Perhaps the worries after the first game were somewhat overblown. Not to say everything is swimming along perfectly and that we can begin to plan an itinerary to Dallas in February just yet, but they certainly appeared more polished than the previous week and that's what the preseason is for: tightening up the nuts and bolts of the whole operation.
A particularly good sign was Bob Bratkowski's play-calling throughout the evening. I loved seeing Bernard Scott get his chance to break out on screens and delayed hand-offs, which he accomplished masterfully on two big gains. Scott is the perfect compliment back in the NFL, and possesses an abundance of talent that continues to shine when given the chance.
I also liked the play-action pass to Terrell Owens which was batted down by the all-universe cornerback, Champ Bailey. TO had plenty of passes thrown his way again in the second preseason game, and is actively finding his niche within the offense. What I really like about Owens is his size. The catches he's already made would have likely sailed over the head of Laveranues Coles a season ago. Still, once live action begins (September 12, 1pm) I'd like to see Owens use his muscles to gain tough first-downs after making the catch. There was one incident on Sunday where TO went backwards on fourth-and-short and failed to get the first as a result. I'll let that go for now, as these games don't count, but I wouldn't want that kind of thing to become a habit.
Then there was the pass-protection. Last week I wrote how lackluster the big men looked against the Cowboys, but they followed that letdown up with a performance that appeared syncopated and worry-free. Carson Palmer was sharp as he stepped up in the pocket and delivered accurate darts untroubled by any real pass rush. The mechanical No. 9 demonstrated once again that if the other parts are functioning properly, he too will go about his business effectively and efficiently. Even when Reggie Stephens subbed in for an ailing Kyle Cook at center, the offense drove the field providing Carson with plenty of time and comfort in the pocket. Now with Andre Smith practicing again, and the offensive line showing they at least aren't bad, Bengal fans can once again allow their daydreams to run wild with almost impossible expectations.
The best part about Sunday, though, was seeing the rookies mix into the passing game. Jordan Shipley looks like a quick route-runner who can find space and make the catch once he gets open. These may seem like simple skills for any wide-receiver, but the lack of such skills was exactly what ruined the Bengals offense late last year. Coles and Caldwell continually struggled separating from their defenders and making the grab when it mattered the most. Both spectating media, and Carson himself, has lauded Shipley with praise for his fundamentals all camp long. Unlike other recent Bengal rookie receivers, Ship looks ready to make immediate contributions to the passing game and that should excite anyone rooting for the men in stripes.
The other rookie, of course, is that draft horse of a tight end, Jermaine Gresham. There were some plays where Gresham looked more than adequate on run blocks, throwing defenders out the way, but on other plays he was pushed backward and it caused Cedric Benson to lose yards. The guy is powerful but still needs work on technique. With Reggie Kelly there as a live-in mentor, Gresham should improve on this part of his game, but he has already shown flashes of being an aggressive blocker.
His receiving ability, however, sparkled on Sunday, and that is what gets people who follow this team all fired up when they watch him. There was one occasion where Carson threw a risky pass in the area of Gresham and it appeared that the linebacker had position to knock the ball down, but Gresham leaped to make a nice, difficult catch to move the chains on a third-and-long. On another play, Gresham went in motion, sprinted off the line of scrimmage, engaged the Broncos safety with both hands, disengaged cleanly while cutting back to the inside, made the catch on a slant pattern and picked up nice yards-after-catch. It was exactly the kind of thing the Bengals coaches and front office want to see from him. There is no reason why Gresham will not be very good to great this year. He's a physical force with all the right pedigree, he is said to be a hard worker and quick learner, and he should become a viable weapon for Carson and the offense right away. If you can't get excited about this guy's future, you don't like football.
Finally, there is the defense. I wouldn't say the defense looked dominant, or really even all that special on Sunday, but that doesn't make me worry even a little. If one were to nitpick that side of the ball, I'd say you could point to the overall team speed of the defense. Rey Maualuga has trouble changing directions, Chinedum Ndukwe cheats too far up to the line of scrimmage and doesn't have the foot speed to recover on deeper throws, Dhani Jones is an aged and slowish player, and Leon Hall must rely more on his technique than the fleetness of his feet. I didn't see the Bengals flying to the ball on Sunday and had to make individual tackles instead of the group variety. On the Broncos second touchdown, Hall was juked out by Brandon Lloyd, but still forced him to the inside after making the catch. Fast defenses traditionally have support in that situation and someone else gets a hand on the ball carrier, but in this instance, no one was there to help Hall and Lloyd scored easily. As I said, I'm not worried about it because it's still preseason and also because the Bengals are such good tacklers, but it's something to keep an eye on and I hope it's simply a matter of players adjusting to game speed after the offseason.
All in all, I was pleased with the first-team performance on both sides of the ball on Sunday. The offense looked like they had a purpose and one could sense both a rhythm with the players and a confidence of their abilities. The defense remains the rock of this team and the foot speed should marginally improve by Week 1 of the regular season. Outside of a worrisome kicking situation, the special-teams play seems very solid, especially on punt returns. Like all preseasons, there is still plenty to improve, but just seeing the Bengals grow from one week to the next instills even more confidence in me that my favorite team will be just fine by the start of the season. There is a lot of talent on this team and now it's beginning to show.