THE OBR: The Bengals are one last-second (fluke) play away from being 3-0 on this season. They're about to play the Browns, so they could very well have been 4-0 by next week had they beaten the Broncos. What do you regard as the biggest challenge the Bengals need to address in order to continue their 2009 roll and go deep into the playoffs?
MARC HARDIN, BENGALS INSIDER: Number one, the Bengals need to stay healthy. This team knows all too well that injuries have played a big part in the disappointment of the last three seasons. There were nearly 40 players placed on season-ending injury reserve in 2007 and 2008 combined, Carson Palmer being the primary example last season. That said, Palmer has to stay healthy. Number two, the Bengals need to control both lines of scrimmage by continuing to base the offense around the running game, and by putting pressure on the quarterback on defense. Healthy offensive and defensive lines and a healthy, power-running Cedric Benson are essential if the team hopes to make a sustained playoff run. Finally, the Bengals need to limit explosive plays on defense, which, on its own, is good enough to keep the Bengals in games during which the offense struggles. That's an awful lot to ask of a team in transition, a team still learning how to win under head coach Marvin Lewis. But a manageable schedule and the fact the offense should get better as the season goes along bodes well for Cincinnati.
THE OBR: Most causal observers believe that the return of Carson Palmer has been the key to the Bengals returning to form in 2009. There has to be more to it than that, however. What were the key off-season moves the Bengals made to complement the return of their franchise quarterback?
MARC HARDIN: The play of Palmer will always be closely tied to the team's successes. But clearly, re-signing Cedric Benson on March 3 of this season was a big move. Benson was a free agent after his career-rejuvenating 2008 season. He visited with the Houston Texans before signing a two-year, $7 million contract with the Bengals, who prefer a strong tailback behind a big fullback, and a big line. With Benson, they have a big part of that equation under contract through next season, at a discount rate.
THE OBR: The Bengals gave up a Pro Bowl wide receiver in T.J. Houshmandzadeh last off-season, which would normally indicate a significant drop-off in receptions (and vowels) for the Bengals this year. How has Laveranues Coles done as a replacement on the field? How have the Bengals compensated for the loss of such a reliable receiver?
MARC HARDIN: The Bengals switch out T.J. Houshmandzadeh's four-syllable last name for Laveranues Coles' four-syllable first name at No. 2 possession receiver. Right now, the big difference is the fact T.J. knew the offense and he had found a rhythm with Palmer. Coles is still finding his comfort zone both with Palmer and the playbook after coming over from the New York Jets as a free-agent signee. The Bengals could have done much worse than Coles, when it came to replacing Houshmandzadeh, who bolted to Seattle during free-agency. Coles and T.J. have some similar career numbers and there's a good chance Coles' and Houshmandzadeh's 2009 numbers may look similar at the end of the season. Coles' production would be coming cheaper, though. And for the Bengals, who are known for watching their money, that's an important consideration to remember when you look at why the Bengals do things and why they let some players go and go after others. Coles isn't yet up to speed with the offense, and he's had problems holding on to easy passes. That's opened the door for second-year receiver Andre Caldwell, who worked out with Palmer in California during part of the offseason, and looks to be Palmer's next choice after Chad Ochocinco, at this point.
THE OBR: Marvin Lewis was regarded as one the league's best defensive minds when he left Baltimore for Cincinnati, but his Bengals teams have never achieved the defensive dominance of Lewis' squads in Baltimore. Does Lewis only now have the right players to make his system work?
MARC HARDIN: Marvin has taken some heat over the years for putting together some underwhelming defenses in Cincinnati after coming to town in 2003 with a "defensive guru" tag. Common knowledge has it that coach Lewis' successful stay in Baltimore as defensive coordinator intersected with the high level of play of some of the league's best defensive players, most notably Ray Lewis. Coach Lewis may have, at long last, the right players for the kind of defense he envisions in Cincinnati. But his Cincinnati defenses most definitely have been hamstrung by the unexpected losses of Georgia linebackers David Pollack (broken neck) and Odell Thurman (personal problems). Pollack was a first-round pick, Thurman a second-round pick in 2005. They were supposed to come in and anchor the defense for years to come. Also, in Mike Zimmer, coach Lewis seems to finally have a DC who has his own playing style but also favors a style that amplifies some of coach Lewis' basic defensive principals and philosophies, such as playing aggressively, playing fast and playing smart.
THE OBR: Take away a couple of Super Bowl losses, and fans of the Browns and Bengals can certainly relate to each other in terms of being beat-down fan bases. Are Bengals fans embracing this team or have they been burned so much in the past that they're taking a "wait and see" attitude after three games?
MARC HARDIN: Those two Super Bowl losses to San Francisco in the 1980s seem like ancient history. After all these years of losing - and remember, there's been just one winning NFL season in Cincinnati since 1990 - some fans have a gun-shy attitude about wildly celebrating any Bengals success. There are Bengals fans who sit and wait for something bad to happen after something good happens… because something bad happens to the Bengals after something good happens all the time. Other Bengals fans want to eagerly hop on the bandwagon when the team does well, because there have been precious few opportunities to jump on a Bengals bandwagon the last 19 years, and you never know, this might be the year, just like 2005 and 2006 and 2007. Still other Bengals fans believe the team will never win consistently so long as owner Mike Brown insists on having heavy influence in personnel matters. I think the common thread weaving through those three distinct groups of Bengals fans is the fact all of them respect Carson Palmer, and the opportunity for winning that he provides.