Posted: 6:30 a.m.
Two of the biggest reasons why the Bengals were the second-best team in the NFL converting third downs two years ago surfaced in the locker room Monday.
While running back Chris Perry couldn't say if the team will let him practice Wednesday, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski couldn't put his finger on any one thing that has plummeted the Bengals into a tie for 28th on third down after missing 17 straight at one point over the last eight quarters.
"It's not just one thing; it's a little bit of everything," Bratkowski said when asked about the difference in the two seasons. "It's not one particular player. It's not one position. It's not one aspect of the game. ... I have to access it at the end of the year because that was our percentage at the end of ('05). We're only five games into it. The last two weeks obviously are disappointing, but we've got plenty of opportunity to get it fixed and turned around and be good by the time the year is over."
When the Bengals were wheeling at a 42.8 percent clip on third down conversions, they had Perry working out of the backfield as one of the NFL's leading third-down receivers, as well as rookie wide receiver Chris Henry averaging 13.6 yards per catch to complement Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, not to mention the same starting offensive line for 14 games.
Actually, except for 17 minutes last Sunday in Kansas City when left tackle Levi Jones couldn't handle Jared Allen, the protection has been good despite the trauma along the line.
But Perry and Henry have been nowhere to be found. In Perry, Palmer is missing one of those consistent checkdowns the offense never seems to get.
"They are contributing factors, but we can't use it as an excuse," Bratkowski said of the missing. "We have to use the people we have ... two weeks is two weeks. That's all it is. I fully expect us to come out and be really good on third down this week."
They should because the Jets have the third-worst defense on third down in giving up first downs 48.6 percent of the time. Perry was eligible to come off the physically unable to perform list Monday and can start practicing Wednesday, but while he said he'd like to try and practice, he didn't sound as confident about his dislocated ankle as he did last year when he practiced on his first day eligible.
Throw into the mix that the Bengals have had virtually no third receiver with the injury to Tab Perry and Antonio Chatman picking up another hamstring injury Sunday in Kansas City and what more can happen, or not happen, on third down?
But like Carson Palmer said after Sunday's game, much of it falls on him. For a guy whose stated goal at the start of the season was completing 70 percent of his passes, 19th place at 62.6 percent won't cut it.
Like everyone else at this point, Bratkowski said Palmer is probably pressing a little bit.
"Maybe there have been a few where he's pressed and tried to throw it in there where we shouldn't have, but that's just a very few of them," Bratkowski said. "Usually the interceptions are a combination of a lot of things. It starts with pass protection, number two it starts with the receivers and their routes and three is the quarterback's decision-making."
Only three of those picks have come on third down, but Palmer's passer rating of 48 on third down is fourth-worst in the league because he's completing only 45 percent of the passes. Bratkowski agrees that the timing between Palmer and his receivers doesn't look sharp.
"What you're seeing is a result of us not converting third down," Bratkowski said. "Even when we were rolling we'd miss some (passes), but we'd convert on third down. We'd get a fresh set of downs and boom, boom, we'd go hit them and everybody would go, 'Gee that looked really sharp.'
"The thing about not getting (first) downs is we're taking opportunities away from ourselves. We've missed in the past, but we've overcome it by making third downs and getting a fresh set of downs. Not keeping ourselves on the field is getting us."
Head coach Marvin Lewis can't see a common thread, either, when asked about the difference between '05 and '07 on third down.
"We have to make sure we're not doing too much and being too creative each week, and what we are creating, we go out and execute," he said. "I think protection is a big part of that. The ability to keep guys, and the new things that we do, we're doing it at a good rate. We're going to take a hard look again at what we're doing and how we're doing it, and get better at it."
Bratkowski said the biggest disappointment is not being able to convert the third-and-shorts, although that always isn't the line's fault, either. Fullback Jeremi Johnson struggled on one third-and-short last Sunday against the linebackers, and Palmer scrambled on third-and-three when no one was open and would have had the first down if he stretched the ball to the stick before he got out of bounds.
That set up the crucial fourth down and a couple of footballs that got blown up when rookie tight end Daniel Coats couldn't wall off the edge.
"When we were able to (run it), we were able to do it effectively," Bratkowski said. "Our run per attempt (4.3 on Sunday) was pretty good. It's just we get ourselves in a situation where we couldn't do it as much as we wanted to and a couple of times we had to audible out of a couple of safety blitzes and things like that where we wanted to run the ball and they were trying to stop us from doing so."
The killing thing is time of possession when it comes to the running game. The lack of third-down conversions has clocked the Bengals for just 24:50 against the Chiefs and 22:36 against the Patriots the past two games. Throw in they've had the lead for just 6:46 over those 120 minutes and had to chuck it. Palmer's 203 attempts are fourth-most in the league even though he's played just five games.