BY GEOFF HOBSON
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis may have recommended Donnie Henderson to Jets head coach Herman Edwards to be his next defensive coordinator at the end of last season. But Bengals Pro Bowl wide receiver Chad Johnson would have seconded the motion.
Johnson knows that Henderson was the Ravens secondary coach last Dec. 7 when the Baltimore defensive backs suffocated Johnson to the tune of two catches for 15 yards in the 31-13 loss that turned out to be the AFC North title game.
"I have to give him my props," Johnson told The New York Daily News this week. "He gave me the biggest problems I've had in three years. I have to study hard and find a way to defeat it."
If the Bengals are to defeat it, they have to defeat Henderson's blitz with the Jets' new set of linebackers and safeties.
To make the story a script, Henderson broke into NFL coaching in Lewis' defense in Baltimore, so everyone with a remote knows New York is going to unleash an infinite number of those Raven-esque pressure packages on quarterback Carson Palmer in his first NFL start Sunday in the Meadowlands.
"People say they're going to pressure more," said Lewis of the usual plan against a green quarterback. "But when you pressure, you better be able to cover. That's the way this team is set up to do. I hope they come and pressure. That would be a good thing for us, OK? We're going to block them, we're going to throw the football over their heads."
This is why Lewis made the move to Palmer. It is these kinds of matchups. Big plays beat the defenses that play big with pressure and aggressiveness. Chad Johnson may have forgotten about that win over Baltimore last year, when the Bengals beat the Ravens on three touchdown passes of at least 21 yards last October.
But it's a game that started for Palmer back on March 1, when Lewis named Palmer the starter. Even a year before that, after Palmer was drafted. Quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese and offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski have saturated him with blitz looks on tape. They gave him every secondary in the league ("I'm not really looking at the front seven") and he studied the role and tendencies of each defensive back.
"I had never seen those types of defenses before. I didn't even know there were those type of defenses out there because in college everything is so simple," Palmer said. "Having a chance to see exactly what every guy's role is in every coverage and every blitz was really the groundwork and that's where we started.
"If you don't know that going into opening week and you're expecting a couple of defenses and then all of a sudden you get to the game day and there's a couple of defenses you're not expecting. . .(But) I already know what everybody's role on that defense is even though we may not have been working on it, or they're putting something in that they haven't shown, (the film study) will definitely help me out and make things easier and clearer for me."
But maybe Henderson is playing a few mind games, too. He says the reason his unit is aggressive is because he wants to stop the run.
"When you bring a blitzer, you are bringing him for the run," Henderson told the New York media Thursday. "That is not going to change, that is not going to change. I am doing it to stop the run. I am trying to give them a different look because let's be honest, if they can sit there and see you are in a certain front, they know how to block it. So, you bring another front in, maybe put a wrinkle with a twist in there and you bring another one and you might blitz off of it. Everything we are doing is predicated to stopping the run."
Henderson isn't talking about Palmer. He's talking about Rudi Johnson and the Bengals' running game. The big reason Henderson is in New York is because the Jets were one of the few teams in the NFL that were worse than the Bengals at stopping the run last year at No. 28.
"We know one thing. Corey Dillon is not in Cincinnati because of one guy- and that is Rudi Johnson," Henderson said. "It lets you know that they can let Corey Dillon go. He is an excellent guy. He can run, he is physical, he can catch the ball. I think they got exactly who they wanted right now. P> "They run the football. Let's make no bones about it. We know which way it is going, they know which way it is going," Henderson said. " It is a test of our wills. We have talked to the guys about that and if you look at tape you know these guys know how to run the football. They know how to block it. We are going to have to line up and see. If I have to put more guys over there, I have to put more guys over there."
Bratkowski and Zampese spent March and April going over video with Palmer on the bizarre things defensive coordinators can do to rookie quarterbacks. When he went on vacation in July, they saddled him up with more tape. In between, on those "Blitz," days during the May and June camps, they came at Palmer with the Best of the AFC North.
"If we don't know what someone is going to do, then we'll give them the things that we know people do to attack that protection," Bratkowski said. "We look at what happened to us, how people tried to attack us.
"One thing about our division," Bratkowski said of the AFC North, "is that on third down it creates as many confusing looks as anybody's. Having gone through the year and seeing the different things the Baltimores and Clevelands and Pittsburghs can do to you, he got a good taste of all the variety of things. (But) no quarterback is fully prepared for the unknown."
What is known is that Henderson worked under Lewis, and then Mike Nolan in Baltimore for five seasons. Obviously, they have had big help from Lewis in going over the Raven' pressures dating back to Henderson's arrival in 1999.
"But you also have to look at them this year because they have a head coach (Herman Edwards) who is also a defensive guy and I'm sure has ideas of his own," Bratkowski said.
Palmer said he's not trying to get into Henderson's head sets and anticipate what he has seen on the Baltimore film. He knows the Jets have most likely saved something just for him that has not seen the light of day. And the coaches have tried to throw the unknown at him.
"They've given me tons of different blitzes and tons of different looks, things that we might not see that teams we're playing haven't shown," Palmer said, imagining what the opposing defenses are scheming "'Let's get a mental rep of it and see if he notices and picks it up.' We're definitely expecting that. We've got checks and things we can do after a series to change things if we're seeing things we're not expecting."
Lewis isn't in to the mentor-meets-pupil thing. He does think Henderson is on track to become a head coach in the league and is impressed by what he is reading from the defensive players in New York.
"He's got their attention," Lewis said.
When Henderson goes to the press box to call his first play Sunday, he knows Lewis will be behind him. Just not this Sunday.
"He wanted to wish me luck on the next 15 (games)," Henderson said of their recent phone call. "I was like, 'Thanks, I wish you the same then.'
"I am grateful for what he has done for me as far as making calls for me and giving me that foundation," said Henderson, who paid his dues with 16 years a college coach. " Him and I go back a long ways and to work with a guy who has been in the league before I got in the league, was great. Because with college football, when you recruit against guys you get to know them that way and that was the basis of our relationship until I came to Baltimore. As soon as I came to Baltimore, he had no idea about my coaching ability other than he knew where I had been."
Lewis says Henderson has one up on him. In his second NFL season in 2000, Henderson got a Super Bowl ring that took Lewis nine seasons to get.
Earlier this week, Lewis smiled when he thought about his No. 1 pick and his protégée going at it.
"Carson is going out there for his first time and so is Donnie," Lewis said.