John Crist: While Carson Palmer has been pretty good so far and directed the Bengals to a 4-2 record, his individual numbers are rather pedestrian compared to what he was doing when Chad Ochocinco and T.J. Houshmandzadeh were in their prime. What has changed about the passing game lately?
Marc Hardin: Palmer's numbers after six games aren't that far off pace from his previous seasons, except for TDs, completion rate and passer rating. Add in all the dropped passes this season, usually three or four per game, and Palmer's numbers would look a lot better. Even so, there have been massive changes on offense in the last year. Only two other players – Ochocinco and RG Bobbie Williams – are in the same starting positions as last season's opener, throwing Palmer's timing off. The departed Houshmandzadeh, injured TE Reggie Kelly and the receiver formerly known as Chad Johnson rarely dropped passes when they were all playing together. Newly acquired WR Laveranues Coles and all the Bengals TEs, and even Ochocinco, have dropped several easy passes this season. So blame a lack of concentration on the part of the receivers, plus some untimely penalties, for Palmer's numbers coming up a bit short thus far.
Also, the Bengals are committing themselves to the run now more than they did when Palmer was airing it out two and three years ago, curtailing his production somewhat. Otherwise, Palmer is just as tough, his arm is just as strong, he's more confident, he's a better leader in the huddle, he improvises better and sees running opportunities like never before – all this after a right knee ligament strain in 2004, ACL and MCL tears in his left knee in the 2005 season playoffs, a serious elbow injury in 2008 and a sprained left thumb this season.
JC: A hot topic this week will be the resurgence of Cedric Benson, who was a flat-out bust for the Bears but is now among the league leaders in rushing with Cincinnati. Why is he having so much success, and what did the front office see that made them think he was their guy going forward?
MH: Benson seems like a changed man after the Bengals gave his NFL career a second life, when they brought him in after the beginning of last season. Benson has spoken candidly to the media about his mistakes and held himself accountable for much of his past, saying, basically, he needed to do a better job of keeping himself out of potentially negative situations and keep his mouth shut. His personal judgment seems to have improved, and several Bengals players and coaches have complimented him on his behavior and his demeanor – on and off the field.
His new-found on-field success, which has come largely behind a makeshift Bengals offensive line, is the product of the team's effective zone-blocking scheme, Benson's ability to run straight ahead, his discipline while using blockers and his improved strength and leg drive. Also, Benson is a proud man. He didn't want to be known as a flamed-out No. 4-overall draft pick. He knew he could do more, but only if he changed his attitude. Flawed past and all, what the Bengals saw in a reformed Benson was a workhorse power back, perfect for the rugged AFC North. Also, he's coming cheap after damaging his reputation, which suits the penny-pinching Bengals, who have a history of taking chances with castoffs and malcontents with talent (see also Carl Pickens, Corey Dillon, Chris Henry, Tank Johnson, Andre Smith).
JC: Even though he's one of the more talented receivers the league has produced the last decade, Ochocinco is yet another in a long line of divas at that position. After reading excerpts from his new book, I'm convinced he's a little bacon short of a BLT. Is he as crazy as he seems from afar?
MH: Crazy? Gee, what makes you say that? His wild mood swings? His passive-aggressive nature with the media? His off-the-wall touchdown celebrations? His rambling monologues? His outrageous guarantees? His smack talk-inducing lists? His almost cartoonish, demonstrative ways? The sudden changing of his legal name? The new book?
Near or far, Ochocinco is one unique dude with heaps of talent. He may be a little bacon short of a BLT, as you say. But a re-energized Chad is still the meat of the Bengals passing game, and he's got more than enough hot dog in him to feed an army.
JC: Another infamous former Bear, Tank Johnson, now calls Cincinnati home. HBO's Hard Knocks proved again that Johnson can be quite a charming cat, but here in Chicago we learned he knows how to put up a good front on camera. Is there any reason to believe he's turned his life around?
MH: Everybody's got two sides. Johnson may have three, which makes him an entertaining creature and a pretty good quote. Cincinnati, the last-chance home of wayward football players and a team that never seems to get it right when it comes to defensive tackles, welcomed Johnson into the dysfunctional family and gave him some good money to play a kids game. Johnson took a look at the competition on the Bengals' line, probably saw a good opportunity for himself and decided that tanking his career at this point was not a very good idea. So, either the light bulb has finally come on for Tank, or it got a little brighter, or he's performing when the lights come on.
Your guess is as good as mine as to whether Tank has turned his life around. What I do know is, lots of reporters want to know what Tank thinks after the game, and many of the Bengals' players like his attitude. Now, if he can just stay healthy and help stop the run. If Tank can do that, he can act all he wants.
JC: After so many years with Marvin Lewis at the controls, the Bengals are finally playing a little defense. Lewis had a tremendous reputation before getting the top job in Cincinnati, but this team never stopped anybody on the defensive side of the ball. What's been the difference this season?
MH: Stability. The Bengals, until recently, haven't been able to settle on a defensive coordinator under Lewis. Mike Zimmer became the third DC in six seasons when he was hired last year, and the no-nonsense Zimmer has a lot to do with the defense's improvement thanks to his high expectations for players, his demands for fundamental perfection in practice, his imaginative schemes and his ability to mesh with Marvin, who admitted he made the job tougher for his previous DCs, Leslie Frazier and Chuck Bresnahan.
Also, the Bengals have lost key defensive draft picks to injuries (Frostee Rucker, Keith Rivers), tragic, career-ending injuries (Dennis Weathersby, David Pollack) or personal developments (Matthias Askew, Odell Thurman). They have drafted poorly (No. 2 pick Lamont Thompson, No. 2 pick Keiwan Ratliff, supplemental pick Ahmad Brooks), and they have had bad luck with free agents (Kevin Hardy, Sam Adams, Dexter Jackson). With so much upheaval, little wonder the Bengals have been out of sync and so inconsistent on defense during much of Marvin's seven years in Cincinnati.
To read Part II of this Behind Enemy Lines series, where John answers five questions from Marc, Click Here.
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Behind Enemy Lines: Part I
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