Season suddenly looms for offense

Posted: 8:10 p.m.

Suddenly the season is just 18 days away and the Bengals can barely get a quorum out of their skill players.

Quarterback Carson Palmer is already talking about the potential of a tapered Opening Day game plan because of all the injuries. But he says one of the answers is to run the ball and make it a staple. And not because the team's four top wide receivers were sidelined at Wednesday's practice.

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Palmer

"(Two of) our best players are Chris Perry and Kenny Watson," Palmer said of the running backs that have averaged 4.3 yards per carry. "When you can get your best players on the field involved in the game and with the running back that's handing him the football, then that's the situation in hand.

"The way those two guys have been running the football these two preseason games, we want them to be the staple of our offense. We want everything to feed off that running game if they can keep playing like they have been and stay healthy, then we must give them the ball. And not because we don't have Chad or T.J., but because they're the best players on the field that can put us in winning situations."

Staying healthy just hasn't been happening. Last year it was the linebackers. This year it is the receivers. Which begs the question:

With Chad Johnson (shoulder) not taking the field until the week of the Sept. 7 opener at the earliest and wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh and running back Rudi Johnson about to miss their third straight preseason game with hamstring problems, just how much time do the skills guys need together to show their skill?

"It's a good question," said Palmer, his 55.7 passer rating a casualty of the tumult. "There are so many circumstances. Are Chad and T.J. going to come back at 80 percent? Are they going to come back at 90 percent? Are they going to come back at 100 percent running full speed routes? Are they going to be back in full contact drills?

"There are so many variables. It's a tough question to answer and if I had the answer, I don't know. I want as much time as I can get with the guys I'm throwing to and now I'm limited with their two situations. ... If we don't have a full game plan because we're not comfortable with some of the stuff if they had a full offseason to work out and get ready, we'll go with a smaller game plan to figure out what works better for the guys that are 100 percent and ready to play."

Those guys are easy to pick out in this devastated battlefield. Rookie Andre Caldwell (foot) has a sprain that may prevent him from playing Sept. 7. Marcus Maxwell, emerging as the third receiver, wasn't on the field Wednesday and apparently suffered some kind of muscle injury that puts his status in doubt.

The Bengals may have to use Antonio Chatman, Glenn Holt and rookie Jerome Simpson (combined 35 NFL catches last season) as their top three receivers in Saturday's preseason game (7:35 p.m.) against the Saints at Paul Brown Stadium.

Which is all Palmer needs after last Sunday's 6-of-13 mess on a night the offensive line didn't protect him. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski wasn't pleased with some of Palmer's small detail work (depth in the pocket, management), but overall he says this is a Pro Bowler that is in no way regressing.

But Palmer is faced with a brand new receiver situation.

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Bratkowski

"The big thing we have to do is make sure he doesn't get frustrated," Bratkowski said. "The young receivers aren't where they're supposed to be. You can't let that get into his head. There's no other way around it. We have no other options at this point. ... He's in the huddle telling them more things than he would normally have to tell them.

"It will test him. It's probably good for him. It's another learning experience."

If Palmer is getting frustrated, he didn't let them see him sweat Wednesday. He defended management's right to overrule the head coach, but said that Marvin Lewis hasn't lost credibility with the players because of the move.

"When we're healthy, they've given us everything we could ask for," Palmer said of the club. "The running game. Two Pro Bowl receivers. Now (tight end) Ben Utecht. We've got everything we need on offense. Defensively you can't be more happy about what we've got. I'm just happy with the situation we're in. I wish we were, obviously, more healthy, but every team is going through what we're going through right now."

But while the third preseason game is supposed to be the dress rehearsal with the starters spilling into the second half, the Bengals may have to shorten the script because of a lack of props.

"I don't know if there's a traditional form right now for the preseason, for any time," Lewis said. "We'll see. How many snaps we get, that's what we're most concerned about. That's how we'll play it."

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