Posted: 9:10 a.m.
NEW ORLEANS - Friday night's preseason opener turned out to be just like Hard Knocks.
If you like the Bengals, there were plenty of reasons to like them even more. A rejuvenated passing game. A quick, athletic first-team defense. A big, desperate don't-give-up play as they try to establish an identity of toughness and grit.
If you don't like them, they also gave their haters plenty of fodder with three turnovers, some big Saints pass plays, and not good enough punting and kicking.
As Carson Palmer stood with his left foot in a boot after the 17-7 loss to the Saints in the Superdome, he gave legs to both.
"When our defense is playing like that, well with punts, three-and-out situations, short drives, we have to be able to convert ... you're not going to win when you have two turnovers in the first half," Palmer said. "But we did some good things, too. We did a great job in pass protection. We had some really nice holes for Cedric (Benson). We did a good job up front."
Palmer had an interception that triggered a classic good news-bad news play, but the passing game did things it never did last year when his longest pass to a wide receiver was 26 yards, wide receiver Chad Ochocinco's longest catch was 26 yards, and Chris Henry had just 220 yards all year.
"We had a lot of great signs," Benson said after he got 28 yards on eight carries. "For the first preseason game there were a lot of positive things that came out. A lot of holes. The offensive line did a great job."
Palmer converted one third-and-long with a 27-yarder to Henry on the way to Henry's 100-yard night on seven catches. And he hooked up on Chad Ochocinco's biggest play since their 70-yard touchdown connection in the '07 finale in Miami. The Ocho turned a quick-hitter at the line of scrimmage into a 55-yard play when he simply spun away from cornerback Jason David and motored down the left sideline bobbing and weaving among the defenders.
"That was more TJish, I like to say, than Chadish," The Ocho said.
Plus, the first-team defense swarmed with a shutout, highlighted by safety Chris Crocker's devastating hit on wide receiver Robert Meachem and his third-down play with cornerback Johnathan Joseph that denied the Saints points in a goal-line situation.
"Chad looked like Chad; he's been like that in every practice," Palmer said.
It didn't take the Ocho long to show off his boxing regimen.
"It was a boxing move; same thing," Ochocinco said. "Like a dodge move to get yourself out of the corner, like when someone gets you trapped in the corner. You wait for him to swing, and you do the ole move, and turn them around. Same move."
But the play that signified how far Palmer and Ochocinco's timing is back came on a blitz from the Bengals 9 with 3:43 left in a scoreless first quarter, after Palmer had turned his ankle. On third-and-five, Palmer hung in there, took a hit in the end zone, and found The Ocho coming back for the ball on the other side of the field for an 18-yard play.
"They brought more guys than we had blocking," Palmer said. "They got their hands on the safeties and gave me just enough time to get rid of the ball. Chad was at a perfect depth. Perfect timing. When you play like that, it makes my job easier. I knew exactly where he was going to be at."
But Palmer also had a play in which he didn't know where Saints middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma was on third-and-five from the Saints 30 and threw a pick
"I saw him. I didn't expect him to step in front of Andre (Caldwell)," said Palmer, who felt good enough on the ankle that he wondered if he should have pulled it down and run with it.
He racked up 133 yards on 7-of-11 passing, but couldn't get any points out of any of them when kicker Shayne Graham pulled a chip shot left from 30 yards. And even though three of the Bengals offensive linemen were called for holding (tackles Andrew Whitworth and Anthony Collins and right guard Bobbie Williams), Palmer, Benson and head coach Marvin Lewis thought they held up well.
"When I came out, I told Bobbie I (felt) I had a halo. Huge, five-yard radius in the pocket every time," Palmer said after not getting sacked.
"I thought we did a good job in achieving what we were trying to achieve as far as being physical and opening up some holes," said Benson, who had three runs of at least eight yards. "I thought we were good in the run game."
But on this night of good plays-bad plays, Benson's longest rum of the game, that eight-yarder, ended in a fumble when safety Darren Sharper popped his elbow and the ball was scooped up by Vilma. Also, half of Benson's runs went for a yard or less.
"It was a good tackle by him; he got a little under me and hit my elbow," Benson said. "I've got to put more emphasis on ball control. It's definitely not something we want to have going into the season, so if we have one it's good it happened now.
"You have these. You're coming off of camp and you haven't had a lot of contact, not a lot of live tackling."
But he has had a lot of reps and Palmer noted how Benson told him before the game he felt bruised and sore. They both thought a four-yard run coming out of the end zone could have gone all the way if he didn't have camp legs.
"A shoestring," said Benson when asked how close he was to breaking it. "Fresh legs, you go right through that stuff."
On an odd night, the interception even had a good side. Even though he was called for holding on the play, the 6-7, 330-pound Whitworth raced down the field with Caldwell to recover Vilma's fumble at the 4 after Caldwell forced it from behind.
"That's what we're about," Palmer said. "That's why I love Whit. That's why everybody in that locker room loves Whit. You let your team down, but you step right back up and get it back for your teammates. That was great."
Caldwell, known for his 4.3 40s, had a busy night. He caught two balls, ran one, and returned two kicks for 31 yards. But it was his defensive play that got the raves.
"That's what I do. I can run a little," Caldwell said. "Just try to make a play. Get a ball out. Try to help our team. We're not going to give up on a play. Always go hard. That lets you know we're not going to have a give up. We're going to fight to the finish."