Cincinnati Bengals 2008 Preview Report

Palmer

By Andy Benoit, www.NFLTouchdown.com

Predicted: 3rd

2007 Record: 7-9 (3rd AFC North)

Head Coach: Marvin Lewis (6th year)

Roster Quick View

*rookie

**new veteran

Offense

QB: Carson Palmer One of the few genuine superstar QBs in football, but you wonder how much longer he can tolerate the knuckleheads around him.

RB: Rudi Johnson Hamstring injury hampered him in ’07 as he averaged a pathetic 2.9 yards per carry. Put some weight back on over the offseason, in hopes of regaining power.

FB: Jeremi Johnson Also put some weight back on, but not the good kind. Excellent lead-blocker, though conditioning is always a major issue early in the season.

WR: Chad Johnson Whaaaaawww! Whaaaaaaaaaaawwwww!

WR: T.J. Houshmandzadeh In the final year of his contract. Led the NFL with 112 catches last season, but needs Ocho Cinco on the field in order to fully flourish.

TE: Reggie Kelly Highly underrated. Solid athlete, serviceable receiver and first-class blocker.

LT: Levi Jones Excellent pass-blocker when healthy. Also creates great angles in the run game.

LG: Andrew Whitworth His 6’7″ height would make him tall even for a basketball guard–let alone one in football. Good run-blocker.

C: Eric Ghiaciuc Lacks power, but gets commendable movement in the rushing attack. The whole O-line operates better when he’s in there.

RG: Bobbie Williams Would be a fringe Pro Bowler if he had more of a mean streak.

RT: Stacy Andrews Slapped with the franchise tag; Bengals feel compelled to play him. Holds up just fine, but doesn’t bring any flair.

—————————-

QB: Ryan Fitzpatrick Who? Oh yeah, that’s right! The Harvard guy who once came off the bench and threw for over 300 yards in a game for St. Louis! Wasn’t that like 3 years ago?

RB: Kenny Watson Shiftiness and change-of-direction ability make him a candidate to start in ’08.

WR: Andre Caldwell* Polished route runner who must prove that he’s not just another “Florida receiver.”

WR: Jerome Simpson* Drafted a round earlier than Caldwell (second vs. third) but, having played at tiny Coastal Carolina, is still green.

TE: Ben Utecht** Former Colt who gives them reliable blocking and short-yardage receiving off the bench.

Defense

LDE: Antwan Odom** Long arms highlight his unique 6’4″, 274-pound frame. Had 8 sacks last season in Tennessee, but had done nothing before that.

DT: Domata Peko Consistent improvement over his first two seasons prompted his new five-year, $29.3 million contract.

DT: John Thornton Paucity of power makes him a liability against the run. However, he can be effective when he’s able to operate on the move.

RDE: Robert Geathers Stunning quickness off the ball in obvious passing situations, though largely ineffective in other realms. Recorded 10.5 sacks in ’06, got paid, then had 3.5 sacks in ’07.

SLB: Rashad Jeanty Possesses the strength to beat-up blockers, but must improve his instincts in order to be more of a playmaker.

MLB: Dhani Jones Renaissance man who brings valuable leadership to the middle. Doesn’t have the tools to dominate, but at least he’s consistent.

WLB: Keith Rivers* The future of the front seven. Bengals love his versatility and character.

CB: Jonathan Joseph Fell into a sophomore slump after an impressive debut season. Still, has star potential. The defense’s new physical mantra should help him.

SS: Marvin White Fourth-round pick a year ago who started three of the final four games at FS. Is said to be a big hitter.

FS: Chinedum Ndukwe Seventh-round rookie last season. Was a little wide-eyed in limited action, but scouts think he has natural instincts.

CB: Leon Hall Did not stand out as first-rounder last year. For a rookie CB, that’s a good thing. Solid zone defender.

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DL: Michael Myers A quintessential hit-or-miss player. When he’s on, he’s fantastic. When he’s off, he’s pitiful.

LB: Ahmad Brooks Missed 15 games after groin surgery last season. Injuries and character issues have made his career extremely fragmented thus far. Nevertheless, remains an intriguing prospect.

NB: Deltha O’Neal At times, an interception machine. This is saying something considering how buttery his fingers can be.

Key Players Acquired

LB Darryl Blackstock (Ari)

LB Brandon Johnson (Ari)

DE Antwan Odom (Ten)

TE Ben Utecht (Ind)

Key Players Lost

WR Chris Henry

LB Landon Johnson (Car)

WR Tab Perry (Mia)

DL Bryan Robinson (Ari)

LB Anthony Schlegel

DE Justin Smith (SF)

C Alex Stepanovich (Atl)

LB Odell Thurman

S Nick Turnbull

S Madieu Williams (Min)

Henry and Thurman may have been the team’s two best pure athletes but both have ruined their careers with ceaseless off-field problems. Johnson was never fully appreciated here. They’ll miss Williams’s leadership and playmaking abilities. Smith was a rock up front, but they can live without him. However, Odom is not the best replacement. He can be a fine pass-rusher, but he doesn’t offer Smith’s strength in run defense or match his week-to-week consistency. Blackstock and Utecht will contribute as backups.

2008 Draft

Rd

Sel #

Player

Position

School

1

9

Keith Rivers

OLB

USC

2

46

Jerome Simpson

WR

Coastal Carolina

3

77

Pat Sims

DT

Auburn

3

97

Andre Caldwell

WR

Florida

4

112

Anthony Collins

T

Kansas

5

145

Jason Shirley

DT

Fresno State

6

177

Corey Lynch

FS

Appalachian State

6

207

Matt Sherry

TE

Villanova

7

244

Angelo Craig

DE

Cincinnati

7

246

Mario Urrutia

WR

Louisville

It is said the Bengals badly wanted Rivers’s Trojan teammate, DT Sedrick Ellis. They needed help up front, though their LB situation was dire as well. They should be pleased with what they found in Round One. Rivers was a leader at USC. Simpson will actually play behind Caldwell early on. That’s no surprise–a Coastal Carolina product is going to be less polished than a Florida product nine times out of ten. Coaches expect Sims to contribute right away. They hope the rest of the draft picks can add depth. One more note: Shirley missed some of the early team activities because he had to appear in court for a DUI charge. The Bengals were aware of this situation when they drafted him.

Cincinnati Bengals 2008 Preview Report

The Cincinnati Bengals? Forget it. Who cares? Wish ‘em well–we’re moving on.

Such are Football America’s sentiments toward the Queen City’s team. It’s not like the Bengals haven’t had chances. When Marvin Lewis arrived six years ago, the most pathetic non-Clippers franchise in professional sports finally started posting respectable records: 8-8 in ’03 and ’04. So, people stopped calling them the Bungles. Two decent seasons erased 15 years of ridicule.

In 2005, former No. 1 overall draft pick Carson Palmer blossomed into a superstar. Palmer led a high-octane offense full of extroverted personalities (namely Chad Johnson). The defense made more big plays than Shakespeare. The result? An 11-5 record and AFC North division title. And adulation from football fans everywhere.

Cincy became a hit, earning primetime television appearances, copious newspaper and magazine coverage and popularity throughout the video game and online ethos. Expectations mounted.

Then they started screwing up. A lot. And in a lot of ways. Every time the Bengals screwed up, Football America forgave them–even made excuses for them. Over two years, the biggest darlings of the NFL became the biggest disappointments. If this were Hollywood, the Bengals would be a child-star-gone-terribly-wrong story. Only less deserving of sympathy.

The downfall started when Palmer blew out his knee in the ’05 wild card loss to Pittsburgh. It was a bad injury, and Football America understood Cincy’s quick playoff exit. Fans even listened when several Bengal players said that they would have won the Super Bowl that year had Palmer stayed healthy.

However, after that playoff loss, Cincy’s problems mounted–mainly off the field. In less than a one-year span, 10 different players were arrested, including several prominent young studs. Virtually all of those players had been brought in by Marvin Lewis, and a vast majority of them had red character flags from college.

But Football America stood by the Bengals. Sure, fans made cheesy jokes–the kind people hadn’t heard since the Dallas Cowboys were creating headlines in the mid-90s. And sure, people were griping to the league office about the Bengals, saying Roger Goodell should do something. But even the procrustean first-year commission was patient with this team. At one point, Goodell visited the Bengals to personally offer his support and see if there was anything the league could do to help them.

After being in the spotlight and traipsing to an 8-8 record in ’06, the Bengals were once again cut some slack. Football America cited Palmer’s recovery and the team’s character issues as understandable distractions. Nobody wanted to turn on the Bengals–they were just too much fun. Even at less than 100 percent, Palmer proved to be an enthralling passer. Chad Johnson–the most prolific wide receiver in the AFC over the past five years–was one of the most lovable characters in sports. The defense had speed and played with energy (albeit not very well). And it was hard not to respect Lewis, a seemingly soft-spoken father figure to a lot of guys.

With this in mind, the Bengals remained popular heading into 2007. Football America’s fervor grew when the team put on a show in the Monday Night season opener. But this was merely a tease as, over the following months, the underachieving Bengals continued to slide downhill. A lot went wrong. Rudi Johnson wasn’t healthy and, consequently, the running game disappeared. The passing attack was still fruitful, but the offense didn’t dictate the flow of games (which was tough considering it usually operated without a huddle). The playmaking defense proved to be a farce once the balls stopped bouncing Cincinnati’s way (granted, unrelenting injuries at linebacker did not help). With the spotlight still on them, the team finished a lethargic 7-9.

Eventually, public opinion shifted. People looked at Chad Johnson and noticed that he was just as vociferous when angry as he was when upbeat. Instead of winsomeness, they saw selfishness. When they looked at Johnson’s counterpart, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, they realized that he wasn’t an inexhaustible role player, but rather, an exasperating complainer. Serial screw ups Odell Thurman and Chris Henry wound up getting suspended, prompting fans to say “Hey Coach Lewis, weren’t you cleaning up this team’s character?”

The problems manifested this past offseason. Chad Johnson started to whine–very publicly. He lambasted the organization before demanding a trade. Claiming he’d sit out the season, Johnson gave up $200,000 in bonus money when he skipped voluntary workouts. After Lewis went before cameras and called the receiver’s bluff, Johnson–who is nothing without football–reported to minicamp, tail between his legs. It wasn’t funny; Football America just sat there and stared at him.

Left tackle Levi Jones also wanted out, but also wound up reporting. Thurman and Henry both found trouble again. The Bengals finally released them, but it was too late to serve as validation of the franchise’s supposed new focus on character. Instead, it just felt like another public relations nightmare. Both players were suspended by the league indefinitely, so it’s debatable whether Cincy even took a stand by showing them the door.

Doesn’t matter–any virtuousness was offset when the Bengals drafted Jason Shirley in the fifth round. Perhaps a top-60 talent, the Fresno State defensive tackle fell in the draft because he was awaiting trial on DUI charges. Shirley has defended his innocence in a California court. Regardless of how it plays out, Football America can’t help but look at the Bengals with befuddlement, and ask “Why even take a chance?”

Is there any hope for this team? Who knows. And who cares? Football America is moving on. The Bengals will appear on primetime just once in 2008–and that will only be a Thursday night NFL Network matchup against the Steelers. All but two of Cincinnati’s games are slated for the innocuous 1:00 pm window. The buzz has abated–partly because everyone is talking about Cincy’s cross-state rival Browns (who, by the way, have five primetime games).

If the Bengals get their act together and fulfill their potential, great–Football America will gladly give them attention again. But people aren’t going to continue coaxing this team along. There are 31 other clubs out there that haven’t frittered away their opportunity.

Offense

Carson Palmer is not the problem. The sixth-year pro has been nothing but class as the Bengals superstar quarterback. Despite throwing 20 interceptions last season, Palmer–owner of the league’s prettiest ball–has been prolific overall. He’s made big plays and stepped up in crucial moments. He’s also been a leader. Most likely, an exasperated one. Talented as they are, it’s not easy playing with Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

With chatter in his ear heading in and out of the huddle, on and between the sidelines, and before and after each game, Palmer has referred to a variety of response tactics to maintain his poise as the captain of the offense. He’s been cordial and critical. He’s been approachable and standoffish. He’s enabled and ignored. He’s listened and talked, whispered and yelled. He’s tried harder and he’s tried letting go. Nothing seems to be working. His wide receivers are unrelenting.

It’s not just Ocho Cinco. Johnson’s former college teammate, Houshmandzadeh, is also high maintenance. As is common with star talents, reality is muddled by a dense layer of excuses and rubbish surrounding each player’s golden bubble. There are a few simple matters about these two that need to be made clear:

  • Johnson is a great player. And he’s an absolute headache to deal with. When things go his way, he’s great. When they don’t, he’s awful. Johnson calls this “wanting to win.” Every player in pro football wants to win–few pout like him when it doesn’t happen. Johnson’s gregarious personality indeed can be charming, but not when he’s constantly exerting it to demand the ball and spotlight. Keep a perspective here: if we took this paragraph out of context and changed the name, would it not read like the description of a child?
  • Houshmandzadeh cares about his numbers as much as any player in football. He has a lot to be proud of–last season he tied Wes Welker for the league lead with 112 catches. He also led the Bengals with 12 touchdowns. But don’t think for a second that Houshmandzadeh’s numbers aren’t inflated by Johnson’s presence. Without the superstar across from him, Houshmandzadeh is somewhere between a solid and good possession receiver. He may soon find this out after his contract expires at the end of the season.

Cincinnati’s offense–which is coordinated by Bob Bratkowski–is built around its star receivers. But one must ask, What have the Bengals won with these guys? Read what you want into the drafting of receivers Jerome Simpson in the second round and Andre Caldwell in the third. These additions could be to refurbish the depth that was previously missing. Or, they could be to reshuffle the starting personnel down the road.

Johnson and Houshmandzadeh will be featured in 2008, but Marvin Lewis has made it clear that he’d like to see fewer deep passes and more rushing attempts on offense. This calls for Rudi Johnson to rebound from a miserable ’07 campaign. Trying to prove that his 2.9 yards per carry average was not a result of his climbing age (Johnson turns 29 on October 1), the three-time 1,300-plus-yard-back has regained the 10-15 pounds he lost last year, in hopes of reclaiming his power as an interior runner. Johnson does not have breakaway speed (his longest carry over the past two seasons is just 22 yards) but he’s capable of wearing down a defense.

Don’t be shocked if Kenny Watson takes over as the starter at some point. The seventh-year veteran is a quicker, more fluid runner than Johnson. Neither man is special as a blocker or receiver, which is why the Bengals are hoping that former first-round pick Chris Perry can stay healthy for the first time since 2005. Perry’s lower leg and ankle problems have reportedly subsided, and he is expected to beat out last year’s second-round pick Kenny Irons–who is coming off a torn ACL–for a third down role.

Fullback Jeremi Johnson is a punishing lead-blocker, but his annual weight problems could soon topple his career as a starter. Converted tight end Daniel Coats will push Johnson in ’08.

It’s hard to fathom four-time Pro Bowler Willie Anderson losing his starting job, but with a bum right knee that plagued him all last year, such a scenario appears imminent. Anderson is 33. Thanks largely to crafty technique that pushes the envelop on football’s rules against holding, he has long been regarded as the best run-blocking right tackle in the business. But the Bengals used their franchise tag on 340-pound Stacey Andrews and appear eager to fully develop the fifth-year pro. Andrews can engulf defenders, but he is a better utility backup. The fact that he’s starting speaks volumes about Anderson’s knee.

Right guard Bobbie Williams will start and also back up center Eric Ghiaciuc in 2008. Both players have manageable flaws–Williams lacks a mean streak and Ghiaciuc has only modest strength–but both were also key components on an offensive line that surrendered a franchise-low 17 sacks last season (fewest in the AFC).

Left tackle Levi Jones is on the fringe of Pro Bowl status. He’s an excellent pass-blocker. Tackle-turned-guard Andrew Whitworth has trouble playing with leverage (6’7″ height will do that), but he can create opportunities in the run game. So can Reggie Kelly, who is the best blocking tight end in football not named Daniel Graham.

Defense

We may not even be talking about this team’s downfall if Cincy could ever muster a suitable defense. After stockpiling talented new personnel for the better part of four years, the Bengals have finally decided to correct their scheme. Coordinator Chuck Bresnahan was fired in January. Marvin Lewis–a defensive connoisseur–replaced him with former Cowboys and Falcons assistant Mike Zimmer. The new coordinator had to first school his assistants on the nuances of his überphysical system. Zimmer can be as aggressive as any defensive play-caller in the game; in Dallas, it was not unheard of for him to employ a Cover 0 blitz (nine blitzers, two cornerbacks playing bump-and-run).

Zimmer may have the personnel to at least toy with this idea in ’08. Starting cornerbacks Jonathan Joseph and Leon Hall are both recent first-round picks, as was veteran nickel back Deltha O’Neal. Joseph struggled in his second season last year but flashes rare recovery speed that makes him dangerous when the ball’s in the air. Hall is more of a physical zone defender. He did an excellent job of preventing wideouts from getting open as a rookie last season. When O’Neal is on, he’s a bona fide playmaker. When he’s off, he’s an enigma.

Zimmer’s reliance on his cornerbacks is magnified by Cincy’s inexperience at safety. Both starters are second-year players who didn’t see much action until last December. On the strong side is Marvin White, and in centerfield is Chinedum Ndukwe. Backing them up is Dexter Jackson, a 10th-year veteran who played poorly enough in ’07 to have his title of “former Super Bowl MVP” suspended.

Years of bad luck at linebacker seemed to culminate last season when injuries forced the Bengals to put defensive end Robert Geathers in a two-point stance. It comes as no surprise that the team tabbed USC Defensive Captain Keith Rivers with the ninth-overall pick in April’s draft. Rivers is expected to infuse instant stability in the linebacking core. He’ll begin his career on the weak side, though he should eventually capture Dhani Jones’s starting job in the middle.

Jones is an intelligent veteran who consistently makes plays in his albeit limited range. He’s serviceable in pass coverage, though don’t be surprised if Cincinnati refers to his backup, Corey Mays in nickel situations.

Strongside linebacker Rashad Jeanty has a chiseled 6’2″, 245-pound frame that makes him brutal at the point of contact. The four-year Canadian League standout can be a good run-defender, but he needs to develop better instincts and improve his closing speed as a tackler. Jeanty has a very talented player working behind him in Ahmad Brooks. Once a first-round prospect, Brooks was kicked off the team at Virginia for failed drug tests (a natural Bengal). Taken in the fifth round of the ’06 supplemental draft, he’s shown promise in patches, but injuries have fragmented his first two seasons (groin surgery kept Brooks out of 15 games last year). When healthy, Brooks is a beast. His strong enough to play on the tight end side and dynamic enough to line up in the middle.

A big reason the Bengals gave up the sixth most yards in football last season was their nonexistent pass rush (Cincy recorded a pitiful 22 sacks). Any improvements will most likely come from Zimmer’s aggressive approach. After all, the Bengals return the same starting front four from a year ago, only with Antwan Odom in place of Justin Smith. Odom has a lanky frame and, on paper, is a better pass-rusher than Smith. His eight sacks with the Titans last season prompted Cincy to shell out $11 million in guarantees for his services (Smith, who was an unrestricted free agent, signed for $20 million in guarantees in San Francisco). But there is a considerable asterisk with Odom: The first three years of his career. Prior to his contract season, the ’04 second-round pick had just 4.5 career sacks.

To imply that Odom is a mercenary would be a bit harsh–just like it would be a bit harsh to imply the same thing about Robert Geathers. Geathers, formerly a pass-rushing specialist, produced 10 sacks in 2006, then signed a six-year, $37 million contract the following offseason. Guaranteed to be at least $12.5 million richer, he went out and registered just 3.5 sacks in 2007. Geathers’s drop in production could have had to do with the flux of the entire front seven. Nevertheless, skeptical eyes are watching both Bengal defensive ends this season.

Stopping the run could be a problem on the edges up front. Odom plays light on his feet and Geathers gets enveloped by bigger blockers. Backup ends Frostee Rucker and Jonathan Fanene both have slightly better size, but both players have done absolutely nothing in their careers.

Cincy’s interior run defense is a toss up. Three-hundred-and-nineteen-pound defensive tackle Domata Peko has constantly improved through his first two years and should begin to draw double teams on a more consistent basis in 2008. However, his partner, John Thornton, has never been able to manage his gap against the run. The Bengals, in fact, will likely redistribute a lot of Thornton’s playing time between third-round rookie Pat Sims and 11th-year veteran Michael Myers.

Special Teams

Shayne Graham is the second most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history (behind Mike Vanderjagt). His long was only 48 last year, but he has decent range. Punter Kyle Larson doesn’t let too many balls cross the goal-line. He must, however, improve his net distances.

Antonio Chatman is the rare return specialist deprived of great speed. A hamstring injury hindered him in ’07. If Chatman can’t keep the return job, look for Deltha O’Neal to run back punts, and for one of the backup running backs to handle kicks.

Bottom Line

A lot of the wasted talent is no longer on the roster, though there are still plenty of gifted athletes in this organization who are not maximizing their potential. The offense can put up great numbers, but it needs a running game in order to dictate the action. The defense needs to find some continuity in Mike Zimmer’s new scheme. Cincy has failed to meet expectations the past few seasons. As a result, the expectations are significantly lower in 2008.

Myth Buster

The Bengals have not prioritized defense over the years

Cincy has invested in their defense–the investments just haven’t paid dividends.

The Bengals have spent two of their first three draft picks on a defensive player each year since 2004. Last season they nabbed Leon Hall in Round One and Marvin White in Round Four. The jury is still out on them, though both are starting. In 2006, Cincy selected Jonathan Joseph in the first round and Frostee Rucker in the third. Joseph looks good, Rucker is a bust (his work ethic stinks). The good news is the Bengals used the pick after Rucker to draft Domata Peko.

In 2005, David Pollack was selected 17th overall. His career was sadly ended by a neck injury. Odell Thurman was taken in the second round that year. His career was ended by substance abuse. In 2004, defensive backs Keiwan Ratliff and Madieu Williams were chosen in Round Two. Both played well, but both have left the organization.

The Bengals are trying on defense–they’re just not succeeding.

Open Thought

If the Bengals were to have different patterns of stripes on each helmet, do you think anyone would notice? Somehow I doubt it. Not if the differences in patterns were subtle, anyway.


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