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Offense looks in mirror

Palmer and the Bengals offense struggled once again on Sunday. (Bengals photo)

Posted: 6 a.m.

The offense comes into next Sunday's game against the Bears shrouded in questions after it got shut out in the second half Sunday against the Texans and failed to score 24 points for the fifth time in six games this season and for the ninth time in quarterback Carson Palmer's last 10 starts.

Go back to the 2006 season and in Palmer's last 29 starts the number is 22 games without getting to 24 and they couldn't get there when they had 17 at the half after:

» Despite having NFL leading rusher Cedric Benson working against the Texans No. 26 rush defense, the Bengals gave it to him just four times in the second half and just one time in the dreadful third quarter that the Texans scored two unanswered touchdowns. The team that seemed so sure of its offensive identity in the last four games appeared to be searching again

» The Bengals continue to drop the rock. Palmer had his best passing day of the season on 23-of-35 for 259 yards, one touchdown and an interception and just think what it could have been. The count in the press box was about six dropped balls with wide receiver Andre Caldwell (three), tight end Daniel Coats (two) and wide receiver Laveranues Coles (one) getting into the act.

» Rookie tight end Chase Coffman has yet to be active and yet the Bengals continue to be hurt at a position they are playing without their two top players for the entire year in Reggie Kelly (Achilles) and Ben Utecht (concussion). After dropping two balls in Baltimore last week, Coats dropped two more Sunday and lost a critical fumble at midfield on the first series of the third quarter. The other tight end, J.P. Foschi, was called for a hold on the game's second series that negated Benson's nine-yard run and led to a punt, and his fumble with just under six minutes left in the game sealed the loss.

» The early penalties continue at a rapid rate and are preventing the Bengals from keeping their defense off the field and establishing some kind of rhythm. On Sunday on the first series, a 15-yard throw to Coles that would have put the ball on the Texans 38 was called back because of a hold on left tackle Andrew Whitworth. On the next series the hold on Foschi and a trip on right guard Bobbie Williams forced another punt.

Sure, there are going to be days like this, but as Williams said, "If we didn't know it, we know it know."

"I thought I got in front of the guy and squared up," Whitworth said. "The ref said I just should have let him go after (Coles) went past me. But I don't know about that one."

Maybe Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco said it best after his first 100-yard outing in 24 games when he had 103 yards on five catches.

"I don't want to say we're stalling — we're not consistent," he said. "We're not gelling the way we should be. The way Ced is running the ball, the way the receivers are making plays, it should be a lot easier."

But it's not. The Bengals are maddeningly tough to watch. On Sunday they scored 10 points in the last 48 seconds of the first half with the help of safety Chris Crocker's interception. Then in the second half they got nothing.

The Texans dared the Bengals to throw deep by dropping a safety down for much of the game in order to guard against the running game. But just when the Bengals seemed to hurt them enough with the pass and force them to play deep so they could get back to the running game, they hurt themselves with a drop, penalty or sack.

As committed as the Bengals have been to the run, they came out in the second half looking to chuck it and go a little no-huddle. Down 21-17 when they got the ball in the third quarter, the Bengals ran nine plays in the quarter and threw it eight times, including seven straight. One turned into Coats' fumble, another into Palmer's only sack, on a third-and-four from the Bengals 26.

"Make sure we've got to get all the right stuff called in the run game," Palmer said. "When we run the ball and we're good in the run game and we're averaging four, four and a half yards a rush, I think that's when our offense is most potent and most capable of putting us in a situation to win."

The Texans run defense look primed to get run on again when defensive tackle Shaun Cody was inactive with an illness. But Houston got confident during that stretch in the third quarter.

"When we got the first turnover and stopped their running game in the second half by not letting Cedric get to the edge on us," Ryans said. "I felt like we had that consistency in the game where we never allowed them to break the big play on us. We were holding them and getting off the field on third down."

Palmer was pleased with the pass protection ("Anytime you hold Mario Williams without a sack it's good," he said) and the only sack came when rookie defensive end Connor Barwin got by Dennis Roland making his first start of the season and playing the whole way at right tackle. Williams, an end, appeared to come inside while Barwin came around the edge.

"I'm not sure where Mario was," Roland said. "Barwin is quick and I just didn't get a good enough set."

Palmer wasn't going to go after the receivers, either.

"No quarterback in the league doesn't have dropped balls," he said. "I don't think we have a guy on the team that you would say his hands are not good. We have guys with good hands. A number of times when a ball is dropped it's because of a lack of concentration. Or they take their eyes off the ball at the last second to look upfield to look at their next move.

"It's just something that can be fixed and look at on film and say, 'This time you turned your head and didn't watch the ball into your hands, or 'This time you just lost focus and concentration at the very last second.' It's something that can get fixed and will be fixed. There's been too many, but it's something we'll get better at."

It was Coats' second fumble of the season and the first one he lost. The other one came in Green Bay on the infamous third-and-34 that Coles tracked down for an improbable first down that led to a critical touchdown in what turned out to be the first of a series of remarkable plays in Cincinnati's four-game winning streak.

But when the other team gets it, like Antonio Smith did at the Texans 44, all the warts show.

"It's a whole different game. I've got to put the ball away and keep it away," Coats said. "I get (four) more yards and a first down and we keep moving. ... We're a great offense and when we get things moving and we will, we'll be moving again."

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