CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Chad Ochocinco did what the Bengals offense has been doing since the last half of the 2008 season when he tipped his hat to the defense in a tweet to SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga as they boarded the plane back to Cincinnati following the 20-7 win over the Panthers.
"Y'all saved the day again for us. We will get our (stuff) together soon boss. thanks."
While the mystery of the Bengals offense grows with each ugly incompletion or interception quarterback Carson Palmer throws, the team grows more and more comfortable winning those mud-wrestling games of defense and special teams.
Palmer was supposed to light up a porous Carolina pass defense Sunday but the only thing he lit was the talk-show phone lines as he suffered through his worst passing day in two years and watched the victory at Bank of America Stadium come courtesy of four defensive turnovers, another Mike Nugent 50-yard field goal, and three Kevin Huber punts inside the 5.
"That's what we do," said safety Chris Crocker after the defense limited a foe to 13 points or less for the 13th time in the last 26 games. "We run the ball and play aggressive defense and not make mistakes on special teams. That's just how we're built. We're very capable on the offensive side of the ball. Right now the cards aren't falling the way we want. But it doesn't matter. We're just playing ball on our side."
It has been happening so long now that it has become a formula instead of a trend. Only nine times since the last three games of 2006 has the Bengals offense produced three touchdowns in a game and Sunday was another day in the grind machine they couldn't do it. They managed just two touchdowns even after starting seven full drives from their own 40 or better and the average Panthers drive start was their 24.
It took running back Cedric Benson 26 starts as a Bengal to score two touchdowns. Since Palmer's 51-yard Hail Mary to rookie wide receiver Jordan Shipley at the end of the half in the opener, his longest pass in the last six quarters is a 29-yard catch-and-run by wide receiver Terrell Owens against Baltimore. His longest pass Sunday was a 27-yard play to rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham that began as a behind-the-line flip to start a screen pass.
How the Bengals kept the ball for more than 36 minutes by averaging 3.2 yards per run and barely completing half of their passes is anyone's guess. It was the kind of day they took three passes to go 37 yards for a touchdown and 16 plays to go 56 yards and punt.
"We have a hard time making it easy," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis with a wan smile and deep sigh.
The defense, that hard-nosed runner whose blunt manner matches the smashmouth style, a hellacious young punter, and alert special teams have allowed the Bengals to survive the offensive puzzle in the last 27 games to go 16-10-1.
Actually, those nine games of at least three touchdowns stretch back 54 games. But those previous 27 games were before a stout defense, a comfortable Benson and the drafting of Huber and that's why the Bengals were 7-20. Those three elements are what kept Sunday from being a Bruce Gradkowski Special.
"I love it," said Benson after his 27 carries for 81 yards jacked the Bengals record to 9-0 when he carries at least 27 times. "This is right up my alley. Unfortunately we didn't get the big play that would have put us over the century mark. Somewhere in those 27 carries it's there waiting on you."
Benson stirred the Bengals' mellow early-season cocoon last week when he made national news musing why the Bengals had gone away from the simple straight-ahead style that netted last season's AFC North title. Now there were shifts and motions and Bernard Scott was getting a few more carries. On Sunday, the Bengals seemed to cut back a bit here and there on personnel groups, they only went no-huddle on one play and that was to catch Carolina napping on short yardage, and with right tackle Andre Smith benched they didn't go with their heavy packages with two right tackles outside the goal line.
And Benson had his most yards and carries of the season, but he didn't talk to any of his coaches about his fears. They turned to him in the third quarter with the game in the balance and the passing game useless as Carolina cut a 10-0 halftime lead to 10-7, giving it to Benson nine times as he mashed out 36 yards where there wasn't much room.
"No, no. I think they kind of had no choice," Benson said. "I think the rain just helped me out. We had more run plays called in the third quarter. They stuck with things that were working and guys were coming off the ball well and we absolutely got into a rhythm. We knew it was going to be a long game. Knew it was going to be that type of game."
This is the kind of game Lewis likes. Oh, he wants his offense to make some big plays. But his team showed against a struggling, winless team with a rookie quarterback why he likes it this way. He's got two superb starting cornerbacks, an athletic defense that is stingy against the run, well-coached special teams, and a big offensive line of maulers that doesn't always protect the quarterback or get the short-yardage situations.
Lewis admitted the Bengals got bounced around up front. The Panthers came into the game with no sacks from their defensive linemen and that's who got the one sack of Palmer, plus the penetration that resulted in his second interception. They also got stoned on a third-and-one to open the second half when Benson lost an uneasy two yards.
"We won the field position battle big time today, which I set out to do. I talked to our guys about it on Wednesday morning," Lewis said. "We're going to play field position in this game. So you understand it. We came out here and it started raining. But just like we planned it, we're going to play field position. If we had won the toss we were going to defer the toss. Well, they won the toss, and they deferred it. But that was my plan to play field position today and make them go long field. We were going to go short field and play good defense. We did a good job on third downs today. That was another key as well as holding that field position."
Palmer alluded to the wet balls and field courtesy of the pregame monsoon that hit Bank of America stadium for about half an hour and ended about an hour before the game began.
"It was a frustrating game coming out. When it's wet like that and the ball is slippery, it's the type of game that the offensive line and running backs love," he said. "It's a smashmouth game that is won in the trenches. And we won it in the trenches today."
It hurt Palmer as well as helped. It wasn't exactly the Freezer Bowl, but it was wet enough that the Panthers let three interceptions slip through their hands. Which shows how good cornerback Leon Hall's diving interception was in front of Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith at the Bengals 5 late in the first quarter.
It underlines how this defense has carried the Bengals in these last 27 or so games.
Granted, rookie Jimmy Clausen was throwing the balls, but it was Hall that primarily made sure that Smith, a dangerous 15-yard per-catch man for the last decade, wasn't available for him. Hall had him blanketed early in the game when Smith was working out of the slot on third down. Smith didn't catch a ball until 9:34 left in the game and the Panthers converted just two of 11 third downs. Hall victimized the rookie quarterback on the pick, but he also had help from the rest of a secondary that disguised coverages and gave Smith plenty to chew on.
"We did a lot of stuff to him. We rolled up on him, singled him, even doubled him a few times," Hall said. "We were talking about (disguising) the whole game. I could hear the safeties behind me. ... (On the interception) we rolled up on (Smith), I was able to get a re-route on him. I looked back at the quarterback, saw his eyes, and got a good jump on him."
Turnovers were going to be big in this game even if it was 90 degrees and sunny given that the Bengals and Panthers have been in the top five in NFL turnover differential since 2003. The Bengals won it with a plus-two, coming up with three fumbles to go along with Hall's interception. Middle linebacker Dhani Jones caused the big one with about nine minutes left when he got running back Jonathan Stewart to cough it up at the Panthers 42, where left end Robert Geathers ignored the wet ball, plucked it off the turf one-handed and ran it five yards to set up the game's final score.
"Come downhill and make a play," Jones said. "To make sure I stayed focus and make the play I'm supposed to make. There weren't too many plays out there that I made."
The Bengals have been coming downhill since that last half of the '08 season. They came into the game allowing teams 97.9 yards per game on the ground in that stretch and on Sunday gave a team that averaged last season about five yards per carry in averaging 158 yards per game just 87 on 24 carries for 3.6 per pop.
"It was real big for us to do that. Those are a couple of good running backs right there," said defensive tackle Domata Peko. "We were able to contain them and that was our game plan right there. Stop the run and that's what we did."
It was as simple as what the defense did against Baltimore last week. The Bengals switched out of seven- and eight-man fronts with the slight bow to the rookie quarterback by moving around the safeties. But Crocker said the Panthers simplified it so much for Clausen and relying on the running backs so much that it turned out, "We were playing the same type of game."
Yet this could be the most unsatisfying victory in quite some time because of the ills of the offense. Palmer won with his lowest passer rating ever (53.3) on a day the rookie beat him with 53.6. The kid threw one less pick with one and like Palmer was one completion over 50 percent.
Palmer didn't deviate from the postgame script.
"We had a couple of things that were just a little bit off. I missed a couple of passes that were just a little bit off," he said." It's just something that we are going to keep working at. We are going to get better each week.
"We definitely missed some things all over the field as far as the offense is concerned. But they did some good things. They had a couple of really good pressures. They had coverages where they had the perfect coverage on which doesn't happen very often but they did a good job defensively. They are a fast, quick front. They make a lot of plays up front and push the pocket around a little bit, but for the most part we did a good job protecting the pocket and giving us some room to run."
That won't go over well in Bengaldom, but Lewis continues to insist that much of the problem comes from how teams are defending the vertical game with the coverage of Owens and wide receiver Chad Ochocinco. He says he's not concerned.
"We've got to keep working to have some answers with it. But right now ... we'll get it," he said. "The tight end keeps becoming a big factor. We saw him today, and that's what we're going to have to see. They want to keep doing the things they're doing outside, and not letting us get the ball vertically down the field. Those are the things. Early on we had a couple of those calls where we didn't get the right coverage matched up. One slipped out of his hands. The other one he got hit on. But we're trying to work it down there. I'm always stressing that with our guys. That's important emphasis for me. In order to get the defense to back off, you've got to keep pushing those."
The one bright spot on offense besides Benson was Gresham, this year's No. 1 pick that is playing like it right away. The 27-yard-run-over-bodies screen sparked the first touchdown drive. His 17-yard catch in the flat that was mainly a run when Palmer hit him quick wide open on a play-action pass set up the last touchdown. And it showed how linebackers have no shot covering him.
Gresham said the Panthers were clamping down the outside and the footing wasn't great and he was able to work inside.
"Carson took advantage of what they were doing," Gresham said. "Carson did a good job looking off the defenders and the offensive line got out there and blocked."
When was the last time Palmer had more yards throwing to his tight end (59) than to both his receivers with Owens getting 42 and The Ocho 34?
"He made some really nice plays; we love seeing him with the ball in his hands," Palmer said of Gresham. "He's fast. He's physical. He does a great job in the run game. He's tough to defend because he can kind of do everything. He's not one to make a lot of mistakes."
Owens noticed how the coverages, for the most part, have taken him and The Ocho away.
"We call our plays depending on the coverage, and Carson will sort that out," Owens said. "He gave us some opportunities, and Gresham just happened to be on the end of some of those. He is going to be a great player in this league. He's great with his hands and a great runner after the catch when he gets it."
Owens had to admit he's just not used to this ugly style.
"One of those things I'm not accustomed to is kicking a lot of field goals," he said. "We take pride in our passing game, but obviously today the weather conditions prohibited us from doing some of the things down the field, so we just had to take advantage of our opportunities. We moved the ball when we had to and put ourselves in good field position and Mike came in there and kicked the field goals."
But this is not only what the Bengals are, it's what they've been.
Now the question is if Palmer can weather the storm and find some more touchdowns.