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Week 13 Preview: Three Is The Magic Number

Having strayed from the Scarecrow and Tin Man, the cowardly Lions find themselves in Cincinnati this weekend in search of courage and an improbable road win against their fellow felines, the Bengals.  

Detroit is banged up, young and just bad at many positions, but the most vulnerable of these many armor chinks resides in their secondary where rookies and castaways are often burned and victimized against opposing passing attacks.  

For the many deep-ball junkies lurking around the Bengal Universe, this match-up is the most promising of the remaining schedule to get the fix they so desperately crave.  Detroit ranks dead last against the pass and the Bengals have recently appeared off-kilter when going to the air.  An emphasis for this week to kick-start Carson Palmer and his passing troop makes perfect sense, but I still don't think it will happen.  

Let's, for the moment, make you the Lions defensive coordinator.  You watch tape and see how the last two Bengal opponents, both inferior teams like yourself, have kept the score close by completely eliminating Chad Ochocinco on deeper routes.  These defenses allowed sizable rushing totals and long third-conversions on crossing routes in the middle, but both times the Bengals were held under 20 points and that's not a bad goal to achieve for a losing team.  

Why would you, the Lions' coordinator, do anything differently?  

When Chris Henry went down, it eliminated the duel deep threat the Bengals enjoyed within in their game plan.  With Henry, defenses would often have to pick their poison on who to double-team on deep routes: Chad or Slim?  Andre Caldwell and Laveranues Coles don't scare defenses in that same way and it shows by the meek passing totals the offense has put up in the past month or so.  

The Bengals think-tank has settled on a conservative, possession offense that will not succumb to that pestering itch to go deep---even against teams like Detroit.  

Instead, they persistently abide by the ancient ethos of taking-what-the-defense-gives-them and that means running in the huge unguarded areas of the field that have been sacrificed in order to protect against the deep ball.  It's worked to some degree, but the formula could be challenged with the absence of Bernard Scott who is out with a mild turf toe, which sounds like a weird salsa.

Scott's patient, open-field style of running on the outside provides the perfect compliment to the straight-ahead version of Larry Johnson and the cut-back flavor of Cedric Benson.  Without him, Cincinnati will have to work the outside on wide-receiver screens and end-rounds to prevent Detroit from packing the middle and waiting for runs up the gut on early downs.  Blocking on the outside and in the open field is an area the offensive line and receivers have excelled in this season.  CedBen is good for a pitch to the outside as well, but I wouldn't want to ask him to do too much on his first game back from a muscle strain.  Look for LJ to share a significant portion of the running load again this week.  

Instead of obsessing over the deep ball, I would like to see Carson and Crew look sharper in the shorter passing game.  If the Bengals truly are a ball-control offense then polishing the quick, intermediate throws is necessary to make the push to the Playoffs and beyond.  With possession receivers, a West-Coast Offense style of a passing game can work, but the timing and concentration needs to improve from everyone involved, particularly on third down.

That includes an offensive line that has not pass-protected at an acceptable standard against the Raiders or the Browns.  The Lions don't have a ferocious pass-rush, but neither did the other bad teams.  Carson Palmer's health is kind of a big deal; failing to protect him would ruin everyone's hopes and dreams.  Let's not allow that to happen again.

Limiting the penalties is the remaining area of concern this week.  Far too many first downs have been negated in the last two games due to holds and illegal procedure calls.  The Bengals have been called for 18 penalties in that span and that is the magic ingredient that keeps crappy teams in games.  If both sides suffered an abundance of penalties then we could blame the refs, but the opposition has only been called for seven, which translates into the Bengals playing with sloppy technique.  It has been hard to criticize the line for most of the year, but their performance has plummeted of late, and has become worrisome.  

Defensively the game plan remains the same.  The Lions have perhaps the most physically gifted receiver in the league in the large form of Calvin “Megatron” Johnson Jr.  If he weren't perpetually nagged by various ailments, including a fitful knee, he would be the perfect prototype for a clone army.    The problem in Detroit (okay, one of many problems in Detroit) is that he's the only player teams have to worry about defending.  

Sure they have a decent running back in Kevin Smith, but the Bengals snack on running backs like bags of Grippo's, and they quit worrying about stopping the run way back in Week 3.  Young Matt Stafford has a rocket-launcher that hangs from his shoulder but the missiles it shoots aren't the honing variety and often times are needlessly intercepted.  The Bengals pass rush has been tame of late, but it needs to fluster the rookie quarterback early and often this week.  Sacks aren't always necessary, but pressure certainly is.

The loss of Detroit's blue-chip tight end prospect Brandon Pettigrew made the linebackers' and safeties' jobs a lot easier this week.  Pettigrew is one of a handful of bright spots that this struggling franchise can build around and he has a great future in the NFL.  Sadly however, he and the rest of the team will have to wait until next year.  Yet again. 

I think the Bengals realize now that there are no “tune-up” games in the regular season.  A gnarly road-trip awaits this team after Sunday, and much of January's itinerary will be determined during that crucial stretch.  This fact however remains: three more wins equals an AFC North title.  A golden opportunity to cut that magic number to two awaits the Bengals this weekend.  Pray that they don't lose sight of that.  

Bengals 23, Lions 11


Mojokong---at this point, you should be mentally preparing yourself for the Playoff Beard you are going to grow.  It's happening, so warn your boss or girlfriend or whoever you have to that once the Bengals clinch, it's happening.