Posted: 9:30 p.m.
ESPN’s Steve Young, the Hall of Fame quarterback who broke Bengaldom’s heart a generation ago when he spurned the club for the USFL, broke the news Monday night that the Bengals don’t have the formula to be interesting in the postseason.
Ignoring Cincinnati’s 6-0 record in the AFC North, Young ticked off the teams that pass and score at will as the teams to watch in January: The Saints, Colts, Vikings, Chargers and possibly the Patriots.
He’ll get some fellow pundits, like Charley Casserly of CBS and Peter King of Sports Illustrated, that state a case for the Bengals' potential to make some postseason noise. Even as Bengaldom is racked by concerns about a Cincinnati passing game that is ranked 21st in the league, has yielded only 15 Palmer touchdowns, and is holding back an offense scoring just 21 points per game.
Yet the Bengals are currently built to the specifications that have crowned the majority of this decade’s Super Bowl champions.
The Bengals are currently ranked seventh in NFL rushing, 21st in passing and 17th total for 7-21-17. On defense they are ranked third against the run, 16th against the pass and sixth total for 3-16-6. They average 21 points per game and allow 15.8.
Here are the corresponding numbers of this decade’s Super Bowl champs:
» 2000 Ravens: 5-22-16 on offense; 1-8-2 on defense; 20.8 points for, 10.3 against.
» 2001 Patriots: 13-22-19 on offense; 19-24-24 on defense; 23.1-17.0
» 2002 Bucs: 24-15-27 on offense; T5-1-1 on defense; 21.6-12.3
» 2003 Patriots: 27-9-17 on offense; 4-15-7 on defense; 21.8-14.9
» 2004 Patriots: 7-11-7 on offense; 6-17-9 on defense; 27.3 -16.3
» 2005 Steelers: 5-24-T15 on offense; 3-16-4 on defense; 24.3 –16.1
» 2006 Colts: 18-2-3 on offense; 32-2-21 on defense; 26.7-22.5
» 2007 Giants: 4-21-16 on offense; 8-11-7 on defense; 23.3-22.0
» 2008 Steelers: 23-17-22 on offense; 2-1-1 on defense; 21.7-14.5
» 2009 Bengals: 7-21-17 on offense; 3-16-6 on defense; 21.0-15.8
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis’ Baltimore Ravens, the first champs of the decade, set the formula for the coming years. The Ravens used their record-setting defense that was ranked first against the run to lift a mediocre offense (16th) that was good enough to be a top five running team into an improbable champion that had finished 8-8 the year before.
Which is why Lewis said after the Cleveland win that he feels pretty good when he drives to the yard on Sundays and his team can run it and stop the run, and he’ll go from there.
Cincinnati's transition to a ball-control offense relying on a stingy defense that began in the hours after the underachieving 2007 season and was put on hold during a Carson Palmer-less 2008, was never more evident than in this week’s NFL stats after 11 games in 2009.
The Bengals lead the NFL in scoring defense at 15.8 points per game, are ranked third stopping the run and are ranked seventh rushing the ball. Since 2000, all but two of the Super Bowl champs were ranked in the top 10 defending the run and held foes to 17 points per game or less. Also, three of the last five Super Bowl champs have been in the top 10 in rushing.
Palmer smiled Monday when the old Pac 10 Heisman Trophy winner was told now he knows how a Big Ten quarterback feels.
“We’re playing good Big Ten football. I’ll take it any way I can get it,” Palmer said, but he’s not sure that any formula spells a championship. “I have no idea. We’ve gone out and thrown the ball quite a bit against a couple of teams because they gave us throws. If teams aren’t going to give us certain throws, we’re capable of running the ball. We’ve proven that. We’ve worked extremely hard on it and we’re going to keep doing it because it’s been a winning formula for this team. It’s not what works for the two Super Bowl teams last year. Pittsburgh won a Super Bowl a couple of years ago playing good defense and running the football with Willie Parker. It’s completely situational, depending on that team and the opponent.”
Last season’s Super Bowl win for the Steelers was one of the contradictions of the decade because they were ranked 23rd running the ball. Only the 2002 Buccaneers and the 2003 Patriots were worse (both 27th). In fact, the ’05 champion Steelers scored more points than their ’08 club by a field goal with a better running game.
Four championship teams this decade have had passing games ranked 21st or lower. Only two Super Bowl champions (the ’03 Pats and the ’06 Colts) had top 10 passing numbers.
But even though the Browns never pressed the Bengals last Sunday, the anxiety over the passing game was expressed in catcalls at Paul Brown Stadium that greeted the end of the most exasperating drives.
Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski admitted this week that while he felt good about the win and the run game, the inconsistencies in the passing game gnawed at him.
He isn’t happy with the pressure Cleveland got on Palmer and he said it wasn’t from blitzes but from one-on-one breakdowns up front. He’s also concerned about some inconsistency in route running and how the loss of wide receiver
But Bratkowski also says the problems aren’t because the Bengals have gone rusty in the passing game. After all, they’ve only run it 26 more times than they’ve passed it this season. Bratkowski thinks it is more a product of how teams like Cleveland are playing them. And, the passing game did click on third down (48 percent), which Bratkowski calls “playoff caliber.”
“(The Browns) weren’t going to let us play catch,” Bratkowski said after Cleveland basically dared the Bengals to run into Cover 2 all day. “They were going to make us drive down the field for 10, 12 plays, and what they’re saying is they’re banking on you making a mistake. Penalties. A drop on third down ... you’ve got to keep the mistakes to a minimum if you’re going to be a physical, running team.”
After Palmer got drilled more than anyone liked Sunday (“He also held on to it a little bit longer because of the way the way they were covering us,” Bratkowski said), there is the theory floating about that the Bengals are running more because the first priority is to protect him behind an inexperienced offensive line that is more effective run blocking than against the pass.
“I would never say that. That’s not why we run it, to protect him,” Bratkowski said. “We need to protect him when we’re throwing, but we run the ball for no other reason that it’s a statement when you can wear somebody down and be real physical with them. You wear them down during a game and it takes a toll on a defense. Then you hope you cash in on them getting tired and get your big plays.
“That’s what it takes to win in the AFC North. A physical, aggressive approach running the ball and throwing play-action.”
Both Palmer and Bratkowski are confident the Bengals will be able to throw it when they have to.
“When teams try to shut down the run game and try to keep us under 100 yards, we have the ability to throw the ball,” Palmer said. “We’ve thrown the ball for 4,000 yards here. We’ve done a lot of good things in the passing game. We’re in a good position where you pick your poison. Do you try and slow us down in the running game or do you want to sit back and take Chad (Ochocinco) away?
“You’ve got to pick one or the other. We’ve got a pretty good scheme ... where we can get to certain plays vs. certain coverages and maximize our efficiency within doing that.”
But the one side of the formula that really counts is defense. The Bengals are ranked sixth in defense, third against the run. Look at the ’03 Pats. They were seventh and fourth, respectively and were able to overcome the 27th-ranked running game. The Steelers team that beat the Bengals in the ’05 playoffs was fourth on defense, third against the run, and held teams to 16.1 points per game, very similar numbers to the ’09 Bengals.
“I’m surprised we’ve given up a 100-yard rusher this year,” said Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer when told Cleveland’s Jerome Harrison is the only runner to do it this year back on Oct. 4. “Usually when we don’t play the run well it’s because we have mis-fits. We had a few (Sunday), but not many.”
They haven’t made many all year. In leaping to third against the run the Bengals’ 81.9 yards per game are more than 10 yards better than the franchise record of 93.7, set in 1983, when the Bengals finished tied for second in the NFL. What Zimmer really likes is they are tied for first in the NFL with the Colts and Vikings for allowing the fewest runs of 20 yards or more with three.
Zimmer has also taken the defense to big heights in the scoring column at 15.8. The Bengals have never ranked higher than fifth in the NFL in scoring defense for a full season and that was in 1972 at just over 16 points per game. And that is a huge common denominator in the Super formula. In the last decade, only four champs have allowed fewer points than the Bengals are giving up right now: The ’00 Ravens (10.3), the ’02 Bucs (12.3), the ’08 Steelers (14.5) and the ’03 Pats (14.9).
But Zimmer isn’t happy with a pass rush that has produced just one sack in the past two games after being in the top five for much of the first half of the season. If Bratkowski isn’t happy with some one-on-one play up front, so is Zimmer and he says he’s going go back to some basic stuff this week with work on rush technique.
The stinginess against the run has built this playoff run more than anything. CBS’ Casserly, the former general manager of the Redskins and Texans, says the Bengals are built to stand up in January.
“Look, any team that has Carson Palmer has a chance in the playoffs, that’s first,” Casserly said. “Can they be the kind of team that gets hot and wins three in a row in the playoffs? I think so. But it’s all about matchups. Can they beat New England? I don’t know. The one game they have left that is going to be their biggest challenge in style is Minnesota. They score a lot of points and they’ve got a good defense.”
SI’s King says the Bengals will have to score 30 points in one playoff game and he says, “My gut says they can. I get these e-mails all the time from Cincinnati asking what’s wrong with Carson Palmer. The only thing I see he isn’t doing is throwing it deep.”
He says this Bengals team is geared to go “deep into January” better than any team the last three coaching regimes chaired after Sam Wyche left before the 1992 season. King compares it to the James Brooks-Ickey Woods days with a no-name offensive line of late-round picks, and thinks the defense with Zimmer gives the Bengals a very intriguing story.
“It seems to me Marvin is saying this is the kind of team he wanted all along,” King said. “Yeah, I’d say it’s built to win in the playoffs.”
Which is where the decade started. With Lewis’ defense setting the tone for not only the AFC North, but the road map to the Super Bowl.