Bengals preview: Better than ever

The Cincinnati Bengals are no longer the laughingstock of the league. This is one solid – not flashy – all-around team. We take a position-by-position look at how the Bengals have become a 9-3 team.

When the 2009 schedule was first released last spring, when fans saw the Cincinnati Bengals on the slate in mid-December, it would have been logical to anticipate that it would be an easy win. The rationale made sense. Since 1991, the Bengals had just one season above .500 and were routinely thrashed by divisional opponents like Pittsburgh and Baltimore. But, there were some warning signs that the Bengals might be ready to turn the corner and that promise has come true in a big way.

However, the Bengals come into the Metrodome with a 9-3 record that just as easily could be 11-1. Of their three losses, one came on opening day against Denver on a fourth-and-forever pass that was deflected into the arms of Brandon Stokley and taken almost 80 yards for a touchdown. Another of the losses came last month against Oakland, which scored in the final minute for a 20-17 win. The Bengals have made a name for themselves this season with a strong rushing offense and an oppressive defense that hasn't allowed more than 20 points in its last six games and only twice in 12 games all season. The Bengals have as much balance on both sides of the ball as they have ever had and they have all but wrapped up their division title. Like the Vikings, with a win Sunday, the Bengals could wrap up the AFC North title and put the rest of the league on notice that this is a team that is in it for the long haul.

The centerpiece of the offense remains veteran quarterback Carson Palmer. While he has seen some of his best receiving weapons come and go over the years, he has been starter in Cincinnati since 2004. Palmer has a strong arm and can make all the throws necessary to make big plays and keep drives alive. He has had a solid season to date, completing 222 of 365 passes for 2,547 yards with 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions for a passer rating of 85.0. He has a tendency to hold onto the ball for a long time, which has resulted in him taking a lot of sacks. Expect the Vikings to try to create some blitz pressure to keep Palmer from getting comfortable, because, like Kurt Warner last week, if afforded time in the pocket, Palmer can do a lot of damage.

The biggest difference in the Bengals over the last year-plus has been the rejuvenation of their running game. Prior to getting injured three weeks ago, Cedric Benson was near the top of the NFL rushing leaders all year. He has carried 241 times for 969 yards (a 4.0-yard average) and scored six touchdowns. Pulled off the NFL scrap heap a month into the 2008 season, Benson needs just 31 yards to be the first Bengal to rush for 1,000 yards since 2006. However, he is no longer the only weapon in the backfield. Former Chief Larry Johnson was signed in late November after being released by Kansas City and he filled in for Benson in Week 12 and rushed for 107 yards on 22 carries. Both have a similar running style. There is little finesse in their games – they pound the ball at you consistently and wear opponents down over time. The Vikings will have a big challenge keeping them in check, although their running style tends to play into the strengths of the Vikings defense. On third downs, Brian Leonard has emerged as the top receiving threat out of the backfield, so he will bear watching when the Bengals face third-and-long situations.

The receiver corps suffered a blow when free agent T.J. Houshmandzadeh left the Bengals to sign with Seattle. The leading receiver for the Bengals the last several years, there were some questions as to whether volatile yet talented wide receiver Chad Ochocinco would be able to pick up that slack. He not only has accomplished that, he is having one of the best seasons of his career. He has caught 62 passes for 910 yards and six touchdowns – posting 23 more receptions, more than 500 yards and twice as many touchdowns as any other player on the team. He has become the go-to option for Palmer in almost every critical situation and is averaging almost 15 yards per reception. The role Houshmandzadeh had with the team has been filled by the combination of Laveranues Coles and Andre Caldwell. The two have combined to catch 72 passes for 767 yards and six touchdowns – essentially the production that Housh provided for so many seasons. Depth behind the top three is extremely thin, with second-year pro Jerome Simpson and rookies Quan Cosby and Maurice Purify providing backup help. None of the three has any receptions this season, so it seems clear that the focus will be on Ochocinco first and Coles and Caldwell following.

Tight end has been a dead offensive position in Cincy since the days of Rodney Holman a decade ago. J.P. Foschi is the starting tight end, but is more of a glorified offensive lineman, with just 18 catches for 159 yards. While other teams have used their tight ends as offensive weapons against the Vikings, don't expect to see the Bengals take that approach.

The reason for the success of the running game has been a healthy offensive line that has grown together as a unit and propelled the offense to being a ball-control, kill-the-clock type of group. It is an extremely young group with a bright future. They may not be household names to casual fans, but they are building a reputation around the league. The only grizzled veteran of the unit is 10-year vet Bobbie Williams at right guard. Aside from him, this is a young group that could be together for years to come. Left guard Evan Mathis is in his fifth season, left tackle Andrew Whitworth is in his fourth season and right tackle Dennis Roland and center Kyle Cook are both in their second seasons. They have a pair of prized rookies waiting in the wings as well – first-round right tackle Andre Smith and center Jonathan Luigs, one of the first centers taken in the 2009 draft. Teams are built up front and the Bengals have done a solid job of filling in holes and creating a cohesive group with a bright future in front of them.

While the offense has its share of star-quality players, the reason the Bengals are at 9-3 and closing in on a division title is because of their defense. Only two teams (Green Bay and Houston) have managed to score more than 20 points against the Bengals in any game this season and seven of their opponents have scored 14 points or less. Much of the reason for their improvement has been up front, despite the loss of their biggest star.

The Bengals have recorded 29 sacks this year despite losing their top sack specialist Antwan Odom early in the season after he led the league with eight sacks. They have been an equal-opportunity sack defense with 12 different players registering sacks on the season. Six-year veteran Robert Geathers has 3.5 sacks from his left end position, right end Jonathan Fanene has five sacks and tackles Domata Peko and Tank Johnson have helped the Bengals boast the No. 2 run defense in the league – an honor they hold over the Vikings vaunted run defense. The Bengals will be a little shorthanded with Peko out of the lineup this week due to injury, but veteran Orien Harris won't be a significant drop-off. There is also depth at the end position with Frostee Rucker seeing plenty of playing time in the defensive end rotation.

The Bengals have one of the best young linebacker corps in the league, but, like so many Cincinnati players, they have toiled in near anonymity as the result of not playing in a lot of nationally televised games. Veteran Dhani Jones, formerly of the Giants, is the veteran of the group in his 10th season, but it is the youngsters from USC that are garnering most of the attention. Last year's No. 1 pick Keith Rivers has blossomed in his first season as a starter on the weak side and converted middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, the Bengals second-round pick in April's draft, has played extremely well for a rookie on the strong side. The Bengals also have depth with former Iowa standout Abdul Hodge backing up Jones in the middle and is expected to take over the spot sooner than later. When that happens, the Bengals will have a young trio of active, instinctive, polished linebackers that could be the centerpiece of their defense for years to come.

Another area of big improvement has been in the secondary. After routinely being ranked near the bottom of the league defensively, the Bengals have enjoyed a resurgence thanks in part to a much improved pass rush, but just as much as the result of an opportunistic secondary with a penchant for intercepting passes. Starting cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall have combined for nine interceptions and are capable of locking onto receivers one-on-one and not allowing them to make big plays over the top. Safeties Chinedum Ndukwe and Chris Crocker have done a better-than-expected job patrolling the deep middle, but the Bengals may be without Crocker Sunday, which would be a blow. With backup Kyries Hebert also banged up, undrafted rookie Tom Nelson may be thrown into the lineup. If that is the case, look for a veteran like Brett Favre to try to take advantage of that potential mismatch by moving him out of position with play fakes and pump fakes. All it takes with a player like Favre is to get a safety to bite on a fake and the deep middle opens up for big plays. The Bengals have done a solid job of preventing those sorts of deep burns, but having a rookie with extremely limited experience back there will likely have Favre looking for the home run.

For many Vikings fans, the Bengals remain an unknown. They don't have a lot of Pro Bowl-type players, but they have been the type of team that has been built from the ground up much more through sound drafting than free-agent spending. They're 9-3 for a reason and are far from the pushovers they have been in previous years. All fans have to do is ask fans of the Packers, Steelers, Ravens or Bears about the improvement in Cincinnati. They have gone a combined 6-0 against those teams and are looking to close out a sweep of the NFC North with a win against the Vikings. They may not be the flashiest team in the league, but they are on the verge of winning one of the league's toughest divisions. If the Vikings overlook what they can do, there could be an upset waiting to happen.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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