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Risk or reward?

Posted: 6 a.m.



Bob Bratkowski can only win when the Bengals win. When he has patience with the running game, they'll say he's ignoring the long ball. When he takes shots downfield, they'll say he's putting the defense at risk with a lack of ball control.

But the return of a third receiver like Chris Henry who scores a touchdown once every 4.4 catches can make even an offensive coordinator a winner.

Henry may be banned from Newport on the Levee for the next five years after a recent run-in with a valet (no arrest pending), but he'll have access to the playbook Sunday driving some of the strategy.

"That should help us," said Bratkowski ever so carefully after Wednesday's practice, uncertain how much he'll be able to use Henry in his first game back this season after an eight-game suspension.

"You can t expect too much (from) him because he hasn't played in so long," said wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

But expect the Bengals to score. In the 11 games Henry has missed since the 2006 season because of discipline, the Bengals have averaged 22 points. In the 13 games he played in '06, they averaged a field goal more at 25.4.

For all their yardage, fifth for much of the season in the NFL rankings, and seventh now, the Bengals don't score. In the eight games, the offense has produced three touchdowns in only two of them, and you can start looking at the lack of the long ball.

It looks to be a combination of defenses able to take away Chad Johnson and Houshmandzadeh in a Henry-less set and the Bengals unable to keep the ball for any length of time because their offense can't possess it and the defense can't get it back.

Take away a kick return and two kneel downs at the end of the half and they've had only 15 possessions in the last two games. Only five have been longer than four minutes.

It's hard to swash when you don't have the buckle. And so the Bengals, who lived and loved on the edge in '05 and even '06 (Ah, that fourth-and-one bomb to Chad Johnson against Carolina?) seem to be more conservative.

"I think so," said quarterback Carson Palmer. "A couple of weeks ago against the Steelers, we only had six possessions all game. It forces you to be that much better each play. You need to execute that much better, you need to be that much more perfect individually and as a unit."

Houshmandzadeh, the league's co-leading receiver with Baltimore's Derrick Mason, has been talking about opening it up. He's got one catch longer than 20 yards in the last three games. The Bengals have just three passes of more than 24 yards to wide receivers in the last three games and one in the last two.

"You can't waste a play," Palmer said. "You can't rear back on first-and-10 and take a deep shot down the field because you're put in a tough spot on second-and-10 and then possibly a third-and-long. You have to be a little conservative, just because we've been hurting in time of possession and number of touches in games. You can't just take a deep shot here and there and try to throw the ball over their heads and put yourself in a second-and-10 or a long third-and-10."



But there has been no Henry. The longest catch by a receiver not Johnson or Houshmandzadeh is Glenn Holt's 22-yarder two months ago in Cleveland. Henry has five career catches longer than 40 yards, six counting the 66-yarder in the playoffs.

And, here's the thing. Both Bratkowski and his boss, Marvin Lewis, dig the long ball.

"The way teams are playing us is they know if they take our two guys out of the game, they can eliminate a portion of our offense and that's what you're seeing," Bratkowski said. "People are doubling them and do different things and we're looking to free them up. They've been getting a lot of catches, but maybe not generating big plays."

Which is where Henry comes in, but like Houshmandzadeh says, the only way to beat the funky coverages is to run the ball better.

But with the Bengals trying to work a recovering Rudi Johnson (hamstring) into the mix with Kenny Watson in the running game ...

"The biggest downside to that is when you have only three possessions in the first half (in Buffalo) ... we didn't have a lot of opportunity to get that guy into a rhythm," Bratkowski said. "That's what we're kind of fighting right now. The possessions and sometimes not converting third down. Whoever's in there doesn't get the chance to run it four or five times in a series. That's kind of where we're at."

Which is damned if you do, damned if you don't. Against the Bills, it looked like Buffalo gave the Bengals some downfield opportunities with one-on-one coverage that weren't taken.

"When you don't win, everything is subject. We do it as coaches in hindsight," Bratkowski said. "(Buffalo) did that, and at the same time we were trying to run the ball as well. You can't do both on one play.

"That's the problem. If you're throwing it downfield and not completing it, everybody is saying, 'Geez, you're not running it enough.' If you run it, you're not taking enough shots. Most of that comes when you don't score enough points to win."

But Mr. Points has arrived.

"It's what I do," Henry pronounced after practice Wednesday.

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