Before every season, before every training camp, Marvin Lewis thinks up a slogan for the team that he feels will be inspirational to his players, and makes it the organization’s theme for the year. This year it’s “Fight Back”, which is a sensible choice after a 2008 season that produced only four wins and saw a host of players end their season on Injured Reserve.
In order to fight their way back to a successful season in 2009, the Bengals will have to rely on many young players to develop quickly and will need the coaches and veterans to push them along.
One highlighted area of concern is the inexperienced offensive line; always a danger within the blitz-happy AFC North. O-line coach, Paul Alexander, has been with the team 15 years and knows how to turn young lines into top-notch units. Under Marvin Lewis, Alexander has developed players like Eric Steinbach, Andrew Whitworth and Stacy Andrews into solid linemen. With rookie tackle, Andre Smith, Alexander has another gem to develop—the only problem is that he still hasn’t signed with the team and the long holdout that many felt was inevitable, has become a reality. Without Smith, second-year player Anthony Collins will start at right tackle, and Whitworth moves from left guard to left tackle. Collins showed himself as a capable tackle in the second half of ’08 once Levi Jones went down, and Whitworth is agile enough to play either spot on the left. Still, the ideal scenario for Alexander, Marvin Lewis, and the entire Bengal organization, is to see Smith lined up on the first play in Week 1 and that still appears millions away.
As for veterans, Chad Ochocinco and Carson Palmer, both must fight back from injured and generally lame campaigns of last season. Palmer will have to prove that he’s worked out the kinks from an injured elbow, and Ochocinco has to show that he still has the explosiveness that put on TV in the first place. The duo’s return to glory will be greatly influenced by the effectiveness of the offensive line.
The same goes for running back, Cedric Benson, who resigned with the team in the offseason and has impressed coaches and pundits in training camp. After originally signing mid-season with the Bengals, Benson showed flashes of being the back who was drafted fourth overall coming out of college in 2005. He ran behind a patchwork offensive line last year and still put up decent numbers. If the Bengals can improve that line, Benson really has a chance to turn heads.
Also a player to look out for within Cincinnati’s ground game is sixth-round pick Bernard Scott. Everyone lucky enough to watch Scott play on a consistent basis, raves about the back’s ability, and he demonstrated some of that talent in the first preseason game, running for 30 yards on six carries.
The receiving threats of Chris Henry, rookie tight end Chase Coffman and free-agent acquisition Laveranues Coles, add even more weapons to a potentially quick-strike offense, but the key to any success still rests along the offensive line.
There is far more optimism on the defensive side of the ball. Although the unit was equally devastated as the offense by injury, defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer, was able to lead his squad to a 12th place finish in overall defense. That number becomes even more impressive when one considers the amount of snaps they were forced to play based on the offense’s ineptitude and its knack for three-and-outs.
The Bengals loaded up on tacklers this off-season, drafting linebacker Rey Maualuga and defensive end Michael Johnson, along with retaining safety Chris Crocker, signing free-agent safety Roy Williams and also defensive tackle Tank Johnson. Second-year player Keith Rivers returns from a broken jaw and is expected by many to have a breakout season. Defensive ends Robert Geathers and Antwan Odom need to accumulate more sacks this year in order to live up to their huge contracts. Starting cornerbacks Jonathan Joseph and Leon Hall are both solid and getting better, but should one become injured, the Bengals are very thin at cornerback and may not be able to adequately replace them.
The off-season and training camp have so far been a success for Cincinnati and has provided some optimism to a fan base that could sorely use some. But the facts remain that they are not a particularly deep team and that they play in one of the toughest divisions in football.
The team does appear to be fighting back, but can they scrap their way back to respectability this season? A string of injuries or a failed offensive line, could spell out disaster for the Bengals again this year. On the other hand, a healthy base of starters and gradual improvements from the younger players could pave the way for future success. As it is now, I put the Bengals at 6-10 and obviously missing the playoffs.