Posted: 10:10 p.m.
With his veterans descending for next week's opening of voluntary camps, Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski acknowledges his unit could be different than the one that became a perennial top 10 under quarterback Carson Palmer.
After watching the departures of wide receivers Chris Henry and Tab Perry and the uncertainty surrounding the franchise's all-time leading receiver in Chad Johnson, Bratkowski says the Bengals may not be as explosive as they've been and could display more ball control.
And with a new-look running attack helped along with a new, versatile tight end that opens up a rush of possibilities on the ground, possession may be the law.
With the Shaun Alexander talks seemingly on the back burner, Rudi Johnson and his pumped-up pectorals that have dominated offseason conditioning are the primary focus at running back.
But Bratkowski says Kenny Watson (4.3 yards per carry) and DeDe Dorsey (8.7 on 21 carries) will get a designated series or two in an effort to revive a running game mired at 3.7 yards per carry. Only one team in the AFC, the QB-challenged Chiefs at 3.3, averaged fewer.
While Bratkowski has lived the NFL truth that rookie receivers have one of the toughest and longest transitions to the pro game, he is also expecting to get something out of second-rounder Jerome Simpson and third-rounder Andre Caldwell.
Ready or not.
But he says there's a chance T.J. Houshmandzadeh could come in on Tuesday's first day of camp to bring some grizzle.
Bratkowski didn't junk the entire playbook. After all, the Bengals' 380 points last season marked the most scored by a losing team. But he revamped and tweaked in searching for that red-zone punch and vertical threat while also keeping Palmer clean.
Here is Bratkowski's Wednesday conversation with Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com:
GH: Marvin has continually emphasized the running game this offseason. He's talked about getting back to the way it was in 2004 and 2005.
What we have to do a better job of is getting the lead on people. That's the biggest difference. We didn't go out and get the lead on people that allowed us to pound it into the second half and we were playing from behind a lot last year. What that tells me is that we have to do a better job as an offense getting the lead on people and maintaining it so we can pound it in the late third quarter and the fourth quarter.
GH: Have you gone away from the run because of game situations or because you just have a Pro Bowl quarterback and Pro Bowl receivers?
I don't know we've necessarily gone away from what we were. The one thing we probably de-emphasized in the no-huddle was regular personnel with a fullback in the game, a tight end and two wide receivers. It probably made us a little more finesse in some areas. Still, in non no-huddle situations, we were still using those plays. When you go back to '05, we were ahead of a lot of teams and we were able to pound them. We have to do a better job offensively to get ahead of these people and stay there so we can pound them.
GH: Some see you as a pass guru, but you have shown if it works, you'll run the ball.
Once we get the run game going, I will feed it as much as possible because it's the quarterback's best friend. But if we feel like we're slipping behind, we've got talented receivers and a talented quarterback, let's use them. But, yes, the running game definitely needs to improve. It has to improve.
GH: Have you changed up blocking schemes or plays?
We do that every year, changing blocking schemes and plays. We're planning right now using a mix of Rudi, Kenny and DeDe. Rather of just saying, "Rudi, you'll get every snap," we'll dedicate some series to Kenny and DeDe.
Kenny and DeDe have some spark to them. They can generate big runs down the field. We've been near the bottom of the league in runs over 20 yards. That's not all on Rudi ... somehow we have to find a way to generate those longer runs.
GH: But, it's not exactly back by committee, right?
Rudi will be the main guy. But there will be a series somewhere in the first half for DeDe and a series somewhere for Kenny. Or, maybe a special play at some point for Kenny or DeDe where we'll put them in for a snap. We'll utilize those guys and utilize their talents.
The thinking there is it shows the defense a change of pace, a different style of runner. Those guys all have unique styles to themselves. DeDe's average per carry was really good, so we've got to make sure he gets those opportunities.
GH: Are you worried about the depth at receiver?
You can't be worried about it. You just have to work with the guys that are here and get the most out of them. Getting the young guys to be big contributors is going to be a major task. We're going to train them the best we can with the understanding there has to be some patience with them. The guys that have been here, like Antonio (Chatman), Glenn (Holt), Marcus Maxwell, Doug Gabriel, they have to really be rolling. Here is their chance.
I talked to T.J. and he said there's a good chance he'll be here next week. (The workouts) give us an opportunity to really spend quality work with all of the guys that are here.
GH: It seemed like you guys did everything but score last year.
We scored more points last year than we did the year before. There were some games where we had highs and lows. We were 23rd in red zone (touchdowns). Which is bad. Our worst finish in five years. But you fluctuate by year. In 2006 we were 23rd (converting third downs) in the league and in 2007 we were fourth. We've been fairly consistent in both areas. Last year was a down year for whatever reasons.
GH: Was part of that lack of red zone scoring because Rudi was hurt and he's been a good red-zone runner?
That's part of it. Part of it is a lack of consistency. We weren't as sharp. Route running. Interceptions. Turnovers. Things like that.
GH: Despite the changes, I would think you should be able to move the ball.
We should, but the dynamics might change. We may not be as dynamic without Chad, Chris Henry, Tab Perry. We're different. We may not be scoring as many points. We may be hoping to control the ball more. We may not have the big-play explosiveness, but we can still work to create it.
GH: How can you do that if you don't have it athletically?
Look for matchups. Get all those guys in their best matchup.
GH: Even if Chad comes back, you miss some firepower with Henry and Tab gone. But those are guys you really didn't have last year, either.
We played the whole first half of the season without (Henry), so we're used to doing that. We didn't have Perry, didn't have him. We have the addition of the two new young guys and hopefully somewhere in there we get some plays out of them.
GH: You've always said not to get excited about rookie receivers because it takes time.
It takes a special guy. I've had two receivers, Joey Galloway (in Seattle) and Troy Edwards (in Pittsburgh) who set rookie records for their individual teams. Joey was special and Troy's not in the league any more, so it can be done. It's just a matter of opportunities. Troy ended up playing quite a bit because we really didn't have anybody else. It just depends how quickly that person is able to make the transfer.
GH: The coaches spent the first weeks of the offseason cleaning up their desks, right? How much of the offense did you change?
We went through the offices and threw out the clutter that has the tendency (to pile up). The stuff like old playbooks and old files that aren't being used any more.
(The offense) changed certain things in certain situational periods. We've added some things in the red zone, added some things to our third-down package. In the run game we'll make some small adjustments. But the base way to do it is still there.
GH: You review every snap of the season. Can you make a couple of conclusions?
It's hard to make a generalization. ... Some things in the (pass) protection we didn't do real well. Some things in certain third-down situations we didn't do real well. On those specific plays, we see tendencies. OK, we've got to fix this. This guard is stepping the wrong way. We've got to fix him. This receiver running the wrong route. It's more specific to the plays themselves than overall generalization.
What you find out is there are certain plays we probably should have run more, and there are some plays we probably ran a little bit too much to where people were kind of expecting it.
GH: One constant criticism is that the offense has become predictable. Anything come up when you self-scout? BB: We do self-scout. I would say if there is any one area where it would look to the naked eye like we're predictable, it was in the no-huddle. There were some things we did that were somewhat predictable. That's when we call plays at the line. We have to make sure we do a good job of changing up the looks we present in the no-huddle and the plays that we run.
GH: Does the addition of a veteran tight end that is a proven receiver in Ben Utecht allow you to mix it up?
We think it will. We'll see. We think he'll be a real nice addition to what we do. He may come in some (different) situations. He may be our third-down tight end. We may use more two tight-end sets. It gives us a lot more options.
GH: When you lined up with two tight ends in the past nobody was expecting a pass (to the tight end), I would think.
In the past when we've gone with two tight end sets, it's been mainly a throwing formation. I think now that Ben is a capable blocker and a capable pass receiver, it allows us to be maybe more run-oriented than we've been. Two tight ends in the past have been almost exclusively pass for us.