12-8-04, 7:15 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Carson Palmer is literally moving up the charts.
In the last month, Palmer, the AFC's Offensive Player of the Week, has moved out of the pocket and into the upper bracket of the AFC North passing stats. With a 94.9 passer rating in the last five games, Palmer has a better rating for the season than Baltimore's Kyle Boller, one fewer touchdown pass than Cleveland's three quarterbacks, and is second only to Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger in such key categories as completion percentage, yards, and fourth-quarter touchdown passes in 12 games he has faced eight defenses ranked in the NFL's top ten.
More Carson Comeback after his first seven games he threw five touchdown passes and 10 interceptions?
In these last five games, Palmer has thrown 11 touchdowns, seven interceptions, and is averaging 7.6 yards per pass after less than six in the first seven.
"Comfortable. I feel it every week. I feel like I'm getting more and more comfortable," Palmer said.
For much of the season, quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese has been working with him to loosen up, and get out of the pocket more to either make some throws or gain some yards. His hard-headed youth, along with his NFL inexperience had kept him there until pretty much two weeks ago against Cleveland, when his scramble produced an 18-yard touchdown pass, and another scramble produced nine yards in the winning drive.
And on Monday, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski was still talking about his 32-yard pass to wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh on the winning drive in Baltimore that came throwing across his body on a scramble to his left. In the Bengals' first-go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, he waited an eternity, but still ripped off a big nine-yard gain before his awkward slide into the Baltimore 11 just missed a clean Ray Lewis shot.
His legs have excited his teammates as much as his arm.
"I'm telling you," Houshmandzadeh has been saying all season and he said it again this week. "Carson is an athlete who can run."
The 6-5 Palmer just laughs.
"I don't know about that," Palmer said and then recalled the Lewis play. "Looking back on it now, I should have taken off earlier."
If the film is showing him anything, it's that he is hanging in the pocket maybe a little too long looking for that big throw down field. But, apparently, he's getting out of there sooner than he used to be because he's taken just six sacks in the last five games compared to 19 in the first seven.
"I'm so used to sitting back there and waiting and looking to throw a touchdown pass," Palmer said. "I'm getting too greedy. I want to throw a touchdown pass.
"Especially being young, you want to make something happen. You want to score seven points," Palmer said. "You're not thinking, 'OK, we're in field-goal range, just take off and run. Don't force anything.' "That's something I need to get better and better at. Controlling the game."
He certainly had it by the scruff of the neck in the fourth quarter Sunday, when he threw for 200 of his 382 career-high yards in being named the Bengals' first AFC Offensive Player of the Week since Jon Kitna got it nearly three years ago for throwing for 411 yards against the Steelers.
As the numbers climb, so is the respect among his teammates, particularly his offensive line. The Bengals sacked Roethlisberger seven times alone in the Nov. 21 loss, and with Palmer throwing 179 more passes than Roethlisberger, the Bengals are 12th in the NFL in allowing sacks per pass and the Steelers are 29th. In three of the last five games, the Bengals have allowed no sacks, evidence of their better play as well as Palmer understanding he can't camp in the pocket.
Palmer realizes that his youth is testing his line, and called their work against the Ravens "phenomenal." That was a difficult day in pass protection because the Ravens tried to take advantage of Palmer's inexperience by changing their entire blitz package in the hope he would hold the ball a little longer. But they only sacked him three times.
"I made it tough on them holding the ball a couple of extra seconds with the blitz," Palmer said. "A couple of different times I moved into their pressure. . . You can block guys like Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs for so long. I go back and look at the film, and it was phenomenal."
If Palmer didn't get his linemen's respect when he bought them each a suit last month, he certainly did during the Baltimore game when he took a load of shots, and then told them not to worry about it because he likes taking a hit.
"I enjoy doing that. I think that's fun," Palmer said. "It's fun making a big throw and getting hit, and kind of telling the guy about it getting up off the ground."
Of course, that's not the idea. Palmer knows he has to get rid of the ball quicker and he knows since he got dumped four times in Tennessee in the Trick-or-Treat game on Oct. 31, he has been barely touched.
"I put all the pressure on Richie (Braham)," Palmer said of his center that makes most of the protection calls. "Every once in awhile a guy is going to come through. That's part of football. You can't block everybody perfectly every time. We do it way more often than most people. We pick up blitzes most people don't see."