Cincinnati Bengals 2010 Preview

July 25, 2010 by

In 2009, the Cincinnati Bengals came out of the woodwork — or at least out of somewhere near the woodwork — to post a 10-6 record and capture the AFC North from the defending Super Bowl Champion Steelers. Obviously, 2010 is about building on this success. But if they Bengals are to keep building, they’ll have to use different tools and materials.

The conservative black-and-blue approach this team adopted in ’09 won’t fly again. Today’s NFL isn’t set up to reward conservativeness over the long haul. The Bengals learned this last season. Their seventh-ranked rushing attack wasn’t always sustainable down the stretch (the numbers don’t starkly reflect it, but injuries and wear and tear to workhorse back Cedric Benson may have played a part). In the end, Cincy’s top-five defense, which was predicated on the old-fashioned concept of stonewalling opponents, clearly missed having a big-time playmaker in the front seven. Thus, this team lost four of its final five contests, including the home Wild Card game to the Jets. cedric-benson

To their credit, the Bengals seem to have learned their lesson. Over the offseason, they rewrote part of ninth-year offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski’s playbook, putting more of an emphasis on Carson Palmer and the passing game. Those changes were inspired by two significant upgrades in personnel. Underrated playmaker Antonio Bryant essentially replaced diminishing possession receiver Laveranues Coles, and super athletic tight end (by the way, don’t all tight ends seem to be “athletic” these days?) Jermaine Gresham was drafted in the first round.

Two simple changes are enough to reinvigorate a passing game that, people forget, is still spearheaded by a star quarterback. Of course, some will say the 30-year-old Palmer needs to actually play up to his star potential. That shouldn’t be a problem. The Heisman winner and former No. 1 overall pick might be the purest pocket passer in the game. Pedestrian ’09 numbers aside, Palmer is more than capable of reclaiming his superstar form in what will still be a balanced offense.

But if it were strictly about talent and statistics, this Bengals team would have more to show for the past decade than an 0-2 playoff record. Character and leadership are traits not often associated with Cincinnati. Typically, this is where we’d blame the quarterback. But Palmer is gifted, hard-working, tough and outspoken. From afar, his leadership skills appear to be just fine, if not admirable.

And still, this team is known for arrests and excessive celebrations. The events of this past offseason did little to change that. Star second-year linebacker Rey Maualuga was arrested for drunk driving in February. In summer, Cedric Benson was charged with assault stemming from an incident in an Austin bar. Chad Ochocinco continued to have harmless fun – Dancing with the Stars, VH1 reality show The Ultimate Catch, the usual effusive Tweets – but in the process, his absence from OTA’s irritated coaches and teammates.

This organization lacks character and leadership because owner Mike Brown calls the shots and doesn’t care about those things. At times, you’d swear Brown is purposely trying to acquire players with baggage. This past offseason, he signed disgraced ex-Jaguars wideout Matt Jones and cornerback Pacman Jones. And the aforementioned Antonio Bryant has been on five teams in eight years because of attitude problems.

Head coach Marvin Lewis is constantly in a tough spot – not so much because character-risk guys are locker room problems (the reality is, most of them aren’t) but because it’s plain to everyone that he wields little veritable power. This could be especially true in 2010 if Lewis does indeed wind up entering Week 1 still in an expiring contract. (By the way, it’s hard to believe, but Lewis’s eight years here make him the fifth longest-tenured head coach in the NFL, behind Andy Reid, Jeff Fisher, Bill Belichick and John Fox.)

There is speculation that Brown would like to replace Lewis with Mike Zimmer. The highly-esteemed defensive coordinator signed a three-year contract extension over the offseason. If there is no new contract for Lewis, imagine the irony the head coach could find himself swimming in: to avoid unemployment, he’d have to at least make the playoffs; to make the playoffs, he’d need his potential replacement to coax another spectacular season out of this stalwart D.

But one step at a time. A contract extension is still very possible. But is significant playoff success possible?

Offense

Most offenses that transform from “run-first” to “balanced” either decide to ask more of their caretaker quarterback or bring in a new signalcaller altogether. Very rarely does such a system shift involve an accomplished gun-slinger like Carson Palmer. There are two factors that will decide just how open the Bengals offense becomes in 2010: the route running abilities of the receiving corps and the athleticism of the front five.

First, the receivers. Chad Ochocinco is still the primary target – obviously. Some who saw Darrelle Revis stifle the charismatic mouthpiece last January have raised the notion that Ochocinco, 32, is nearing his end. True, Ochocinco’s straight-line speed might be waning ever so slightly, but he still has outstanding quickness and agility, particularly in coming in and out of his breaks. A big difference, last season, was that T.J. Houshmandzadeh wasn’t around to attract coverage underneath.

The hope is that the arrival of Antonio Bryant can change that. If the bum knee that marred Bryant’s ’09 campaign in Tampa Bay is healed, he’s one of the most acrobatic playmakers in the game. There should be some concern about chemistry, though. The emotional Bryant and equally-emotional Ochocinco both want the ball. And both are playing for their future. Bryant signed a four-year, $28 million deal, but with more than half of the money due in 2012 and 2013; Ochocinco’s current contract includes a team option for 2011.

Having two formidable outside receivers will do wonders for ascending third-year pro Andre Caldwell, a smooth slot receiver who is adept going over the middle. Depth, at least long-term, appears solid. Jerome Simpson, a second-round pick in ’08, turned heads over the offseason and may not be a bust after all. (Simpson was inactive for all but two games in ’09.) The Bengals also used a third-round pick on Texas playmaker Jordan Shipley.

Two rounds before the Shipley selection, Cincy snatched the pass-catching tight end that this offense has lacked since Palmer arrived. As long as his surgically-repaired knee is okay, Jermaine Gresham has the kind of scintillating athleticism that makes people like Bob Bratkowski salivate. Of course, the Bengals thought they were finally getting a bona fide receiving tight end last year when they drafted Chase Coffman in the third round. But Coffman has failed to pick up the nuances of the pro game, which is why veteran Reggie Kelly (who is 100 percent after an ’09 Achilles injury) and blocking specialist Daniel Coats were both retained.

On to the offensive line. It’s a very good run-blocking unit, no matter whether the play calls for straight-line man-to-man power or lateral zone-based agility. But in pass protection, where players tend to get put on islands, none of these guys have the athleticism to thrive. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth is really more of a right tackle. He’d be at that spot except Andre Smith exhibits even starker right tackle traits. Smith, the sixth overall pick a year ago, is special. He exhibits the kind of initial boom off the snap that makes scouts rewind the tape in disbelief. The question with Smith is whether he can be mature enough to learn proper pass blocking technique and conditioning habits. If he can’t, swift swing tackle Dennis Roland or third-year pro Anthony Collins will see more the just sixth-lineman snaps.

Cincinnati’s interior line is what we politely call “gritty”. Over the offseason, 33-year-old right guard Bobbie Williams was re-signed for two years primarily for his veteran leadership. Williams also happens to be a very serviceable run-blocker. Center Kyle Cook struggles against elite nose tackles but manages to survive overall. Left guard Nate Livings starts because he has slightly more power than Evan Mathis.

The Bengals would be wise to monitor Cedric Benson’s carries more closely in 2010 (his 23 carries per game were a franchise record last season). Benson’s patience and burst at the second level – not to mention his underrated lateral agility – make him an upper-echelon runner, but shifty backup Bernard Scott and soft-handed H-back Brian Leonard are good enough players to convince coaches to preserve their workhorse for winter.

Defense

Though Mike Zimmer is known for an aggressive, blitz-heavy scheme, the Bengals D has actually evolved into more of a staunch unit than big-play unit. This modus operandi derives from a secondary that features two elite cover corners and a conglomerate of safeties who are all phenomenal in run support but shaky in coverage.

It should come as no surprise that the corners, Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph, are elite; both are former first-round picks. Both are capable of playing solo man coverage, but neither can be considered a true press corner. Hall is less likely to give up a completion than Joseph, but Joseph is more likely to make a big play in deep coverage or big hit against the run.

Nickel corner was somewhat of a problem area for the Bengals last year, though ’09 sixth-round pick Morgan Trent showed promise at times. Trent should beat out David Jones in 2010, but if the Bengals truly had faith in the 195-pounder from Michigan, they wouldn’t have taken a chance on Pacman Jones or spent a third-round pick this year on Brandon Ghee.

Roy Williams is back at strong safety after missing all but seven games over the past two years with forearm problems. Williams is a nasty hitter in Zimmer’s attack scheme, but he lacks aptitude in coverage and the consistent physicality to firmly face blocks in traffic. In short, backup Chinedum Ndukwe, with his nose for the ball as an eighth man in the box, is the better player. Ndukwe lacks awareness in coverage though.

Eighth-year veteran Chris Crocker is a stabilizing presence in all facets. His value became especially noticeable in instances when athletically-limited Tom Nelson filled in as the starter last season. Nelson is now being challenged for his backup job by Raiders/Dolphin castoff Gibril Wilson.

The Bengals are fortunate they have quality defensive backs because they can expect little more than mediocrity from their pass-rush. Antwan Odom gained 15 pounds last offseason and still maintained his impressive quickness, which led to an explosive eight-sack performance over the first four games. But in Week 6 he tore his Achilles, which is an extremely difficult injury for a defensive end to bounce back from.

In a close-to-worst scenario, Odom becomes another version of Robert Geathers, a once-promising pass-rusher who has failed to post more than 3.5 sacks in any of the three seasons since he underwent a major knee operation. It’s difficult to understand why Geathers is still starting, given his mediocrity against the run.

At least the Bengals have good depth at end. Second-round rookie Carlos Dunlap could actually ignite the pass-rush. Last year’s third-round pick, Michael Johnson, is moving to backup strongside linebacker, though his fluid quickness off the edge still makes him a viable option as a third-down rusher. Jonathan Fanene, an agile defensive tackle-defensive end tweener, should be starting ahead of Geathers, and Frostee Rucker is worthy of snaps as long as he can make himself more difficult to block (which is a matter of technique).

Nose tackle Domata Peko is crucial because he consistently attracts double teams. If the 318-pounder can learn how to split double teams, he could become truly destructive. Three-technique tackle Tank Johnson is phenomenal at creating separation through his initial hand quickness and lateral dexterity. Zimmer would like to see Johnson make more of an impact against the pass in 2010.

This Bengals linebacking corps is excellent. Former USC standouts Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga are talented outside (Rivers weakside, Maualuga strongside). But 32-year-old journeyman middle linebacker Dhani Jones has been Cincy’s top contributor. Jones, who calls all the defensive signals, is instinctive in run support and smart against the pass. He can still move, too. Ultimately, the coaching staff would like to slide Maualuga into Jones’s spot. But after Maualuga’s DUI, Zimmer said the 23-year-old can’t yet be counted on. Backup Brandon Johnson has excellent fluidity in nickel packages. Fellow backup Rashad Jeanty is a leader who would start for a lot of teams.

Special Teams

Since entering the league as a sixth-round pick in 2005, Dave Rayner has kicked for a quarter of the teams in the NFL. Former Jets second-round pick Mike Nugent was brought in to compete with Rayner for the kicking duties. Punter Kevin Huber was adequate as a fifth-round rookie last season, though this punt coverage unit allowed 10.1 yards per return, which is too much. Quan Crosby ranked fifth in the NFL in punt returns in ’09, but he’ll still have to win the job over big-play weapons Pacman Jones (who might return kickoffs instead) and Jordan Shipley.

Bottom Line

This Bengals team is better than it was in ’09, but that won’t translate to more wins, given that the Steelers and Ravens should be better too.

Predicted: 3rd AFC North

Andy Benoit is the founder of www.NFLTouchdown.com and writer for CBSSports.com’s NFL Blog. He can be contacted at andy.benoit –at – NFLTouchdown.com.

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