The biggest difference between 5-2 and 2-5? The biggest difference between 2009 and 2010? The biggest difference between magic and misery?
Maybe, just maybe, when it comes to the Bengals, it is not points or mistimed routes or lack of sacks. But, very simply, time of possession. It allowed them to get in a groove on offense and lowered the exposure of a solid but not overpowering defense that is now taking some hits like most defenses would with added snaps.
In this four-game losing streak, the Bengals haven't cracked 30 minutes. Last year, they had the ball less than 30 minutes in just five games. And they had it at least 34 minutes seven times, which is what they've had it in their two wins this year.
"Time of possession is two things," offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said Monday. "It's the offense converting third down and the defense getting them off the field on third down. Both sides are involved in it.
"And last year we were running it, using a lot of the clock and they were getting people off the field. It matched up to where we got a huge margin in time of possession. Yesterday we started off with huge time of possession in the first drive. We had it almost eight minutes and we got a little bit on the next drive. After that when we didn't convert the third downs, your time of possession stats to plummet."
Yes, Bratkowski says, the Bengals are trying to be more balanced this year. Last year after seven games, they had thrown it 227 times to 206 rushes, compared to 282 passes to 186 rushes this year. But he says the Bnegals haven't been ahead in the fourth quarter like last year, when they were able to pound it and hog the clock. And there are the conversions. Last year after seven games, they were clicking at 41.7 percent (40-for-96). This year it is 37.3 percent (38-for-102).
"We had (23 runs by running backs, three by Palmer) yesterday and usually the number you're looking for is 30 to 35," Bratkowski said. "Had we not been behind at the end of the game you would gotten those runs. If you converted a few more of those first downs, you would have gotten those runs. If we convert even two or three of those, I guarantee you there's going to be at least three or four more runs, and probably more. There's four carries there when you're ahead at the end of the game."
Bratkowski said there is no common thread for Sunday's third-down woes in which the Bengals missed on 10 straight at one point and he's not looking to rip up the third-down package.
"When you're looking at what the issues are you can go on a completely different route," he said. "If the protection breaks down or someone makes a great defensive play or runs a wrong route, there's no reason to go through a wholesale change. If you look and see no one was open, no one was open, no one was open then maybe."
Part of the dynamic in the no-huddle is that Palmer is calling the play on second down and then keeps going if the offense converts.
"The problem with the three-and-outs, we called one the first play of the series," Bratkowski. "If you have a three-and-out he calls one play and then we call the third down. He's had one call so it may end up looking more pass when it's really one call. Bottom line is it comes down to not converting third down and having a fresh set of downs to run it the next time or whatever you're going to do."
CED VOWS TO KEEP TRUCKING: Running back Cedric Benson cut a lonely figure in the Bengals locker room Sunday. Save for a couple of wayward reporters and the equipment guys, he was the last one there trying to make sense of how 2009 became 2010.
At this time last season, the Bengals were 5-2 and he had just led the Bengals to a resounding 45-10 win over his old Bears in the classic revenge game in which he rushed for 189 yards, the most any player had ever gained against his old team. That was his third 100-yard game of the season and left him with 720 yards on 164 carries for 4.4 per carry.
On Sunday, the media clutched the stat sheet from Sunday's 22-14 loss to the Dolphins that had him for 69 yards on 20 carries. He's got one 100-yard game with 545 yards on 143 carries for a 3.8 average. And the Bengals are 2-5 with the Steelers sharpening for a revenge game.
This has been a tough stretch for the extremely emotional and competitive Benson. A guy that runs with his passion isn't going to take it lying down, so as he sat on the stool at his locker he offered his mates to come along with him.
"I'm a hard leader to follow," he said. "I'm going to be here tomorrow lifting weights. I'm going to be in the cold tub, the ice tub getting ready. I'm going to the meetings. I'm going to work hard on the practice field. I'm going to do all of that to maximize my potential and my output next Monday and every Sunday thereafter. Not a lot of guys can do that. I'm not knocking anybody. Everybody walks through life the way they feel free to do so. I just take pride in being about my business. I'll show you how to do it. If you want to pick up on it, it's up to you."
Benson has already gone through an emotional rollercoaster early this season when he spoke publicly about his surprise at what he felt was a deemphasis of the run. He called it "discouraging." On the advice of one of his close friends, he cut off talking about it because he realized it wasn't going to change anything and on Sunday he only offered, "It's obvious we don't run it as much as we did. We don't run it as consistent as we did. That's an obvious ... there are sparks here and then we go away from it."
But Benson is stoking his fire for the last nine games.
"I tell you one thing is for sure," he said. "No matter what happens, I'm going to come here to play every game guaranteed and make big plays. I'm going to run through arm tackles, I'm going to run over guys and through guys and make as many plays as I possibly can."
Coming into the Atlanta game last week, Benson had averaged more than five yards per carry out of no-huddle, a major reason the Bengals have decided to go heavy with it the past two weeks. They ran it pretty much Sunday until early in the fourth quarter. In those five straight three-and-outs Sunday out of the no-huddle, Benson carried it three times for six yards, running back Brian Leonard ran it once for two yards, and Palmer threw it 11 times.
"I think (the defense) may have tried, but they couldn't," said Benson when asked if Miami took away the run. "We make it hard for any team to do it. Even the best of them. I can only wish the guys up front take on the same attitude, which I think they have. They're hungry to come off the rock as well."
SLANTS AND SCREENS
» On Palmer's game-ending interception inside the Dolphins 10 with less than three minutes left, Bratkowski said wide receiver Terrell Owens was the primary receiver and was covered but the second option ran the wrong route.
"Carson got stuck with his second read being not where it needed to be," he said. "All of a sudden the pressure came, Terrell broke off because he was trying to escape to create some space and got hit as he threw it."
Bratkowski wouldn't I.D. the culprit, but he did say, "Some of our younger guys are gaining experience."
» For the 14th time since 2004 Monday night, Bratkowski matches wits with Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the man that hired him as the Bengals offensive coordinator before the 2001 season in the first of LeBeau's two full seasons as head coach here.
The Bengals are 4-9 in that stretch, but Bratkowski's offenses have done things against the suffocating Steelers that are rarely done. The Bengals put up 38 points (2005) and Palmer threw four TDs (2006) at Heinz Field and in a game they needed to win to make the playoffs in 2006 they blanked Blitzburgh with no sacks but Palmer missed a fourth-quarter comeback win on Shayne Graham's 39-yard miss with seconds left. Last year at PBS, Palmer generated 14 points in the last 9:14 to win in the closing seconds for his second fourth-quarter win over the Steelers.
Bratkowski had a nice visit the night before LeBeau was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame when the Bengals played the Cowboys in the HOF Game back in August. Like the old days, LeBeau was on the sidelines and got on the headsets to Bratkowski and the other coaches in the booth.
"I said congratulations to him and he said he was going down to the end and sit by our bench the whole game and try to pick up our signals," Bratkowski said.
It won't be so jocular Monday.