Can Bengals Defense Rise To The Challenge?

When the defense comes under fire whose fault is it, the players or the coach? That appears to be the main debate amongst league experts over Cincinnati's woeful defensive struggles. Yet in Cincinnati, the Bengals aren't too worried about the Patriots and their top ranked offense, or are they just bluffing? An inside look at Cincinnati's weakest link.

Marvin Lewis stressed fast starts in 2005 and 2006, and the Bengals responded with a pair of 3-0 starts.

In 2007, the Bengals are going to have to dig themselves out of a hole of their own making if they hope to make a late-season playoff run.

Lewis' first two Bengals teams, 2003 and 2004, were 1-4 to open the season. The 2003 team went into the final weekend at 8-7 with a chance to make the playoffs. They lost.

The 2007 Bengals are staring up from last place in the AFC North at their bye. They were 1-2 heading into the Oct. 1 Monday night game at home against the NFL's best team, New England.

The good news for the Bengals is that the schedule should get easier after their bye. Only one of Cincinnati's first four opponents after the bye ended Week 4 with a winning record.

After their bye, the Bengals will go to 2-2 Kansas City, entertain the 1-3 New York Jets and 3-1 Pittsburgh before traveling to 1-3 Buffalo.

The Bengals remained positive despite their early season struggles.

"We still have 13 left," defensive captain and tackle John Thornton said before the New England game. "We're 1-2. It's better than 4-5. It's a bigger deal later in the season when you're behind. We've been before. We're having our bad part early."

There is no division splitting offense from defense. Offensive players credited the defense and its six takeaways in the opener against Baltimore for the victory. The offense put up 45 points at Cleveland in Week 2, but the defense and special teams allowed 51.

"You might expect some," Thornton said. "I could see after the Cleveland game if somebody said something, but just the week before it was the opposite. It's early, but we've got to be careful. We don't want to dig too deep a hole, especially in the AFC. It's too tough to get out of it."

The Bengals have been hard hit in concentrated areas by injuries since the preseason. Rookie second-round tailback Kenny Irons was lost for the season with a knee ligament injury.

Then the defense and, by association, special teams were hurt. The Bengals are hoping to get special teams ace Ethan Kilmer (knee) and linebacker Rashad Jeanty (calf) back for the Kansas City game. Jeanty was the projected starting strong-side linebacker. His absence and injury to middle linebacker Ahmad Brooks (groin) forced Caleb Miller to start at middle linebacker, making him unavailable for special teams. Miller has a lower back injury.

The Bengals have been forced to learn on the fly. Three of their linebackers -- Lemar Marshall, Anthony Schlegel and Dhani Jones -- all joined the Bengals after Aug. 23 when Marshall signed. Jones was impressive on special teams and defense at Seattle and should get better as he learns the system more thoroughly. Same for Schlegel.

The offense could get a couple of playmakers, too. Tailback Chris Perry (ankle) is scheduled to come off the physically unable to perform (PUP) list after Week 6, and head coach Marvin Lewis said even before the regular season started that Perry was making excellent progress in rehab. Wide receiver Antonio Chatman (hamstring) could be ready soon, too. And No. 3 with receiver Tab Perry (hamstring) was lost at Cleveland and should be back in time for the Kansas City game.

Some good news for the Bengals has been the play of their offensive line. It is deep and played well heading into the bye.

The bye is early, Week 5, but it is coming at the right time for a team that could get several players back and could use the emotional break. They will get Friday through Sunday off.

PLAYER NOTES

--RB Rudi Johnson (hamstring) will miss the New England game. He was injured in the second half Sept. 23 at Seattle. Johnson had played in 64 consecutive games.
--RB Kenny Watson made his first start in five seasons with the Bengals in four seasons. He had started four games at tailback for Washington in 2002 and had a pair of 100-yard games.
--RT Willie Anderson made his 116th consecutive start in the New England game.
--CB Blue Adams, who was with the Bengals though the offseason and preseason, was signed back to the roster Sept. 25. He was released Sept. 2. Adams is expected to give a boost to special teams.
--CB Keiwan Ratliff, the team's top second-round draft pick in 2004 (49th overall) was waived. He had fallen out of favor with head coach Marvin Lewis, and his toughness on special teams was questioned.
--LB Ahmad Brooks was expected to start at middle linebacker against New England. Despite the groin injury, Brooks has developed into a force in the defense. He is missed, especially against the run.

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