If you can't tell if the Bengals want to be a running team or a passing team, that's kind of the way offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski wants it. In his mind, double identity is the way to go for the sake of balance.
"The identity is run the ball. Really physically run the ball. And at the same time be productive in our pass game and we will be," Bratkowski said Monday after the Bengals reached 2-1 despite an offense that is a work in progress from last season's run-oriented playbook.
But no doubt physicality in the running game on both sides of the ball is going to be emphasized for this Sunday's 1 p.m. game in Cleveland (Cincinnati's Channel 12). It has defined the Bengals' 10-4 dominance over the Browns under head coach Marvin Lewis. In the last three games with Cedric Benson at running back and Mike Zimmer the defensive coordinator, the Bengals have averaged 185 yards rushing to the Browns' 115.
Benson is looking for his first 100-yard game of the season and his last three-game drought as a Bengal came from Nov. 30 to Dec. 14, 2008. The Browns are coming off a stunning running day against the vaunted Ravens run defense. Led by little-known running back Peyton Hillis the Browns racked up more than 170 yards rushing.
The Bengals had to grind for 94 against the Ravens on the ground last week as they tried to balance it out a season after Benson put the first two 100-yarders on Baltimore in 40 games. This past Sunday the invisible Panthers pass rush floated out of thin air and knocked around a Cincinnati offensive line so thoroughly that Bratkowski was asked Monday if he has an offensive line that can run but isn't athletic enough to protect.
"I think they can; we've got to get better," Bratkowski said. "I think we're a little more balanced in throwing it this year. And we've got to do a better job in the protection, where last year there was a heavy focus on the run. And less exposed in protection.
"They're exposed more. They've got to get used to that element where it's not all play-action and it's a little more attempting to get the ball downfield to our skill guys."
After looking at tape from Sunday's 20-7 win, Bratkowski said the coaches will take a look at personnel along the offensive line this week. And while he said quarterback Carson Palmer didn't have his best of days (the numbers backed it up with a 53.3 passer rating that was his lowest ever in a victory) and said the wet ball was hardly a factor, he also said Palmer needs more help from his supporting cast as the offense makes this transition to balance.
More plays downfield to hit wide receivers Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco? Palmer needs time. That's one of the reasons the longest non-Hail Mary pass this season is Owens' 29-yard run-after-catch and the longest catch Sunday was a behind-the-line flip for a 27-yard screen pass to rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham.
"I don't think that's of great concern," Bratkowski said of Palmer's performance. "Obviously I think he'll bounce back and play better this week. But like any quarterback he needs help from the other guys. The dropped balls, and the routes being precise and the protections. Granted he didn't play well. I thought he played pretty well against Baltimore. If everybody bases it totally on numbers, that's where the criticism comes in and the quarterback always takes the brunt of the heat. I imagine he'll bounce back and have a good game this week."
Bratkowski got irked when told Palmer was taking heat for not outplaying Panthers rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen in his NFL debut.
"He's not playing the rookie quarterback. He's playing the Carolina defense and the Carolina defense played (well) yesterday," Bratkowski said. "They're well coached and they've got good players and I think at the end of last year they were ranked eighth in the league. They aren't a bunch of slouches. He wasn't playing Clausen. He was playing that defense. That's unfair to judge."
But that's not stopping people from judging Palmer.
Yes, the first interception was on Palmer, throwing the ball too far inside to wide receiver Chad Ochocinco. But on the first incompletion on the first snap of the game, The Ocho ran the wrong route. On his other interception, the pocket collapsed and his potential big-play pass to Owens racing down the middle got thrown short when his arm was hit as he threw. On the three interceptions the Panthers dropped, Bratkowski said they could be traced to wrong routes, bad decisions or poor protection.
It all gets back to the protection. The 2010 season is only going to be as good as the offensive line. Just like it was in '09. Bratkowski said the coaches would take a look at personnel along the line this week. Could right tackle be a topic?
The 6-9 Dennis Roland is an admirable self-made player who is effective in the running game but his struggles in pass protection showed up in a big way in Carolina. Anthony Collins, who began last season rotating with Roland on passing downs because of his athleticism, hasn't been heard from much this season. Andre Smith, a No. 1 pick who is supposed to be the right tackle but isn't because of a foot problem that kept him off the field until after training camp, was stunned he was inactive in Carolina.
"He's trying to get up to speed. He's trying to get up to speed and as we go as coaches we're going to put the best players out there, the best ones at this moment in time," Bratkowski said. "He has to improve to get on the field.
"I don't want to judge it on one game. Dennis is a proud player who cares about his work like you're supposed to. I think he'll bounce back. We're going to talk about it as we get into the week and see if there's another way to approach it. We'll talk through all the options of what we have available and that might mean doing nothing. Have to assess the big picture."
Another duo that rotated last season, Nate Livings and Evan Mathis, also hasn't done it this year with Livings getting the nod.
"It was determined coming out of camp that Nate had won that job and now Evan is forced into being our backup center," Bratkowski said. "He's got to put a lot more time taking reps at center so we'll be prepared in the event something happens to Kyle (Cook). Evan's got to take those snaps at center, which takes away from his work at guard."
After getting good production out of the no-huddle the previous two weeks, the Bengals hardly showed it against the Panthers.
"I think the conditions (were one reason). And we just felt some of those things we had called we could control a little bit depending on the weather and the situation," Bratkowski said. "We did go to it at one point. The drive stalled ... when you get going in the no-huddle you don't have the entire offensive available to you, so there were some things that we had going that we wanted to stay with, in the run game in particular."
Run or pass?
The Bengals are hoping the Browns are guessing if you're guessing.