Posted: 11:40 a.m.
Welcome to Bengaldom '08, where the coat of arms could be bulletproof or a straitjacket.
The you-just-never-know Bengals aren't all that different than the rest of the NFL. When they report to training camp in nine days, they could be embarking on the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (5-11) with a few bad breaks or boarding a space shot (10-6) if they get on a roll. Or somewhere in between on a cruise to nowhere.
All of these eight things don't need to happen for them to make the playoffs, but they have to get most of them.
1. A 3-1 start: The first month of the season starts at Baltimore, the home opener with Tennessee, at the Super Bowl champion Giants, and September ends with a home game against Cleveland.
Beating the Ravens by taking advantage of a new head coach and a new offense in their first game is a must and if the Bengals are serious about making a run they just can't lose the home opener to a Tennessee offense that counts Justin Gage (six TDs in five seasons) as its most dangerous receiver.
The Sept. 28 Paul Brown Stadium game against Cleveland looks like the first mega showdown of the season for not only the obvious AFC North implications, but also because three '07 playoff teams loom in the next four games:
At Dallas, at the Jets, and then a home game against a Steelers team the Bengals haven't beaten at PBS since 2001. After the Oct. 26 bye, they host the Jacksonville club that has Pittsburgh's number.
2. No Distractions: This schedule is hard enough for a team that couldn't run the ball or stop the run consistently last year pitted against the NFL's two most physical divisions in the NFC East and AFC South.
The last thing the Bengals need is a training camp where every session is Media Day. So what they need is Chad Johnson to rehab his ankle, Chris Henry to rehab his career elsewhere, and No. 1 pick Keith Rivers to be in camp within 48 hours of the first whistle.
Johnson3. Rudi has to regain his 4.2 form: If the Bengals are going to follow through on head coach Marvin Lewis' recommitment to the running game, Johnson has to give them more than the 3.5 yards per carry he has churned since 2006 and get back to his 2003-2005 average of 4.2 (3,869 yards on 913 carries). His health and the health of the offensive line have been factors, but he has also chiseled about 10-15 pounds back on his body in showing he realizes he needs to regain his power game.
4. D-Line Must Pass Go: Boardwalk and Park Place are at end and tackle on the defensive board with left end Robert Geathers, right end Antwan Odom, and tackle Domata Peko the highest-paid players on the defense. That means these guys have to step up to the bank and make sure this team doesn't get steamrolled on the run like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New England and San Francisco (Frisco?!) did against them last year.
And make sure they don't get picked apart in the pocket by everyone from former Pro Bowlers (Kurt Warner), Pro Bowler (Derek Anderson), journeymen (Damon Huard), wannabes (J.P. Losman) and nobodies (Shaun Hill) while finishing last in the league in sacks per pass.
The tandem of Odom and Frostee Rucker have to be darn close to producing what right end Justin Smith did with 90 tackles and what he didn't with just two sacks.
Hall5. No Second(ary) Thoughts: The young secondary has to play like it did in the last half of '07 and not like it did in the first half of '07. The big plays, whether passes or runs, are bad signs. With cornerback Johnathan Joseph now healthy (he wasn't last September and October), second-year cornerback Leon Hall wiser and second-year safeties Chinedum Ndukwe and Marvin White more seasoned, the big screwups can't happen.
In the first eight games of '07, the Bengals allowed 10 touchdown passes of at least 21 yards and two touchdown runs of at least 56 yards. In the last eight, they gave up two TD passes longer than 20 and the longest TD run was Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's six-yarder.
6. Carson Palmer Helpmates Wanted: If wide receivers Chad Johnson (93) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (112) combine for 205 catches again, this long-ball offense is again going to struggle in the quagmire of Cover 2 defenses.
The offense needs help underneath and it just wasn't there last year with the next three receivers (running back Kenny Watson with 52, Henry with 21 and tight end Reggie Kelly with 20) combining for just 93 catches.
There is nothing wrong with a back catching 52 balls, but this year that has to come from potential gamebreakers like Chris Perry and/or DeDe Dorsey. Perry caught 51 the one year he was healthy.
The Bengals also need new tight end Ben Utecht to match or even better his average of 35 catches over the past two seasons. Henry was suspended for the first eight games, so they don't necessarily have to surpass the 56 catches supplied by the combo of Henry, Antonio Chatman and Glenn Holt, but they have to find a No. 3 wide receiver that produces more than that group's four touchdowns and 11.2 yards per catch.
Consider that Holt and Chatman averaged 8.4 yards per catch. That can't happen in the No. 3 spot if Palmer is going to break the chains of Cover 2. There needs to be more perimeter and vertical speed threats.
Anderson7. Tackle Tandem: If right tackle Willie Anderson and left tackle Levi Jones keep looking like they did at the mandatory minicamp, the offense is going to get a huge lift. The last time both were healthy for an entire season, well, enough said. It was 2005 and the Bengals won the AFC North.
And Anderson is such a key guy in the running game. He's not only the best right tackle in the game when healthy, but he talks up the running game and the backs and the coaches. Just his presence gives the offense the smashmouth edginess.
8. Break-Out Year Needed For Eric Ghiaciuc: It's going to start right away for the Bengals center and it won't let up:
There is the Ravens' menacing Haloti Ngata, followed in quick succession by Sir Albert Haynesworth, the Giants' Super tackles, and then Cleveland's newest landmark in the estimable Shaun Rogers.
And that's just the first four games. The Bengals have confidence in Ghiaciuc's athleticism and quickness after a year he was nagged by injury and he'll need to have every bit of it if they are to run the ball against a schedule featuring nine games against defenses that finished eighth or better stopping the run last year.