After Tuesday's on-field coaching session at Paul Brown Stadium, Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski sat down with Geoff Hobson of bengals.com to discuss the plethora of off-season changes in scheme and personnel on his side of the ball.**
GH: Everybody talks about the changes on defense, but there is a chance the offense on Opening Day 2003 could actually have more changes. There is a very real possibility you could only return running back Corey Dillon and right tackle Willie Anderson to the same spots they had on Opening Day 2002. Does that massive change bother you?
BB: No, I think it's good to have the new personnel. We only won two games. Something needed to be changed. The benefits of having new and better players far outweigh the continuity aspect. You'd like to have a lot of continuity on offense, but when you can bring in better football players and upgrade your personnel and competition, that outweighs continuity.
GH: Do you think you'll be better on Opening Day?
BB: I hope so. We were awful last Opening Day.
GH: Do you have better players in better places this year?
BB: We'll see. I believe we do, but we'll have to wait until we start playing real football.
GH: You've done your part by making what seems to be a lot of scheme changes. Are these the most changes you've made to the playbook since you came here before the 2001 season?
BB: We're constantly evolving. I think we're evolving a little more this year.
GH: In what ways?
BB: We've analyzed some things. We've made some changes in the running game. We've made some changes in some of our formations and motions. We've made some additions and deletions in the passing game. The base philosophy of the offense is still there. We've adjusted to respond to things that gave us problems last year, and anticipating some things we expect to see from defenses this year.
GH: The most visible problem last year seemed to be the inability to run the ball in the red zone and on the goal line. Have you done things to get stronger at the point of attack?
BB: We've done some of that. Some is personnel related, and some is scheme related. We've addressed both areas. We're working on getting the ball in the end zone for touchdowns. It sounds simple, but once you get to the 15, the field shrinks so much that you almost have to use a different offense. You have to put in different kinds of plays in the passing game. We've really worked at re-structuring that part of it as well as our philosophy of runs down in there.
We've made some adjustments in our style of philosophy in our techniques in the linemen. We're still going to be doing things to attack the perimeters as well, where we attack the 6, 7, 8, 9 holes, which are off-tackle plays.
GH: Corey has always said he's a north-south runner and not east-west. Are some of the changes in the running game going to reflect that?
BB: It really is less to do with Corey and more with philosophy of schemes. The changes are more in terms of scheme and in terms of our personnel rather than specifically for something that Corey does because they're similar in many respects to what we've been doing.
GH: The personnel changes are obvious in revamping your interior line by moving right guard Mike Goff to center and left guard Matt O'Dwyer to right, and drafting left guard Eric Steinbach.
BB: As well as the tight end position. We've changed that around a little bit. We've added a new tight end, actually a couple in Reggie Kelly and Tony Stewart, whom we think are real strong blockers at the point of attack. Which makes a big difference. Matt Schobel is getting better and better in that role.
GH: How do the tight ends help you in the red zone?
BB: It gives you a strong-side running attack. If you are struggling at tight end in the blocking, you can't run strong side. You're mismatched. Now we've got some strong-side things in there that we had to get away from last year.
GH: You lose Lorenzo Neal and Nicholas Luchey. Does fullback worry you at all?
BB: Not at this point. As things go along and we play other teams, we'll know more where they are. Athletically, they look right now that they fit the part. Mentally it seems like they're going to be OK. It's just going to be the physical aspect, the pounding on linebackers. Are they going to be able to do their job when the physical part kicks in? We'll find out when we start playing real football.
GH: I would imagine you now have the ability to use more two tight-end sets than you have the last year and a half (since injuries and illness to Tony McGee and Marco Battaglia in the middle of the 2001 season), which gives you more formations at your disposal.
BB: Yes. (But) the tight ends are still a work in progress.
GH: Do you think you're stronger up the middle?
BB: We won't know until we start playing real football, but just on paper and looking at it, we should be stronger inside and stronger at the tight end position.
GH: What does Steinbach give you?
BB: Intelligence and athleticism.
GH: It seems like you took your rookie tackles out of the Steinbach mold. Seventh-rounder Scott Kooistra and free agents Belton Johnson and Garry Johnson.
BB: We've picked up some athleticism in our big guys. They're considered big, athletic guys. It will be very competitive because you have a limited number of spots. We've brought in athletic guys that move their feet.
GH: Is that a shift in philosophy on the offensive line?
BB: In all of our draft meetings and in signing free agents, we looked at those redeeming qualities of athleticism, speed, something that stands out. And that was the area we were looking to stand out. Foot quickness, speed, overall athleticism. That was everywhere on the team. All positions. It was a slight shift in philosophy.
GH: Could tackles like Kooistra and the Johnsons project to being guards and tackles as future swingmen?
BB: That's to be determined. The problem with young guys is you have to teach them one position early and they have to learn another position as they go along.
GH: Are you further ahead on offense this May 20 than last May 20? This is the first month as a Bengals offensive coordinator you've had a No. 1 quarterback (Jon Kitna) and not a derby. Can you see the benefits of that yet?
BB: We're ahead of last year because we've had the extra camps and the extra meeting times, and plus the guys have picked up things in 2.5 years with it. There's a certain comfort level with the first group right now. They know Jon is in there and they feel very comfortable with Jon.
GH: When you made the changes on offense, did you do it with Jon in mind or Carson Palmer in mind at quarterback?
BB: We did it with the defense in mind. You would have to keep it in mind if Carson were going to play early. You have to keep all of those things in mind. But right now, Jon is the starter. Carson is in one of the backup roles. Instead of limiting him right now and just trying to keep it simple for him, we're trying to teach him the whole thing. Now, if he ends up playing, we'll have to condense it with the things we know he would have success at doing.
GH: Where is Carson now in terms of learning the offense? We know when he left two weeks ago, the third day of minicamp seemed to have him spinning.
BB: It's all new to him. It's all different. The terminology is all different. The way we protect is different. All brand spanking new. The quarterback has such a complex set of responsibilities. Not only in calling the play, but making sure the motions get sent at the right time, making the protection calls, making the run check-with-mes where he's got to change from one run to the other. It is so complex it can be overwhelming, and at this point right now he's trying to learn it. Spending a lot of time learning it, and he's got a ways to go yet.
GH: It must be hard to get grasp on him because he's only had five days of practice here. But do you still envision a battle between Carson and Akili Smith for the backup job?
BB: Yeah. Nothing is etched in stone at this time. It's just going to be a matter of how quickly (Palmer's) ability to understand what's going on and put all the pieces and manage all of his responsibilities so the offense can function. He's got so many responsibilities that the rest of the offense relies on him for. As soon as he gets to where he is comfortable and he can manage those responsibilities, at that point, he's getting closer to being ready to play.
GH: The receiver position looks to be your most interesting spot. The starters and the backups are probably going to come out of the pre-season games. The five incumbents have earned some high praise the past month.
BB: All of our receivers have grown up. In the 2.5 years I've been here, I've seen them grow into professionals. I think they're getting stronger because right now they have a much better understanding of what we're expecting and their responsibilities. There are so any small adjustments they have to make. Not just memorizing assignments, but how to do his assignment when the defender is shaded this way. Or that way, what's your assignment?
GH: One of the changes you made in the running game is streamlining it some, with the idea of doing fewer plays better. Have you streamlined the passing game?
BB: You really can't because of the different variety of coverages you have week to week, and we've kept that number about the same as it was last year. We have tinkered with things. Changed some route concepts. Where we put the back on his check downs, the route combinations, some of the depth of the routes, the different route packages that we can take advantage of the different coverages that we're seeing now.
We've completely looked at every aspect of what we're doing. Added some. Took some out. Tweaked them slightly to what they were last year.