The secondary made first contact on Johnson about eight yards past the line of scrimmage. On the next play, Johnson picked up another seven yards thanks to a kick out block on Wimbley by fullback Jeremi Johnson.
Even Bernard Scott had his moments. After Nate Livings was called for offensive holding, the Bengals were pushed back to their own 27-yard line with first-and-twenty. Every offensive linemen had a hat on a Browns defender. Not just that, the line was pushing back the Browns defense and not allowing the defender to shrug off the block. And it was Jeremi Johnson, once again, who made the initial block that kicked out an outside linebacker looking for glory on a stop in the backfield. Scott fought off a Mike Adams attempted tackle for ten yards, picking up 21 yards and a first down in the process.
When stargazing, you finally find the star named Andre Smith. The problem with watching the offensive line during a live game, is that you don't always know who is in the game before the snap. More than any team, the Bengals employ a rotation with their offensive tackles that no two plays will have the same personnel on the line. On the first play of the second quarter, the Bengals lined up at Cincinnati's 48 yard-line on first down. Andre Smith made his first appearance (that we could tell) at right tackle with Andrew Whitworth on Smith's outside shoulder. Kenyon Coleman was Smith's guy. At the snap, Smith rose and sat in pass protection, ready to receive Coleman, who was very slow off the ball. Smith allowed Coleman an outside move, keeping pace with the defensive end, who even resorted to a spin move. Good job, ol' rook. The play, however, did break down after outside linebacker David Bowens blitzed up the middle. Bobbie Williams did pick him up, but Bowens had already won the battle simply with a quicker step to the outside. Palmer sprinted down the right sidelines for a five-yard gain.
Smith would make sporadic appearances throughout the game. While not noticeable, he made quality blocks.
On first-and-ten at Cleveland's 32 yard-line, Smith lined up at right tackle with Whitworth on his outside shoulder. Smith attacked Robaire Smith with Bernard Scott coming from behind. While Andre didn't move Robaire, the Browns defender wasn't able to make a move on the runner either. Scott picked up 11 yards on the play. On the next play, the Bengals called a sweep to the left away from Andre Smith, who slowed Robaire's progress down the line of scrimmage, looking at the second level for any unsuspecting linebacker to break in half. Good day, ol' rook.
It's my firm belief that this is the most complete Bengals squad that Marvin Lewis has ever put together. It might be the best squad in 20 years of Bengals football. They are winning with a strong rushing offense and a powerful defense. There's things to fix. There always is. But I believe that this Bengals squad can beat any team in the NFL this year because their strengths always dictates championship football. Perhaps I'm banging the homer drum. I've done that before and I'm not afraid to show how proud I am of this squad. So I'm enjoying it. It hasn't happened a lot in my lifetime.