The Cincinnati Bengals are next in line to give the Cleveland Browns their weekly beating. The Bengals, by all accounts, should be sitting at 3-0 except for a freak play that cost them a win in the waning seconds of opening day.
The Bengals have vastly improved since last season’s debacle largely due to the health of their leader, quarterback Carson Palmer. Palmer calmly led them on a 16-play, 71-yard drive which culminated in a four-yard touchdown pass to Andre Caldwell with 14 seconds on the clock to beat the Steelers last week.
In Week One, Palmer led the Bengals on a 91-yard drive to give them a lead with only 41 seconds on the clock. In a Week Two win over the Packers, Palmer threw three touchdown scores.
Needless to say, Palmer’s leadership and arm were sorely missed in 2008.
Not coincidentally, Chad Johnson’s return to form has coincided with Palmer’s return. Johnson has 14 catches for 234 yards in 2009.
The loss of T.J. Houshmandzadeh to free agency hurts the Bengals, but Caldwell, Laveranues Coles, and Chris Henry are all solid (albeit somewhat inconsistent) receivers.
The Bengals running game was a disaster in 2008 until Cedric Benson took over the starting role in the second half of the year. He looks even better so far this year, averaging almost 100 yards per game at a clip of nearly four-and-a-half yards per carry.
Daniel Coats starts at tight end but is not used much in the passing game. He is, however, a fantastic blocker. His bone-crushing hit on Steelers LB James Farrior sprung Benson for a 23-yard score in the fourth quarter last week.
The Bengals have three new starters on the offensive line in 2009, including second-year center Kyle Cook. Cook is going to have his hands full this week with Shawn Rogers after taking a beating from the Steelers Casey Hampton last week.
Andrew Whitworth moved from left guard to left tackle in the offseason. Whitworth’s size (6'7", 335 pounds) makes him ideal for the position. He is a tough, hard-nosed player, but there will be growing pains learning the technique it takes to play against NFL edge-rushers.
Andre Smith was drafted in the first round to take over the right tackle position. He held out, finally signed a big contract, showed up to camp overweight, and proceeded to get injured.
In the meantime, the Bengals are scrambling to fill his position.
Anthony Collins was benched after giving up two sacks against the Packers. Second-year player Dennis Roland got most of the playing time last week.
Ten-year veteran Bobbie Williams is the only holdover from last year that is playing his original position. The left guard spot is still in transition. Nate Livings (six starts in 2008) is the starter, but was inactive against the Steelers. Evan Mathis got his second start in his place.
Outside of Williams, this offensive line is young and inexperienced. They are, however, very big. It will take some time for them to gel.
Because of their size, these young offensive linemen can be effective in the run game. However, protecting the passer will be a problem all year.
Defense is where the Bengals have shown the most improvement from last season. They are finally seeing the fruit come to bear from all the draft picks spent on that side of the ball.
But it is a key free agent addition who is finally realizing his vast potential. Defensive end Antwan Odom had 13 sacks in his second year in the league. But injuries and inconsistency have left coaches wondering if he would ever show that form again.
Well, this year Odom is answering his critics with an astounding seven sacks in three games. He has been unblockable so far this year, even collapsing the pocket when he doesn’t get credit for a sack.
The Bengals did come out of the Pittsburgh game with some injury concerns. Specifically, DT Tank Johnson (foot) and rookie LB Rey Maualuga (knee) are key components to the Bengal defense who will be questionable this week.
The Bengals do not have a great deal of depth in the front seven, so it would be a huge loss if either cannot play. Domato Peko, Jonathan Fanene, and Pat Sims are part of the defensive tackle rotation. Peko plays in the base defense and Fanene will sub in obvious passing situations.
Veteran Dhani Jones starts at middle linebacker. Jones is an intelligent player, but no longer possesses the athletic ability to be a difference maker.
OLB Keith Rivers appears to be turning the corner as an impact linebacker in his second year in the league. And of course, his former USC teammate Maualuga is well-known in Cleveland for being passed by in the draft. Maualuga is playing like the star he was in college, silencing the NFL scouts who let him drop on the draft boards.
Leon Hall, now in his third-year, is turning into a shut-down corner. Fourth-year cornerback Johnathan Joseph is a better than average corner on the opposite side. There is very little NFL experience backing them up.
Roy Williams and Chris Crocker start at the safety positions. Williams is a big-hitting, five-time Pro Bowler, but has a reputation for occasionally getting caught peaking into the backfield. Crocker is a seventh-year journeyman who started his career in Cleveland.
This defense has held up well in the first three games, largely due to the play of Odom.
There is certainly some athleticism.
But they are by no means a juggernaut. There are holes that can be taken advantage of.
While the Bengals have started the season 2-1 and are improving, it is a very fragile 2-1. Because there is such a lack of depth, one or two injuries at key positions could send this team into a free fall.
Right now, they are playing better than the Browns (who isn’t?!), so they have the edge. But stay tuned to these Bengals because the bottom could drop out at any moment.
Final Prediction: Cincinnati Bengals 21–Cleveland Browns 16