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NFL team preview: Cincinnati Bengals

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INSIDE SLANT

When the Bengals were selected to play in the Hall of Fame Game, coach Marvin Lewis saw it as a perfect opportunity to find out what he had with his younger players on the roster. It also turned out to be the perfect opportunity to get a floundering passing game back on track.

With the addition of Terrell Owens and drafting of Jermaine Gresham and Jordan Shipley, Marvin Lewis lived up to his offseason goal of providing Palmer with as many weapons as possible. Unlike last year when Palmer missed most of the preseason due to an ankle injury he has had plenty of chances to work with his new cast this year.

"We've got a very good corps," Palmer said. "We've obviously got the two big guys but there are young guys behind them that are working hard to get a roster spot. Andre Caldwell made big plays for us in big games, and the tight end group is good too."

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Owens has quickly caught up to speed with the offense while Chad Ochocinco has gotten more looks over the last two preseason games. The offensive line, which struggled with pass protection late in the year, has also made steady gains.

Even with the additions in the passing game, this still remains a team heavily invested in the run. If teams try to bring pressure, the Bengals can hand it off to Cedric Benson a couple times for big gains. Benson, who set a team record with seven 100-yard games last year, has looked even better during the preseason, averaging close to five yards per carry.

As one AFC scout pointed out, the Bengals finally have the makings of a balanced offense. With the additions at tight end and receiver, opposing defenses can no longer double Ochocinco or even Owens because of Gresham and Shipley. If teams try to blitz and play Cover 2, they can hand it off to Benson.

The X factor though remains the league's fourth-best defense last year, which has struggled so far in the preseason. Defensive ends Antwan Odom and Robert Geathers have been hampered by injuries while cornerback Leon Hall has struggled.

Hall and Johnathan Joseph are one of the more underrated cornerback duos in the league but this will be the year when we truly know how good they are since they face almost all of the top passing offenses in the league.

One of the young players who has surprised though on defense is tackle Geno Atkins, who has been a better run stopper than expected while also getting 4.5 sacks. If Tank Johnson struggles through another season of injures, Atkins could be starting.

While the Bengals swept the AFC North last year and won their second division title in five seasons, most pundits are picking them third behind the Steelers and Ravens. One of the main reasons is because the franchise hasn't made back-to-back playoff trips in 28 years.

COACHING: Marvin Lewis, 8th year, 8th with Bengals (56-57-1).
REMEMBERING: 2009 record: 10-6 (1st in AFC North); lost in wild-card round to Jets 24-14.
PREDICTING: 2010 regular-season record 10-6 (1st in AFC North); lose in divisional playoffs.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

With the surprise release of Antonio Bryant and Rashad Jeanty, it wasn't hard for the Bengals to get down to the 75-player limit. Safety Tom Nelson, who injured his knee in the regular season finale, was placed on the PUP list and long snapper Mike Windt was released.

PLAYER NOTES

--S Marvin White got the start less than a week after signing. It wasn't a good start though as he was whistled for roughing the passer on the opening play.

--WR Quan Cosby solidified his chances of making the roster with a 55-yard reception during the fourth quarter against Buffalo.

--QB Jordan Palmer has thrown three interceptions in the preseason, two of them have been returned for touchdowns.

--FB Fui Vakapuna has not played in a preseason game due to a shoulder injury. He might be placed on injured reserve.

--K Mike Nugent made a 54-yard field goal against Buffalo to take the lead in the kicking derby. It was also the Bengals longest field goal since 2002.

--OG Evan Mathis is also seeing time at center. Kyle Cook has been hampered by injuries the past couple weeks.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

Rd. 2/43, LB Sergio Kindle, Texas -- He fractured his skull just before training camp and remains unsigned. Kindle will be placed on reserve/PUP or non-football injury (NFI) once the Ravens reach a deal with him.

Rd. 2/57, NT Terrence Cody, Alabama -- He will be the top backup to Kelly Gregg and should play about 20 snaps per game. Cody is questionable for the season opener after having minor knee surgery.

Rd.3/70, TE Ed Dickson, Oregon -- He has been the most impressive rookie in this class. Dickson is a natural pass catcher and should make an impact in his first season.

Rd. 4/114, TE Dennis Pitta, BYU -- He is the No. 3 tight end but he should help out on special teams.

Rd. 5/157, DT Arthur Jones, Syracuse -- He has strong upside because of his athleticism and competitiveness. Later this season, Jones could figure into the team's defensive line rotation.

Rd. 7/194, OT Ramon Harewood, Morehouse -- A raw blocker, Harewood could be placed on injured reserve because of knee problems. Harewood could develop into a starter in a couple of years.Rd. 1/21, TE Jermaine Gresham, Oklahoma -- Can stretch the field and give Carson Palmer a big target in the red zone. Could be the biggest factor to raise the passing game to the next level.

UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS

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

Palmer has had a better preseason than last year, where he missed almost all of it due to an ankle injury. He's very comfortable with his receivers and has done a nice job distributing the ball. One underrated aspect that Palmer showed improvement in last year was his ability to scramble out of the pocket and get some extra yards instead of forcing the ball. The depth behind Palmer remains a huge concern. O'Sullivan has failed to consistently move the team and Jordan Palmer has three interceptions. As much as Lewis and offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski do not want to search the waiver wire for a backup, it might be their only option.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- Cedric Benson, Backups -- Bernard Scott, Brian Leonard, Cedric Peerman, FB Fui Vakapuna, FB Joe Tronzo.

For those who thought that Benson would be minimized with the additions to the passing game, Benson has averaged 4.0 yards per carry and excelled last year in a game against the Bears in which the Bengals used a lot of three-receiver sets. Scott is a small back who provides a change of pace with great speed on the outside. Leonard will miss the first couple weeks due to a foot injury which means that they could keep Peerman, who is a back much like Benson. With Fui Vakapuna missing most of camp due to a shoulder injury, it is possible that a true fullback might not make the roster. Tight ends Reggie Kelly, Dan Coates and Jermaine Gresham along with linebacker Dan Skuta have been lining up in the backfield.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Jermaine Gresham. Backups -- Reggie Kelly, Chase Coffman, Dan Coats, Clark Harris.

Gresham has had his periods of inconsistency, but he continues to impress the coaches with picking up the offense. During the preseason he has lined up at the usual TE spot as well as in the backfield and as a receiver. Kelly, who suffered an Achilles injury in training camp last year, has showed no effect from the injury while mentoring Gresham and Coffman. Speaking of Coffman, he has been used mostly in two tight end sets. Harris is listed as a tight end but is more of a long snapper.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens. Backups -- Andre Caldwell, Jordan Shipley, Jerome Simpson, Quan Cosby, Matt Jones.

Owens has been mainly used on short routes but he did connect with Palmer on a 43-yard reception against Philadelphia. With teams having to pay more attention to Owens and Shipley, that should take more double coverage off of Ochocinco and allow him more room outside the numbers. Shipley could emerge as the clutch third-down slot receiver that Palmer lacked last year but Caldwell could fill that void as well. Cosby made a couple nice catches against San Diego last year. With Bryant's release, Simpson has the inside track to the last spot, the question is if he will be active.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Andrew Whitworth, LG Nate Livings, C Kyle Cook, RT Dennis Roland, RG Bobbie Williams. Backups -- LG Evan Mathis, LT Anthony Collins, RT Andre Smith, RG/T Otis Hudson, C/G Reggie Stephens.

For the first time since 2005, all five starters from the line return which is quite a turnaround from last year when it had three new starters and a fourth that switched positions. While the line did show its strength run blocking it did have its problems over the second half of the season with pass blocking. Whitworth allowed only 1.5 sacks and has the potential to be one of the top tackles in the AFC. Cook was a decisive center who was able to clearly communicate line calls while holding his own against some of the top nose tackles in the conference. Livings looks like he has won the starting spot at left guard while Roland is the caretaker at right tackle until Smith can take it over.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE Robert Geathers, LT Domata Peko, RT Tank Johnson, RE Antwan Odom. Backups -- DE Jonathan Fanene, DE Frostee Rucker, DT Pat Sims, DE Carlos Dunlap, DT Geno Atkins.

Mike Zimmer has said that he wants to turn the pressure up on quarterbacks this season, and most of that starts on the defensive line, which had its share of injuries last year and this preseason. Geathers has missed the last four with a foot injury, Odom dropped 20 pounds at the beginning of training camp due to a virus and Johnson has also struggled with staying healthy. Fanene continues to see a lot of playing time as a starter and is making progress. The high point of the preseason has been the progress of Atkins who could press for time in the starting lineup.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- MLB Dhani Jones, OLB Rey Maualuga, OLB Keith Rivers. Backups -- MLB Abdul Hodge, OLB Brandon Johnson, OLB Dan Skuta, MLB Roddrick Muckelroy, OLB Michael Johnson

It's a position group with plenty of youth that continues to improve. Rivers, who is entering his third season, needs to have a breakout year after having an underwhelming second year. He finished second on the team in tackles, behind Jones, but had very few big plays of note. Expect the Bengals at times to go with a 3-4 setup where Maualuga and Jones are in the middle and Michael Johnson is playing one of the outside spots. Johnson was moved there because of his potential to cause havoc rushing the quarterback. Jones has led the team in tackles the last two seasons but has not played a lot during the preseason.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Johnathan Joseph, RCB Leon Hall, SS Roy Williams, FS Chris Crocker. Backups -- CB David Jones, CB Adam Jones, CB Brandon Ghee, CB Morgan Trent, S Chinedum Ndukwe, S Kyries Hebert, S Tom Nelson, S Rico Murray.

Joseph and Hall had six interceptions apiece and were named co-MVPs. Adam Jones has come in and learned the system in taking a stranglehold on the third corner. Trent should be the dime corner while Ghee tries to develop into a cornerback for the future. The Bengals thought they were OK at safety when they signed Gibril Wilson. Then he was lost for the year with a knee injury. They have three experienced vets in Crocker, Williams and Ndukwe, but that fourth spot will be taken by an inexperienced player.

SPECIAL TEAMS: P Kevin Huber, PK Mike Nugent, PK Dave Rayner, LS Clark Harris, KR Bernard Scott, KR/PR Adam Jones, KR/PR Jordan Shipley, KR Andre Caldwell, PR Quan Cosby.

Huber had a solid rookie season with the punt coverage unit ranked first in the league in net yards. The kicking competition between Nugent and Rayner is still far from being resolved and it's possible that their future kicker might not even be on the roster yet. Scott and Cosby both excelled in the return game last year, but they face competition. In his two years at Tennessee, Jones returned four punts and kickoffs back for touchdowns and Shipley was a capable returner at Texas. During the preseason, the return units have five punts of over 20 yards and two kick returns over 40.
 

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