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How many backs can hold up?

Brian Leonard

Posted: 1 a.m.

Quarterback Carson Palmer and third-down specialist Brian Leonard have the best seat in the house for what both say is the most talented group of running backs they've ever had for teammates. But Leonard is just like everyone else in Bengaldom. He's both intrigued and wondering what the coaching staff's next move is.

"I'm kind of curious what the coaches are going to do next week with four backs. I don't think you can play four backs," admitted Leonard, who already won a made-for-HBO roster battle in preseason with DeDe Dorsey. "Throughout the preseason and OTAs with DeDe Dorsey and the other guys who didn't make the team and got cut, we had a great group of running backs come through here and everybody is playing well."

Palmer wonders if any team can match the talent of a No. 4 pick in Cedric Benson, a two-time Pro Bowler in Larry Johnson who was a No. 27 pick himself, and the reigning Division II Player of the Year in Bernard Scott who had back-to-back 2,000-yard seasons at Abilene Christian with a mere 73 touchdowns.

"I don't know if there have been many teams that have guys that have had success throughout their careers that these two guys have had," Palmer said. "And then Bernard. Bernard's got a lot of yards and a lot of carries. I think if you put those three guys' numbers up, college and NFL, I think you'd have a tough time finding another team that has that kind of experience and success at those two levels."

And don't forget Leonard, the most prolific scorer in New York state schoolboy history who was a second-round pick.

"The good thing is my role is a bit different; I'm a third-down back," Leonard said. "Those guys can play it, obviously, but I think I'm real good at it ... we're all different backs. I think Cedric and Larry are a lot alike. They're downhill runners. B-Scott is a little more side-to-side, make someone miss. I'm more of a downhill runner, but my specialty is third down. I think eventually I'll be one of the best third-down backs in this league hopefully.

"My first job is to pick up blitzes and that's what I do. I don't think I've (allowed) one quarterback pressure all year."

Head coach Marvin Lewis deftly avoided any controversial cloud surrounding the upcoming game Monday when he immediately tapped Benson to start, a move that didn't surprise Palmer. But Lewis didn't tip his hand on if he'd go with three or four backs against the Lions.

"Cedric's the guy. That's not going to change and Larry knew that coming in," Palmer said. "Cedric is our running back. Cedric wants to get out there and be playing, but he's extremely happy to see a guy come in and fill his shoes for a game. I don't think it's going  to be an issue keeping guys happy. Cedric's the guy. That was explained to Larry and that was explained to Cedric. I think Marvin's done a great job communicating that situation. The worst thing that can happen is the media blows this thing up and starts a fight. ... It's a good situation to have."

Leonard, who also starts on punt return, punt cover and kick return on special teams, thinks it's tough to rotate first and second down backs because of the issue of getting into the flow of a game.

"One guy gets in that grove, it's hard to take him out, and then other guys get upset about it. Hopefully we're enough of a team now that won't happen," Leonard said. "Once you get into that groove ... you saw Larry get into it yesterday. Keep feeding him the ball, running hard downhill and breaking tackles."

Leonard thinks it's going to help eventually to have so many good ones.

"It will. Especially at running back. Guys get bumped and bruised," Leonard said. "It will definitely help. Obviously with Ced down, the other running backs stepped up and did a good job. They'll need us all in the end. There's a lot of good competition out there on the practice field, which is going to make us better in the long run."

The Bengals needed everyone on Sunday and they may need everyone this Sunday. They're not so sure about Scott's turf toe and there is some question if he'll be able to go against Detroit.

Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said so many elements go into an inactive list that the process takes virtually the entire week. He said injuries at all positions have to be taken into consideration, as well as special teams.

"The flexibility we have is we're getting great snaps from guys in positions where you sometimes don't get good snaps and production," said Lewis, pointing to the mentality of special teams coach Darrin Simmons. "Darrin and the position coaches have done an outstanding job of training our young players that, if you want to play on Sunday, you better have a significant role in the kicking game. If you're not a 50-snap guy on offense or defense, and even if you are, you may have a significant role.

"When you start that way from the ground up, you're able to get some production from guys in areas you sometimes don't. We're getting it from the defensive backfield group. We're getting it from our starting linebackers and our backups. We're getting it from the receiving corps, and out of the running back group. We're making a significant impact that way. We're getting productive snaps from offensive and defensive linemen in the return game."

Four or three backs on game day?

"I'll make that decision later in the week, if not Sunday," Lewis said. "I just met with the coaches and let them know my plans and my thoughts on this week. We'll go through the week and reevaluate it tomorrow, and take it possibly on Friday again, and go forward. We'll make that call later."

Leonard is a more than an interested bystander.

"There's some great talent at the running back position right now," Leonard said. "And there has been since I've been here."

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