Changes Ahead in Cincinnati Bengals' Offense

Dan ClasgensContributor IMay 23, 2009

CINCINNATI - SEPTEMBER 14:  Carson Palmer #9 of the Cincinnati Bengals throws the ball against the Tennessee Titans during the first quarter of their NFL game September 14, 2008 at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out that when your team finishes 4-11-1 that changes need to me made.

The Cincinnati Bengals wiped the slate clean this off-season after a disappointing 2008 campaign and had as much player movement as any year during the Marvin Lewis’ era.

Offensively, the team needs to find answers after finishing dead last in the league in total yards and total points, 29th in rushing yards, and 30th in passing yards.

Prior to 2008, the Bengals finished in the top seven in passing for three straight seasons and in the top 10 of total offense in each of those years.

Obviously getting quarterback Carson Palmer back and healthy is paramount to the team’s success. Palmer, who was limited by injuries to just four games a year ago, has looked impressive thus far in the team’s mini-camps and appears to be near 100 percent.

"We've got some issues to deal with but any time you've got a guy like Palmer at quarterback you can turn it around very quickly," offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said earlier this offseason.

If Palmer is going to produce the team will need to keep him upright. They allowed 51 sacks in ‘08, the third most in the NFL.

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Retooling the offensive line was a big priority for the Bengals heading into the 2009 season. Right guard, Bobbie Williams, is the only starter remaining for 2005’s division championship team.

They spent their first-round pick, the sixth overall, on Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith. The team is hopeful that the 6-foot-4, 340-pounder can slide into right tackle and anchor the position for years to come.

Anthony Collins and Andrew Whitworth are expected to share time at left tackle, with Whitworth having the ability to move to left guard.

The play at center is going to be an important factor. Second-year man Kyle Cook, who has not played a single NFL-snap, currently sits atop the depth chart.

Keeping pressure off of Palmer is important, but so is establishing a running game. Success inside the AFC North always comes down to two things—moving the football on the ground and stopping the run on defense.

"We're going to try to stretch the backers and mess with them a little bit,” Cook said of the changes ahead for his year in the team’s run-blocking schemes. “Give them the flow and give them different looks in the backfield with the tight ends. Kind of add another notch to our game."

Bratkowski, who is entering his ninth season in Cincinnati, also knows that the time to mix up the running game has arrived.

After being known as a pass-first offense during the past few years, head coach Marvin Lewis has instructed Bratkowski to focus more on running the football.

"He wants us to be a more physical team that runs the ball better and uses more play-action," Bratkowski told the team’s website. “Run it so we can play-action it and throw the ball downfield. That's the direction he wants to go."

Another key component is establishing a power-running game is getting good play at fullback.

The team re-signed veteran Jeremi Johnson, who they cut last season after he came to camp out of shape. It is unclear if he’ll be able to make it back. That would leave the Bengals with a pair of unproven players at the position, rookies Chris Pressley and Fui Vakapuna.

Cedric Benson, who signed with the Bengals four games into last season, is firmly entrenched as the team’s top running back after Cincinnati parted ways with former first-round selection Chris Perry last month.

Benson signed a two-year, $7 million deal this off-season. He led the Bengals with 747 rushing yards in 2008, including back-to-back 100-plus yard efforts in the season's last two weeks.

The team also made a rare player-for-player trade when they sent defensive lineman Orien Harris to St. Louis in exchange for Brian Leonard. Although he played some fullback last year for the Rams, the Bengals envision Leonard more as a running back.

He possesses the versatility that the team covets as a change-of-pace runner and will allow the team to open up the playbook a bit. Leonard has shown some flashes of brilliance when given the opportunity for the Rams over the past two years and is the front-runner to win the backup job.

Veteran Kenny Watson, second-year back James Johnson and sixth-round pick Bernard Scott will battle it out for their spots on the roster.

During Palmer's first four seasons, the team had 40 passes of at least 40 yards. Yet last season they managed just two and none until the last day of November. Establishing a running game should open up the passing game.

"We have to adapt. We don't have the same personnel we did. We have to look at ways to use what we have," Bratkowski said.

The biggest transition for the offense this season is likely to be in the passing game.

Gone is Pro Bowl wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who signed with Seattle as a free agent.

The Bengals brought in veteran Laveranues Coles to replace him in the offense, opposite of Chad Ochocinco.

Coles has lined up early on as the Z receiver, the wideout that is usually on the tight end side.  There are fewer sight adjustments and fewer blitz breakoffs at that spot. In addition, there is a larger blocking role in the strong-side running game.

Bratkowski doesn’t see too much difference between the Z and the X spots, the receiver on the other side. He feels Coles can play anywhere in the system.

"Things become more difficult or complex when you go inside; it's a different game," Bratkowski stated.

The Bengals are also hopeful that Chris Henry can make some positive contributions this season. He has stayed out of trouble for nearly 14 months and appears to finally be dedicated to being a football player.

Henry would be the biggest beneficiary of the team’s increased emphasis on setting up the play-action pass. Of his 107 career receptions twenty have gone for 20 plus yards and eight more for 40 yards or longer.

Second-year players Andre Caldwell and Jerome Simpson, along with veteran Antonio Chatman, will compete to round out the receiving corps.

The newest wrinkle that could help resurrect the Bengals’ passing attack is how they use a tight end.

The team brought in pass-catching tight end Ben Utecht as a free agent after the 2007 season. However, an early chest injury sidelined him early and without Palmer under center the team did not have a chance to incorporate him into the system as expected.

In addition, the team landed tight end Chase Coffman out of Missouri late in the third round of April’s draft. He slid in the draft due to a foot injury that caused him to miss the combines, but he’s expected to be ready for training camp.

Coffman, who was recognized as the nation’s top tight end winning the Mackey Award, caught 83 passes for 920 yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior. He has a knack for making amazing catches and could help fill the void of an over-the-middle option left by Houshmandzadeh’s departure.

“He brings us that big-time receiving threat as a tight end, and we are excited about that,” Lewis said.

The Bengals’ offense can only get better this season. The talent is definitely there and the unit has undeniable upside. There are plenty of question marks too, but they have a real chance of returning to a top-ten offense. Only this time the route to get there could be a bit different.