Q: Watching the Ravens vs. Steelers makes me wonder if the Bengals will ever match up with those two teams unless they can match up defensively. Will Zimmer be given the OK to draft defensive playmakers at linebacker and defensive back in the first and second rounds? Defense is the key in winning this division.
--Ed B., Hot Springs Village, AR
ED: No question. The Steelers and Ravens have built their decade dominance on defense. The problem is you need some playmakers on offense to beat the playmakers on defense and the Bengals offense needs more help than its defense right now.
Yes, the Bengals need a big-time game-changing-James-Harrison-Terrell-Suggs type of guy on defense. But if they don't make moves to protect quarterback Carson Palmer with a left tackle, center, running back, tight end, it won't matter if you've got Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed in the same secondary.
That said, you've got to go for the best player with the sixth pick and this is what they have to decide: If they believe Andrew Whitworth is better than the left tackles available, then you've got to take a serious look at defenders like USC middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji.
Those guys can change you in a hurry. Particularly Maualuga, who would bring the kind of bold-big-time-swagger attitude they would have gotten with Georgia's David Pollack and Odell Thurman. Now they would get it with USC's Keith Rivers and Maualuga, a big, intense 260-pound presence that is a must in the drive to overtake Baltimore and Pittsburgh. They would finally have an answer to Ray-Ray with Rey-Rey.
And, you'd have to take a good, long look at the Casey Hampton-ish Raji. If you can't beat Hampton, get guys like him.
But only if you think you've got a left tackle. If you don't, and you think Michael Oher or Jason Smith or Eugene Monroe can shut people down for the next decade, you better take him.
The one guy who has truly scared the bejeezus out of Baltimore and Pittsburgh in this decade has been Palmer because he's got the arm and release to beat the blitz. Before the people around him broke down, more often than not he'd light them up. He put up 24 points in Baltimore in a fourth quarter and in Pittsburgh one Sunday pumped home four touchdown passes
Look, I'm with you. The easiest way to win championships is with defense. The Steelers prove it through injury and the Ravens prove it through offensive inadequacies.
Someone sent me an e-mail saying that no one like Bengals fans realizes that defense wins titles. I say if not Bengals fans, then Red Sox fans.
Only until they got a solid big three pitching rotation, a closer, and a vacuum cleaner at shortstop after Nomar for the stretch run did they start winning World Series titles even though they had mashers all down through the lineup like they'd had the previous 86 years.
But the Bengals are where they are. They've got a franchise quarterback in desperate need of help and a defensive coordinator that proved this year he can get them good enough to win games with some points.
Here is the biggest lesson the Ravens and Steelers have taught: Decide on a scheme, stick with it, and draft accordingly.
Sure, defensive end Brett Keisel was a seventh-round pick in 2002. Maybe the Steelers were the only team that would have drafted him. But he fit them. Maybe he didn't run a 3.9 at the combine or have the vertical leap of Mars, but he did the things that fit them and he has grown into a big cog.
Same thing on a different level in Baltimore with University of Cincinnati safety Haruki Nakamura. They took him in the sixth round back in April knowing he wasn't a physical specimen. But he made plays and that's what they're looking for in a secondary that feeds off a relentless pass rush and needs guys that can get their hands on the ball. He fits what they need.
The myth is that the Bengals don't know who the talented players are. But, in reality, a problem might be that sometimes it seems they pick players based solely on talent and not on any one scheme that they call their own.
Q: Very simple. When is the team going to sign T.J. to a long-term contract? Everything I see T.J. say is he wants to be in Cincinnati and it is so obvious that he is as good as it gets and has proven it on and off the field. Doesn't Mr. Brown want a championship? Doesn't he believe it is time to get on with it and sign him rather than putting the franchise tag on him? T.J. doesn't want that and I'm afraid it will impact his mental attitude. All the guy wants is respect and giving him a long-term contract is showing him respect. So, where are they all at in getting this done as fast as possible?
--Greg, San Jose, CA
GREG: Hey, if it were me, I'd sign the guy off this one stat alone: He caught 31 balls on third down for a team that had 82 first downs.
But if respect is $9 million per year...
We don't know what Housh wants. We do know the latest wide receiver deals are going for $9M per. That might be a hard number for them to give a guy that turns 32 in the third week of next season.
As T.J. said, they made a run at him before training camp and it sounds like they're going to try again before the Feb. 27 start of free agency.
They want to get a deal, but if they can't I don't think that shows Mike doesn't want to win or it is a dissing of Housh.
He's got a high opinion of Houshmandzadeh, not to mention Justin Smith, their defensive end who left via free agency last year.
In the end, they simply didn't think Smith was worth the money he was going to get on the open market, which amounted to about $20 million guaranteed for a guy that had 43.5 sacks in seven seasons.
A good player, but $20 mill up front? Again, we stress we don't know what Housh is asking. But if the Bengals use that same line of reasoning on Houshmandzadeh and someone offers a five-year $45 million deal with $20M up front, will they give that to a guy in the last stretch of his career who averages less than 12 yards per catch and has had one season of double-digit touchdowns?
With reports that the 49ers and Seahawks are interested, maybe he'll get it, considering the Niners gave the big deal to Smith.
Now, Housh would be the first to tell you that his numbers would be better if they threw the ball to him deeper and more often. Plus, it's hard to judge anybody's numbers off this past season.
And maybe he's right. No question that he's one of the greatest receivers in Bengals history and just may well be their greatest clutch receiver of all. Outside every time Isaac Curtis played Cleveland.
To me, he's more valuable than Smith because Houshmandzadeh is like a coach on the field getting the other receivers lined up.
If the guy was 28 (and he says he is football-wise because he didn't play the first three years), it would be a no-brainer.
But it's not. It's simply not as cut-and-dried as everyone would like.
Stay tuned. Maybe they can get something done. When he signed last time it was at the witching hour.
Q: What is the truth behind the Hue Jackson story? It's brought me some excitement today if nothing else. Haven't seen anything on the team site. But it seems there are a lot of bloggers really excited. Do you have any insight?
--Jason, Dandridge, TN
JASON: We did make mention of it briefly last week when speculation hit the papers in Baltimore and Cincinnati that Marvin had interest in Hue for offensive coordinator, but there wasn't much to it given that offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski made the trip to the Senior Bowl.
If Brat hadn't gone, I guess there would have been something to it.
There is no denying the logic. Marvin and Hue are tight. Hue coached Carson at USC and Chad and T.J. to 1,000-yard seasons here. And the offense went in the tank this season.
But you have to figure if they were going to go in a different direction, they would have made a vacancy right after the season. The earliest they could have contacted the Ravens about Hue would have been eight days ago, but it is doubtful Baltimore would have let him come here for something less than coordinator.