The fortune of the 2007 Cincinnati Bengals rests squarely with their defense.
Offensively, the team is one of the best in the league, especially with a healthy Carson Palmer under center.
On the other side of the ball, the Bengals are coming off a season in which their D was ranked 30th overall in the NFL—and tied-for-last against the pass.
The defense doesn’t need to be much better for the Bengals to return to the postseason...which is good news, because it won’t be. Still, the D has just enough promise to push the Bengals back over .500, and to help them contend for an AFC North title.
Life would be a lot easier in Cincinnati were it not for that pesky criminal justice system. In addition to a host of players who've had run-ins with the law, starting middle linebacker Odell Thurman sat out 2006 after violating the NFL's substance abuse policy—and was denied reinstatement in 2007.
On the bright side, Thurman's absence opens the door for others to shine.
Ahmad Brooks, a middle linebacker out of Virginia, saw some time last season and should make an impact this year. The Bengals also added Ed Hartwell, formerly of the Ravens and Falcons, to help bolster the linebacking corps.
If Hartwell can replicate the success he had in Baltimore under Marvin Lewis, he'll form a solid nucleus with Brooks.
Of course, the run wasn’t nearly as troublesome as the pass for the Bengals in 2006. CB Deltha O’Neal took a giant leap backwards, and the rest of the beaten-up and beat-down secondary struggled mightily.
Rookie CB Johnathan Joseph was a lone bright spot, although he dropped several potential interceptions that could have helped the team immensely. The Bengals wisely used their first-round pick to nab Michigan's Leon Hall, who will eventually replace O’Neal.
The defensive line returns the core of last year’s improving unit. Ends Robert Geathers and Justin Smith recorded 18 combined sacks, and each was rewarded in the offseason. The line got much better after a pitiful start to 2006, and should be able to build on that progress in 2007.
Offensively, meanwhile, the Bengals are in great hands. Palmer is one of the league’s finest; many observers rank him just below Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. He was much improved late in 2006 after getting comfortable in the pocket, and looks to be fully recovered from the ugly knee injury he suffered a year and a half ago.
WRs Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh are the best receiving duo in the league, hands down. When Chris Henry returns from his eight-week suspension, the Bengals will have one of the best wideout groups around.
In the meantime, Palmer will have to make do with subpar replacements.
Replacement is a hot-button word at other offensive positions. G Eric Steinbach left for division rival Cleveland in the offseason, and will be replaced by G Andrew Whitworth. C Eric Ghiaciuc, on the other hand, takes over for the retired Rich Braham.
The line is not expected to miss a beat.
RB Rudi Johnson is still the team’s starter—for now. Rookie Kenny Irons is pushing Johnson for playing time, and if Johnson’s YPC numbers continue to drop, Irons may be seeing regular carries sooner rather than later.
Everyone believes the Bengals offense will be just as good, or better, than it was in 2006. Few will say the same for the defense. However, with some good pieces in place, and given the breadth of Marvin Lewis' defensive knowledge, at least a small amount of progress is virtually assured.
And a small amount is all this team needs to reach the next level.
Projected finish: 10-6, 1st AFC North
Keep your eyes on: TE Reggie Kelly—Could see increased production while Henry sits.
Take your eyes off: CB Deltha O’Neal—He can’t spell interception without I-N-E-P-T.
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