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No springing back

Posted May 5, 2010

While Chad Ochocinco dances with the stars, the Bengals veterans take the field next Tuesday for the first time since they won the 2009 AFC North title with relatively the same cast. They’ll probably have 19 of their 22 Opening Day starters in some kind of dress. But this is not the same team.

Only two are not with the club (fullback Jeremi Johnson and wide receiver Laveranues Coles) and the other, The Ocho, is still dancing. On defense, right end Antwan Odom (Achilles) and safety Chris Crocker (ankle) figure to still be rehabbing and not on the field.

Most of the rookies aren’t expected until the camp that begins May 18.
 
Here are five things to watch in May and June that will let you know this isn’t exactly the same club that pulled off its first division sweep in history last season in its attempt to upgrade from division winner to Super Bowl winner.

1. SECONDARY

Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has been saying it all offseason: The Bengals are staring at six games against 4,000-yard passers and they need to get more pressure than what they brought last year while getting their 34 sacks.

One of the many places where Zimmer is tinkering is here. The best way to get pressure? Man-to-man coverage.

So having one of the best cornerback tandems hasn’t stopped the Bengals from adding physical talent there. They drafted a cornerback early (Wake Forest’s Brandon Ghee in the third round) and are on the verge of striking a deal with Adam Jones, one of the more feared cover guys around four years ago. If anyone can get ’06 out of him in ’10, it is Zimmer and secondary coaches Kevin Coyle and Louie Cioffi.

Plus, the Bengals look to be nearing a deal with veteran safety Gibril Wilson, a guy that has started 80 NFL games, is 6-1, 197 pounds, smart, handy, and started 13 games for the 2007 Super Bowl champion Giants. He has shown he can get his hands on the ball (his 13 career picks would be third best behind safety Roy Williams and cornerback Leon Hall) as well as get to the quarterback with 8.5 career sacks. That would round out a very solid safety corps because Chinedum Ndukwe is coming off a season he was third on the team in tackles and is a veteran of 25 starts himself.

Another reason it will look different than ’09 is the presence of Williams, who played virtually no snaps after September with a broken forearm that has healed well enough for him to be cleared.

2. WIDE RECEIVER

What have we been hearing for months? Carson Palmer needs more weapons, right? The permits are signed Tuesday.

Gone is Laveranues Coles and up is Antonio Bryant. Bryant is still coming back from last year’s knee surgery but he should be able to show enough of his versatility. It will be interesting to see who lines up in Ocho’s spot at X opposite Bryant. The late Chris Henry had an outstanding spring there last year.

Look for Andre Caldwell to get the nod out of the gate at X and guys like Jerome Simpson, Matt Jones, and sixth-rounder Dez Briscoe to also work there. That’s quite a mix of guys with something to prove. Simpson, a second-rounder in ’08, looks to be down to his last strike. Jones, a first-rounder in ’05, is looking to revive his career. Briscoe is looking to show he should have been a first- or second-rounder.

Without Ocho and Henry, this is a different spring show. Outside of Caldwell, no other receiver has caught five balls from quarterback Carson Palmer. Even when Ocho comes back, this group has a different look with third-rounder Jordan Shipley vying for the slot and Bryant also able to move inside.

3. FRONT SEVEN

Here is the corollary to Zimmer’s quest for more pressure. Right end Michael Johnson is going to play primarily SAM linebacker during the spring in an effort to mix up the looks and confuse offenses. If the 6-7 and infinitely athletic Johnson can make the move, Zimmer has his 3-4 wild card. Will he rush or will he drop? Anything to get pressure. Johnson was quite active as a rookie despite playing mainly on third down with three sacks and five passes defensed.

And when the kids get here, the nickel package is going to have a decidedly different look with second-rounder Carlos Dunlap and fourth-rounder Geno Atkins thought to be potentially inside pass rushers. Not exactly what we saw in the spring of ’09.

4. BRAT’S TOYS

With the drafting of Briscoe, Shipley and tight end Jermaine Gresham, along with the signing of Bryant and the emergence of a scat back in Bernard Scott, when is the last time offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski had this many weapons?

Probably 2005, when running back Chris Perry was healthy and the Ocho, Henry and T.J. Houshmandzadeh were feared down the field. There is no one here as accomplished as Henry and Houshmandzadeh. But Bryant is an 80-catch guy and Gresham looks like the force Palmer has never had over the middle. The interesting thing will be to see if the passing game can be kicked in gear without fouling up the rhythm of the running game.

But here may be the question of the OTAs:

How does second-year tight end Chase Coffman look?

Remember, he couldn’t participate in these workouts last year because of his broken foot. Then he was never active for a game. Is he close to the NCAA’s all-time receiving tight end, like he was at Missouri? With Gresham and Coffman running around, this is a look Bratkowski has never had in his nine previous seasons. Two guys that can potentially split the seam instead of a once-in-awhile Reggie Kelly.

That was something you didn’t get to see a year ago.

But the Bengals still are talking to Kelly in the hopes of re-signing him.

5. MORE LINEBACKER

The spring is supposed to be a time of experimentation, so look for second-year SAM backer Rey Maualuga to get some snaps in the middle, where he is expected to move eventually. But Dhani Jones, the TV personality who will be at OTAs, is still here and still very much the middle man, but he could also bop around at both outside spots since he’s also done that in his other NFL stops.

Maualuga is expected to make his first appearance on the field after his season ended with a broken fibula in the next-to-last game. Keep an eye on the backers. Four of them, Jones, Brandon Johnson, Rashad Jeanty and Abdul Hodge are in the last year of their deals. Jeanty (leg) won’t go until training camp. A guy that should get a lot of snaps this spring is a guy the coaches quietly like a lot, Dan Skuta, last year’s free agent rookie out of Grand Valley that played in eight games and still finished fifth with 10 special-teams tackles. The drafting of Texas’ Roddrick Muckelroy in the fourth round is going to make this spot as tight as the wide receivers’ scrum at final cuts.

 

 

 

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