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Hobson's Choice: Contending with defense

Posted Jan 13, 2010

Q: With the Bengals' latest slide to finish the 2009 season, a question must be asked: Do we see this team improving in 2010 or falling back down to the cellar? It seems that when one hole is fixed, another is revealed with this team. Can they play both good defense and good offense at the same time next year?
--
Brian R., Circleville, OH

BRIAN: The re-signing of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer should prevent any kind of backsliding. If anything has taught us in the Zimmer era, playing good defense and running the ball with a good quarterback is going to keep you in it all year. Plus, the defense has improved in each of Zimmer’s two seasons and the trend should continue, particularly with a healthy Antwan Odom and Roy Williams.

With Zimmer back, the question isn’t falling back to the cellar, but taking the next step to win some playoff games. The onus is clearly on the offense. Specifically the passing game. The goal has to be averaging 24 points per game.

That should be Marvin Lewis’ slogan for the next training camp.

24.

Complete with a picture of Jack Bauer blowing up the passing game.

24.

Everything management and Lewis do for the next seven months should be geared to making sure they score 24 points a game. If it means signing Brandon Marshall or Antonio Bryant in free agency. Or drafting receivers in the first four rounds. Stealing the Saints playbook or trading for Anquan Boldin.

Whatever it takes.

24.

If they average 24 points per game in the third year of a Zimmer defense, they should make the AFC title game.



Q: Why is everyone making excuses for Carson Palmer? He has had serious issues all year, with the lone exception of the Chicago game. It is clear, by observing his body language and demeanor on the sidelines, as well as in interviews, he is not a happy camper. He has lost his confidence, thus his accuracy and hesitation throwing the ball. --Jim C., Cold Spring, KY

JIM:  Don’t get carried away. The passing game has serious issues. No question it needs an infusion of creativity and personnel. But the quarterback is the only thing keeping it from falling into the Patriot League.

If you’ve got a quarterback who orchestrated seven last-drive scores that put you in a tie or the lead and threw just two interceptions in six-game sweep of a defense-dominated division, well, like Rex Ryan said the other week, if you don’t want him, we’ll take him. Maybe I need an interpreter but the body language I saw on the absolute-must 98-yard march to win the division is exactly what you want a NFL quarterback to say.

Palmer is the first to tell you 2009 wasn’t his best or most accurate season, but you know why. He had to adjust to virtually a new set of wide receivers and a new philosophy while losing both tight ends before the training camp scrimmage. It’s pretty clear he doesn’t have the same trust in Laveranues Coles and Andre Caldwell that he had in T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry. But that’s a long way from losing confidence in himself.

And how many accurate throws were dropped? According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Bengals dropped 32 balls. If they catch them all, his completion percentage goes from 60.5 to 67.4, darn near his all-time best of 67.8 in ’05. OK, say they catch half. That puts him at 63.9, higher than his last Pro Bowl year of ’06 of 62.3.

Certainly when Chad Ochocinco was where he was supposed to be with 2:03 left with the division on the line Palmer didn’t hesitate and blistered the winner. But against the Jets in the playoffs when two receivers were in the same spot on the sidelines, that would make anyone float a what-the-heck out there.

And maybe I need a body language translation dictionary, but the guy I saw is becoming more and more comfortable as a leader and has no qualms about getting in a guy’s face to let him know he fouled up. The guy can’t win. He got ripped for being passive and now he gets ripped for being animated.

All I know is when he’s got veteran receivers with whom he has worked consistently, he completes 65-70 percent of his passes. All I know is that this year he did what they asked him to do and he unselfishly went check downs and didn’t go deep to play field position and defense. He was such an unhappy camper that Cedric Benson made sure he shook Palmer’s hand after the title-clinching to tell him how honored he was to play with him.

It was low-risk, high-maintenance and he won 10 games behind an offensive line that had all the name recognition of page 9 in the Cincinnati Bell phone book. He won as many games as Tom Brady and Kurt Warner, more than Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, and had more comebacks than Brett Favre, counting No. 4’s on and off the field.

Don’t rip Palmer. Vote for him for NFL Comeback Player of the Year if you don’t vote for Benson.

But, yes, of course, the passing game is a mess and it has been ever since Palmer threw for six touchdowns passes in Cleveland in the second game of ’07. They couldn’t pass consistently that year because they couldn’t run and didn’t have the ball all that much. In ’08, they didn’t have Palmer. And this year, they still couldn’t pass even though they were a top 10 running team.

Sure you can take them to task for a number of things. Pile on. Bengals wide receiver Jerome Simpson sits while Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson stands among the league’s elite playmakers. After Joey Galloway looked so good in a November tryout, shouldn’t they have signed him after a December and January they had five passes of 20 yards or more to wide receivers and none in the last two games?

On one hand, it’s easy to criticize offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski because play calling is so easy to second guess. Yeah, it looked like his game plan for Jan. 3 in The Meadowlands was crafted for Sept. 3, but this season he got a lot out of little (untried O-line, no healthy TEs, new WRs) with some unbalanced lines and some new alignments. After nine years on the job and after a couple of years of passing numbers not acceptable for a quarterback of Palmer’s caliber, the argument is to make a change at coordinator.

But Brat won enough games to earn another shot and, really, deserves your handshake instead of the back of your hand when you look at the production of a unit that had four offensive linemen in new spots, a tight end that played fullback last year, another tight end that was cut in August, and a receiving corps in the playoffs that minus The Ocho caught a total of  zero balls from Palmer before this season.

Yet Brat knows that after coming up with an energized running game in the offseason, he has to come up just as big in the passing game.

And Palmer is a good start, not trade bait.

(By the way, here is the Elias breakdown of the drops: WR Chad Ochocinco 6; WR Laveranues Coles 6; TE Daniel Coats 5; WR Andre Caldwell 5; RB Cedric Benson 3; FB Jeremi Johnson 3; TE J.P. Foschi 2; WR Quan Cosby 1; WR Chris Henry 1)



Q: I was one of the frozen fans disappointed on Saturday. My disappointment is not so much with this loss but for the very rare opportunities we ever get to experience playoff football. It seems that the Steelers, Cowboys, Eagles, Colts and Patriots are almost always contenders and therefore one loss doesn't doom the teams to another long period of futility. I respect your opinion and I wonder whether or not you get a sense that we will start seeing more good years in the near future. I believe that you have to have a lot of opportunities to experience playoff football in order to succeed like the teams I've mentioned. --Joe H., Lexington, KY

JOE:If they keep the current formula intact, they’re going to contend for the next five years, which is when Palmer’s contract runs out and hopefully they can extend him. He’ll be 35, but look at Warner and Favre.

I’m not sure you want to put the Cowboys in there, but the common thread for the Steelers, Eagles, Colts and Patriots is a strong defense. The Colts? They always put great pressure on the quarterback no matter their ranking. Yeah, it’s because they score, but they do. The point is, defense wins consistently.

And maybe they’re not all that far away. In the last five seasons, they’ve won two division titles. Only New England, Indy, and San Diego (4) and Seattle (3) have won more. The Bengals, along with the Cowboys, Giants, Vikings, Saints, Cardinals, Bears, Buccaneers and Panthers have won two. The Eagles have won one.

The killer for the Bengals is blowing a playoff berth in ’06 by a game in a year they should have won four more games. The roughing the passer in Tampa. The 28-7 halftime lead over San Diego. Dropping a TD, getting one called back, and botching an extra point in Denver. The missed field goal on the last snap of regulation against Pittsburgh.

Any of those turn the other way for a ninth win and that’s three playoff berths in five years. That would have put them with Indy (5), New England (4), San Diego (4), Pittsburgh (3) and Baltimore (3) in the AFC.



Q: The O-line was a big question mark going into this season. They responded magnificently and became strength. Keeping Carson's health in mind, they can always get better. What will the Bengals likely do to improve the line in 2010? What position will the Bengals look to draft first: WR, TE, OL, or the best player on the board? --Keith, Seoul S. Korea

KEITH: They should be better simply by lining them up in the same spots and having another spring and training camp under their belts. Look for last year’s No. 1 pick, Andre Smith, to be the starting right tackle and he should give them a better pass-blocking presence over there. No matter what they decide to do with 33-year-old free-agent right guard Bobbie Williams, they probably have to look at drafting a guard somewhere in the middle rounds. With Anthony Collins and Dennis Roland, they’re good at backup tackle. But they could use a Scott Kooistra-type guy that can play guard and tackle, but they may already have him in Evan Mathis.

They’ve got the 21st pick and they’ve shown they pretty much draft for need in the first and second rounds, and then take the best guy the rest of the way. Except for the second round in ’06 when they were pretty set on the O-line and they still took LSU left tackle Andrew Whitworth, and what a life saver that has been.

It has to be a wide receiver No. 1 this year, right? And it may have to be a wide receiver in the first two rounds. It is not a strong class of WRs, reportedly, so if there isn’t one there, they better be careful. The need may be so great, they may have to consider trading up, which they never do. But if you trade down, you get more of what you have. Unless you get a wide receiver in free agency. Then stay at No. 21 and take the best player. A safety would be nice, maybe.