Cincinnati Bengals 2009 Preview

July 7, 2009 by

Even Barack Obama would describe the Cincinnati Bengals as Change You Cant Believe In. Since their breakout AFC North division title in 2005, Cincy has posted records of 8-8 (’06), 7-9 (’07) and 4-11-1 (’08). Marvin Lewis arrived in 2003 and pulled this team out of the gutter, but instead of marching down the street, the Bengals have wound up sitting on the curb. America wouldn’t mind if it weren’t for the amount of talent being wasted here.

Fans saw potential in the Bengals, started to care and, like close family of someone with an addiction problem, they have been repeatedly disappointed. The Bengals, like any addict, have become well-versed in saying all the right things and cajoling people into believing in them. But now people are getting wise. Just for fun, let’s personify the Bengals and a fictitious NFL fan (call him Marty). Here’s how a conversation between the two might go:

Bengal: Marty, buddy, we feel real good about where we’re at right now. Lot of excitement around here. You should beat the crowd to the bandwagon.

Marty: Why? You guys won four games last year.

Bengal: Yeah, but we finished on a three-game win streak.

Marty: Two of those games were against the Browns and Chiefs.

Bengal: Hey, wins are wins. And besides, we weren’t ourselves last season. Our defense was banged up. Our O-line had injuries. And our star quarterback sat with a sore elbow.

Marty: How is Carson Palmer’s elbow, by the way?

Bengals: Oh it’s great––Carson’s elbow is great! He skipped Tommy John surgery, let it heal naturally. Says its 100 percent now.

Marty: That’s good.

Bengal: Yeah, yeah––it is good. You know, I’ll admit, between you and me, we really have no shot without him.

Marty: I don’t think that’s much of a secret, Bengal.

Bengal: I know, but….Hey, did you hear what Carson said a while back? Said this was by far the best offseason the team has had since he’s been here.

Marty: Every player says that.

Bengal: Yeah, but this time it’s true. This has been our best offseason! Our offensive coordinator, Bob Bratkowski, has rewritten virtually the entire playbook. Wants to get back to being a run-first club––you know, like we were with Rudi Johnson. That’s why we re-signed Cedric Benson.

Marty: Yeah?

Bengal: Yeah! Benson’s finally playing like a No. 4 overall draft pick, too. And we’ve reshaped our offensive line. Four spots up front will have a new starter in 2009. You won’t see us surrendering 51 sacks again.

Marty: Oh come on, Bengal. You and I both know those sacks last year were mostly from Ryan Fitzpatrick’s indecisiveness in the pocket. You guys had one of the best lines in football just a few years ago, but you couldn’t keep it together. Now you’re telling me you’re excited because you have all new players? Please. Look at your left tackle. Andrew Whitworth? Guys that slow should be guards. (Or backups.) Or what about your left guard. Nate Livings? Are you kidding me?

Bengal: Livings shows promise.

Marty: He was undrafted in ’06! His career consists of six meaningless starts late last year. Of course, I guess he’s better than your new center. Wasn’t he also undrafted? Like in’07? What’s his name again?

Bengal: Kyle Cook. We think he’ll provide more power than Eric Ghiaciuc.

Marty: Ha!

Bengal: Look, whatever. I’m just saying, our line will be better. You watch, we haven’t even talked about our first-round draft pick.

Marty: Oh, that’s right, Andre Smith, No. 6 overall. Hmm…that’s funny.

Bengal: Why’s that funny?

Marty: Oh, no reason.

Bengal: No, tell me. Why?

Marty: Well, it’s just that you’re sitting here trumpeting how much better things are, how you’re finally turning it around. You haven’t mentioned Chad Ochocinco’s playoff prediction yet, but I’d imagine you agree with him. Yet I look at the personnel decisions that Marvin Lewis––or is owner Mike Brown calling the shots? Oh gosh, it’s Brown, isn’t it? Jeeze. Either way––I look at these personnel decisions and I see you guys doing the exact same crap you did during all those disappointing 8-8 seasons.

Bengal: Like what?

Marty: Like drafting Smith. Great player, sure, but isn’t he the same player whom Alabama suspended for the Sugar Bowl? And isn’t he the same player who showed up to the Scouting Combine out of shape before going home early?

Bengal: The guy just needs to mature a little. He’s a good kid, Marty.

Marty: Maybe he is. But who has ever come to this dysfunctional team and actually matured? Odell Thurman? Chad Ochocinco? Chris Henry?

Bengal: Hey, Henry walked a straight line this offseason. He’s been around virtually every day working with Laveranues Coles.

Marty: Fine, that’s not the point. What I’m saying is, if Mike Brown’s really interested in improving this team’s character, like he’s said, he would have never brought back Henry to begin with. And he wouldn’t have signed Tank Johnson. Or even Cedric Benson. I realize these guys fit the systems––Johnson can play in Mike Zimmer’s 4-3 and Benson can be a workhorse. And I get that they stayed out of trouble last year. But goodness, Bengal, we’ve seen this before and it never ends well for you. After once having 10 players arrested in a 14-month span, and a locker room always full of discontent, how have you not learned by now to stay away from trouble-making underachievers?

Bengal: (silence)

Marty: Look, Bengal, sorry to come down like this. But I can’t keep listening to you sing the same old tired song. I just can’t. You guys have been to the playoffs once in 18 years, Bengal! Once! How can you say that what you’re doing is working?

Bengal: (quietly) I’m not saying that what we’ve done has worked in the past. I’m saying we’ve made some positive changes this year––

Marty: But you haven’t! You haven’t, Bengal! You haven’t! Chad Ochocinco is still here. Still running his mouth and demanding trades and skipping workouts and whatnot. What have you won with him? Why is he still the face of this franchise? Or your draft! Good lord, Bengal, look at your draft!

Bengal: What do you mean? We had a great draft.

Marty: You got some talented guys, sure. But linebacker Rey Maualuga fell to you in Round Two because teams worried about his maturity and inconsistency. Third-round defensive end Michael Johnson was supposed to be a first-rounder but scouts realized during his senior year that he coasted on talent. Think that will translate well to the pros? What about the third-round tight end, Chase Coffman? Also gifted, but also injury prone. You don’t think you guys have enough injury prone players already?

Bengal: Hey, these are all high-ceiling players.

Marty: Right. And if this were any other team, I’d say great gamble! But not your team, Bengal. Not with your track record.

Bengal: Fine Marty! What do you want us to do? If you’re so smart, how would you fix the Cincinnati Bengals?

Marty: You mean right now?

Bengal: Yeah! You seem to have all the answers! So go ahead, genius. Let’s hear it. How would you fix the Bengals?

Marty: You know, that’s really not my job, Bengal. But I’ll say this: if you ever get serious about turning things around, you’ll have to do something about your owner. He’s calling all the shots and, frankly, he has a habit of missing. Get him a GM or something. But look, I gotta run. I wish you all the best––I really do. People like you, Bengal. People want to see you succeed. But you have to be willing to change. Good luck. Take care of yourself.

Offense

Remolding the playbook and starting four new offensive linemen is fine, but any meaningful changes to this Bengals offense––which ranked dead last for the first time in franchise history last season––will derive from quarterback Carson Palmer. The 29-year-old can be one of the few genuine superstar passers in the game. Palmer is accurate, intelligent and absolutely lethal going deep. The problem, of course, is that he hasn’t been healthy.

The popular thing to say before the draft was that Cincy needed to find a noteworthy left tackle who could help keep their star quarterback upright. Apparently, the Bengals agreed. They gambled on Alabama’s Andre Smith. Feet as light as his are rare for a man with such strength, and it’s that strength that convinced respected offensive line coach Paul Alexander that Smith, if properly nurtured, can be a domineering run-blocker. But to the surprise of many, the Bengals are playing Smith on the right side, where he’s never been before. This could be because, with Smith firing his agent right before the draft, Cincy’s front office is anticipating that messy contract negotiations will keep him out of training camp. Better to have chaos at right tackle than left.

Smith at right tackle means utility lineman Andrew Whitworth will start on the left. This is a mistake. The 330-pound Whitworth simply moves too slow. He’ll need the laudable blocking assistance of tight end Reggie Kelly when facing most speed rushers. The fact that Whitworth is starting tells you the Bengals realize that last year’s fourth-round pick, Anthony Collins, doesn’t yet have strong feet in pass protection.

If Whitworth weren’t 6’7”, he’d make sense at guard. Instead, Nate Livings, who had trouble holding his ground in his six starts last year, will start on the left side. Next to him will be untested center Kyle Cook, whom Cincinnati hopes can generate more movement in the ground game. Right guard Bobbie Williams, a solid but passive 10th-year veteran, is the only incumbent up front.

Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski is determined to have a more powerful rushing attack in 2009. He may actually have the right guy to lean in on Cedric Benson. A bust and off-field drinking menace in Chicago, Benson seemed to find his identity in stripes last season. He started 10 of the 12 games he played in and rushed for 747 yards. He has an unassuming burst and can be elusive at the second level. Benson’s running style is a good fit behind the Bengals lead-blocking approach (which, considering longtime fullback Jeremi Johnson can’t stay in shape, will likely be headlined by converted tight end Daniel Coats). Benson should also be inspired by the fact that he’s finally a clear-cut featured back.

The men vying for backup carries will be ex-Ram Brian Leonard, a versatile third-down option, and Kenny Watson, an eighth-year pro who gained 763 yards in 2007. None of these runners have elite speed, however, which is why fast sixth-round rookie Bernard Scott could see spot duty.

Benson’s 3.5 yards per carry average should increase this year as long as it’s Palmer orchestrating the aerial attack and not journeyman backup J.T. O’Sullivan. Obviously, the passing game centers around Chad Ochocinco. Distracting personality and disastrous 540-yard ’08 season aside, the 31-year-old Ochocinco can still be a Top 5 wideout. Palmer has the arm to sling the ball in tight windows 20 yards downfield, where Ochocinco excels. But Ochocinco needs to run his routes harder than he did last year.

Laveranues Coles is essentially the same possession receiver as T.J. Houshmandzadeh, only less selfish. The insanely-talented Chris Henry has had his best offseason as a pro and should be a factor as a third receiver. A lanky 6’4”, Henry is ideal for the slot in the red zone, and he’s big enough to also operate outside the numbers. Last year’s second-round pick, Jerome Simpson, continues to grow but is still very raw. Fellow second-year pro Andre Caldwell has shown improvements and runs much better routes than Henry. He could push for reps in the slot. Finally, former Colt Ben Utecht hasn’t become the pass-receiving tight end Cincy hoped for, so third-round rookie Chase Coffman will get a look. Coffman, however, missed almost the entire offseason with a turf toe injury.

Defense

Coordinator Mike Zimmer must continue to be an über-aggressive blitzer if the Bengals are to have any hope of pressuring the quarterback in 2009. They’ve invested over $60 million in starting defensive ends Robert Geathers and Antwan Odom, but both players became futile pass-rushers after signing big contracts. The fact of the matter is, both should be third-down specialists. Geathers is likely to disappear considering he’s still recovering from offseason microfracture surgery. Odom gained 30 pounds over the offseason––he’s up to 288, seven below his college weight––in order to be more effective against the run. But considering he tied for the team lead with a paltry three sacks in ’08, you have to wonder what the thinking is here. Cincy needs Odom for speed-rushing.

With Geathers on the mend, Frostee Rucker, a decent run-defending end who will be much better if he can learn to read the field, will likely start. Jonathan Fanene is not bad at crashing inside, but he’s more equipped to compete with third-round rookie Michael Johnson for backup duties.

The hope is that the addition of gifted but risky Tank Johnson, and the development of last year’s third-round pick, Pat Sims, will fortify the defensive tackle position. Both players have good quickness for their size, but both will only succeed if 325-pound Domata Peko can be halfway effective against double teams. He wasn’t last year.

Peko’s ability to occupy blockers could determine the immediate fate of Rey Maualuga. The swift running, high-impact second-round gem is expected to forge a vibrant long-term partnership with fellow ex-Trojan Keith Rivers. Though for Maualuga to join the brawny yet remarkably agile Rivers in the starting lineup, he’ll have to prove he can make consistent reads and not miss tackles. Failure to do so will keep super reliable veteran Dhani Jones in the middle. At strongside linebacker, chiseled Rashad Jeanty needs to play with better instincts and stop getting caught up in blocks. If he can’t, Brandon Johnson, who last year finished third on the team in tackles filling in at weakside linebacker after Rivers broke his jaw in Week 7, will get a look. Dhani Jones also played the Sam position during his many years in the NFC East and could start there if Maualuga takes the middle.

You just hope a hapless pass-rush doesn’t tarnish what could be an outstanding secondary. Former first-round cornerbacks Leon Hall (third year) and Johnathan Joseph (fourth year) are mildly inconsistent but, overall, up to the challenge of fulfilling Zimmer’s intense man-coverage demands. Hall is physical and better underneath, while Joseph is agile and thrives over the top. Depth is a mild issue, as middling nickelback David Jones is the only experienced reserve.

Spicing things up is the ascension of third-year strong safety Chinedum Ndukwe. A foot injury hampered the seventh-round pick late last year, but when healthy, Ndukwe flashes radiant star potential. He’s one of those uncommon athletes who can do everything, and do it fast. Another third-year safety, Marvin White, also shows enticing potential. His overall playmaking prowess seems to be a cut below Ndukwe’s, but he’s every bit as capable of flourishing in the box. White, however, is coming off a torn ACL, and he’s competing for playing time with two hard-hitting safeties from Zimmer’s previous stops: Chris Crocker (Atlanta) and Roy Williams (Dallas). Crocker’s reliability in coverage makes him especially well-liked.

Special Teams

It’s simple: kicker Shayne Graham rarely misses, so the Bengals used their franchise tag to keep him. With the improvements on offense, Graham should attempt more than just 15 PAT’s in ’09. Fifth-round rookie Kevin Huber was given the punting job. The Cincinnati native led the nation with a 41.8 net average as a Cincinnati Bearcat last year. (This was while his Bengal predecessor, Kyle Larson, was netting an NFL-worst 34.5 yards per punt.)

Antonio Chatman can only make the roster as a return specialist. He’s anxious to show that he’s fully recovered from the frightening cervical injury that ended his season last November. If Chatman struggles, Andre Caldwell would likely assume the return duties.

Bottom Line

The return of Carson Palmer should resuscitate Cincy’s offense, though you can’t help but worry about the inexperienced blockers up front. Not a single starting lineman is worthy of anyone’s confidence heading into training camp. Defensively, it doesn’t appear that any lightning in a bottle will be caught along the meek front four, which means this otherwise-talented unit will be on its heals too often in ’09.

Predicted: 3rd AFC North

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