The Vikings head into their first road game of 2005 facing a Bengals team that is no longer a pushover. After consecutive seasons with 8-8 records, expectations of marked improvement are running high and the Vikings will be the first chance to show the home fans that the 2005 edition of the Bengals can hang with – and beat – playoff-caliber teams.
The primary reason for optimism is an offense that is capable of blowing away opponents or keeping the Bengals in games if they fall behind early. A year ago, the Bengals made the decision to bench veteran QB Jon Kitna, who had led the Bengals to one of their best offensive seasons in years in favor of then-second year man Carson Palmer. Palmer erased much of that skepticism with a very strong campaign and earned the starting role instead of simply having it handed to him. He was nearly flawless in last week's opener vs. the Browns, where he completed 26 of 34 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns. If the Vikings don't apply constant pressure on Palmer, he could reproduce those types of numbers this week.
What has made Palmer successful early on when many other QBs have failed in their first year as a starter is that he has a balanced offensive attack around him. Chad Johnson has developed into one of the game's top big-play threats and T.J. Houshmandzadeh has developed into an ideal No. 2 receiver. The pair complement each other so well that the team granted Peter Warrick – a former top-five draft pick who had dropped to No. 3 on the depth chart – his release because his chances of seeing the field as a receiver were getting more and more rare. In his spot, the Bengals have put a pair of young college stars with injury problems – Kevin Walter, Kelley Washington (who missed Week 1 with a hamstring injury) and rookie Chris Henry. If they can stay healthy, the will give the Bengals more depth than they've seen at the position in years.
To counterbalance the passing attack is a running game that features plowhorse Rudi Johnson. A backup to Corey Dillon to start his career, Johnson is entering his second full season as the bell cow of the running game. He had a typical Rudi pound-it-out game vs. the Browns last week, rushing 26 times for 126 yards. More impressive than the yardage total is the fact that he never had a carry of more than 13 yards in the game. He simply pounded the Browns for four and five yards a carry with regularity. Expect the same this week.
Defensively, the Bengals hired Marvin Lewis to try to work his Ravens magic in Cincy on that side of the ball. It hasn't improved as much as the offense, but he is building a group of playmakers. DE Justin Smith is a strong pass rusher whom the Bengals believe can be among the league's sack leaders. One if not two rookies will see significant playing time – Odell Thurman, who started at middle linebacker last week and had an interception, and David Pollack, who many thought the Vikings were going to select in the first round of the draft. In the secondary, the Bengals have a pair of lockdown cornerbacks in Deltha O'Neal and Tory James – giving the team corners capable of man coverage.
The days of the Bengals being a pushover are long since over and, if the Vikings don't bring their "A" game Sunday, the Bengals could well be 2-0 and the Vikings off to an 0-2 start. If that happens, the scrutiny of the Vikings will begin – and much of the blame will be the result of the Bengals.
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