Posted: 9:30 p.m.
The character of the Bengals scheme is not only changing with each run call that offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski doles out, but so is the hardened resolve of the players who are those Xs and Os.
After out-chessing the Grand Master, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, Bratkowski quickly pointed out Monday that you never outthink LeBeau but your players outplay his.
But there was some definite scheming going on in the second half of the 23-20 victory over the Steelers. Bratkowski allowed that the Bengals spread out the offense a little more and used fullback Jeremi Johnson to block when they went four wides, or used a tight end to block in the backfield when they went four wides to counter LeBeau's penchant for getting a mismatch with outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley on a running back.
(Harrison had one on a coverage sack and Woodley had none. The only other Steelers sack came from nose tackle Casey Hampton working on Kyle Cook during an otherwise solid day for the Bengals center.)
Yet Bratkowski noticed something else while he was calling the game.
"We struggled early, shot ourselves in the foot again and thrashed around," Bratkowski said of that historically horrific minus-10-yard first quarter. "But we hung tough. This group is showing they are starting to become a very mentally tough team. You'll be in a lot of games if you're that way."
Bratkowski doesn't want to talk about past teams, but that had certainly been the knock on head coach Marvin Lewis' best teams, the 2005-2007 editions that were 9-10 in games decided by seven points or less. They folded at the first whiff and sight of adversity.
"All I know that this group, I'm not talking about years past and all that stuff, is a really mentally tough group that rarely flinches in the face of adversity," he said.
Bratkowski said you could go across the board to find guys that struggled early but were key players late. Right guard Bobbie Williams got pegged with a holding call in the second quarter but graded out extremely highly for his work in the running game. Wide receiver Andre Caldwell misread a route, corrected it, and made a big catch late on the same route. And then there was running back Brian Leonard's 11-yard catch-and-run on fourth down that kept everything alive with a little leap and dive for the stick.
"His playing time was diminished just a little bit with the use of Jeremi and the tight end in protection stuff," Bratkowski said. "But a mentally tough guy can come in and make a play after not seeing much time during the game."
Quarterback Carson Palmer's performance in two last-ditch touchdown drives in the past three weeks have come mainly out of spread formations and urgent tempo. In the Denver and Pittsburgh drives combined he is 13-of-17 pasing for 128 yards if taking away two spikes in the Pittsburgh game, where he was 7-of-11 after going 6-for-6 against Denver.
That is going to ignite questions of the no-huddle, Cincinnati's signature offense in 2005 and 2006. But with Bratkowski calling 80 runs compared to 93 passes this season, the Bengals are clearly responding to Lewis' offseason memo to run the ball at all cost. Take away those two drives, and the run ratio would be a lot higher.
"It comes down to the desire to run the ball," Bratkowski said. "You can't spread it out and go hurryup and run the ball, too. We want to be a strong running team. When we opened it up (Sunday) the throwing opened up the run game. It helped (protect Palmer)."
Bratkowski believes the early bid to establish the run in games may cut into Palmer's time frame to get into a flow. Hence the numbers when the offense is working out of hurryup at the end of the half or game.
"With the emphasis in the run game now, I don't know if he gets into a real good rhythm because we're really trying to establish the run," Bratkowski said. "He doesn't get that rhythm going and then when we get into some of that hurryup stuff he gets his rhythm going and really gets rolling. If you're going to try and run it, you have to run it. You have to try and establish that part of the run game. Sometimes the early throwing part is what you suffer with until you get a little bit of rhythm going."
The Bengals offense has been knocked recently for having no identity. Or not being able to do anything consistently and hanging their hat on one thing. That seems to be changing with Bratkowski helping the running game along with a stunning array of personnel groups that is opening up holes and lanes for Palmer.
But running the ball is sometimes a lot like the American political system and making sausage. It's not pretty, particularly behind an inexperienced offensive line. The Bengals were simply overmatched by Pittsburgh's speed early, but a funny thing happened on the way to a 23-20 win.
"It was like a Rocky movie. We started out and we were not good," said offensive line coach Paul Alexander. "But by the end of the game we were battling pretty well. We grew up a lot yesterday. We started out tentative, but at some point we realized, 'Hey, we can hang in there with them.' That's huge for those guys' confidence. It's really inspiring to watch as a coach."
The Bengals adjusted the running game in the second half and running back Cedric Benson, off an 18-yard first half, went for 58 yards on eight carries in the second half, including a 23-yard touchdown run on the left perimeter. With blocks from wide receiver Laveranues Coles, tight end Dan Coats, left tackle Andrew Whitworth and the absence of Steelers Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu, nobody got to the edge in time as Benson showed why Palmer is comfortable with the running game and not ready to ditch it all for the no-huddle.
Palmer covets Benson, calling him the perfect AFC North back who can break a long one on the outside as well as "wear down your linebackers and put your safeties in compromising positions," Palmer said.
"We're comfortable with the stuff we're doing. Last week we were very comfortable in a lot of the run stuff we had going," Palmer said of the Green Bay victory. "We couldn't quite get some of the same movement as we had last week. I wouldn't necessarily say we're more comfortable (in the no-huddle). I'm sure we'll get to it. We just haven't had a big emphasis on it yet."
If one reason is to protect the running game, another reason not to go heavy yet with no-huddle is the season-ending loss of injured tight end Reggie Kelly. Kelly's versatility as a third tackle, a fullback, and a receiver allowed the Bengals to go without substituting. Coats is learning but like Palmer said, "Reggie was a part of every grouping of no-huddle. When he went down it took away a little of what we can do."
But the emergence of guys like Caldwell has shaped the character of the offense as much as Bratkowski's new playbook. On a day former Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh got hammered by national pundit Mike Florio ( "could be the worst of all diva receivers we've seen"), Caldwell paid him homage for the help he gave him last year during his rookie season.
He said Houshmandzadeh taught him how to be a man and to carry himself as an NFL wide receiver. "With that I don't think I'd be where I am right now," Caldwell said.
Caldwell would argue that Houshmandzadeh didn't teach him to be a diva. In fact, Caldwell is the anti-diva.
"The more you talk, the more pressure you put on yourself," Caldwell said. "I just go out there and do this job and help my team win."
Palmer is hoping the plays that Caldwell has made (five of his 14 catches have come in those last two drives) open it up more for the guy that doesn't mind putting pressure on himself.
"It might make defenses think twice," Palmer said.