Season in the balance?


Cedric Benson

To run or not to run?

To huddle or not to huddle?

These are the questions for that drama known as the Bengals offense that seems to thrill you and kill you all in the same scene.

Off quarterback Carson Palmer's biggest passing day in three years and Terrell Owens' second biggest receiving day in Bengals history, the Bengals spent Monday trying to figure how they scored just 20 points and lost.

So with Tampa Bay coming in here for Sunday's 1 p.m. game, have we seen the future with Palmer pitching it 36 times and running back Cedric Benson getting just 15 carries? Or will the Bengals go back to Benson running it 27 times, when they are 9-0? If you listen to head coach Marvin Lewis, it sounds like he wants more balance.

"Last week everybody was screaming about us being able to throw the ball more, and I kept saying we'd be fine, which obviously we are," Lewis said in his Monday news conference. "We have to do what it takes to win the game. That is the important thing. I don't care if a guy throws for seven zillion yards. If we don't win the game, it doesn't count for anything. That's the important part. We want to win football games. That's our goal. It doesn't matter about yardage."

"(Running the ball) makes a big difference."

Left tackle Andrew Whitworth is of the same mind. His nickname is "The Governor" for the sway he holds in the state of Louisiana. But on Monday he sounded like "The Lobbyist" for the no-huddle offense and a balanced attack.

"I'm a lobbyist for winning," he said Monday.

"There are a lot of teams that win games throwing it," Whitworth said. "When you try to label a team that has to do it one certain way, that's when you're not going to be successful. We don't have to run the football. We can throw it. We can run it. We can do whatever we want. We just have to be efficient. When we get out of the mindset that we have to be one way, we'll be better. There have been times that the Pittsburgh Steelers throw the ball with Ben Roethlisberger and there have been times they've run and they've had a lot of success. Baltimore the same way. Teams in this division don't have to run it. When you get to the cold weather and you get in that atmosphere, the running game is what wins in this division."

With Benson getting just 15 carries in Cleveland and the Bengals running so many three- and four-receiver sets, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski indicated Monday that he is taking what defenses are giving. And, at least on Sunday, the Browns didn't want to give up the run.

"We need to run the ball better and efficiently for more yards per carry," Bratkowski said. "Our yards per carry were better than they have been in a few weeks, which is a positive sign. Everything is still a work in progress. As you're going forward, it's early in the year. Defenses are doing certain things to you. You take what you get. We got a bunch of run blitzes yesterday. Those were designed primarily for the run game."

It is not like this balance thing is a new idea. In the Bengals' run to the AFC North title last season that stretched from the win over Pittsburgh to the clincher in Kansas City, they averaged 33 runs and 31 passes in those 13 games.

One thing that does seem to go together is the running game and the no-huddle. Bratkowski says that none of his players have come to him urging him to go to it more even though the numbers don't lie.

In the two games the Bengals have used it extensively, Palmer has gone off for 345 yards and 371 yards after not getting more than 342 in the 35 previous games.

Down immediately against the Patriots in the opener, the Bengals ran it for 28 snaps starting in the second quarter. On Sunday they unveiled it late in the third quarter and ran it 15 times. In those eight series they scored four touchdowns and two field goals, punted once and threw an interception.

"I think we're comfortable. Look the two games that we played it lot," Whitworth said. "Carson Palmer has thrown for 350 yards. I'll take that every week. The guys love it. We've always been successful in it and in '05 and '06 they lived on it. It's something we've always been good at. Hopefully we'll do it more."

The Bengals had the Browns on the ropes in that last drive when they were scrambling to sub on defense and it would have been interesting if they stayed in it for the last three plays before having to punt. The Browns' big linemen where heaving and wheezing, another reason Whitworth likes the no-huddle in division games.

"We seem to set the tempo. We hope that will be more of a case. ... I know a team that averages 12 wins a year that uses it pretty often," Whitworth said of the Colts. "It's just whether or not it's the most efficient thing for us to do ... it's a game by game process. ... We've been efficient in it and we like to play in it. So maybe we'll see it more."

Bratkowski isn't tipping his hand. All he'll say is that in order to run the no-huddle, the Bengals have to run the ball. And Benson more than proved he can do that. He ran six times for 45 yards out of it, nine times for 15 yards out of the conventional set.

"Fifteen runs for 60. Four (yards) a pop. In the no-huddle we made up ground," Whitworth said.

Lewis hears it all. But he's not ready to turn the Bengals into Indy East. Maybe because he remembers that '06 club couldn't get the tough yards even though it got a lot of yards.

"I think when we use it, we eliminate a lot of other things, so you're kind of stuck in one drawer," he said. "If that drawer isn't working and not getting you what you want, then you're in trouble, because you haven't spent the time game-planning some of the other things you have to do.

"In order for us to be more engaged in that, it takes more time, and takes away from some of the other things in your plan because you only have so much time on task with it. The quarterback does a very good job of getting us in and out of things in that situation, but they can dictate to us a little bit more than we'd like that way, because he's going to work the weakness. So we've got to make sure it's weakness and not perceived weakness that way."

Besides the offense's comfort in the no-huddle, another thing that was made quite clear Sunday is that Palmer's skills haven't deteriorated like his critics raged. But Bratkowski already knew that.

"I wasn't worried about him at all to be honest with you," he said. "If you look at yesterday, you saw the type of quarterback he is. I would say there is not much difference there (from '05). I think Marvin said it last week. There's nothing wrong with Carson. He's like any other player. Some weeks he's going to play better than others. And he played extremely well yesterday."

Bratkowski liked the way Palmer stepped up in the pocket and moved out of it in order to manufacture some long throws over the middle against the blitz. After the game Palmer criticized himself for holding the ball on a red-zone sack late in the third quarter as he waited for wide receiver Chad Ochocinco to break open in the end zone. As Palmer moved left, he got hit from the right.

"He puts a lot of trust in Chad. Those two have done a lot of things and he'll have a tendency at times (to hold it), because they've had a lot of connections," Bratkowski said. "He waited just a hair too long. The guy should have been blocked longer than he was.

"This one Carson got stuck in the pocket. The pocket was pretty good, except for the one breakdown that came from the other side."

Run it? Wing it? No-huddle?

"We're four games into the season," said Lewis, when asked if the Bengals are moving away from the run. "We are where we are, and we have an opportunity for a new coming-out party here this Sunday against Tampa, in our stadium, in front of our fans, and it'll be a new Sunday. All the previous four Sundays go behind us, and we move forward, so it's a big week for us."

The drama continues.

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