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The Preseason Is Vanilla and Depraved

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Analyzing the Hall-of-Fame Game is a dangerous thing. Since we're a band of football-starved maniacs, we want to extrapolate conclusions based on what we witnessed take place on a high-school field in Canton, Ohio. But beware, Bengal fan; the game was more of a football-concentrated workout than a battle of wits and strategy. Nonetheless, you want to read about it, so here it goes.

Let's start with the positives. Much has already been written of the promising play of Michael Johnson, Geno Atkins and Adam Jones. The defense looked tough and, more importantly, deep at many positions. I liked the way they came out hitting, and the coverage looked pretty good too. Johnson appears to be a physical specimen with his tall frame and lead-pipe arms, and the prospect of moving him around between linebacker and defensive end is exciting indeed. Atkins, though smallish-looking for a defensive tackle, seems like a very active player with a high motor and low pad-level. And Jones still needs more reps to gain back his technique, but his natural instincts are still sharp.

The only concern I felt for the defense Sunday was of Gibril Wilson unable to cover lumbering tight ends, though he does tackle well. Seeing him demonstrate the same skill set as Roy Williams and Chinedum Ndukwe, makes me wonder why the Bengals have loaded up the safety position with essentially the same kind of player—perhaps it's a Zimmer thing, who knows.

All in all, though, I think we saw a defensive squad who can rotate waves of fresh players in during games and who should be able to compensate well if a starter or two goes down with an injury.

Then there's the offense.

It wasn't all doom and gloom for the first-team offense on Sunday, but it damn sure wasn't impressive by any means. It was nice to see Terrell Owens pull down some catches—especially one on a slant for a medium gain that was called back by a penalty; the Bengals sorely need a receiver with that ability in their offense—but it wasn't nice at all to see Carson Palmer get thrown to the ground twice.

There has been a quiet worry floating around the Bengals camp that the pass-protection simply isn't good enough. Those concerns were not quelled after seeing the line's lynchpin, Andrew Whitworth, get out-muscled by Cowboys defensive end Steven Bowen, who rushed Palmer's pass and took him down on the rush.

Another time, Palmer couldn't immediately find an open receiver. He panicked, scrambled out of the pocket and was taken down for a sack. One legitimate knock on Carson is that if a play breaks down, he typically becomes useless. He is a product of the system, and if there is a glitch in the system, then there is a glitch with Palmer. In order for him to be at the top of his game, he must trust that the line will not fail him. If that trust is broken, he becomes a nervous, rattled quarterback and much hope is lost. The offensive line is not particularly deep this season—exacerbated by the fatso Andre Smith unable to get into "football" shape—and the starting unit must become reliable in the eyes of their quarterback. Dallas wasn't pulling out the exotic blitz packages in their game-plan and was still getting to No. 9. This facet of the offense must improve, or the struggles are likely to continue.

As for the back-up quarterbacks, let's just pray that they never become much of a storyline once the regular season begins. J.T. O'Sullivan and Jordan Palmer had as much command on the offense on Sunday as BP had on its oil spill. Coaches are now saying Jordan has a chance to supplant O'Sullivan as the number-two QB because—let's face it—it can't get any worse. I thought Cowboys quarterback Stephen McGee looked like a No. 2 while both of our guys looked like third-stringers. It would be smart of the front office to maybe make a few inquiries around the league to see if any other team wants to dangle one of their backup arms, because with pass-protection concerns, a backup quarterback becomes more important than we'd like it to be.

In a more general sense, however, I felt the offense looked unprepared and unfocused. Of course the playbook in the preseason is a big yellow plastic thing that says Playskool ® on it, and is as rudimentary and safe as it gets; there's no hand-tipping or trickery and the formations are common and uninteresting. This is true for every team, but other offenses appear to have a focus of what they're working on; the Bengals focus looked like slants and outs patterns and even those appeared to be unfinished works.

Baltimore, in their game, worked on play-action deep passes and screen plays, and looked efficient doing it. On one drive, the Ravens threw four straight screens to Willis McGahee then went deep to the end-zone for a touchdown to Mark Clayton. The focus was clear and it was different from last season's. I hope by Week 1 in September, I cans sense that with the Bengals as well.

For the upcoming game, I want to see the offense, including the backups, find some kind of rhythm. I want to see an identity show through on at least one drive. At no point against Dallas was Cincinnati able to demonstrate what kind of offense they want to be, and with so many new players in the offense, I think that is important to establish before the real thing gets going.

I also want to see a decent screen-play ran, preferably to Bernard Scott. With Brian Leonard out for a while, Scott's role should expand even more to start this season. He has tremendous field vision and is dangerous in open spaces—thus his kick-return success. Throwing screens to this guy is a no-brainer, but the only way it's going to look okay against the Patriots is if it's practiced enough now (and if Bratkowski actually calls the play, of course).

Like I say every year after a preseason loss: there's no need to panic. I was extremely dubious of this team going into Week 1 of last season—predicting a meager 7-9 record for the season—but then I saw something in that game against the Broncos that I hadn't detected in the preseason, and my opinion immediately changed. Playing four preseason games is somewhat of a joke anyway; a fifth game is like a bad pun. Hunter S. Thompson once said the most depraved thing a sports gambler could do is bet on preseason NFL games and you can see his point—the coaches aren't even trying to win! Still, as a Bengals fan, I want to see something that gets me excited and 10 punts and four turnovers ain't gonna do it. Good thing they have four more chances to try again.

Mojokong—life on tape-delay.