Posted: 7:55 a.m.
Even though the Bengals have the third best running game in the NFL, opponents still have so much respect for quarterback Carson Palmer that they continue to dare the Bengals to run it with coverages designed to take away the pass.
Maybe because they don't think Palmer has the wide receivers he used to have when he was going to the Pro Bowl a few years ago. The most jarring thing that came out of Sunday's miserable 94-yard passing day in Minnesota's hot house for offense was the fact Palmer threw just seven passes to wide receivers not named Ochocinco and none to high-priced free agent Laveranues Coles.
Coles has been thrown the ball just four times in the past two games for two catches, highlighting what seems to be the most pressing problem in the passing game.
With the losses of Chris Henry to injury and T.J. Houshmandzadeh to free agency, Cincinnati's replacements are having problems getting open against the pass-oriented defenses. Andre Caldwell, the slot receiver, is in his first year of playing regularly, and Coles, the starter opposite Ochocinco, has not brought the same speed or elusiveness the club thought he had. The other two active receivers, Quan Cosby and Maurice Purify, are seen mainly as special teams players. The athleticism of Jerome Simpson, the '08 second-rounder who has been inactive for every game, has been deemed not ready.
But other than the option of activating Simpson in a small, specialized role, this not only is what it is, it is what it is going to be. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said the Bengals have to work at getting better "at what we are" because there looks to be no major personnel changes.
"We're not going down the field as much and they're sitting on a lot of out routes. They're scheming us like that," said Caldwell, who had six passes thrown his way from Palmer for four catches for 25 yards. "I think we need to take a couple of shots down the field to open things up. They're not respecting us going deep. We haven't been doing it much."
What Bratkowski called the most talented defense they've faced showed the Bengals on Sunday what they're lacking.
"The (Vikings) had a good plan," Bratkowski said. "They jammed the heck out of the receivers. They rode them up the line and rode them up the field five yards and let the four-man rush get there. With the noise in that building it doubles the job of the offensive linemen. It makes it harder. The hope was that we could run it and hit our play-action shots down the field and they really didn't want to give us that. They said they were going to stay in a two-high (safety) shell most of the game and jam the receivers and see if we could beat them by just running the ball."
The stats were a bit deceiving with 119 yards rushing and one sack allowed. The offense didn't have a lot of consistent success pushing Minnesota's talented front and making them pay enough to adjust into the box. Running back Cedric Benson averaged six yards per carry, but he got 68 of his 96 yards on four runs.
With the lone Bengals touchdown coming on their longest completion, a 15-yard pass to The Ocho that was basically a flare pattern off a fake reverse, there was virtually nothing downfield. There might have been one pass thrown longer than 20 yards and they threw almost as many screen passes (six) as passes to The Ocho (eight).
"There were guys that struggled yesterday," Bratkowski said of the receivers trying to get open. "Part of the plan was to jam the receivers and drop the linebackers deep, which means by the time you combine the pass rush and the receivers getting jammed, they're a little slow to the break points, and the pass rush gets to you. If they had more time in some cases they might have got open. They didn't have the time and they were getting ridden off the line of scrimmage and we didn't get off the line as well as we should have."
And it just wasn't about getting open. Take the critical play of the game, when the Bengals ran a screen to running back Brian Leonard with 31 seconds left in the first half. Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield came flying up to crunch Leonard head over heels, forcing a fumble that turned into Minnesota's last-play field goal that made it 16-7.
Bratkowski said one of the receivers didn't release quickly enough and get downfield fast enough to aid the guard in his block.
Even though the Bengals allowed just one sack to the NFL-leading Vikings, Bratkowski didn't think the protection was good enough to win and said that Palmer saved some sacks by rolling out of the pocket. Although sack ace Jared Allen did hit Palmer a few times, Bratkowski said left tackle Andrew Whitworth did "a dang good job" on the NFL's second-leading sacker.
But the timing of the entire offense was out of whack as reflected in three more false starts. And it just wasn't the noise because in the three previous games the Bengals had eight.
"We're a pretty aggressive group up front. They want to go and get on people and then when you add the noise factor to it," Bratkowski said. "Yesterday was a loud place and when you not only combine the noise with the quality of pass rusher, even being half a count late off the ball in pass sets can make the difference between blocking a guy and not. That hurt us yesterday and we had receivers offsides. Receivers should never be offsides."
The Ocho false-started for the fourth straight game and while Bratkowski didn't let him off the hook, he knew why.
"He was getting press coverage right up on the line with a guy on him and then safety help over the top," he said. "If I don't get off the line and get going I'll never be able to get up there to my depth and push the safety off. So he was trying to anticipate (the snap) and you can't do that."
Other observations from Bratkowski as he began preparing for the Chargers:
On rookie right tackle Andre Smith's first NFL start in a game he played about 20 snaps: "He had too many critical mistakes and it's from a lack of playing. He'll be a good player. He's shown signs in the last three weeks. He's had outstanding blocks. He can't have those critical mistakes, particularly with the (small) amount of plays. Two crucial mistakes and not playing every down, what happens if you play every down?"
On Simpson: "He's learning. He's come along. We're giving him reps during practice and getting him settled into a spot. It's a work in progress."
If Simpson does get activated, there are two things working against him. He only plays one spot (The Ocho's X position) and he plays no special teams.
On Bratkowski's emphasis against the Chargers: "We're stressing us. We take this last game ... it will make us a better team. It was somewhat of a playoff environment. It was against a playoff-caliber team and one of the better teams in the league. I told them today. We have 16 tests. We failed that one. We've passed most of our tests. Let's get ready for this one."