Posted: 9:15 a.m.
PITTSBURGH - When he's analyzing Sunday's game for first place in the AFC North between the Bengals and Steelers, CBS's Phil Simms is going to be delving into how Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer has changed his game from gamebreaker to game manager.
Simms, who did both for the Bill Parcells Giants of the 1980s, says the Bengals have done the right thing by scaling back their wide-open offense to fit a team that has an effective defense.
"It's a hard way to play; it's the hardest," says the admiring Simms. "It's not easy to ask a guy who is capable of running 100 miles an hour to run 80 miles per hour. It's ego, it's everything. He's handled it great."
It is a flip from four years ago when Palmer outdueled Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger here at Heinz Field for the '05 division title. Palmer did it back then primarily with three-receiver sets while Roethlisberger relied on his ground game and defense.
It will be almost the opposite Sunday, although Roethlisberger still has a great defense and powerful running game at his disposal. The difference is that Palmer has a defense that is right behind the Steelers at No. 2 in the NFL at playing the run and a runner in Cedric Benson that is No. 2 in rushing.
"He can't come out and just throw fastballs; he has to nibble on the edges," Simms said. "It's just a different way of playing. The way he's managing the game is the hardest way to play because they don't ask you to shoot 20 shots a game. Now they're saying, we'll give you 12 shots a game but you've got to be hot. It's a fine line and he's fit it real well. I'm all for it because the team is blending together now."
ON THE CORNER: The New Palmer theme has been a topic this week as has been The Junkyard Bengals contending for a title with so many players who have been cut or undrafted. And, there is the Down On The Corner theme, where starting cornerbacks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph are starting to let the rest of the league in on what the Bengals and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer knew in the spring.
When Joseph is healthy, these guys are a potential Pro Bowl tandem. Zimmer isn't saying they are there yet. But he compares them to a Pro Bowler the Bengals see next month in Minnesota.
"I love watching Antoine Winfield play," Zimmer says. "He's tough, competitive, he runs, tackles, catches. These two guys are kind of like that. They do it all. There's nothing they really don't do. Winfield's a Pro Bowler. They're close. We just have to challenge some more guys and we have to win some more games."
CROCKER SETS TONE: It was 360 days ago here in a Thursday Night NFL Network game that head coach Marvin Lewis sent wide receiver Chad Ochocinco home on Wednesday night for acting up in the offensive meeting and the Steelers sent the Bengals and backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick packing the next night in a 27-10 loss that was only 10-7 at the half.
Amid the wreckage of just 208 yards of offense (when the longest catch by a wide receiver was a 15-yarder to Andre Caldwell), a guy that had been with the Bengals for just three weeks had the big hit when safety Chris Crocker literally knocked wide receiver Santonio Holmes into next week with a concussion. It ended up setting a tone.
It began Crocker's drive to a four-year, $10 million contract four months after the Dolphins cut him and the defense's move to a more aggressive, hard-hitting identity.
"It was obvious we were not going to the playoffs, but we still wanted to assert ourselves," Crocker says. "In years past (it's been) 'Oh, the Bengals. They always shoot themselves in the foot.' That's been a point of emphasis. New team. New year. I'm starting to read more comments that these aren't the same Bengals. We're trying to change people's minds. We don't forget where we come from."
Head coach Marvin Lewis certainly doesn't forget how he got some of these guys. He remembers how the Bengals pulled Crocker out of the offices of the Lions last year when they were trying to sign him. Zimmer had coached Crocker in Atlanta, but Lewis remembers, "He didn't have both feet on the table" when Crocker was discussed. But in the end, Crocker opted for the familiarity of Zimmer's system.
When it came to securing the services of middle linebacker Dhani Jones, cut by the Saints at the end of the 2007 training camp, Lewis just had to fight Jones and not a team. "He walked out once and came back," says Lewis with a laugh.
As for wide receiver Laveranues Coles, cut loose by the Jets over salary cap issues, a well-placed call to Buffalo nixed a potential deal with the Bills.
SLANTS AND SCREENS
» Last week when Bengals.com asked Lewis about his future and if he wanted to stay in Cincinnati with a contract that expires in 2010, he said he wouldn't talk about it. This week he told Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Bengals president Mike Brown has approached him about the future.
"Mike has talked to me about the future," Lewis told Cook. "I just told him I'd rather wait and relax and not worry about it now. We'll talk again, I'm sure."
Brown, who rarely grants interviews these days, told Cook, "When things went wrong here, I never believed they were Marvin's doing. Others were in the kitchen with him. Including me."
» When the Bengals arrived at their downtown Pittsburgh hotel Saturday, wide receiver Chad Ochocinco tweeted that he would take the first person that showed up asking for "Jesse, the hotel manager" on a shopping trip. About 15 minutes later, a 22-year-old Steelers fan who said he wasn't changing his allegiance showed up and The Ocho came through at a nearby shopping complex.
» The Ocho's people who put together his iPhone application are matching his $20,000 fine with a donation to Hillview Acres Children's Home, a residential treatment center for severely abused and neglected children in southern California that Carson and Shaelyn Palmer help.