Scouting Report: Cincinnati Bengals

The most exciting game of the 2006 season was the 49-41 shootout between the Chargers and the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals led 21-0 after the first, but LaDainian Tomlinson countered with four touchdowns to propel a Chargers comeback. If that instant classic is going to be reincarnated in 2007, it will have to come in the postseason. Given the talent on both squads, that may very well happen.

The mere presence of Carson Palmer guarantees the Cincinnati Bengals will be playoff contenders. Over the last two seasons, Palmer has averaged 3,936 yards, 30 touchdowns and a 97.5 passer rating. He was also named the MVP of the 2007 Pro Bowl.

Palmer is so effective because of the vast array of weapons he has at his disposal. Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh comprise one of the NFL's top-three receiving duos, right up there with the Arizona Cardinals and Indianapolis Colts. The running game is outstanding as well, with Jeremi Johnson opening lanes for former Pro Bowler Rudi Johnson, former first-round pick Chris Perry and second-round pick Kenny Irons.

The Bengals offense is powered by the big guys up front – particularly bookend tackles Levi Jones and Willie Anderson. The unit suffered a major blow this offseason, though, when guard Eric Steinbach signed a seven-year, $49.5 million contract with the Cleveland Browns.

The defense must improve if the Bengals are going to join the Chargers in the NFL's upper crust. Cincinnati ranked No. 30 in total defense last season and No. 31 against the pass. It will help if free agent addition Ed Hartwell can overcome lingering knee problems and return to the form he showed from 2002-2004, when he averaged 110 tackles and two sacks per season.

Other than Hartwell, the Bengals front seven is short on star power. Defensive end Justin Smith is the team's franchise player, but he has averaged fewer than seven sacks per season in his six-year career. Linebacker Ahmad Brooks has star potential but has yet to prove himself over a 16-game span.

The secondary will have to key any defensive turnaround in Cincinnati. Deltha O'Neal and Madieu Williams are ballhawks, Johnathan Joseph is a terrific athlete and Dexter Jackson is a stabilizing veteran force in the middle. Toss in first-round pick Leon Hall and this unit is loaded.

The Bengals special teams are some of the best in the NFL, with kicker Shayne Graham, punter Kyle Larson and returner Tab Perry all masters of their respective trades.

So, should the Chargers fret a potential postseason showdown with the Bengals? Not quite yet. The Bengals can score on anybody, but there is no way the Cincinnati defense can hold down LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates & Co. If the Chargers can keep it close, they are in great shape. San Diego knows how to close games, a lesson Cincinnati has yet to learn.


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