Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is looking to take his AFC North champions from good to great in 2010 and he knows that starts with scoring more points and that scoring more points starts with going downfield more in the passing game.
And he believes that starts with pass protection, which he thinks is going to now be good enough to give quarterback Carson Palmer the time he had earlier in his career.
As Lewis prepared for next week's scouting combine in Indianapolis, he hit on a variety of subjects for Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com in a crisp two-minute drill that ranged from Matt Jones, Shayne Graham, and how the Super Bowl champion Saints have him looking in the mirror.
Graham, the club's most accurate kicker of all time, looks to be on the verge of testing free agency and Lewis says it is pretty much in his court if he wants to leave.
Jones, the former Jaguars receiver, is not only trying to make a comeback from off-field problems but is also trying to make the club after team sources ripped his workout last week. But Lewis says Jones' low-risk signing is what teams should be doing at this point in the offseason. While outsiders are suggesting the Bengals need to pursue another veteran receiver, Lewis is talking about going into the spring trying to get Jerome Simpson on the field even though he has only suited up for eight games in two seasons.
The Bengals have strong ties to the Saints. Their assistant linebackers coach, Adam Zimmer, is the son of Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, and head coach Sean Payton and all the linebackers attended the Cincinnati funeral of Vikki Zimmer, Mike's wife and Adam's mother, back on Oct. 13.
GH: You talk about needing to get better on offense. Obviously you need to get the ball downfield to some outside receivers. ML:
We have to stretch the field. We have to coach it better and execute it better. You have to have the time to do that. You have to have the ability to protect to do that.* *
GH: You want that mentality back, right, that you had a few years ago? Go deep. Take shots.ML: Yes.*
*GH: Can you protect him well enough to do that now? ML:
I think we'll protect better than we did a year ago. We've got guys (on the offensive line) that are going to be back after having another year of experience, and we'll do a better job schematically as well.* *
GH: You figure protection is going to get you the big plays. ML: Because he's not worried about getting hit. That's what every quarterback is worried about and what we worry about. We had a couple of (blitzers) come running free in some early games last year with some of the things we were doing, so it kind of spooked us out of some of it.*
*GH: That fit into how you were trying to go to a more run-oriented offense, right? ML:
We knew we were going to be retooled on the offensive line. In '07 we lost our two bookends (tackles Willie Anderson and Levi Jones). In '08 we were a different team and we didn't figure it out. In '09 we figured it out and we figured out how to be productive and win games. But let's be great. Now that's the key. Going from good to great and enhance what we do from the running game. And we can't stay status quo in the running game, either. We figured out we can run the ball against teams we have to run the football against. We can't lose that mentality.
GH: How do you keep that mentality when (rookie) Chase Coffman and (practice squadder) Darius Hill are your only tight ends under contract? ML: I'm very excited about Chase Coffman. Chase Coffman has never once disappointed me on the practice field. He's a big-time receiving threat. He catches every ball thrown near him. It's uncanny how he catches the ball. He'll help us down in the scoring zones, he'll help us in medium yardage situations, he'll help us on first and second downs.
GH: But will he be able to block well enough in the running game? ML:
You never know with blocking until they get going. But we'll be fine there. We'll have some other guys there that aren't under contact now. Despite our injuries there, we did things last year to upgrade the position. In Darius Hill, that's a guy I know that can run and catch. We've got 275-pound, 260-pound guys. They're good NFL prospects. They're 6-6, they're big men. That's a position like linebacker where I feel you can grow into good players.* *
GH: Do you guys want Shayne Graham to be a Bengal? ML: He has an opportunity to figure that out. Does he want to be a Cincinnati Bengal? We'll give it a shot. We'll let him decide. Shayne has had a good and productive career here. We're not going to tag him again as the franchise player. He can sign back here or see what his value is on the market, which is not a bad thing. That's what I tell all our guys. If you're not comfortable with the current offer that's on the table, let's go out and see and hopefully they give us an opportunity to come back and come to terms.
GH: Do you guys want to re-sign Roy Williams and Tank Johnson? ML:
Oh yeah, they came in and did a great job and provided what we were looking for.* *
GH: Jeremi Johnson? ML: I think we plan to talk to all of our free-agent guys and see what can be done.*
*GH: It's all over the place that Matt Jones had an awful workout here. What does he bring to the table? ML: *
Matt gets a great opportunity here to restart his career with a fresh start. We know he has exceptional straight-line speed and hand-eye coordination. If you talk to our friends in Jacksonville, he's like many other players. They may need a fresh start. He was drafted high (No. 21 in 2005) and the expectations are ratcheted up even higher. It was kind of hard to live up to. He was quite an immature guy. After meeting him (at the 2005 combine). *
GH: How were the meetings with him last week? ML:Totally different guy. Shockingly different. The transformation is big. His background is good. His father is a coach. There are lots of good character things in him that ought to keep turning him back around and things his father would expect and he would expect out of himself. The conversations were excellent with him. He's just looking for a shot. Just give me a chance to earn a spot on your team and if I do, I'll help you win. That's all he's asking. He's got some skills and some abilities. We're not locked into him. We're only investing in his chance for him to make it. That's what you should be doing this time of year.
GH: Outsiders think you need to add at least one more veteran receiver. ML:
We may do some things. We need to have a great offseason in the development of Jerome. We have to get Jerome Simpson ready. We have to do a great job of using his skill and athleticism that can help us consistently.* *
GH: But he hasn't shown you enough to get on the field in two years. ML: The third year is the charm for some guys. For some guys it takes a lot longer to figure it out once that ball is snapped. Jerome has made great progress, let's hope the light comes on and all systems are go.*
*GH: A lot of people wonder about Laveranues Coles' future here. ML:
He came in and has been the pro we expected him to be. He was productive. He made some big catches. Big touchdown catches. He blocked great. Great leader in the receiver room. He took what was a rocky situation and smoothed it right out.* *
GH: He had some drops. ML: In the first game. He came in and apologized. He said it was the worst game he's ever played. I told him, Laveranues, no free agent comes to a new team and lights it up right away. He brought stability to the position, was a role model and leader for the guys, and a great friend for Chad (Ochocinco). His stability made that a very strong room and that's not overlooked.*
*GH: After watching the Saints win the Super Bowl, do you feel any closer to winning it all? ML:
I think it's great for a team like us to see. They're a team that was basically in a similar situation to us a year ago. They had a better year. They had a special year. They were led by a young quarterback that overcame injury and they did make some changes, but that was pretty much the same team and the guys there just grew up and said, 'why not us? Let's go win this thing.'
That was evident when they were here for the funeral and from talking to the linebackers and Sean and (linebackers coach) Joe Vitt. And we opened up the preseason there, so we kept in contact with them the whole season. The relationship I have with Sean, the relationship Mike and Sean have, Adam being there, and Carson has a good relationship with Drew (Brees), so there are some (connections) and things our players were able to see. It s great for our players to see you don't have to come in as the overwhelming preseason favorite to be the champion at the end of the year.