Carson Palmer was on point with 95 yards passing and two TDs in a quarter and one play. (AP photo)
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - The Bengals took the wraps off their no-huddle offense in Friday night's offensive meeting and it was running back Cedric Benson that untied the bow in Saturday night's first three series that were impressive enough for head coach Marvin Lewis to tell his quarterback and running back to grab some bench after just one snap into the second quarter.
Sure, in their best quarter of offense since the Bengals put up 17 against the Lions all the way back in early December, quarterback Carson Palmer looked like his old point-guard self hitting nine of 11 passes for 95 yards and two touchdowns while dishing a 2005ish 142.2 passer rating.
And, yes, wide receivers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens looked like NBA shooting forwards in the fast-break offense while rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham looks more and more like Rodney Holman, his Astroturf ancestor in the up-tempo scheme first hatched in Sam Wyche's Cincinnati of the '80s.
And since Benson arrived early in the 2008 season, he has been involved in plenty of hurry-up drives with Palmer. Last year Palmer was an iceman on seven last drives of games in which he engineered the winning or tying points.
But with offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski shelving it for games the past two years as the Bengals evolved into a run-first offense, Benson didn't get his first lengthy exposure to the no-huddle until Saturday night's 35-20 loss to the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium as the Bengals went to 2-2 on the preseason.
"Oh man," Benson said. "Love it. Love it."
While Palmer was dishing, Benson was gliding to 50 yards on eight carries. He had a 20-yard run, an 11-yard run and when Palmer couldn't check back into a pass after the Bills loaded up for a run, Benson still bulled for four yards on a night he brisked to 6.3 yards per carry.
"It's just easy; it's just cake," Benson said. "We can do anything in that formation. Run, pass. We can do anything, but the defense is in just one defense. They don't have time to adjust."
Ten of Palmer's 19 plays came out of the no-huddle. Three were Benson runs for 35 yards. The Bengals didn't use it when they got in the red-zone or goal line or on third or fourth down. Sometimes they ran it out of three-receiver sets with rookie Jermaine Gresham as the lone tight end. Usually they ran it out of two-receiver, two tight-end sets with Gresham displaying his versatility and Reggie Kelly alternating as a blocking back or in-line blocker.
"Gresham is such a great addition to the pass game," Benson said. "He's like a receiver and that allows us to pretty much do anything out of those formations."
Not only did the Bengals run it of no-huddle, but it made the passing game look smoother than it has looked since they put up 102 points in three games in November 2006. Palmer went to The Ocho and Owens for six of his 11 passes and completed five of them for 38 yards, all for first downs and/or touchdowns. He completed all three balls to Gresham for 32 yards (one for a touchdown) and connected on one of two balls for five yards to slot receiver Jordan Shipley.
"We've got some good stuff in the no-huddle, but we've also got some really good stuff in our schemes, but it is a good change-of-pace," Palmer said. "It makes the defense prepare for a little bit more; it puts more pressure on the defense and gets them tired. It gets us tired too, but it's a good asset to have. We'll use it some weeks and we won't use it some weeks. Who knows? But it was going pretty well tonight.
"We've got three good receivers. Three playmakers at receiver. And a really good fourth if you add Jermaine in there because he's really a receiver and you've got a guy like Reggie that does anything you ask him to do."
Palmer may be calling the no-huddle a change of pace and the Bengals may be saying it is not going to be something they go with every snap. But they seem at their best on the run and when things are simplified. And they clearly have confidence in what Palmer checks to at the line of scrimmage.
"It's all him," Benson said. "I'm sure his coach is talking to him on the headphones, but every time it was a run, he was calling it."
Bratkowski has been using the no-huddle the past two seasons pretty much only in practice. With the sea change in personnel on the offensive line, the tumult at tight end and wide receiver, and the transition from Rudi Johnson to Chris Perry to Benson that chewed up Palmer's lone healthy month of the '08 season dictating a more run-oriented offense, the no-huddle went into the no use bin.
But after Bratkowski told the club in Friday night's meeting they were going to use it on the Bills, he liked the reunion and says the Bengals can still be committed to the run in the no-huddle.
"It looked good for the first time in live action," he said. "We (ran the ball) tonight. It just depends on the team you're going to play and how they match the personnel you put in there. A lot of times the defense will dictate. Part of the no-huddle is to run what the best plays are. It gives the quarterback a chance to see whether the run is better or the pass is better. It kind of is dictated how the defense lines up."
Palmer says he's not even sure how many times he checked or called plays at the line and if he knew, he probably wouldn't say to keep defenses guessing.
"I don't even remember," he said. "We do a lot of it. Some games we do very little. It just depends on what the game plan is we have each week. You can't do too much of it or else defenses get tipped off to it. But for the most part we had a number of situations and the coaching staff is confident in me to put us in the right play, getting the right play called, getting us in the right checks. That's my main goal: To put us in the best play possible for the look we get."
His first two touchdown passes of the preseason - the nine-yarder to an uncovered Gresham over the middle and the six-yard naked bootleg rollout to The Ocho - didn't come out of no-huddle. But the rapport he's developing with his receivers new and old was evident. No play showed that more than the 12-yard out Owens ran on the sideline against cornerback Terrence McGee. Palmer gunned it before Owens made his break and he caught it just as he stepped out of bounds.
"Those are the type of things I'm happy to adjust to," Owens said. "Being in a West Coast offense I'm used to the timing of a quarterback and receiver, the ball being thrown before the receiver's out of the break ... that's something that I would be working on in practice. The sky is the limit for this team. I'm here for a reason and that's to help this team in the passing game, and I'm more focused probably than I've ever been and I'm excited about the opportunity that I have here and I'm going to make the most of it."
Like any receiver, Owens likes the up-tempo stuff. The one long ball Palmer tried all night was a fling out of no-huddle to Owens that nearly got intercepted by cornerback Leodis McKelvin underneath, but Palmer got a 16-yarder and 12-yarder to Owens.
"It's tougher in practice than it really is in a game," Owens said. "So, that's something that we have to try to pride ourselves in. If we're going to run no-huddle, we have to be successful with it. I think we made some strides tonight. Overall, we didn't get the outcome that we would have liked, as far as the win is concerned. In order to do that, we have to eliminate penalties. We had a lot of big gains that were called back because of penalties. Those are things we can clean up. We've got another week left and then after that it's the real deal."
Indeed, the Bengals have to adjust to the new dynamic of the umpire being opposite the referee on the offensive side of the ball. Only in the last two minutes of a game or half does the umpire go back to his old position on defense. The move is to protect umpires and players from collisions, but it has slowed down the spotting of the ball. Lewis, a member of the NFL competition committee, didn't seem very happy that it was taking about 27-28 seconds to get the ball spotted than the usual 20 or so.
"It's something we have to adjust to. Maybe we have to start practicing a little bit more with the refs in practice because that will help us out," Palmer said. "If you've seen a lot of games on TV where guys are getting (frustrated) they're not getting it spotted quite fast enough. If that's the way the league is changing, then we'll adapt."
Bratkowski is also looking for more time.
"It is a difference; the tempo slows down," he said. "Usually we have a lot more time at the line of scrimmage and because they are so slow getting out of there now, it's a different dynamic. The teams that are running no-huddle are complaining about just that fact and are getting called on early snaps."
The Bengals also made a decision to cut back on time when it came to pulling Palmer after the second touchdown on the first play of the second quarter. He may not even play in Thursday night's preseason finale in Indianapolis, so for the first time in a preseason he won't play into the second half of a game. But for the first time, he's also already played in four preseason games with the Hall of Fame Game.
"If we had done some decent things, we'd pull him out," said Bratkowski of the plan. "If we needed to go a little more to get some rhythm we might have gone more."
Lewis couldn't have drawn it up better. The offense had its best night in what amounts to the last tune-up because no starter is playing very much if at all in Indy. No one on offense got hurt, and the opener is just two weeks away.
"We are getting better and better each week, and that's where we want to be," Palmer said. "That's the mindset playing these preseason games. You've got to get something out of them. The main thing you want to do is make improvements and come together more as a unit and we definitely did that."