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Offense goes under microscope

Carson Palmer

Posted: 12:50 a.m.

While head coach Marvin Lewis is "very confident" the Bengals can keep free agent defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, the guy on other side of the ball is also grinding through the 2009 game tape to get ready for 2010.

On Monday, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said he's satisfied with the foundation of the playbook he overhauled with a running game makeover last offseason, but there is his wish list that every fan from Anderson Township to Zanesville already knows about the pass game:

More big plays from an offense that had one pass longer than 20 yards (and it was 21) in the last three games. More efficiency in a pass game that netted the lowest yards per attempt of Carson Palmer's career at 6.64. More production in the red zone, where the Bengals failed on 20 of their last 28 possessions in the last nine games to score a touchdown.

Other topics Bratkowski touched on Monday:

» The no-name offensive line made a name for itself in the running game and improved in the pass game after a "shaky" start, but needs to improve in the protection game.

"Early on we went with the run game a little bit more trying to keep our quarterback healthy," Bratkowski said. "But as a group, they played (well)."

» The numbers back up the argument that the passing game never recovered from the loss of wide receiver Chris Henry when he broke his arm in the Nov. 8 win against Baltimore.

That was at the halfway point, when the Bengals were 18-for-25 on TDs in the red zone, Palmer had 14 touchdown passes and six 200-yard passing days in the first eight games, slot receiver Andre Caldwell had 29 catches, three touchdowns and a long of 24 while Chad Ochocinco had 44 catches for five touchdowns.

In the final eight weeks, which included Henry's death in a pickup truck accident while he was on injured reserve, Palmer had six TD passes and three 200-yard days, Caldwell had 22 catches with no touchdowns and a long ball of 17 while The Ocho had just 28 catches and four TDs.

"You don't want to say you couldn't overcome the loss of one player, but it's obvious if you look at the numbers, it had an effect on us," Bratkowski said. "We had to look at how the other receivers were being used. Were we putting Laveranues (Coles) and Andre in the best spots? We kept moving them around to play to their strengths. All these evaluations are what we'll be doing (in the offseason)."

» It sounds like a make-or-cut training camp for wide receiver Jerome Simpson, the 2008 second-round pick who was inactive for all but two games and has just one NFL catch.

"It's a huge spring for him and a huge training camp for him," Bratkowski said.  "He works extremely hard at it. He spends extra time with coaches. He's just got to get the consistency level down and he'll be fine."

No, the Bengals aren't looking to drum Palmer out of the corps. If Bratkowski and Palmer would have trouble today scraping together votes if they ran on mayoral ticket in the Queen City, know that the quarterback has a solid mandate at Paul Brown Stadium.

Any rumors about a trade reuniting Palmer with old USC coach Pete Carroll in Seattle can be scotched right now. Palmer is Cincinnati's guy and while Bratkowski knows he didn't have his typical numbers and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese says Palmer wasn't as accurate as he's been, they both view his adjustment to the new style and new receivers along with his uncanny crunch-time heroics as major reasons for the Bengals winning the AFC North.

"It was a different style of play for him and there were a lot of changes," Bratkowski said. "There were a lot of new people in place at different spots ... and it was good enough for seven drives in the fourth quarter to tie or go ahead. Plus, it was good enough to win the division. Good enough decision-making not to turn it over in those tight games."

Zampese realizes how much Palmer missed his two favorite go-to guys, Henry and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and that the team is "in a transition" trying to find a guy opposite The Ocho.

"He had time on task with those guys," Zampese said. "They were guys you knew what you were going to get and you knew where to put it. You just had a lot of experience with the two in critical situations. There is a transition to who the next guys are going to be and it didn't happen how we were hoping it would. We had a lot of time in the spring with (the new receivers) and it didn't happen all the time like we were hoping it would. Players, coaches, anybody."

For those fearing that Palmer's injuries have dented the $130 million pure-passing merchandise, his position coach actually says he's about as sound as can be.

Zampese says Palmer drove his legs through his passes this season like before he tore up his knee four years ago and he's pleased that the things Palmer worked on in the spring, crisper footwork on his passing, mobility out of the pocket, and last-minute hurry-up situations, could be seen so readily. Finally, after always seeming to be rehabbing a knee (2006) or an elbow (2008), Palmer was able to get into a rhythm with his mechanics back in April, May and June.

"It's always been interrupted by an elbow or whatever else it was before that and so we had a chance in the spring time to just start from ground zero again. This is what we're going to be and this is how we're going to get there," Zampese said. There's rust you knock off and trust that you build all the way back from knee to elbow to whatever else we were dealing with over the years that you have to overcome mentally and get back to that consistent technique regimen. I think we got to that point where we could just hit the same points over an extended period of time.

"He took it another step in the summer. I could tell he had really spent a lot of time getting downhill into the throw and strong off his back leg and using his legs more than just the arm, but using his legs to build a foundation."

And did Palmer ever move out of the pocket. His scrambles saved the game in Cleveland. He tied it late in regulation with a fourth-down scramble that gave The Ocho a two-yard TD pass, and he got the winning field goal on the last drive in overtime when he scrambled for 15 yards on fourth-and-11.

"You saw it in college," said Zampese, who thinks Palmer got inspired by less athletic quarterbacks making plays out of the pocket. "He ran all over the place."

Palmer hit 60.5 percent of his passes this season, his lowest in a year he's thrown at least 130 passes since the 60.9 of his first year starting in 2004. But Zampese says there are other things at work, such as knowing where his new receivers are going to be. Bratkowski isn't letting Palmer off the hook. But he's well aware of the factors.

"As you look at it, I would not say he's missed a ton of throws where you say, 'Gee, he could have had that one,' " said Bratkowski, who also discussed Palmer's 50-percent passing in the playoff game. "Our receivers were getting bumped around. They had guys draped all over them at times. There was one pass he threw high and one person was out of place that had to jump to go after the ball. It looks like a high ball, but there was another person in that spot that shouldn't have been there."

And there are Palmer's intangibles. Zampese has watched him grow as a locker-room leader and Bratkowski likes the way he got the offense in and out of run plays.

Bratkowski remembers twice Saturday night, one where Palmer sent running back Cedric Benson on his 47-yard touchdown run away from the loaded side and one where he called off a flea-flicker because there was a safety blitz.

"He found checkdowns this year better than he has, too," Zampese said. "There are some underlying positives that don't always show up when you watch, but they will serve him well as he becomes an older player and make a difference for us as we go."

And it looks like where they are going is back to the running game with the offseason emphasis on finding personnel and plays to revive the passing game. Much like Bratkowski did last offseason with the run.

"You just have to be more efficient in the throws," Bratkowski said. "If you say balanced, you don't run it as much, then you're not as good a running team. You can't say one thing and do another. But what has to come out of it is more efficiency and generate more big plays when we do throw.

"If you sit and tell the players one thing, but your actions don't jive with what you're telling them, they go, 'They say we are, but we're not.' "

The Bengals are, it seems, in it for the long run into 2010 with Palmer leading the pack.

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