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Fire in the zone

Carson Palmer

Posted: 10:15 p.m.

With Dom Capers running the show and former players Darren Perry and Kevin Greene helping him coach it, believe that the Packers defense is going to line up a lot like the Steelers on Sunday.

Whether they play it as well is the great question, but here is the stat check.

In his eight regular-season games against Pittsburgh, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer has a passer rating 10 points below his career mark at 78.4 by completing just 56 percent of his passes. But what he's got going for him is that's he's got just seven interceptions against 13 touchdown passes and three of those picks came in his first year as a starter.

The Capers thing is a little weird. When Capers, Greene and Perry were all together in Pittsburgh in 1993 and 1994, Greene had 26.5 sacks playing for linebackers coach Marvin Lewis, now the Bengals head coach that brought Greene into work with his own linebackers four training camps ago.

Perry had 11 interceptions at safety in '93 and '94 playing for secondary coach Dick LeBeau, a future Bengals head coach. The Steelers finished third and second, respectively in NFL defense, before Capers moved on to be the Panthers head coach in 1995 and LeBeau succeeded him.

"They're doing a lot of the 3-4 things that we started doing back in '93 in Pittsburgh, some of the pressures and things like that," Lewis said this week, "and they're trying to do some of the new things that are happening this year, in the 2008 and 2009 NFL. So you can see all those parts of the equation as they line up and go. But they're starting from ground zero with some of the fundamental things we did. You see it on tape."

Taking care of the ball is always huge against a 3-4 linebacker-rich scheme that lives and breathes on deception and pressure. Look what the Packers did last week to Bears quarterback Jay Cutler with four interceptions in their very first game under Capers.

Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski called it "classic Pittsburgh" with a large menu of "fire zones," the concept LeBeau created as the Bengals defense coordinator in the 1980s and imported to Capers' staff in Pittsburgh in 1992 during his first Steelers stint.

"Fire zones" consist of players, usually linebackers and sometimes linemen, dropping off the line into coverage while other players blitz. Cutler got burned by LeBeau's 25-year ring of fire.

"It was basically pressure on the quarterback with two-deep zone coverages behind it," Bratkowski said. "When you get that pressure on the quarterback and he's running around, those fire zones allow a lot of droppers. They're going to try and match (a blitzer) on your (running) back, but they're dropping a whole bunch of people out of it. So he's running and doesn't see all those extra droppers, throws it, and the result is four interceptions.

"Fire zone with somebody getting beat because you got a backer on a running back or somebody gets confused and here comes somebody free. Run for your life and there's all kinds of people down there when he's throwing it. You have to be very careful with your decision-making."

Palmer knows all about it. He's made sure he hasn't thrown a pick in his last three games against Pittsburgh. And if the Bengals have ever been in a fire zone, trying to avoid going to 0-2 before coming back home to play the real Steelers defense, this is it. 

"They've had picks from confusing quarterbacks, from making quarterbacks force throws," Palmer said of The Pack this week. "They've created turnovers by hitting people hard and knocking the ball loose. They've broken up a lot of balls in the passing game. They've done a number of things. It's a really good unit. You've got to be on your game. You've got to see what's coming at you. They bring a lot of corner pressures, a number of different blitz zones, and do a really good job of disguising. So you've got to be on your A-game and recognize things as they're happening and make sure your eyes are on the right spots before the snap and after the snap to confirm what you've got coming at you and make sure the ball's going in the right place."

The pressure is turned up a notch because the offense had a glut of cobwebs hanging off it in the opener against Denver.

The Bengals got three drops from wide receiver Laveranues Coles. The offensive line was twice called for being illegally downfield on passes of 39 yards. They gave up three sacks inside the Denver 39 on a day they only got seven points. When Palmer tried an overhand lateral to rookie running back Bernard Scott out of the backfield that lost six yards, Bratkowski said Scott should have gone to the other side.

Remember the Chris Perry 85-yard touchdown that got called back against Minnesota in 2005 for a hold?

Same play.

"He just didn't see the look," Bratkowski said.

Bratkowski is banking on everyone not being quite so geeked up like they were on Opening Day. Yes, Palmer's two play-action rollout passes are new plays but after center Kyle Cook and right guard Bobbie Williams were called for being illegally downfield, Bratkowski reminded everyone they had worked on it enough in the preseason.

"It was over-exuberance to go hit someone rather than making sure they understand the timing of what the play is," Bratkowski said. "Linemen don't know when the ball is thrown and they're taught when the ball is thrown you run downfield and get around the ball to hit somebody and to help the runner. Both times they left a little early to go do that. It was admirable their energy level they were spending and the extra effort but the understanding of the timing of the concept was off."

And it doesn't take much to lose yards. The Bengals lost four when they went to an unbalanced line and they thought they had a big running play to spring when Denver was slow to adjust. But cornerback Champ Bailey beat a receiver on the snap count for the loss.

But the occasional unbalanced line (both tackles lined up next to each other) is kind of a neat look and Bratkowski said it was put in even before tight ends Reggie Kelly and Ben Utecht were lost for the season.

"Really what you're doing is putting a tackle at tight end and running your strong-side running game," he said. "Then you're putting the tight end away from the weak side as the tackle and we went both ways with it. You're generally getting stronger on the strength of the formation."

A Steelers-like 3-4 is always a tough assignment for the center, particularly a guy like Cook making his second career start and doing it on the road. But Bratkowski said Cook was "perfect" in some of his tasks he had to perform in the opener and Bratkowski was encouraged by his debut. Bratkowski said that overall the line played well enough that it gave Palmer "a clean" pocket except for the three sacks. He didn't like the timing of them, but said they weren't the fault of the center getting people lined up and that it was a physical matter.

Bratkowski knows it has to be cleaner, crisper and smarter.

"Some of it is through just not playing smart, not doing things smartly," he said. "A lot of those things had occurred in preseason practices and we've corrected them and said you can't do that. You can't block on the perimeter like this. You can't push off as a receiver. You can't be down the field (illegally). Those are the things that show up on Opening Day. Everybody's got a little more anxiety, a little more energy. Everything is going a little faster than it was in preseason. Hopefully those things will disappear in the second game."

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