Patriots-Bengals: Behind Enemy Lines Part I

Week 1: Patriots vs Bengals. We get an inside look at the Cincinnati Bengals from's Marc Hardin. Hardin shares some unique thoughts on Terrell Owens ability to be a distraction or a contributor, the Bengals linebackers, some recent roster busts and more.

1) Are the Bengals better suited to be a running team or a passing team?

Marc Hardin: The Bengals want to be a running team first with bruising Cedric Benson and shifty change-of-pace back Bernard Scott and use the run to set up the passing attack with Carson Palmer and his array of targets. But the Bengals don't have a true fullback on the roster and will be using everybody from tight ends to possibly a backup linebacker (Dan Skuta) to fill the role on Sunday. Cincinnati needs to establish the run to be successful on offense, and they would love to maul opponents on the right side with huge linemen Andre Smith and Bobbie Williams. But, Smith has been battling injury and conditioning issues most of the summer and has seen very limited duty while not performing very well since returning to the field late in the preseason schedule. They may not want to admit it, but the Bengals could be ideally suited to throw it, and they have been working on finding a rhythm with three-receiver sets and a no-huddle attack during preseason. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth is one of the best in the league at protecting the blindside, and Palmer has everything a quarterback needs to be successful, including a feared deep threat (Terrell Owens), a savvy veteran who must be covered (Chad Ochocinco), an up-and-coming slot receiver (rookie Jordan Shipley) and, for the first time in years, a legitimate pass-catching tight end (rookie Jermaine Gresham), who is a mismatch waiting to happen once he figures it out.

2) Is T.O just part of the whole show in Cincinnati, or does he bring something unique to the team? How big a factor can he be?

Hardin: Without Terrell Owens, the Bengals do not have a bona fide deep threat to stretch the field so they can go after a defense's underbelly with Cedric Benson and their many short-route passing options. After 15 years in the league, T.O. may not be as fast as he once was, but he's fast enough, feared enough and strong enough to warrant committed coverage when he goes deep. Even if Palmer hooks up with Owens 20 yards down field, Owens can turn it into a 40-yard gainer because somebody has to tackle the 6-3, 225-pound receiver after the catch.

3) The Antonio Bryant signing and release seems like another gaffe by the Bengals front office. Is there more to the story? And are there more of these "mistakes" still on the roster?

Hardin: The Bryant saga had local observers scratching their heads, as well. Just a few months after the team dumped 2008 free-agent bust Laveranues Coles, Bryant was signed in March to be the deep threat the team had been missing since the departure of the late Chris Henry. Bryant signed a four-year, $28 million contract, but he began complaining of knee pain during offseason workouts and said it was a flare-up of an injury he originally suffered during training camp last year while with Tampa Bay. Bryant has been injury-prone throughout his career and just last year he had procedures, that's plural, to repair knee damage, which resulted in bone-on-bone discomfort for Bryant this spring. But he checked out OK at his Bengals physical over the winter and the team said he looked good during his workout in Cincinnati, which was held the same day as Owens' workout with the team. Bryant looked so good to the Bengals in March that they chose him over Owens during free-agency. Now they have Owens, and Bryant is filing a grievance against the team to recoup some of the salary he would have earned had he made the opening-day roster. Bryant's contract was terminated on Aug. 29. As far as other "mistakes" on the roster, it appears the Bengals have rid themselves of such scourges. They started the dirty job by jettisoning Coles and they recently let go reserve QB J.T. O'Sullivan.

4) The Bengals have made linebacker a priority in the draft in the past 3 years. How does the group look and have those drafts paid off at other positions?

Hardin: Appearances can be deceiving. Actually, the Bengals have not made linebacker a priority in the draft the last three years, it just appears that way with weakside linebacker Keith Rivers being the team's No. 1 pick in 2008 and strongside linebacker Rey Maulauga being taken in the second round last year. Rivers simply was the best player available, in the Bengals' minds, when his name was called as the ninth overall pick three drafts ago. The team was not dead-set on picking a linebacker that year. Maualuga fell to the Bengals last year after off-field concerns lowered the former USC Trojan's draft stock. The Bengals were looking at upgrading safety and the defensive line in the second round last year, but when the college defensive player of the year fell in their laps, they snatched up Maualuga, baggage and all, even though they had Rivers, Dhani Jones and Brandon Johnson coming off a 112-tackle season in 2008. Other than Rivers and Maualuga, this year's second fourth-round pick, Roddrick Muckelroy, has been the only other linebacker taken by the Bengals before the fifth round since 2005. They have taken four linebackers among their last 45 draft picks. In the same span, the Bengals have drafted 10 defensive linemen and eight wide receivers.

5) Strength of the team. What is the most dangerous group or player on the team and why?

Hardin: The Bengals have two of the best young cornerbacks in the game in Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, each of whom had six interceptions last season and came within a few votes of being named All-Pro. Their backups are ball-hawking Adam Jones, who is looking to rejuvenate his career after a year out of the league and dropping "Pacman" from his name, and Morgan Trent, who had three interceptions in one half during a preseason contest. With that group, the Bengals will be strong in nickel packages and they'll have a chance to lead the league in interceptions. The Bengals usually win games in which they win the turnover battle.

6) If the Patriots have one area they can take advantage of the Bengals, what is it and how should they attack it?

Hardin: The Bengals can't cover a good pass-catching tight end to save their lives. If either of the Patriots' young tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, or veteran Alge Crumpler can do some damage on Sunday and get in the end zone early and absorb focus from the linebackers, that may be enough to jump-start New England's running attack. It looks like New England was able to get a lot of 20-yard passes and TDs from their TEs in preseason, and that is worrisome to a Bengals fan.

Marc Hardin's prediction:
Cincinnati wins because New England can't suppress the Bengals' aerial attack, and the Patriots, depending too much on the pass, get put into predictable down-and-distance situations, which leads to a game-changing turnover for the Bengals' defense.

Bengals win, 24-21, on Mike Nugent's game-winning field goal.

Be sure to check out Part 2 for a look inside the Patriots

Marc Hardin is the publisher of on the network.

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