Posted: 10:50 a.m.
OK, OK. The big stat at the halfway point this year compared to last year is 6-2 as opposed to 3-5.
But the dramatic 37.8-point upgrade in the passing game in which the Bengals lead the NFL in four categories, along with the stunning increase from plus-seven to a league-leading plus-20 turnover differential from the midway point last season has the Bengals pointed to their first playoff berth in 15 seasons.
With quarterback Carson Palmer firing up a triple-digit passer rating of 104.1, five of the six AFC quarterbacks who finished at 90 or better in 2004 led their teams to the playoffs. And, of the seven AFC teams that finished last season better than plus-seven in turnovers, five went to the playoffs.
Penalties, yards per rush allowed, and total yards are also up. But time of possession is up by nearly three minutes, seven more turnovers have been generated, and 45 fewer points have been allowed in three of the biggest categories on the stat sheet that decide wins and losses. The Bengals defense (4) is ranked higher than the offense (11) when it comes to NFL scoring.
The reasons for improvement from Nov. 7, 2004 to Nov. 1, 2005 are as varied as the Bengals' league-leading 20 interceptions, which by the way, is exactly double what they had after eight games last year.
The theories range from more experience and more health at the point of attack on offense to more athleticism on defense. Chris Perry, Odell Thurman and Chuck Bresnahan are some of the sub-plots that weren't here last year. At least in their present capacities.
- "The line is playing great. The protection is better. I just think we're improved all over on offense," said Palmer, who leads the NFL with 16 touchdown passes and a completion percentage of 69.7, up 13 points from the halfway point last year.
"Another year of getting coached by Coach Lewis and his coaching staff," said cornerback Tory James. "Another year of getting together and playing with all the guys. They did a good job in free agency and the draft in putting their guys out there."
"They've hit some teams that were struggling, like Minnesota, Chicago, and Green Bay, but they've done what they had to do," said Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham. "There's no question they've moved up. Some of he teams in the upper echelon have come back to the pack while the Bengals have moved up a notch or so." Another theory, this one pushed by defensive dean Brian Simmons, states the quick start has had an impact on keeping the club focused.
"To start the season at 4-0 and to go to Cleveland and get a win and Chicago to get a win and Tennessee to get a win is the key," Simmons said. "The good thing is we don't have to win eight games all (in one week). We can go a week at a time."
Indeed, the Bengals didn't have a road win last year at the halfway mark. They have three now, one shy of their most in 10 years.
Palmer's transformation has been the biggest and most important when charting the first eight starts of his career last year to the first eight starts of this year in which the Bengals are averaging 68 more yards per game. He's got 10 more touchdown passes and five fewer interceptions off a rating that was a lowly 66.3 at this time last year. And while three games have come this year against defenses currently ranked 31 (Houston), 27 (Minnesota), and 24 (Cleveland), he also put up 100 rating games against the No. 3 Bears, No. 7 Jaguars, No. 15 Packers, and No. 16 Titans.
"Repetition breeds a comfort level and that's how it's been for Carson," Lapham said. "He understands his offense and what defenses are trying to do to stop his offense. He's getting them out of bad plays and into good plays (with calls at the line of scrimmage). And the offensive line is healthy and playing well. When they give him time, he's special."
Not only has Palmer been better at the line of scrimmage in the first eight games, so has his offensive line. Last year, the line had health problems in the first half of the season as Palmer took 19 sacks and the running game averaged just 3.9 yards per carry.
But this season against a schedule that has included four defenses in the top 10 in sacks per play, Palmer has been sacked just a dozen times with tackles Willie Anderson and Levi Jones coming up big the last month. Anderson blanked the NFL sack leader in Tennessee (Kyle Vanden Bosch) and Steelers Pro Bowl end Aaron Smith on successive Sundays, and in the last two weeks Jones has held off two guys that combined for 20.5 sacks last season in Steelers Pro Bowler Joey Porter and Green Bay's Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila.
The running game has been a little stronger as well. Rudi Johnson has two fewer yards this season that computes to a 1,362-yard season, but he has 13 fewer carries and his yards per is up to 4.2.
What's harder to figure is why the third-down percentage is off three points last year from 34.4 this to 37.1 in the first half of last season, particularly with the addition of Perry. Perry, shelved pretty much all last season with an abdominal problem, has provided 23 first downs the Bengals didn't have last year with nine runs and 14 catches primarily as a third-down back.
"You can't cover him," said wide receiver Chad Johnson. "You can't put a safety or a linebacker on him and if you put a corner on him, a wide receiver is going to be wide open."
Perry has accounted for 421 yards rushing and passing the Bengals didn't have last season, and Lapham can't figure out why more of them haven't shown up on third down.
"I think it just goes to show you that even good teams aren't successful in getting out of third-and-long holes," Lapham said.
Those third-and-longs were mainly products of the rash of penalties that appeared to have calmed down lately. Still, the Bengals have committed 16 more penalties than last season.
A lot of the red flags are still there on defense. They've allowed fewer yards rushing, but teams have had to pass it on them. Their per average against the run is worse, 4.7 to 4.5, and they have two fewer sacks, 11 to 13.
"No secrets about this Sunday," said defensive end Duane Clemons, tied for the sack lead with two even though he missed the first four games on the suspended list. "Everyone is trying to do that to us, right? Run it? And Baltimore is a good running team."
But the turnovers (28 compared to 21 last season) and points indicate the defense has turned a corner with Bresnahan, the new defensive coordinator. His players have acknowledged during the season that the simplicity has helped them focus on making plays.
"Having Chuck is important. Everybody is feeding off him," James said. "The (coaches) give us the tips and alerts. We're prepared when we go into a game. The coaches put us in good situations and we're making plays when the ball is in the air."
The Bengals may be yielding yards, but certainly not points. They're on pace to give up 250, the fewest since they started playing 16 games in 1978.
"I do think Chuck and Kevin Coyle are huge factors," said Lapham of the secondary coach. They have good players that believe in the scheme and they're prepared. They know what the route is going to be before it unfolds. It's not an accident they're getting all these interceptions."
Something also has to be said for athleticism, which brings up the addition of Thurman, the second-rounder who has started all eight games at linebacker. The numbers against the run haven't improved with him, but the playmaking ability has with his four interceptions.
James also lumps first-round pick David Pollack in that group, as well as another young linebacker, second-year Landon Johnson. James has had his eye on the 6-0 Thurman since he saw him dunk a basketball.
"The younger guys get better and better every year I've been in the league," James said. "Linebackers with defensive backs skills. They can do it all."
Simmons said Thurman "is a good player and he'll be a great player. The good thing about Odell is he can go out there and play a position he's played and just out there without any pressure and play."
The special teams look to be square with last year, although its miscues in the Jacksonville game contributed to a loss more so than probably any loss in the first half last season. But, the kick cover team is seventh in the league and punt cover is 15th, which highlights the athleticism they continue to add under Lewis.
Punter Kyle Larson has been more inconsistent. Last year at this time he had three touchbacks and 13 inside-the-20 compared to four and seven now, and his net average is off about a half yard from 36 to 35.4.
Kicker Shayne Graham did stub his toe when he missed his shortest kick as a Bengal two weeks ago, but he's pretty much cruising at 14-for-17 this year compared to 18-for-20 a year ago at this time.
Rookie receiver Tab Perry is returning kicks at 24 yards per return for nearly a three-yard increase over last year.