Lewis and Palmer Move Bengals Past Tough Loss

You don't expect to lose a game in which your quarterback throws for over 400 yards and six touchdown passes. Nor is defeat generally on the menu when you rack up 10 more first downs than your opponent.

And when that opponent is the moribund Cleveland Browns, a division opponent you've beaten five straight times … well, the Cincinnati Bengals had to be wondering what rabbit-hole they'd popped down when they left Cleveland Browns Stadium last Sunday afternoon on the wrong end of a 51-45 shootout. 

The first of those five straight wins for the Bengals was the highest-scoring in the series, a 58-48 barnburner in 2004 which spoke to the good and bad of this team just as 2007's loss did - this is a squad with one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL, and a defense that has had trouble holding its own for a long time. And as much as the offense excites fans and leaves pundits wondering if (insert year here) will be the magic season, it's the defense that always crashes everything back down to reality.

Since former Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis was named the team's head coach before the 2003 season, the Cincinnati defense has never finished higher than 17th in points allowed, 22nd in yards allowed, or 14th in Defensive DVOA. The offense that's been built around stars like Carson Palmer, Chad Johnson, Rudi Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and a stellar offensive line has seen far more attention from a scouting and personnel standpoint than the defense. If the Colts were the blueprint, one playoff appearance (and loss) during Lewis' tenure indicate that it ain't workin'.

Still, it all goes as Palmer's crew goes, and outscoring equals winning. As he prepares his team for its first visit to Seattle since 1999, Lewis' primary concern through the first part of the week has been moving past a very difficult loss. And for quarterback Palmer, the statute of limitations on shoe-gazing has run out.

"Today and most of yesterday, we just focused on Seattle," Palmer told the media on Wednesday afternoon. "The way the league is, you have 16 quick games that come right after each other, and you have to forget about the last week whether it's a big win or a big loss. We're over it. We've learned our lessons from it. On Monday we had the chance to think about it in the morning, afternoon, and night. Tuesday, for me, was dedicated to Seattle. I'm getting ready for them. We're well beyond the Browns. We'll think about them again in December."

Lewis detailed one defensive addition - the Bengals signed former Giants and Eagles linebacker Dhani Jones on Tuesday. Known as much for his unique (unless you're a fan of Percy Dovetonsils) wardrobe and occasionally grandiloquent NFL Network appearances, Jones is joining a team already stocked with few wallflowers (see: "Cinco, Ocho"). How will Jones fit in, and what will his role be?

"He's a guy who has played winning football in the NFL," Lewis said. "He has played at linebacker and started a lot of games. We had the opportunity to watch him here on our practice fields (during joint practices in August with New Orleans), and we kind of followed him since then. He stood out when they (the Saints) were here, and they decided not to keep him. It gives us the opportunity to have a guy who's experienced and who knows how to play. We have to transfer some words (playbook) and get up to speed quickly.

"He'll understand some things, yeah. He'll be able to do it and he'll contribute on special teams. It was a two-fold thing. An opportunity, again, a guy that's had some experience to come in and help quickly as opposed to trying to teach a younger guy."

Veteran help of any kind on that defense will be seen as a blessing. Second-year linebacker Ahmad Brooks suffered a groin strain in the Browns game and didn't practice on Wednesday. After Odell Thurman's reinstatement plea was denied by the league, Cincinnati's linebackers were a serious problem. Signing Lemar Marshall off the waiver wire helped a bit. As for the secondary, 2007 first-round pick Leon Hall got an embarrassing education from the Browns, but Lewis isn't concerned. "(He) had a couple of bad plays," Hall's coach said. "When you play that position out there, you're going to have some bad snaps. Leon will bounce back and play better football and be the guy we know he'll be for years and years and years. So I'm not concerned about Leon in any way."

Still, Hall and fellow cornerback Jonathan Joseph were toasted by fourth-time NFL starter Derek Anderson, and veteran tailback Jamal Lewis traipsed through that defense for 216 yards on 27 carries. Cincinnati's 6.1 yards-per-carry allowed is by far the NFL's worst. It's clear that if the Bengals are going to make any noise in an increasingly difficult AFC North division, they're going to have to think "outscore", and throw "shut down" out the window.

"Our pace on offense is not a problem," Lewis said, when asked if having his offense play "keep-away" from opposing offenses might be his best defensive strategy. "Although we sometimes don't huddle up, it's not as though the ball is being snapped early. It's still being snapped inside 10 seconds on the play clock. So it doesn't take away from things that way. We're not in a hurry-up mode; we're just in not-huddling mode. So that's not an issue. We want to score touchdowns every chance we get. In fact, the biggest point for our offense is to make sure every series ends with a (place) kick. If you have every series end with a kick, you're probably going to be successful in the game - which is a huge part of why we didn't win last week."

Fed up with the thought of Jamal Lewis as he must be, Cincinnati's coach must now gameplan for Seattle's Shaun Alexander, the 2005 NFL MVP, whose recent boom-or-bust performances can still decimate a vulnerable defense. "I think he's very similar to Jamal," Lewis said of Alexander. "He's a good cut runner. His shoulders get squared up and headed downhill as quick as he can get 'em. He's got great vision. He's a guy who is as fine a running back as there still is in the NFL. He played last week with a little padding and wrap on his hand. There were people who felt, well, he wasn't the same. Well, I don't know, he still makes a lot of free defenders miss in the hole, and that's what a good back wants to do."

While Lewis is thinking about what Seattle's offense could do to whatever's left of his defense, Palmer has the opposite problem. Though extremely susceptible to elite receivers in their iffy secondary, the Seahawks' quick pace has Palmer on alert. "Very fast. They play a lot different at home too - It's pretty drastic," Palmer said. "You can see it. The amount of energy they play with when they're at home, you can tell it's a wild environment and an intense environment. It's just a lot of speed. Julian Peterson is as good a linebacker as there is in the league. He's fast. Lofa Tatupu is a phenomenal player. He plays that scheme very well. He understands the Tampa-2 concepts. He knows when to drop, when to settle.

"Both the corners can play. One safety we have a ton of respect for, who used to play in Cleveland, is Brian Russell. We've admired him since he was in Cleveland, and then he went to Seattle. Deon Grant, a Pro Bowler, has been in the league for a little while and makes a lot of plays. Their defensive line is very fast and aggressive. Not real, real big, like the guys in Cleveland or Baltimore, but real good guys. It's just a very solid, well-rounded defense."

Another concern for Palmer is Qwest Field, the nest of false starts which has become infamous for rattling Seattle's opponents. Practicing with crowd noise is one thing, but hearing and adjusting in the heat of the moment is quite another. Cincinnati was flagged for 27 false starts in 2006, tied for fourth-worst in the league with Baltimore, Minnesota, Philadelphia and (ahem) Seattle. 

"You can't worry about it," Palmer said of the environment. "You can't think about it. You have to be loud with your protection adjustments. You have to be loud and have 100% in the communication area. It's just something you have to deal with. You deal with it (road games) eight times per year. We play in some pretty difficult places. From what we've heard, it's even louder than some of the places we've been, but you can't let it rattle you or affect the way you play. You still have to go out there and do what you have to do. Just make sure you're good in the communication area and that everyone is on the same page. The next step is to make big plays and quiet them down.

"We have to prepare like we do every week. We have to practice extremely hard. We have to understand the schemes in the game plan and understand the schemes we'll be seeing defensively. It's a regular work week. You have to get here early and show up, and have nothing on your mind other than football. Avoid all of the distractions outside of the facility and prepare as intensely as you can. That's what we have to do."

If he can make those adjustments, the Seahawks could be in a great deal of trouble - Palmer is in a major zone, and Chad Johnson, his primary receiver, is on pace for some crazy numbers. The Seahawks' smaller young cornerbacks are in for a fight. Houshmandzadeh, a second receiver to Johnson in name only, is currently tied for the NFL lead in receptions with 17 - one more than his more famous counterpart.

And if the Seahawks vacate the middle in deference to the pass, running back Rudi Johnson, who has carried the ball more often than any other NFL back over the last three seasons, could gash Seattle's depleted interior line for huge gains - not to mention the time of possession so desperately needed by their opponents' own defense.

With this offense, it's pretty simple - you have to pick your poison and hope the other one doesn't kill you.

The first meeting between these two teams since 2003 (a 27-24 Bengals win) should be very interesting, Seattle's defense is further along than Cincinnati's, but the Seahawks' offense can't misfire too often if it hopes to match what the Bengals can bring.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET, a staff writer for Football Outsiders, and a contributing author to Pro Football Prospectus 2007. Feel free to e-mail him here.

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