Posted: 9:10 p.m.
Sunday's opener is a full circle game for Marvin Lewis in a couple of ways.
His first game as Bengals head coach came in a Paul Brown Stadium NFL opener also against Denver, a 30-10 loss on Sept. 7, 2003, six years to Monday when he talked about how this team is the one with which he's finally comfortable.
"I get all the blame now," he said with a laugh.
And another game with the Broncos might have been his most devastating loss, The Christmas Heave game of Dec. 24, 2006, when an extra-point snap in the last seconds went awry and the playoffs blew away in the Mile High flurries, 24-23.
Since that night, the Bengals are 11-22-1.
"We really had control of that game and at some point we just lost it," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth, then a rookie. "If you really look back, I don't know if we've played as solid as a team or with that intensity like we did that game. But now we're different and they're different."
Lewis continues to insist that the Bengals are different enough that this is his kind of team. He said it in March and he said it again Monday with the season "six days and seven minutes away." Different than the 2005 team that made the playoffs and the 2006 team that didn't.
"Our young players have better role models around them in every position," Lewis said. "This group has better role models within their meetings to help the coaches coach and so they can self-discipline and self-correct, and critiquing themselves better.
"I think every position has great leadership. On the D-line is Domata (Peko). Robert (Geathers). Tank (Johnson). Antwan (Odom). Michael Johnson has good mentors. (Linebacker Rey) Maualuga has has some mentors. In the secondary, those two young corners (Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall) got some mentors (safeties Roy Williams and Chris Crocker)."
Lewis talked about how just two players who played in that '03 opener against Denver, wide receiver Chad Ochocinco and long snapper Brad St. Louis, are the only players that were here before him. But maybe more important is that there are only 14 players left from Christmas Eve '06. That will happen where there are 24 players on this Opening Day roster not on the last one.
"There are guys who earned their way to stay and guys who haven't produced are no longer here," he said. "That's a healthy thing for everybody to see. It doesn't matter where you were drafted, when you were drafted. We're kind of down to that now."
He calls what has happened in the 34 games since "sifting out."
"In my opinion you have to be able to practice and prepare in the NFL to be good," Lewis said. "When you can't do that for reasons of injury, or maybe you think you're injured, or 'I feel sore,' you're going to struggle based on the position you play. Because it's not going to be quite the continuity you need. We've grown through that."
Suffice to say Lewis felt he had too tough of a time getting some veterans on the field to practice and last year he just put his foot down. He's still mumbling about a guy "that had trouble practicing on Wednesday." He won't name the players but they are gone now (and for the first time he kept two rookie free agents on the same Opening Day roster in Quan Cosby and Tom Nelson) and he clearly thinks it has something to do with how they execute.
For instance, against the blitz.
He said the Bengals have done a good job this preseason beating pressure with quick touchdown throws to wide receivers Andre Caldwell and Chris Henry.
"Chad's been where he needs to be, the ball has been delivered, and we've made big plays," Lewis said. "We keep doing those things and we keep doing them the right way, and we'll get people off our back."
While all Bengaldom is scared sleepless about the offensive line, Lewis says to get some rest. He says they're better than last year. He also says the Bengals have better receivers and running backs than last year.
"Our first offensive line group hasn't given up a pressure or sack. They've done a great job playing together and being where they need to be," Lewis said. "I know they won't go through a whole season like that. There will be times when we'll get beat physically. Not thus far. We haven't been beaten physically."
If Bengaldom isn't nervous about the O-line, then they are nervous about a dormant running game and if an offense that finished dead last in the NFL can be revived by the same coaches.
Lewis has no worries about that with the help of a new running style in Cedric Benson's slashes. His twin mantras remain, "If you know you can run the football productively, block them, run it and not turn it over, every team that does those things and doesn't give up the big play on defense is going to win three out of four games."
"I do," said Lewis when asked if he's confident in the running game. "We've reconstituted it with our change in running style. Our offense spent a lot of time this offseason looking how to improve running the ball. Our offensive coaches have done a great job with that."