CLEVELAND - Now that quarterback Carson Palmer has proven he can come up with 2005 numbers, everyone else around him has to produce like they did in 2009.
The coming out party for the Bengals passing game got broken up early when his protection led to two turnovers and the defense faltered in the second half of Sunday's 23-20 loss here at Cleveland Browns Stadium. Despite the second greatest day in Bengals receiving history with wide receiver Terrell Owens' 222 yards, the Bengals were missing just one more red-zone touchdown.
"When you get into the red zone, from my pedigree and how I've established myself from offenses that I've played with, that's important," said Owens, who caught his 145th touchdown and first as a Bengal on a 78-yard bomb Sunday. "Everything happens a little quicker when you get into the red zone. The ball comes out a lot faster. This is where you have to take advantage of being inside the 20 and we didn't do that. Obviously, we have a great kicker, but we definitely don't want three points. Sometimes we have to do that, but we'd rather have six instead of three."
Under fire from the critics, Palmer responded with his highest passer rating in 13 games with a 121.4 carved out of 25-of-36 passing for 371 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, and a definitive statement that he can still make all the throws. With wide receiver Chad Ochocinco doubled most of the day, Palmer took advantage of his newest partner cavorting one-on-one.
He not only hit Owens with the longest pass of his career past stumbling cornerback Sheldon Brown, but Palmer hit Owens nine more times on routes mostly in the middle of the field. He also found The Ocho on his longest catch of the season, a 42-yard floater down the right sideline that accounted for most of Ochocinco's 59 yards on three catches.
"You know they kind of left him in some one-on-one situations and took Chad out of the game and doubled Chad," Palmer said of Owens. "That's what you want that receiver to do that's on the opposite side of Chad, to make big plays. He definitely did that up and down the field all over the place."
Going back to the games when Browns head coach Eric Mangini was the defensive coordinator of the Patriots, Palmer counted seven games in which Mangini has now double-covered The Ocho, so the Bengals were far from surprised.
"We knew that was coming. It's tough because you want to get Chad the ball," Palmer said. "But if they're going to take one guy away you've got to have another guy capable of making eight, nine, 10 catches."
The Browns blitzed a lot, but Owens said the Bengals prepared for it during the week and were ready for the middle to open up.
"We knew they were going to bring a lot of pressure from looking at the film of the previous games they've played," Owens said. "They played the Baltimore Ravens and brought a lot of pressure. These are some of the things you have to be on top of, knowing your hot assignments, the guys up front picking up those blitzes and Carson (Palmer) getting the ball out. So it was just one of those things where you try to make a play when the ball is coming your way."
On a day Owens vaulted past Isaac Bruce to No. 2 on the NFL's all-time receiving yards list, the Bengals continued to get veteran-type production from rookie wide receiver Jordan Shipley. He had a 20-yard catch in the touchdown drive that pulled the Bengals to 23-20 with 10:44 left in the game, but they may not have him next week against Tampa Bay because of a concussion caused by a blow to the head in the end zone delivered by Browns cornerback T.J. Ward that the Bengals labeled a cheap shot.
"He was defenseless," said Owens, who described Shipley' eyes rolling back in his head. "The ball was already out on the ground ... it was a ridiculous play."
Both Palmer and Owens jawed with the Browns in the end zone until they were led away. Shipley, already playing with a dinged shoulder that left him out of going full-go in practice this week, got some more admiration from his teammates.
"I hate to see Shipley hit like that and I hate to be the reason he gets hit like that. It was a cheap shot that never should have been," Palmer said. "He's a tough kid. He bounced back. He'll want to play next week but I hope he doesn't because of the situation. That's the type of guy he is. I love his attitude. I love the way he plays the game."
A lot of people love the way the Bengals play in no-huddle. Including some of the guys on offense.
"What were we in?" asked one starter when asked about the revived offense.
The Bengals were in it for what looked to be 15 snaps on the last three drives of the game, which netted 10 points. Even when they're in no-huddle, the Bengals usually huddle up on third down and in the red zone. Palmer was 5-of-9 for 58 yards, but 39 of them came on long throws to Shipley and Owens. Just as eye-opening is that running back Cedric Benson raced for 45 of his 60 yards on six carries out of it during his 15-carry day.
The Bengals broke out the no-huddle after not showing it in last week's snooze fest in Carolina, opting to use it Sunday on a big, two-gapping defensive line.
"It kind of wears them down. For us, it helps the tempo of the game. It's a shock value thing," Palmer said. "The defense gets lulled into the offense huddling every time and taking 20 seconds ... the good thing is the surprise factor. The shock value. But against bigger teams it gets big Shaun Rogers tired and Robaire Smith tired and David Bowens running around. Those are big guys that aren't used to that tempo of offense. That kind of wears them down."
Palmer is always quick to lower the expectations on using it all the time even though the results always seem to be pretty good.
"It's not a thing you can use all game or against every team," Palmer said. "It's definitely a matchup thing. We'll pick and choose. I thought that was a good time to change up the temp of what we were doing offensively. It's something we can use here and there. Maybe some weeks we won't use it. It just depends on the opponent."
But the Bengals still have to marry the pass game with the run game. The no-huddle opened it up for Benson, but on the last third-and-three they chose to get in a pass formation and go to The Ocho, and he was called for pass interference, basically killing the drive.
"These are some of the things that we've tried to address as far as getting the ball down the field more," Owens said. "We did a little bit of that, but we just didn't do enough, obviously. I think we need to probably move the ball from a running standpoint and get Cedric involved a little bit more. As a team, as an offense, we have to get both phases of the game going."
That's just one of the issues with which the Bengals have to deal, as well as trying to figure out how to protect consistently. Palmer flogged himself on the two fumbles he lost. He called them unacceptable, but if he had better blocking, he wouldn't have fumbled.
On the fumbled handoff that led to the first score of the game, Benson said he had to change his path. The right perimeter was clogged with blitzing cornerback Eric Wright and the end and Benson said when he had to improvise to set up his cut, Palmer jumped back on the handoff and the ball hit Benson's elbow and bounded away.
Then, on his third quarter fumble on his own 13, Palmer had no shot when left guard Nate Livings couldn't fend off a stunt and linebacker Scott Fujita stripped the ball away on his blindside.
And the Bengals got no satisfaction at right tackle in the rotation with Dennis Roland and Andre Smith even though Palmer might take some heat for holding the ball on some of the four sacks. But on the last play he didn't hold it. He ran out of the pocket and got dragged down from behind by outside linebacker Matt Roth racing past Roland.
"It's hard to feel good about much when you lose," said Palmer, who has now lost both of his 300-yard games this season. "We did some things that were good, but we've got to go back and clean it up."
After outgaining the Browns by more than 100 yards and getting as many first downs, Owens might have summed it up best.
"Honestly," he said. "We just ran out of time."