The tone of the Bengals' 2005 season will be set early. Coach Marvin Lewis has made a fast start a priority, after his 2003 and '04 teams struggled with four losses in the first five games.
Four of the first six games are on the road, but three of those opponents -- Cleveland, Chicago and Tennessee -- finished last in their divisions in 2004. Those games are winnable for a team that fancies itself a playoff contender and the one that expects to snap the franchise's 14-year playoff drought.
The Bengals return all 11 starters on offense. Quarterback Carson Palmer, in his second season as the starter, is surrounded by talent. Though the Bengals terminated the contract of sixth-year wide receiver Peter Warrick, who signed with Seattle, the emergence of second-year running back Chris Perry could fill that void. Perry, who missed 14 games as a rookie, was the most impressive preseason performer. He had a 4-yard rushing average on 33 carries and averaged 9.4 yards on a team-leading 13 receptions.
The reconfigured defense under coordinator Chuck Bresnahan remains the biggest question. Much is expected of left tackle Bryan Robinson to stabilize one of the league's poorest run defenses. The defense is young. Three starters -- end Robert Geathers, linebacker Landon Johnson and free safety Madieu Williams -- are in their second seasons, as is nickel corner Keiwan Ratliff. One starter, middle linebacker Odell Thurman, is a rookie. And first-round pick David Pollack, despite a 20-day contract holdout, will be a regular in packages as an outside linebacker and rush end.
Three keys for the season:
1. Quarterback Carson Palmer must avoid the drive-killing turnovers he committed throughout the early part of last season. He holds the keys to an offense that can take pressure of the team's rebuilding defense by scoring points and controlling possession time.
2. The defense must do better against the run. Tied for 26th in the league against the run in 2004, the Bengals were especially weak against the division, allowing an average of 162.8 yards in six games (2-4 record).
3. The Bengals made sure to stock their kick return and coverage teams with returning performers the like of Reggie Myles, Marcus Wilkins, Kenny Watson and Kevin Walter. Ability to play special teams largely determined the shape of the bottom third of the roster. Now the kicking game must do its part in helping the Bengals gain an edge in field position for both the offense and defense. The team kept 10 defensive backs and seven linebackers on cut-down day.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
DT Bryan Robinson: If Robinson, the only outside UFA signed in the offseason, can occupy two blockers, he will keep the fast, under-sized linebackers clean to make tackles in the run game.
RB Chris Perry: For a team that scored 374 points, a franchise most since 1989, Perry can be a drive-sustainer who can turn a broken play into a first down or a big gainer. He is elusive and almost always makes the first defender miss, especially as a receiving coming out of the backfield.
FS Madieu Williams: The Bengals don't make the best use of this talented, converted cornerback when they play him close to the line against the run. He is a natural football centerfielder, a true free safety who can help protect cornerbacks if a receiver breaks loose. Williams, who should have made all-rookie teams, is a Pro Bowl player in the making.
WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh: Now that Peter Warrick is gone, Houshmandzadeh needs to settle emotionally into the role as the team's second receiver. It's his job. He no longer has to look over his shoulder. With a big, four-year UFA contract in his pocket, Houshmandzadeh needs to again account for 70 catches and 900 yards.
-- K Shayne Graham missed most of the preseason because of a groin injury. His offseason goal was to improve his kickoffs, yet he did not kickoff in the preseason. He kicked short field goals and extra points in two games. The Bengals waived kicker Carter Warley, who had kicked off in exhibitions.
-- WR Tab Perry won the job as kickoff return man by default. The Bengals waived Cliff Russell, their best kickoff returner in 2004. Perry had a 25-yard average as a sophomore at UCLA and is being counted on to give the Bengals a threat. He made the team as the sixth wide receiver primarily because of his special teams potential.
-- WR Kelley Washington missed the final two preseason games because of a hamstring injury. He faded after a strong spring and early camp. With Peter Warrick gone, the third-year player needs to establish himself as a dependable pass-catcher, especially on third down.
-- MLB Odell Thurman, after a five-day holdout, claimed the starting role. He has a big personality and self-confidence. Marvin Lewis has placed a lot of responsibility on Thurman's shoulders, and how Thurman handles his role will go a long way in determining if the defense as a whole can improve.
-- LT Levi Jones struggled in the preseason because of a gimpy knee made worse by extended work. There appears to be some tension between Jones and coach Marvin Lewis, who uncharacteristically called out Jones at the end of the preseason and challenged him to lift his game. Jones, obviously, is counted on to protect quarterback Carson Palmer's blind side.
-- SS Ifeanyi Ohalete signed as a street free agent on Aug. 30, after being released by Arizona, and, at 221 pounds, could be the strong safety the team needs after losing Kim Herring to a season-ending shoulder injury. Ohalete is big and physical and played for Lewis in Washington in 2002 when Lewis was defensive coordinator. Ohalete has made a quick transition in Cincinnati.
-- RT Willie Anderson appears to be progressing on schedule following microfracture surgery in January. He played three series in the preseason finale on his surgically-repaired knee. Anderson worked with assistant strength coach Ray Oliver in the preseason to get into football shape and opens the season at 330 pounds, 10 fewer than his listed playing weight. Anderson said he would need a couple of weeks to get back fully into game shape. Anderson is the key to the power running game with tailback Rudi Johnson.
The Browns should get better as the season progresses because they are on a learn-as-they-go program and the schedule, on paper anyway, gets easier after their bye week Oct. 2.
Most of the attention has been devoted to run defense as the Browns switch to a 3-4 defense, but until they show they can pressure the quarterback, something they did not do often in preseason, opposing passers are going to have 60 minutes of target practice. The theory is the pass rush can come from anywhere in the 3-4, but a team has to find a pass rusher first.
Fewer questions exist on offense -- a veteran group on the line, at receiver and in the backfield. The Browns want to play ball-control to keep the game close and keep the defense off the field. The defense does not have dynamic playmakers, but the offense does with William Green, Reuben Droughns, Antonio Bryant and Braylon Edwards.
Three keys for the season:
1. Starting quarterback Trent Dilfer must stay healthy.
Every team needs its starter to stay healthy, but the Browns especially do not want to rely on rookie Charlie Frye just yet. Doug Johnson had opportunities to step into the breach when he was with the Falcons and failed. Dilfer has not played a full season in seven years, but he says he's in better condition than he has ever been.
2. Get after the opposing quarterback.
Pressuring the quarterback was a consistent problem in training camp and preseason. It's enough of an issue that coach Romeo Crennel started Kenard Lang at left outside linebacker in the last preseason game. Lang is the Browns' best pass rusher, but the converted defensive end is a liability in pass coverage. The secondary is not good enough to offset a bad pass rush.
3. Keep penalties to a minimum.
Wide receiver Dennis Northcutt put it best when he said the Browns can't make mistake after mistake and still win football games. Penalties hampered the Browns throughout the preseason and one of the biggest culprits was left tackle L.J. Shelton. Crennel pulled Shelton after a penalty in the preseason game in Detroit. The Browns were penalized 39 times for 328 yards in preseason.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
WR Braylon Edwards: Coach Romeo Crennel handled Edwards well by putting him with the fifth quarterback when the rookie signed his contract two weeks after training camp started. He handled the situation well and improved continually. He adjusts well to imperfect passes, fights for the ball and will win most jump balls. He and Antonio Bryant give the Browns two deep threats. Edwards is cocky -- not T.O. cocky, but cocky. General Manager Phil Savage describes it as having an edge.
RB Reuben Droughns: Droughns pulled a hamstring before the first preseason game and wasn't completely healthy until the last one. He showed more explosiveness getting beyond the line of scrimmage than either William Green or Lee Suggs. Droughns describes himself as a downhill runner, meaning he runs in a straight line until someone takes him down, but he surprised even himself with his wiggles.
CB Gary Baxter: Baxter was the Browns' big free agent acquisition on defense. Savage and Crennel might be wondering if they did the right thing, because Baxter was beaten deep too often in training camp for someone who received a $10 million signing bonus. He gave up a touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress in the first preseason game, was knocked out early in the second preseason game with a concussion and did not play in the last two because of the injury. Team officials shrug off his struggles by saying Baxter plays at another level in big games.
-- The Browns traded backup center/guard Melvin Fowler to the Minnesota Vikings for 322-pound tackle Nat Dorsey.
-- TE Aaron Shea strained a pectoral muscle playing against the Bears in the final preseason game. He made the 53-man roster, but two days later the Browns signed TE Billy Miller, who caught 40 passes with Houston last season.
-- S Michael Jameson, a reliable special teams player with just one start in four years, was suspended for the first four games by the NFL for violating the league's substance abuse policy. He is eligible to return to the active roster Oct. 10. Coach Romeo Crennel said he will decide at that time whether he wants Jameson back.
-- S Sean Jones was beaten deep on a 45-yard touchdown pass against the Bears in the preseason finale and might be on the bench when the season starts. He gave up a deep TD pass the week before against Carolina.
-- QB Charlie Frye was made a surprise starter against the Bears and responded by completing 12 of 14 passes for 186 yards. His passer rating was 118.8 as he locked up the job as backup to Trent Dilfer.
-- K Phil Dawson did not have a good preseason, but might be coming out of his slump. He missed a 41-yard attempt against the Bears, his fourth miss of the preseason, but he made his last three kicks.
-- KR Josh Cribbs, challenged by coach Romeo Crennel, responded with two returns for 52 yards against the Bears. Opponents the last two preseason games purposely kicked away from him.
-- G Joe Andruzzi has helped make the interior of the line the most improved part of the offense. Andruzzi created the hole Reuben Droughns slipped through for the only touchdown against the Bears.
-- RB Lee Suggs will not play against the Bengals in the season opener. He missed the last three preseason games with a sprained ankle and has not been cleared to practice.
There are high expectations in Pittsburgh after a 15-1 season crafted behind the most successful rookie quarterback in NFL history. But the offense that was so efficient under quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and a relentless running game has been worrisome this summer.
Injuries to their top two backs, Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis, combined with poor performances from Roethlisberger and their passing game has the Steelers concerned as they enter Sunday's game at home against Tennessee. The first-team offense did not produce a touchdown.
Every starter returns on the NFL's No. 1 defense from last season, and there are reasons to believe they will improve because of several young players who made their first starts last season and more familiarity with coordinator Dick LeBeau, who enters the second season of his second go-around in Pittsburgh.
1. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger cannot continue to throw as wild as he was in the preseason. The player who set the rookie passer rating record at 98.1 last season had a 32.8 rating this summer.
2. Duce Staley, 30, and Jerome Bettis, 33, likely will not play in the opener and their early injuries are not good signs. Second-year pro Willie Parker must carry the early load.
3. With Plaxico Burress gone, Cedrick Wilson was signed to help fill the void. Wilson had four catches in four preseason games. He, Antwaan Randle El and Hines Ward must step up their play.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
RB Willie Parker: He has been sensational in his brief stint since arriving as an undrafted rookie in 2004, but it has been brief. He must perform more often to maintain the backbone of their offense, the ground game.
SS Troy Polamalu: He made the Pro Bowl in his first season as a starter and will be deployed in more positions this year, playing as a linebacker, cornerback and deep safety. He's a trigger to what they do on defense.
TE Heath Miller: Their top rookie brings a receiver's resume to a team that has not thrown much to their tight ends the past decade.
--LB Joey Porter has not played in a game this summer after having knee surgery Aug. 10. He may be ready for the opener on Sunday.
--RB Verron Haynes has been disappointing in the preseason, yet he's the back with the most experience entering the opener because of injuries.
--RT Max Starks looked good this summer as he takes over the starting job in his second pro season.
--QB Charlie Batch made the team as No. 3. Along with backup Tommy Maddox, the Steelers have backup players with more experience and more starts at the position than does starter Ben Roethlisberger.
--WR Nate Washington, an undrafted rookie from Tiffin, made the final roster instead of Georgia WR Fred Gibson, their fourth-round pick who was released.
--LS Greg Warren, an undrafted rookie from North Carolina, bumped six-year veteran Mike Schneck out of his long-snapping job. Schneck also was the team's player rep.