Marvin Lewis should feel more at ease with the team he has reassembled; it’s the kind he likes.
The Bengals caught Green Bay with a surprise left hook to the jaw on Sunday, leaving the Packers battered, bewildered and beaten on their own turf. The new program that Marvin now runs in Cincinnati is more fortified with brute strength and toughness, and is quickly shedding its finesse moniker by physically manhandling its opponents.
Cedric Benson ran wild against the supposed Steeler-prototype defense brought to Green Bay by former Pittsburgh coordinator, Dom Capers. The offensive line, including backup left guard Evan Mathis, overpowered the Packers in the trenches and allowed Benson to gash his way to runs of six to 10 yards all day. Benson demonstrated terrific field vision and crafty footwork, and the power he runs with is excellent for wearing out defenses late in the game. If Benson stays healthy and limits his fumbles, he should have no problem ending with close to 1,400 yards this season. I’m very impressed.
Also impressive was the pass-protection against a gang of good pass-rushing linebackers and three fat guys up front. Andrew Whitworth was beaten by Cullen Jenkins on a sack, but Carson Palmer had ample time to make his progressions and deliver his passes throughout the afternoon. There was concern that Green Bay would be in Palmer’s face all day, but the success in the run game prevented Capers from calling heavy blitzes, and the No. 9 jersey stayed fairly clean.
Carson still made two dumbfounding decisions in the first half, both resulting in interceptions and 14 points; he must deprogram himself in order to become an elite quarterback again. Aside from the picks, he played well, especially in the second half, and can still make some great throws. If the running game is as good as we hope it is, the dependency on Palmer to win games by himself will decrease and his efficiency will improve. Even Ocho has told the media that he likes the offense as a run-first and pass-second variety; that has to be some kind of sign of the apocalypse.
As for the defense, what’s there to worry about? After surprising people last season, the general concern for the D was putting pressure on the quarterback. Meet Antwan Odom and his handful of sacks, or Rey Maualuga and his forced fumbles. Here is the bone-crushing Roy Williams who makes you pay for 8-yard gains, and there is Keith Rivers who you simply cannot escape. I realize that it’s vastly premature to make silly comparisons, but this defense does remind me of Baltimore 2000. I know, I know, but I’m just saying that they have similar characteristics.
Lastly, good special-teams play is necessary for a solid team foundation. Quan Cosby’s added pop to the punt return game translated into 10 points on Sunday, and three when it mattered most. Rookie Kevin Huber bounced back from a scary first game, punting the ball very well and catching a high snap (you really need to get it together Brad St. Louis; you have one job, do it).
Linebacker Rashad Jeanty has become a fine tackler on return coverage. Shayne Graham continues to kick off well and drilled a 41-yard attempt down the stretch. The unit supplied another dash of late-game insanity by not catching an onside kick, but it worked out in the end. Special-teams success is instrumental to a quality season for any team, especially one climbing out of the well.
The idea of the Bengals as a grind-house, smash-mouth team is a little weird and may be difficult getting used to, but that is what we’re seeing from this bunch. They’re tougher than they’ve ever been under Marvin; they can hold up after getting punched in the face and can throw down with the best of them. They’re in for a long, strenuous season of close games and hard-nosed play; the faint of heart should turn away now.
Denver was let off the hook, Green Bay was stunned, Pittsburgh will be on notice.