Posted: 5:55 a.m.
It took the Bengals five games from their regular-season opener last year to get their seventh catch of at least 20 yards. They've already got seven in the first two games of the preseason, a huge relief for head coach Marvin Lewis.
"We couldn't even buy a pass interference penalty a year ago, much less a big play," Lewis recalled painfully on Monday.
It is Lewis' fingerprints that are all over the laces of the revival. Carson Palmer has thrown just two of the big ones, but he figures to reap the benefits once he gets back from his sprained ankle.
Yet it was Lewis that made sure in training camp that the Bengals offense annexed at least a 50-yard patch to throw long balls for a period at least every other day. And it was Lewis that told his coaches to make sure they incorporated in individual drills yards-after-catch techniques for both runners and receivers.
Note last Thursday night and not only wide receiver Chad Ochocinco's spin move that ignited his 35-yard catch off a little hitch. But note that straight arm straight out of Corey Dillon that stunned a future Hall of Famer in Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi along the sidelines that got Ochocinco just a few more yards.
Yes, it may have been more impressive than his extra point.
(Note also Ochocinco's longest catch last year was 26 yards in a year the Bengals had just 21 catches of 20 yards or more.)
"That's a head coach emphasis," said wide receivers coach Mike Sheppard. "When the head coach asks for something, good teams try and give it to him and he's asked for certain things and that's one; yards after the play. We've put stiff arms into our drills, but that's something you really can't do until the pads come on, so we began to emphasize it when we got to camp."
When the Bengals finally got to camp with their trigger man (Palmer) healthy, Lewis went to even greater lengths.
"We made a number of big plays in training camp and it's translated over to the games," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "You get crammed at times in practice at camp because you've got so many players out there. We made a concerted effort to use a 50-yard length of the field with the receivers and get deep balls done at least every day or every other day."
The big play consumes Lewis. He covets it because as an old defensive coordinator, the one thing that truly can't be stopped is the long ball over the head, which the Bengals have used to score their two touchdowns this preseason on balls of 14 and 24 yards from J.T. O'Sullivan to wide receiver Chris Henry.
Last year? They had two touchdown passes of at least 20 yards in the 16 regular-season games and not one until Game 10.
"When they strike up that band, you know? When that big bird drops the bomb on you (as a defense), you know it's over, and they're striking up the fight song," Lewis said. "It's a bad day, it's a bad deal. Those are the things that are important as an offense. We couldn't even buy a pass interference penalty a year ago, much less a big play, because we weren't very accurate with the throws, and that's been the biggest difference this preseason."
You'd have to conclude that O'Sullivan, at least early on, has been more accurate down the field than Ryan Fitzpatrick, the man that played 12 games in place of the injured Palmer last year. But then, O'Sullivan has had some things that Fitzpatrick didn't have. One guy that has participated in both preseasons, reserve quarterback Jordan Palmer, has seen the differences between this year and last year.
"The receivers are where they're supposed to be at their landmarks on long passes and there aren't as many protection issues. You have to step into a deep ball," said the young Palmer.
Last year at this time, the club's best receivers had barely been on the field in the spring or training camp. Ochocinco and T.J. Houshmandzadeh were never on the field together until the week before the regular-season opener and because they only attended the three-day minicamp in the spring and suffered preseason injuries, each of them had about two weeks worth of work on the field between the end of the '07 season and the start of the '08 season.
This year, The Ocho hasn't missed a game or practice since he showed for the last voluntary camp in the spring, and the other three core receivers, Henry, 10-year veteran Laveranues Coles and second-year man Andre Caldwell, were at all the spring sessions and haven't missed time in camp because of injuries.
Henry wasn't even on the team last year in the spring drills or camp, and Caldwell, a rookie, broke his foot in the second preseason game and missed a valuable month.
"We've been real lucky. Knock on wood we've been able to stay healthy," Sheppard said. "We haven't had to overplay anybody and I think we've done a better job of repping the guys in groups so they don't have to take every rep. That's helped us stay fresher in games, whether that's helped the big plays, I don't know. But when you run the ball the way we have, sometimes those things open it up, too."
Touchdowns happen like the one in New England on fourth-and-17, where O'Sullivan saw the Pats loading up on an all-out blitz and he signaled to Henry at the line of scrimmage. Henry made his adjustment and beat the corner from 24 yards out on a basic go route, the kind of play that's made in May.
Caldwell says Bratkowski has spread out the offense and called more downfield plays. Bratkowski isn't sure he's done all that, he just thinks he, at last, has everybody on the field.
"We've got the talent to do that," Bratkowski said. "And the playmakers are making plays. That's a positive. There's been quarterback accuracy, good protection, good route-running, good run after the catch. Some of those long plays have been only eight, nine yard-routes. Chad is working real hard to make that first move after the catch and make that first guy miss."
Not only have the receivers been together, but the first line has stayed intact in practices and games and that had been an issue in the last camp. And while there have been some problems in blitz pickup, there hasn't been a broken-nose blitz like the one Kevin Kaesviharn delivered to Palmer in the third preseason game last year.
(Or like the one Keith Rivers could have given to Tom Brady last week.)
But with Palmer sitting out the second and third preseason games (and maybe the fourth), there is some concern that the timing he and the receivers worked so hard to get is going to be disturbed for the Sept. 13 opener.
The one thing going for Palmer is that he's still had more time on the field than when he was coming back from reconstructive knee surgery in 2006, when he didn't get on the field at all in the spring and didn't play until the third preseason game. He ended up being Pro Bowl MVP that year.
"He got plenty of work in the spring and in training camp," Bratkowski said. "Is it ideal? No. We'd love for him to be able to continue to keep the timing and everything going. He's a veteran. Any player who doesn't practice loses a little bit, but veterans get it back quicker. He's ahead of schedule (compared to '06)."
Palmer admitted on Monday that he doesn't have a crystal ball and that he needs the work, particularly after missing the 12 games last year. But he also said, "It's not like I'm going to step on the field the 13th. I would have been practicing for a week or two."
Caldwell, a receiver that wasn't able to work with Palmer much at all last year because of their injuries, is more than comfortable with him now. Palmer's been throwing to The Ocho and Henry for years, and Coles has 631 catches in the league.
"Jerome (Simpson) and I know the offense backward now; it's a lot better than last year," Caldwell said. "It's harder for a receiver to come back than a quarterback (from injury) because you have to get back in shape and in sync with everyone else. And Carson's a veteran. He knows these guys."
Bratkowski is encouraged because of where things were headed before Palmer got hurt.
"He's gotten very comfortable with Andre," Bratkowski said. "His accuracy was good and it was getting better all the time. We'll just get right back in the flow when he comes back."