Hardball with Marvin Lewis

Updated: 3:35 p.m.

PALM BEACH, Fla. - If there's a word for Marvin Lewis from Tuesday's appearance in front of the national press here at the NFL's annual meetings, it is edgy.

It's almost as if he's adopting the style his team needs to survive its most physical schedule in recent memory with six foes in the top 10 running the ball and seven of the top 11 in stopping the run after a season the Bengals were in the bottom quartile for both.

"We've got to go back and play physical football and be a different team," Lewis said. "The coaches are well aware I'm not happy with it. ... Everybody thinks it's cute to throw the ball around the lot, but you don't win games throwing the ball around the lot."

Lewis also got a little rough with Chad Johnson, saying his image has been tarnished and that his two choices are to play for the Bengals or retire, and he challenged his team to be mature enough to overcome Chadgate.

Edgy isn't how he described his team. "Angry," he said. "We're not happy with the way it finished last year."

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Lewis

He's particularly not pleased with the Bengals' 24th ranked running game. Quarterback Carson Palmer's 575 passes were behind only Drew Brees and Tom Brady, his 20 interceptions were a career high, and his 86.7 passer rating was his lowest since his first season. The Bengals scored the 11th-most points in the league, but hardly any in the clutch because they were only 23rd in red-zone touchdowns.

With running back Kenny Irons struggling to come back from reconstructive knee surgery and unable to be on the field in May and June and running back Chris Perry not knowing yet if he can return to the field, there is a premium on Rudi Johnson rebounding from a subpar season hampered by a lingering hamstring problem.

"We got away from things we need to do offensively, which will enhance Rudi," Lewis said. "You play more physically; you put things together and do it. We ran the ball for 17 yards at Buffalo. That doesn't work. We can't run the ball and win the game at San Francisco. Those things are burrs under your saddle."

Johnson's yards per carry average has dipped to 3.5 since 2006, but that is a stretch when the Bengals have had 12 different starting offensive line combinations because of injuries, including six last year.

"Because of the combinations there were things schematically we got away from," Lewis said. "You get lost during the season. Some of those things you've done successfully year after year we no longer did. I think that is what happened. You're adjusting to different things.

"Looking back, we weren't satisfied. There were times we did things we want to do, but we weren't consistent. There are times you have to run the football to finish the game, and we didn't consistently because we got away from the mindset. It was, 'They do this, and we're going to throw it.' We used to be able to run it in those situations, and the ability to throw it like we can gives us another option. But you have to able to knuckle down and physically run the football."

Key, of course, is not only Johnson's health but the health of tackles Levi Jones and Willie Anderson. Jones' knee injury wiped out much of 2006 and the '07 preseason while Anderson's knee injury limited him to five starts.

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Jones

"Levi was healthy at the end of the season, so he should be in good shape. Willie, I think, felt comfortable at the end of the season with what he physically needed to do and what issues he was dealing with," Lewis said. "A year ago, he wasn't so sure about it. Right now, he is confident and wants to come back and show people he can play 16 games and do things the correct way."

The idea behind running the ball is to ease Palmer's burden.

"We have a quarterback who, a year ago, tried to win every game. He realizes he can't do that," Lewis said. "He had to go through some of those games, like Seattle (a 24-21 loss). Now he realizes you can't throw the ball all the time or you're not going to beat anybody."

But if the Bengals' abilities in the physical game have been suspect the past few years, Lewis knows their psyche is even more fragile.

"We haven't been very good with (success) because we've had some guys that have had marginal success and they think the world revolves around them," he said.

And Lewis called out his team to be tough in response to Johnson's incessant trade demand.

"The rest of the team has to grow up and understand that whether it's your first-round pick, whether it's the guy in the last year of his contract and feels like he needs a new contract in order to play, sometimes these things happen and every guy judges it differently," Lewis said. "They've got to be professionals and be prepared and I've told them not to worry about all this other stuff.

"They've had to deal with it already with the perception that's been there with that. It can't continue to be an issue with you. Let it go. It is where it is. Right now it's not there, so don't worry about it. Let's move forward."

Lewis is the Chris Matthews in the Bengals' Hardball approach to Johnson. On Tuesday he continued to reach out and help him ("I'm willing to take the bullets again," he said) but he wondered about Johnson's image and if he was serious about getting traded or quitting.

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Johnson

"We've been dealing with this inside for over a year and we'll be prepared to move on," Lewis said. "He has a contract through 2011. If he plays NFL football it will be in Cincinnati, or he has to do what he says and that's retire. That would be a shame. We'll do everything we can to help him out of this and try to restore his image.

"Unfortunately Chad put himself in that situation. A lot of people who really had an affection for him fan-wise and people around the league see him in a different light and that's unfortunate. Some of the things he's gone on record and said one way or the other he's going to have to deal with them one way or the other. ... He's said he's probably going to sit out. I think you've got to own up and do it. Hopefully he'll do what Kobe Bryant did this year. He had a very accomplished season (after his trade demands). The Cincinnati Bengals hold the cards through the 2011 season."

There are three reasons Lewis needs to be tough and his Bengals even tougher: Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cleveland. The Bengals' ability to play physical and survive mentally has usually determined how they fare in the AFC North, home of perennial top five defenses in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. And with Cleveland adding two huge defensive linemen in Corey Williams and Shaun Rogers ...

When the Bengals won the division in '05, Rudi Johnson had at least 97 yards rushing in three of the four games that the Bengals won against those teams. Last year they got swept by Pittsburgh and swept Baltimore, but the fact their big game by a back in those four was Kenny Watson's 88-yarder was a true barometer of their struggles.

"Pittsburgh, they won the division last year," said Lewis as his reason for picking the Steelers as the favorite. "I think Cleveland has done a good job, they added some guys, they continue to play together, they've settled on a quarterback. (Pittsburgh) has the experience, they've won, their quarterback is coming off his best season. We're going to compete with them, but right now they're ahead of us. There are some teams ahead of us."

"Cleveland has continued to improve. Phil and Romeo have done a great job acquiring players who fit it," said Lewis of general manager Phil Savage and head coach Romeo Crennel. "Baltimore, because of their defense, there probably won't be much change. If they can get some quarterback play and take care of the ball, they will be a team that will be up there."

Lewis says the Bengals are better, too, with the addition of Titans defensive end Antwan Odom, the maturation of the secondary and the improving health of the offensive line. Or what he called, "The renewed sense of the guys up front."

And he thinks the trade the Bengals couldn't make for Rogers may end up helping them in some form because the Browns traded cornerback Leigh Bodden, a Chad Johnson nemesis.

"I'm glad he's out of Cleveland," Lewis said. "He's one of the best corners in the NFL. He's a big guy, he's talented, he plays with great leverage, he can run, he plays square at the line. He's very competitive."

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