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Week 14 Recap: Black and Blue and Purple

The twenty-foot-tall purple robot---equipped with all of its deadly photon blasters, gamma-ray guns and sonic missiles---laughed at the smaller figure standing in its way.

"Why, you've brought nothing to the battle.  How do you intend on beating me with so little?  With that stick or with those rocks you have?" it roared with laughter.

"Tell you what," it said and flung a few of its weapons away, "I won't use these things just to make it a fair fight, okay?"

It walked ten paces forward and squashed its opponent under its big metallic foot.

That's how it went down in Minnesota on Sunday for the Bengals; ugly and totally one-sided.

Watching the passing-game slip into such a hazy dementia so quickly is sad and frustrating.  It seems like only yesterday when Carson Palmer was carving up the Bears along the Ohio River with touchdown after touchdown.  Now, the offense has a hard time getting the snap off without losing yards.  It's embarrassing.

It appears that at least part of the problem is a mixture of the offensive line's decline in effective pass-protection with Carson's distrust that the pocket will hold up.  What that mix has created is an over-scrambly quarterback who can't find receivers downfield on the move.

It's hard to understand.  Valid complaints surfaced early in '08 that Palmer was too stationary of a quarterback.  Then in '09, he surprised many of us by moving well and hitting targets while scrambling.      But now it seems like when he does move out of the pocket, he's looking to pick up a few yards and get out of bounds rather than locate receivers breaking off of their routes.  I know ball security is a justifiably big deal on this team, and gaining some yards on a scramble is better than nothing on an incompletion, but when Palmer feels comfortable and secure---even on the move---the offense hums.

Another strange element to the pass-protection is that it started to unravel against the Raiders of all teams.  The Browns followed up the next week with lots of pressure, and now the whole offensive line seems shaken.  If the key to success starts and ends with those ugly hippos up front with their pass-protecting as well as run-blocking, then not only do they need to cut out the mindless penalties but they also must become a concrete wall once again.  If Palmer knows he's safe, the Bengals instantaneously become a more legitimate contender.

Not that the Bengals want to pass all that much.  When Marvin Lewis and his staff said they had committed to the run, they should have said they'd converted to the run.  Cincinnati has to be the only team to put an offensive tackle in motion.  They might as well have just told the Vikings that they were running and to which side.  A baby can see it coming!

I don't mind a running-team---in fact I much prefer it to a hot-rod, soft defensive squad any day---but once that team has identified itself as smash-mouth, it must do one of two things: either demonstrate creativity within the power attack or win on third and one.  To do neither is still a team without an identity.

Being creative with a group of talented running backs can't be that outrageous of a task.  Brian Leonard has shown a diverse set of skills, but sadly is apparently only allowed on the field on third and fourth down.  Cedric Benson and Larry Johnson have both caught a couple of passes out of the back field but typically on check-offs; how about a set of plays designed to throw to these guys?  After all, two of Minnesota's most crucial plays on Sunday came on running-back passes---one to Adrian Peterson for 28 yards on 2nd-and-20, and the other to Chester Taylor for 26 yards on 3rd-and-12.  Bernard Scott is a great open-field runner.  Clearing out receivers deep and dumping it off to Scott in one-on-one scenarios against the linebackers could let him move around in space and eventually draw the secondary closer to the line of scrimmage.

Blasting running plays up the gut repeatedly is fine if you have the strongest team in the league.  The Bengals are certainly a rough-and-tumble group of brutes with a strong desire to win, but having to punt after failing on third-and-one doesn't indicate a supremacy in strength; it indicates a stubborn insistence to follow the formula no matter what.  Yet, that's our team.  It's the same one we've applauded most of the season and it's the one we're going to cheer into the Playoffs.  Such is life.

But, as always, there were some bright spots that shined through all that muck and mire on Sunday.  As always, it came from the defensive side of the team.

The starting cornerbacks on Cincinnati have to be one of the top-3 tandems in the NFL.  While Jonathan Joseph swarmed his assignment all game, Leon Hall was hardly tested but made the most of the plays that were thrown his way.  The comfort these two provide allows the defense to focus on stopping the run first which is the best way to approach damn near any team out there.

That being said, the linebackers had a rough game yesterday---particularly in coverage.  It must be mentioned that Peterson is made of the same stuff all the great ones possess.  He's a long-striding gazelle that can make tackling angles obsolete in a heartbeat.  To ask any linebacker to cover him almost seems silly, but on occasion it must be done and it was not done well on Sunday.

It's no secret that ol' Dhani Jones is slow.  He does a lot of things well, and seems like a decent leader for a young position, but he becomes a major liability when he's forced to cover one-on-one.  Rey Maualuga has surprised me this year with his ability to contain receivers in the open field, but he's still a youngster who will occasionally take poor angles out in the flats.  Keith Rivers has been a mild disapointment this season by simply not making many big plays.  It would seem that other teams will try to find match-ups that exploit the linebacker's inability to cover speedy backs or tight ends in one-on-one coverage.

Honestly, I expected a lot more gusto this season from the USC linebacking tag-team of Rivers and Rey, but so far have only witnessed a modest total of solid plays.  That's indicative of Zimmer's group as a whole; only collectively is this an impressive defense.  Outside of the corners, they are still a fairly random hodgepodge of no-names.  On Sunday, they allowed two long and backbreaking drives.  Some of that damage was self-imposed on a few unfortunate penalties, but there will be games when they need some support from the offense.  Last week was one of those times and the team failed without it.

Alas, there is still hope.  There is gobs of it.  The Bengals scrape themselves out of the huge crater left in the ground left by the purple robot's footprint and go back to work.  Next up is a team hot off the fashion runway; America's next top football model---The San Diego Chargers.  Everybody is completely head-over-heels for this jet-setting teen heart-throb of a team, but the Bengals would like to pose this question to it: what happens when it gets smacked in its pretty little face?

Mojokong---there are surprises around every turn if you know where to look.