Jordan Shipley had five catc hes for 50 yards. (Bengals photo)
OK, OK, so it's not Bruce Springsteen appearing on the covers of Time and Newsweek the same week.
But the Bengals have seen the future of third down and it is rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham and rookie wide receiver Jordan Shipley. Gresham continued his quiet progress to become the first rookie to appear as the Opening Day depth chart starter since fullback Jeremi Johnson in 2003. With five catches for 50 yards against Denver at Paul Brown Stadium, Shipley is now the frontrunner to man the slot in three-receiver sets.
"Wait until you see 'Glance' on film," said quarterback Carson Palmer as he walked past offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski on the way out of the locker room Sunday night. "The way he wrapped it round there … great."
At first glimpse, Gresham's "Glance" route ignited the 33-24 victory over the Broncos with a 19-yard catch on the final play of an abysmal first quarter the Bengals trailed, 14-0. His catch pushed the ball to the Bengals 45 and from there Palmer coaxed three first-down conversions for the first offense's first touchdown of the season. In true T.J.-fashion, Shipley wriggled in the slot for two of them and his other catch in the drive, a nine-yarder, began to bail the Bengals out of a second-and-17 from the Denver 28 caused by left guard Nate Livings' hold.
"That's what the tight end and the slot are supposed to do," Bratkowski said. "Open up the middle of the field."
Palmer hasn't been able to work the slot like that since 2007, the last time he and Houshmandzadeh were healthy together. And he's never had a tight end like Gresham. Tall and talented, the massive 6-5, 250-pounder finished his home debut with three catches for 37 yards.
"He's a rare breed. He's fast. He's physical. He can kind of do everything," Palmer said. "There's not many tight ends in the league that are well-rounded. He's good at blocking. He's good at pass protection. We'll see what we can get out of him. What's too much and what's not enough. But it's still a work in progress."
Gresham, the first-rounder from Oklahoma, is going to say that. So will Bratkowski. But his third-down catch on the second drive that converted a third-and-10 with a 15-yard pluck from a defender he shielded from his body that looked more like a rebound after a box-out served notice that Palmer now has the middle of the field available for Gresham's ample abilities.
"He should have been driving back to the ball, the guy almost intercepted it," Bratkowski said. "But he made a great catch. When he gets to that spot at the end of the route, he has to be stepping back to the ball to keep leverage between him and the defender. It has to be done better, but a great catch."
No one could quibble with "Glance" as he burst out of the slot straight upfield into the middle of a soft zone.
"It was motion back to the same spot," Gresham said. "I cut off a flat route and cut it back into a slant."
Asked about his routes, he said, "Average, very average. Almost poor. I have to improve on everything. ... It becomes easier once you know where everybody is going and you do your part."
Gresham was grim talking about his blocking. He feels it's the No. 1 thing he has to improve. Running back Cedric Benson kind of got a kick out of it because he says Gresham kept talking to him after every running play. Particularly on the zone plays as Gresham tried to grapple with the big 3-4 ends. On first-and-10 from the Denver 25 on the Bengals' first drive of the game, it was one of those ends that Gresham couldn't fend off and it turned into a three-yard loss for Benson and the Bengals came out of it with no points.
Gresham was telling Benson either "My bad" or "I'll get them next time."
"Which is OK. He's a young guy getting a feel for it," Benson said. "He played great in the passing game. He made some tough catches downfield. Highly impressive in that area."
Benson was on the bench when he noticed late in the second quarter Gresham get the upper hand on one of those defensive ends and pushed him wide enough that backup running back Bernard Scott scooted inside on the way to a 38-yard run.
"Which is what I wanted him to do," Benson said. "That's a great sign. It shows he's a guy that realizes his mistake or what he can do to get better. He's got a bright future."
Shipley's future seems pre-ordained, a coach's son who caught enough balls in the nooks and crannies of the Big 12 to become Texas' all-time leading receiver. Like Palmer said at halftime, it seems like Shipley has been making plays his entire life. On that first Bengals touchdown drive, a 13-play haul, Shipley worked out of the slot to convert a third-and-six from the Denver 38 for 17 yards and to convert a third-and-eight from the Denver 19 for 13 yards. On the previous play, the second-and-17 from the Denver 28, he got a big chunk back after Livings' penalty with nine yards.
"That's my role on third down," he said, pleased with the chemistry bubbling with him and Palmer. "He's great. He's a lot of fun but at the same time he does a good job teaching us and keeping us up to speed on everything. Once in awhile (in the huddle) he'll let me know if it's a hot read or something like that. He's the best there is."
Shipley said that last third down came off a "choose route" where he sets up in the middle of the field and decides which way to go.
"I faked to the opposite side of the field and came back to the near side," Shipley said. "That's something else I like to do and it gives you some freedom."
On the first third down, Shipley said Palmer hung with him through a corner route in a coverage he "probably wasn't supposed to get the ball." But the ball and Shipley go together. Not only did he have five catches for 50 yards, but he returned a punt for 21 yards (on top of last week's 63-yarder against the Cowboys) and two kickoffs for 35 yards.
Benson crossed paths with Shipley only briefly at Texas during his senior year, but he remembers the fast little kid in practice making a lot of plays down field.
"How fortunate are we to have that guy?" Benson asked. "He was all over the field. Whether it was getting a first down, or a punt return or in the slot. It's awesome to see those young guys play well. Step up."
There was never any doubt about the chemistry between Palmer and Houshmandzadeh. Both were forgotten during the 2003 season when Palmer sat behind Jon Kitna and Houshmandzadeh had no catches in just two games. In his first NFL start the next season, Palmer found Houshmandzadeh three times for 38 yards. Don't look now, but Palmer found Shipley three times for 39 yards against the Broncos.
"He's a football player," Palmer said. "He can go to the combine and not be the biggest, fastest or prettiest-looking player at the combine, but there has to be something said for guys that are football players. Quan (Cosby) is another guy that knows how to make football plays. Last week he had some really nice catches. Tonight, Quan had a nice punt return. Shipley had a nice punt return last week. Shipley had some really nice plays that extended drives for us. He's another guy like Jermaine. We're going to see what's too much for him. If he's doing a good job with things, then we'll put more things in for him."
Shipley has been telling everyone who listens to him how comfortable he is as a Bengal.
"The organization has been great," he said. "The guys on the team have been really good; it's been fun."
It was the kind of night that even a 15-year veteran could appreciate.
"He's done a phenomenal job from the standpoint of being a rookie and getting this offense down," said wide receiver Terrell Owens. "He's doing a great job. For myself, I feel like a rookie, too, trying to get this thing going."
It was a night for rookies. Some big plays. Some mistakes. But there was no mistaking the feeling that the Bengals seemed to have made a good start on their offseason vow to surround Palmer with more talent.
"There's just been so many repetitions with him," Gresham said. "We're becoming in sync. It's coming along."