Updated: 8:35 p.m.
GEORGETOWN, Ky. – Here's a play from Thursday afternoon's practice that shows exactly where the heart of this Super Bowl drive is going to come from.
A versatile, busy and relentless defense. A smart quarterback. Leadership and chemistry.
As quarterback Carson Palmer hunched over center, he made his read. But as he backed into his five-step drop, safeties Roy Williams and Chris Crocker switched positions and thus the defense.
So Palmer had to pull his eyes from the side of wide receiver Chad Ochocoinco, now suddenly locked up in the new coverage, and by the time Palmer looked to the other side, he had to scramble and his read and throw were too late and the period was over.
But instead of shaking his head or jawing at the defense, Palmer called out, "Hey Crock, hey Roy," and jogged over to the defensive sideline where the white shirts rarely come to tell them job well done.
"They bluffed into a coverage; they got me," Palmer said. "That makes it really hard for a quarterback. It makes you start from one side of the field pre-snap and as soon as the ball is snapped you're in a quick passing game mode and you've got to go all the way to the other side.
"I said, 'Good job.' It gets no harder for a quarterback. They make your job as a quarterback hard. They get your eyes in different places. That's what the best defenses do. Some really good defenses play one thing and you know you're going to see it all day and they don't play a lot of variations. Our defense does a ton. They don't do one thing. They force your eyes to scan the defense a lot, which makes you late to your reads."
Palmer thinks this is a pretty good match. Sometimes it doesn't look very pretty against the land's No. 4 defense. But he thinks it's about 50-50 for his offense. "I wouldn't say we're struggling," he said.
MINUTE MADE: Palmer says the passing game has begun to hit its stride in the last three or four practices and everybody was loose after a pretty effective one-minute drill that included a pass to Terrell Owens and a pass to The Ocho and then a bomb down the middle of about 30 yards or so to Owens that he wrestled away from cornerback Adam Jones in the air and pulled it out as he tumbled across the goal line. Then Owens held it aloft on his back for a few seconds before getting up and jogging to a jumping side bump with The Ocho.
"Guys are starting to make make plays. (Fewer) mistakes are being made," Palmer said. "It's easy to have a great day and (then a) bad day. The good teams that go far into the playoffs don't have two bad days in a row."
Palmer and Owens look to be getting in sync. On Wednesday night there was a 55-yard TD bomb. On Thursday there was the jump ball, a product of Jones' interception a few nights before into the corner of the end zone off a scramble.
"I told (Owens) what I should have done is thrown it high. I said, 'I'll put it about 10 feet off the ground,' " Palmer said. "He said, 'Put it 12.' Sure enough, the next day in practice it happened and I got him in the other end zone. Same situation came up today. Same thing. Just put it up to a point where he gets it or nobody gets it. And he went up and got it and took it away from him."
There were some spectacular catches all the way around. Jerome Simpson and Maurice Purify continue to catch everything their way, making the receiver fight quite intriguing with or without Antonio Bryant. Simpson made one of his patented leaping-how-come-he-can't do-it-all-the-time grabs on the sideline when he flew over the DB to take the ball away and put it on his hip before he came down looking for all the world like Michael Jordan.
"He can jump and he likes to jump," Palmer said. "He gets so excited when the ball is thrown to him as opposed just putting his foot in the ground and going upfield. He jumps because he's so good at jumping over people."
Simpson's downfall has been his inability to get consistently lined up and grasping the nuances of the offense. But that seems to be changing, although offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said while he's better it has to get even better.
"He's gotten much more disciplined," Palmer said. "I think he's figured the offense out for the most part. He just needs to keep taking strides and keep figuring out certain routes against certain coverages and improve in that area and he'll do that because he's really dug in as far as figuring out his playbook and wanting to learn things and wanting to be on the field."
RAYNER CLUTCH: OK, who's the wise guy who said Dave Rayner has now hit two more game-winners than Shayne Graham did the last four years? Rayner had three kicks Thursday that simulated the last play of the game in which everybody has to run on the field and get lined up. Marvin Lewis even iced him on a timeout, but he responded with winning kicks of 32, 38 and 40 yards.
INJURY UPDATE: Lewis indicated at his Thursday news conference that most of the players that won't play Sunday against the Cowboys in the Hall of Fame Game have a good chance of coming back for the Aug. 15 Paul Brown Stadium opener against Denver.
It is believed that the Bengals are bringing along Bryant (knee) and right tackle Andre Smith (foot) slowly enough that they may not see action until at least the third game on Aug. 20 at PBS against the Eagles as the T.O. Tour continues. Lewis declared both out for Sunday, as well as fullback Fui Vakapuna (shoulder).
Lewis said others are questionable and they'll be evaluated as the Bengals practice Thursday and Friday at 3 p.m. at Georgetown College before jetting to the Hall of Fame Game on Saturday.
Other guys it doesn't figure are going to play because they didn't work Thursday are cornerback Johnathan Joseph (thigh), SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga (hamstring), kicker Mike Nugent (lower body strain), and running back Cedric Peerman (unknown). Defensive tackle Domata Peko and defensive end Antwan Odom might play because even though they haven't been practicing the past few days and they don't look to have anything major. Wide receiver Matt Jones (foot) came back Thursday for the first time in a couple of days.
SLANTS AND SCREENS
» As usual, Lewis guarded preseason playing time as if it is the nuclear football, so who knows how long No. 1 pick Jermaine Gresham is going to play against the Cowboys. He'll have five practices in, so he should get plenty of work and Lewis did offer up one scrap: The Bengals can't afford to wait around.
"He's had to come here and really get going," Lewis said. "When you come in five or six or seven practices into it like he did, you've got to get going. We're counting on him to do a lot. You don't get the luxury of standing back and watching and observing; you've got to get in and do it. It's going to be a lot of trial by fire, and he may make some mistakes, but once he makes those mistakes, we'll be able to make the corrections."
» Jason Cole of Yahoo.com is the latest in a line of national writers to parade through Georgetown College (Peter King, Pete Prisco, Adam Schefter) and Lewis got off one of the lines of camp when Cole mentioned that some people think that Owens makes up routes as he goes.
"We have the ultimate maker-up-as-he-goes, so he can't even get on the same planet as that guy," Lewis said of The Ocho. "For those of us that have played and coached against Terrell, you feel good about his route-running and the things he does. We've seen the evidence out here since he got here last week."
» There is a great deal of interest in what The Ocho's plans are for the club's quickie Hall of Fame tour late Saturday afternoon, just before the induction. This is, after all, a guy that donned a homemade Hall of Fame blazer after scoring a touchdown on the opening of Monday Night Football at Paul Brown Stadium in 2007.
"Hopefully he learns a lot." Lewis said.