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2009 team preview: Cincinnati Bengals

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Inside Slant
When the Cincinnati Bengals began training camp, their main concerns revolved around a rebuilt offensive line, keeping Carson Palmer healthy and making sure the defense continued to improve after last year's 12th-place ranking.

While the defense has gotten stronger, the offensive line remains a work in progress while Palmer has played all of 19 snaps due to a sprained left ankle.

"It's definitely been frustrating but I'm looking forward to do everything on my rehab sheet so that when I am ready to practice I can step in," Palmer said.

When Palmer does return, his health will depend largely on the offensive line, which features three new starters in left guard Nate Livings, center Kyle Cook and right tackle Anthony Collins. During the first three games, the line gave up seven sacks while the run blocking has been suspect. Of Cedric Benson's 23 carries, eight have been for no gain or negative yards.

One thing that has improved on offense is the Bengals' ability to get a big play. They have 12 completions of 20 yards or more. Last year during the regular season, they did not reach that mark until the 10th game of the regular season.

While coach Marvin Lewis has stressed a return to the run game, he is still looking for big plays to push the ball down the field and keep defenses from stacking the line.

"When they strike up that band, you know? When that big bird drops the bomb on you (as a defense), you know it's over, and they're striking up the fight song," Lewis said. "It's a bad day, it's a bad deal. Those are the things that are important as an offense. We couldn't even buy a pass interference penalty (on offense) a year ago, much less a big play, because we weren't very accurate with the throws."

It's also been a relatively quiet preseason for Chad Ochocinco. After demanding a trade last year and being injured for most of the season, Ochocinco has come in motivated during training camp and is averaging 28.4 yards per catch along with kicking the now infamous extra point against the Patriots.

On defense, Mike Zimmer's unit continues to build on what it accomplished a year ago. The additions of Tank Johnson, Roy Williams and Rey Maualuga have given the Bengals a more physical presence.

The Bengals have especially been tough on the run during the preseason and have gotten more pressure on the quarterback.

"We've played all right. We've tackled well for the first part so, so far, not bad," Zimmer said.

COACHING: Marvin Lewis, 7th season (46-49-1).

REMEMBERING: 2008 record: 4-11-1 (3rd in AFC North).

PREDICTING: 2009 regular-season record: 8-8 (3rd in AFC North).


Notes and Quotes
--Chad Ochocinco took to Twitter to protest a $5,000 fine for wearing an orange chinstrap during the Aug. 27 game against St. Louis. David Fulcher is normally the uniform enforcer during games at Paul Brown Stadium but since Fulcher had another obligation the league appointed Felix Wright.

Said Ochocinco (in one of the few non-profanity quotes): "Im sueing the NFL, I am color blind so this fine is discriminating because I'm disabled in a way, this is a sad day for me."

Ochocinco actually got off easy for this one. This year's fine schedule lists $7,500 for a "chin strap" violation. A second uniform offense for Ochocinco will be $10,000.

--The Bengals' Sept. 13 opener against Denver still has tickets remaining. Going into this year, the team has a 44-game regular and postseason sellout streak.

--While we have seen many different looks during the preseason, we have seen only about 10 percent of everything the offense can do.

"We're trying a lot of different things, opening up the playbook and using talent in different ways, but you can't let all the tricks out of the bag," wide receiver Andre Caldwell said.

Caldwell ran a reverse during the preseason opener against New Orleans, and he could be featured in different packages again in the regular season. In last year's finale against Kansas City, Caldwell ran a couple of reverses and also took a direct snap out of the backfield in a Wildcat-type formation.

--Defensive tackle Pat Sims kicked off his Impact Players program with a visit to One Way Farm in Fairfield, Ohio on Tuesday. Sims created his program to encourage kids to make an impact in school and life through education and making a difference in the community.

"There is a special connection between athletes and the kids. By creating Pat Sims' Impact Players, I want to show kids they can make the same type of impact I am making on the field and in their community and their lives," Sims said.

Sims' program was developed by Jockbiz, which was founded by former Bengals John Thornton and Charles Fisher.

BY THE NUMBERS: 23 - The number of players the Bengals had on injured reserve at the end of the last season. There are currently four this year.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're almost at the gate. Let's get them to the gate on Monday and then let's go through Monday because last year on Labor Day we lost a guy (fullback Jeremi Johnson suffered a knee injury). We're doing good. We just have to get going." - Marvin Lewis on his goal of trying to keep everyone healthy.


Strategy and Personnel
After waiting 30 days to get him into camp, first-round pick Andre Smith needed just three practices before he got injured.

Smith suffered a small fracture in his left foot during a non-contact drill. Coach Marvin Lewis said the break would not require surgery but that he would miss a few weeks. Judging by the same type of injury to other players, it could be 4-5 weeks.

Smith is already under a two-week roster exemption and would not take up a spot on the 53-man roster until Sept. 14, the day after the opener against Denver.

PLAYER NOTES

--TE Ben Utecht was placed on injured reserve after suffering his fifth concussion during practice on Aug. 5. Utecht said that he had not made a decision about his future.

--PR/WR Quan Cosby had the first Bengals' punt return for a touchdown since 2003 in the Aug. 27 preseason game against the Rams and has the inside spot on being the team's punt returner.

--SS Chris Crocker has a hamstring injury that kept him out of the last two preseason games. He anticipates being back in time for the opener.

--PK Shayne Graham is still nursing a tender groin but should be ready for the opener.

--S Tom Nelson has made an impact during the preseason because of his versatility. He can also play corner, return punts and is the gunner on coverage teams.

--TE Dan Coats appears to have nailed down a starting spot with his consistent plays and blocks, though it's still possible they could look somewhere else.

PLAYER TO WATCH: WR Andre Caldwell - The second-year player is expected to move into the role that T.J. Houshmandzadeh had the past three years as the go-to receiver on third downs. And since Caldwell played quarterback in high school, there is the possibility of seeing him in many Wildcat-type plays and formations.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

Rd. 1/6, OT Andre Smith, Alabama - At the beginning of training camp he was projected to be the starting right tackle. But after missing 30 days of practices and suffering a fracture in his foot, he might not crack the starting lineup this year.

Rd. 2/38, LB Rey Maualuga, Southern Cal - He's pushing Rashad Jeanty for a starting spot at SAM (outside linebacker). It's only a matter of when though he becomes a starter.

Rd. 3/70, DE Michael Johnson, Georgia Tech - Has shown the toughness that many thought he lacked in college. Will be mainly used as a third-down pass rusher.

Rd. 3/98, TE Chase Coffman, Missouri - He's progressed the most of any rookie in camp. This is the first time he's had to play exclusively with his hands down lining up. Currently the second tight end behind Dan Coats.

Rd. 4/106, C Jonathan Luigs, Arkansas - He will back up Kyle Cook this season.

Rd. 5/142, P Kevin Huber, Cincinnati - His gross and net punting averages during the preseason are nearly 10 yards better than Kyle Larson's last year.

Rd. 6/179, CB Morgan Trent, Michigan - Has gotten plenty of looks as the third corner in nickel situations with the first team.

Rd. 6/209, RB Bernard Scott, Abilene Christian - He's shown his quickness and ability to make plays during the preseason. He's also improved as a blocker.

Rd. 7/215, FB Fui Vakapuna, BYU - Battling with Jeremi Johnson for the starting spot.

UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Carson Palmer. Backups - J.T. O'Sullivan, Jordan Palmer.

Palmer played only four games last season due to an elbow injury. He has shown no effects from the injury and has the same velocity on the ball that he did a couple of years ago but has been slowed during the preseason with a sprained left ankle. O'Sullivan, who is with his ninth team in seven seasons, looks like an improvement over Ryan Fitzpatrick, but he still has a tendency to hold on to the ball a little too long.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter - Cedric Benson. Backups - Bernard Scott, Brian Leonard, DeDe Dorsey.

If the offense is going to have sustained success, they must be able to run the ball. Benson, who had four 100-yard games en route to a career-high 747 yards, fits the mold of an AFC North back - he can get the tough yards between the tackles and also has that burst of speed out in the open. Leonard was acquired from the Rams via trade and can be a third-down back and an option out of the backfield on screens. Scott can provide a change of pace as a shifty, speedy back but his ability to continue to improve as a blocker will determine how much playing time he gets. If Dorsey does not make the roster, all three backs on last year's opening day roster will be gone. Chris Perry was released after the draft while Kenny Watson was cut early in training camp.

FULLBACKS: Starter - Jeremi Johnson. Backup - Fui Vakapuna.

Johnson looks like he has come back from last year's knee injury and release in better shape than he has been the past two seasons. If Johnson falters, Vakapuna provides a nice insurance policy. Both are good as blockers and catching the ball out of the backfield. Judging by some of what has happened during the preseason, the backs will also get a couple of carries on third down.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Dan Coats. Backups - Chase Coffman, J.P. Foschi.

The one area where the Bengals had a lot of depth is now a question mark after Reggie Kelly (ruptured Achilles) and Ben Utecht (concussion) were placed on injured reserve. Coats, who played mostly fullback last year, has improved on his blocking and has been one of O'Sullivan's favorite targets in the preseason. No one has progressed during camp as much as Coffman, who will see time in two-TE sets. Foschi is a nice veteran pickup but it is possible that the Bengals will search the waiver wire for another TE.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Chad Ochocinco, Laveranues Coles. Backups - Andre Caldwell, Chris Henry, Jerome Simpson, Quan Cosby, Maurice Purify.

Even though T.J. Houshmandzadeh departed via free agency to Seattle, the Bengals still have one of the deepest receiving corps in the league. Ochocinco, who last year had his lowest production since his rookie year, looks as if he is ready to return to the level of 3-4 years ago while Coles gives Palmer the dependable second receiver he had in Houshmandzadeh. Caldwell is emerging as a third-down receiver and could also be used in Wildcat formation plays. The true X factor though could be Henry, who is looking to play his first full season since 2005 (he has missed 14 games the last three years due to suspensions). Palmer has called him Randy Moss Jr. because of his big-play capabilities. Simpson remains a work in progress while Cosby and Purify would make it due to their contributions on special teams.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LT Andrew Whitworth, LG Nate Livings, C Kyle Cook, RG Bobbie Williams, RT Anthony Collins. Backups - G Evan Mathis, C Jonathan Luigs, G Scott Kooistra, T Dennis Roland, T Andre Smith.

Three new starters and a fourth switching positions on a unit that gave up 51 sacks last year. Whitworth, who moves back to left tackle, and Williams are the lone holdovers and provide leadership. Cook takes over at center and has shown communication and aggressiveness that were lacking in the past. Livings takes over at left guard while either Smith or Collins will be the right tackle. Livings and Whitworth were on the left side of the offensive line at LSU.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LDE Robert Geathers, LDT Domata Peko, RDT Tank Johnson, RDE Antwan Odom. Backups - DE Jonathan Fanene, DT Pat Sims, DT Michael Johnson, DE Clinton McDonald.

The injuries of last year have given the Bengals more experience and depth. Whether it means the pass rush will be upgraded remains to be seen. Ends Geathers and Odom are looking to return from injury-plagued seasons. At the tackles, Johnson was brought in because of his pass-rush abilities in a 4-3 while Peko is emerging as a solid run stopper. Sims also is vying for playing time at one of the tackle spots while Johnson looks to be a third-down rusher at one of the ends.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - MLB Dhani Jones, OLB Rashad Jeanty, OLB Keith Rivers. Reserves - MLB Abdul Hodge, OLB Brandon Johnson, OLB Rey Maualuga.

Jones, who led the team in tackles last year with 165, becomes the first Bengal since 2000 to start two straight years in the middle. On the outside, Rivers had a nice start to his rookie year until he was sidelined after seven games due to a broken jaw from Hines Ward while Jeanty and Maualuga, who has switched from middle to outside, are even. The second-round pick quickly became the most popular rookie after he was drafted. Johnson, who took over when Rivers was injured, will also get playing time.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Johnathan Joseph, RCB Leon Hall, SS Roy Williams, FS Chris Crocker. Backups - CB David Jones, CB Geoffrey Pope, CB Morgan Trent, S Chinedum Ndukwe, S Marvin White, S Tom Nelson.

Definitely one of the more physical units in the league with the additions of Crocker (midway through last season) and Williams (offseason). Ndukwe, who is beginning his third season, also is known as a physical player. Corners Joseph and Hall, who were first-round picks in 2006-07, have also turned up their aggressiveness and have improved in single coverage. Trent and Jones are battling for playing time at the third corner while Zimmer has been toying with three safeties in nickel coverage.

SPECIAL TEAMS: P Kevin Huber, PK Shayne Graham, LS Brad St. Louis.

After watching Kyle Larson's punting average become the worst in the league over the past two seasons, the Bengals drafted Huber in the fifth round and released Larson. Huber, a local kid who went to the University of Cincinnati, was one of the top punters in Division I last season and is known for pinning teams deep. Graham was designated as the team's franchise player but is bothered for the third straight year by injuries. He is one of the more accurate kickers in the league, but has not made a game-winning kick since December 2005. Caldwell will remain the team's kick returner while Quan Cosby has the inside track at punt returner.

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