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A peek ahead and back

The Bengals ended the year silently Wednesday as the team took stock with players dispersing for the offseason and the coaches heading for a break.

The silence is an indication that head coach Marvin Lewis' staff is going to remain pretty much intact for the 2009 season. When the club replaced defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan and linebackers coach Ricky Hunley last year, it made the announcement the Wednesday after the final game.

Another indication is that it's looking more and more like the Bengals are going to coach the Senior Bowl because staff upheavals in Kansas City and Cleveland leave them the next AFC team in the draft order.

It would be Lewis' second trip to Mobile, Ala., as a head coach for the Jan. 24 all-star game that pits North and South. The Bengals staff did it in 2004 and he's always been a big advocate of working the game because it gives the Bengals six days with draft prospects in a week that mirrors NFL preparation.

Lewis likes to use it to gauge how well and quickly a player can learn game plans, a step up from game film, the interviews and drills at the NFL's February scouting combine, and individual campus visits.

In '04 the Bengals coached the North team and ended up signing punter Kyle Larson as a free agent after the draft. And they actually drafted two players in the second round from the South team that played against them in Florida cornerback Keiwan Ratliff and Maryland safety Madieu Williams.

While Ratliff and Williams didn't pan out with the Bengals long term, they are playing in regular roles this weekend in the playoffs for the Colts and Vikings, respectively.

The Bengals believe the road to the playoffs hinges on the healthy right elbow of quarterback Carson Palmer. His injury and how it happened defined what happened in '08.

The lack of timing with the receivers and the failure of the pass protection tore up his elbow and led to the worst season in the Lewis era. It is the only place a review of this season can start:


The Corey Webster Blitz, Sept. 21: In the third game of the season, the Giants cornerback came off the edge to blow up the Bengals season, Kimo von Oelhoffen style.

Tight end Reggie Kelly didn't pick up Webster while Palmer and wide receiver Chad Ocho Cinco weren't on the same page because Palmer had to double-clutch. It's a microcosm of what the Bengals need to fix.

How can they afford to again not have their starting wide receivers show up in May and June and get hurt in training camp? And not be able to get the most out of Palmer, an MVP candidate, with a lack of a running game and other protection issues? They paid for it dearly in wins and losses and public opinion.


The 79-yard screen pass to running back Cedric Benson against Washington, Dec. 14: It sparked the three-game winning streak and fueled the 20-13 win over the Redskins. It got the Bengals out of a huge second-and-19 hole when it looked a like a 7-0 lead would be whittled away by field position.

The Bengals' longest play in five years showed why the Bengals need to re-sign Benson and how good the offensive line can be when it executes. It also showed how good center Eric Ghiaciuc is in space and how well he plays against 4-3 defenses. The problem is, the Bengals are in a 3-4 division.


Wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh: He left hurt and had to be unhappy after failing to get 100 catches when he had 89 catches with three games left. But the fact he could still rack up 92 catches with a backup quarterback and a running game that netted 3.6 yards per carry shows his toughness and resourcefulness against a schedule that featured 10 games against defenses that finished in the top 11.


MLB Dhani Jones and CB Leon Hall: Jones was far and away the team's leading tackler and made sure everyone got lined up in coordinator Mike Zimmer's first-year scheme that saw the Bengals rise from 27th in the defensive rankings to 12th. The NFL credited Jones with the seventh-most tackles of middle linebackers, one fewer than Baltimore's Ray Lewis.

With fellow cornerback Johnathan Joseph limping most of the season, Hall ended up covering most everybody's best receiver and the only times he really faltered are when the Ravens burned him for three long touchdowns back on Nov. 30, and Houston's Andre Johnson rang the bell for 143 yards on Oct. 26.

But the Colts' Reggie Wayne nicked Hall for only 48 yards on five catches. The Redskins' Santana Moss had nothing longer than 20 yards among his seven catches. Hall picked off three passes headed to Cleveland's Braylon Edwards, and while the Chiefs' Dwayne Bowe had 103 yards he caught his longest against cornerback David Jones and only averaged 10 yards per catch. Hall is a major reason the Bengals finished second in the NFL in allowing the fewest plays of 20 yards.


Kicker Shayne Graham: OK, he missed the 47-yarder that would have won the Philly game back in November and saved Donovan McNabb from a mob that made Rush Limbaugh look like Jay Leno.

But in a season where points were harder to find than red states, Graham went 21-for-24 and came up big in the victories. His 45-yarder with 2:20 left made it a 10-point game against Washington and the last of his three field goals against Kansas City made it a two-score game with less than six and a half minutes left. If you don't appreciate him now, you will next year if he's making 90 percent of his kicks for someone else.


Pat Sims, defensive tackle, fourth round out of Auburn. You've got to like all-around how well wide receiver Andre Caldwell played in the last two games and left tackle Anthony Collins showed it wasn't too big for him with starts in the last six games.

But when Sims started playing in the sixth game against the Jets, the Bengals came into Jersey giving up an average of 4.5 yards per rush. In the last 11 games, it was 3.5.



Jeff FitzGerald, linebackers: In his first year with the club, FitzGerald impressed with his intensity and exhaustive attention to detail. He lost No. 1 pick Keith Rivers to a broken jaw for basically 10 games at WILL linebacker and nursed SAM backer Rashad Jeanty through a siege with a hobbling foot problem that didn't keep him out of a game as the Bengals held foes to under 4.0 yards per rush for the first time in the Lewis era.

After playing just one snap in his years in the league in Arizona, Brandon Johnson blossomed in place of Rivers with two picks and a batch of big plays in the running game that held down big-time running backs Clinton Portis, Jamal Lewis and Larry Johnson to a combined 171 yards on 3.4 yards per carry in the last three games.

Nods also go to running backs coach Jim Anderson and special teams coach Darrin Simmons. Anderson took Benson off the street in virtually October and got him into three 100-yard games before it was over while Simmons took the biggest brunt of the record 23 players on injured reserve and got his guys to play so hard and well that head coaches like John Harbaugh and Tony Dungy tipped their hats to the Bengals special teams.


After doing things in the last three games that no Bengals running back has done in years, Benson continues his rags to riches story with a 147-yard effort that puts him over the 1,000-yard mark in Week 12 against the Bears team that drafted him as the Bengals clinch at least a Wild Card playoff berth.

In the last three games Benson ripped off that screen pass (longest play by a back since Corey Dillon's 96-yard run in '01), a 46-yarder against Cleveland (longest run since Rudi Johnson's 52-yarder in '04), and also got the first back-to-back 100-yard game since Rudi in '04.


Chris Crocker, safety: If not Benson, it's this guy. Class. A pro. The hardest hitter in Cincy since Ken Griffey Jr. left.

Crocker didn't get here until Oct. 30, but what safety has played better for the Bengals under Lewis? Madieu Williams was a second-round pick, Dexter Jackson was a Super Bowl MVP, and Kevin Kaesviharn had QB brains and corner speed. But no one put it all together like Crocker did and it's amazing he did it in such a short time.


Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick ended up outrushing for the season Opening Day running back Chris Perry, 304 yards to 269.


Houshmandzadeh and Ocho Cinco combined for 1,444 receiving yards. The Ocho set the club's single-season record with 1,440 in '07.


Houshmandzadeh after the 17-10 Opening Day loss to the Ravens when the Bengals totaled 154 yards, the worst offensive output in Lewis' six seasons: "We can't move the ball. We can't get a first down. We can't run. We can't throw."

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