Last Sunday, Marvin Lewis and his coaches stood in front of a hulking object, covered in a tarp inside of Paul Brown Stadium. A crowd gathered around it and the tarp was removed. There stood the new Bengals machine of 2009, shiny and new, purring idly and waiting to operate. The coaches set it in motion and the machine went to work with only a few minor setbacks; coughing out an occasional plume of smoke on a penalty or loosing a bolt on a dropped pass.
After a few hours, the machine seemed to have completed its task—albeit without much grace or style—and the crowd seemed satisfied enough. But then, out of nowhere, the machine was struck by lightning and died; the crowd left disappointed and the coaches stormed back to the lab to work out the kinks.
But what are the kinks?
The defense looks fine; no problems there. Carson Palmer had one bad throw in the third-quarter deep in his own territory which should have been picked off by a linebacker and returned to the house, but luckily was dropped instead. Outside of that pass, there were no glaring errors made on his part, so he doesn’t seem to be the problem. Special teams had a major gaffe made by a rookie punter, but that isn’t likely to keep happening. Penalties and drops are small annoyances that are easily fixed. So what’s really keeping this rocket-ship from blasting off?
Most fans will shout in a raspy, aggrevated tone that it’s the play-calling.
Ah, the “Bratkowski sucks” mantra heard anywhere Bengal games are broadcast. This year’s machine was promised to feature a new offensive playbook that would dazzle defenses and appease fans, yet the complaining started at halftime of the first game and the anger rose in the stands after watching too many first-down hand-offs.
For the record, there need to be some first-down runs. Even the no-gainers up the middle are necessary to set up other plays in the same formation later in the game, and runs early in each half helps wear down the opposing defense. But, it appears that Bob Bratkowski is still leaning on that lever a little too hard.
The running game is least effective when the Bengals get stopped for a minimal gain on first down, then try again the next down (in fairness to Brat, some of that happens when Palmer audibles to a run, which rarely seems to work, but, I suppose, is better than an interception or sack). Either Brat or Marvin or both, make “manageable third-down scenarios” such a high priority within the sequence of play-calling that it seems to detract from the rhythm and strengths of the offense. If the Bengals were more willing to attack rather than chip away on second & longish, perhaps there would be less third downs to worry about in general.
Another priority within the Bengal playbook is the vertical passing game. Fans love it, loudmouth receivers love it, golden boy quarterbacks love it, but it’s a tough strength to gamble on. Denver eliminated the vertical passing game after Chris Henry’s 18-yard catch on the first drive. Brian Dawkins was rarely ever in the television screen before the ball was snapped. With the secondary dropping so far back, Palmer relied on his receivers gaining yards after the catch on shorter routes which they were able to do with some success.
Bratkowski ran many play-action passes and Palmer wanted to air it out on a handful of them, but the Broncos insisted the Bengals beat them another way, so Palmer had to go with check-offs. I thought Carson looked good moving out of the pocket, throwing on the run and finding his safety valves when the deep routes were taken away. Offensive tackle Anthony Collins, was beat a few times on the outside speed rush and Cedric Benson completely wimped out on a chip block on Mario Haggan, but aside from that, the pass-protection was solid, which allowed Palmer to play sharper than I expected of him. In this instance, Bratkowski cannot be accused of refusing to take shots downfield; the defense simply wouldn’t allow it to happen.
It’s not a bad approach against this offense: take away the quick strike, allow a lot of short plays underneath and force the offense to trip over its own feet. The Broncos almost threw a shutout with that game-plan and other teams without elite pass-rushers will probably try the same. But that philosophy is a passive approach to defense, and the Bengals should learn to score points against it once they improve their concentration.
For years the identity of the team was its explosive passing attack and once the league found out how to stop it, the Bengals were exposed as a team without much of a core. I see Marvin turning the Bengals into a smash-mouth team as an attempt to strengthen the machine’s foundation.
After his centerpiece broke down and he was left with virtually nothing else to work with last season, I believe Marvin learned then that to be consistent in the NFL, a team needs to have more than one way to win games. Once he works out some of those kinks, I think we’ll see that happen this season.