Third down and a season to go

Posted: 10:25 p.m.

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Palmer

The Bengals playoff run has come down to third-and-goal, which is just about right because their struggles on third down on both sides of the ball have put them in the precarious position of having to virtually end the season with a six-game winning streak in order to qualify for the playoffs.

"We've gotten a lot better on first and second down and kept ourselves out of a number of third downs," said quarterback Carson Palmer earlier this week, his third-down passer rating more than 20 points off last season. "When we've been in third down, we're still struggling. Now our mindset goes to fixing third down, offensively and defensively. That's something we're really stressing this week."

The defense's last-in-the-loop ranking is embedded in the third-conversion stat of 41.5 percent, eighth worst in the league, and is the reason the Bengals couldn't their hands on the ball long enough to beat Atlanta, Baltimore and San Diego in one-touchdown losses.

But the offense's woes on third-down passing have been even more jarring because it was so good last season. Palmer, who trailed in the NFL only Peyton Manning, Kurt Warner and Drew Brees with a 95 rating on third down last season, is just at 72.8 through the first 10 games this year.

While 10 of his club-record 32 touchdown passes came on third down in '05, just four of his 18 this season have come that way. So it figures that the offense that finished second in the NFL in converting third downs overall last season at 42.9 percent is 27th at 33.1.

But the most telling difference is the gap in Palmer's completion percentage on third down, a mere 52 percent compared to 64 percent last season.

Before Palmer hit wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh last week on a third-and-seven in the fourth quarter, the Bengals had missed 12 of 13 third-down conversions dating back to the second half of the San Diego loss and Palmer was 4-for-11 for 17 yards.

"A lot of factors," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski this week.

With Sunday's rematch in Cleveland looming, it will be recalled the 34-17 victory over the Browns on Sept. 17 was costly across the board. But no spot was hit harder than Cincinnati's third-down personnel groups.

Center Rich Braham, the glue of pass-protection who injured his knee that day, hasn't been back. Wide receiver Tab Perry, who made a 26-yard catch on third down that day in the drive that gave the Bengals a 14-3 lead, injured his hip in the last minute and went on season-ending injured reserve.

And the injuries didn't stop that day. Wide receiver Kelley Washington, who caught three third-down balls against the Browns, hasn't played in more than a month with an injured hamstring. Wide receiver Antonio Chatman, who was supposed to be a slot receiver on passing downs, didn't play against the Browns or virtually anybody else before going on IR.

And with running back Chris Perry missing the first five games, the Bengals have worked him in slowly and are also using Kenny Watson in the third-down role where Perry caught the majority of his 51 catches last season. He's only got nine this season, and that no doubt has hurt Palmer's percentage and yards on third down because Perry is such an athletic checkdown.

"We've had to go in a different direction than what we had originally planned in our third-down package," Bratkowski said. "We've used the tight ends more than we have and the plan wasn't to use them initially much on third down.

"We're playing better defenses, better teams and there have been some games we've come up short. Tab Perry was going to be our Matt Schobel from last year, a third-down specialist. Then it was going to be Kelley, and Antonio was going to be used, as well, and now you don't have that third-down specialist/tight end/receiver/ fourth wide."

Plus, Bratkowski pointed to the early games without Braham and left tackle Levi Jones "when we were a little on edge." Throw in the fact the Bengals have played a schedule that is 12 games over .500 this season compared to one that was 12 games under .500 last season, and the yards are tougher to come by.

Tab Perry had also assumed the pass-protection role that Schobel filled as the Bengals pass-catching tight end before he left via free agency. Bratkowski is also anxious to use Chris Perry more, noting he's been back this week the equivalent of a preseason.

But what is puzzling is that third downs should be easy to make this season because the Bengals are second in the NFL in averaging 6.3 yards on first down. There has been some criticism that they've become too predictable on third down, when they have thrown 77 percent of the time. Still, that is virtually no different than last season when they threw 70 percent.

So this week Bratkowski has been in the lab trying to concoct answers for third down.

"You spend some extra time in meetings, you take a few extra reps in practice in it," he said. "The first thing you have to do is go back and look why you haven't been completing them, and it starts with protection, route concepts, and it goes from there."

Sunday's matchup? The Browns are better at stopping third down (39.3 percent) than the Bengals are at getting them. But back on Sept. 17, Cincinnati converted at better than 50 percent (8-for-15), and Palmer threw for 148 of his 352 yards on third down.

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