Wednesday, December 16, 2009
The Bengals. Reason to worry?
Carson Palmer threw five touchdown passes on Oct. 25, helping Bengals running back Cedric Benson dismantle the Bears in Benson's triumphant return to Chicago. It was a banner day for the Cincinnati offense, as they put 45 points on the board and went on their bye week in first place with a 5-2 record.
Since the bye...things have been different. Oh, the Bengals still win plenty. They're 9-4 overall, in first place and complete command of the AFC North. Barring an all-time collapse, they'll be in the playoffs. If they can beat the Chargers this weekend, they even have a chance at a first-round bye. But since the beating in Chicago, the Bengals are averaging just 157.7 passing yards per game, including the 91 they mustered in Sunday's loss to the Vikings. And while some of that can be explained by a shift in philosophy -- the Bengals are running the ball on about 57 percent of their plays in that stretch -- it's raised some very legitimate questions about Cincinnati's passing game and whether the Bengals are becoming too one-dimensional on offense.
"We're struggling," Palmer said Sunday in answer to a question about the passing game. "If it was just for one reason, we'd fix it."
ESPN's Chris Mortensen wondered if the reason might be the condition of Palmer's right elbow, and he asked Palmer about that Monday. But Palmer assured Mortensen that his elbow was "101 percent," which I guess means he's had an extra ligament added in there for good measure or something but apparently means we can eliminate that as a potential excuse for the Bengals' sputtering air attack.
"I'm not sure if we were really focused on getting the passing game going today," receiver Chad Ochocinco said after the Sunday game, in which he caught a touchdown pass but had just three catches for 27 yards total. "I think what we wanted to do was establish the run like we've been doing all year. We wanted to pass as needed. You know, when it's there. I'm not sure how many attempts we had (28) or how many attempts Carson tried (25), but we weren't able to run the offense the way we wanted to."
Increasingly, it does seem as if the Bengals want to operate their offense on run-first principles. In the three games prior to the Minnesota game, they called 43, 45 and 44 running plays as compared to 22, 24 and 29 passing plays. They've been leaning hard on Benson (and, when Benson was injured, on Bernard Scott and Larry Johnson), and they were even continuing to try and grind out yards on the ground in Sunday's third quarter when they were way behind and ought to have been throwing. But the absence of a downfield passing game is likely to hurt them if they can't establish it as a threat before the postseason begins.
"This was just like a playoff game, and we got a first-hand feel of what it's going to be like," Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga said. "It's a good thing that we went through this because we're going to need this tempo and this feeling for down the road."
They're also going to have to use their loss to the Vikings for its lessons. Having lost T.J. Houshmandzadeh to free agency this summer and Chris Henry to injury at midseason, the Bengals have been unable to establish any receiver other than Ochocinco as a reliable downfield target. Teams neutralize Andre Caldwell easily. Laveraneus Coles hasn't played well. The tight ends haven't been any help. When you game plan for the Bengals, you basically know all you have to do is take away Ochocinco and you've forced them into running the ball.
"I can recall Arizona getting beat extremely bad late last year in New England, and they continued to march forward and do the things they needed to do to fix whatever problems they had," Ochocinco said. "We're in a similar situation."
These Bengals have been impressive, and they're no fluke. After their crushing, last-second, season-opening loss to the Broncos, their coach, Marvin Lewis, stood in front of them and said, "Don't flinch." All year, Lewis has preached the mantra that bad things will happen but the team's success will rest on how they handle them when they do. This week's game against red-hot San Diego provides a big-time opportunity for the Bengals to deliver a counterpunch. If they can get up, brush off the Viking loss and find a way to beat the Chargers, they'll not only be in command of the AFC's No. 2 seed, they'll have proven to themselves that they're tough enough to do something with it.
But it's going to be very hard for them to do any of that if they can't figure out how to throw for 100 yards in a game.