Bengals have lost their passing touch
Chad Ochocinco walked into the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room on Monday afternoon wearing a gray sweatsuit and black slippers, talking to someone on a shiny gold cell phone.
Care to chat about the Bengals' offense?
``Nothing to talk about,'' he said, before heading for the door.
When it comes to Cincinnati's passing game, there's really not much to say.
The AFC North leaders have a growing problem when it comes to throwing the ball. They've emphasized the run so much in their formations and play-calling that they've lost their passing touch. And it's probably too late to get it back.
The Bengals (9-4) were reminded of their biggest shortcoming during a 30-10 loss Sunday at Minneapolis. The Vikings contained their running game, and Carson Palmer and the receivers couldn't compensate. Palmer threw for only 94 yards - earlier in his career, that would be one decent quarter.
``I don't know if we're going to change what we do,'' Palmer said on Monday. ``We're on the top of our division and still can control our destiny. After one loss, there's no reason to say, 'All right, we're going to become a passing football team,' because we're a running football team.''
That's about all they do these days.
In three of the past four games, the Bengals have had more yards rushing than passing - a shocking statistic in a pass-oriented league. They've been held under 200 net yards passing in six games this season, and under 100 yards twice. Only once in the past five games have they topped 200 net yards passing - they had 202 in a win over Detroit.
Cincinnati hit new lows during the loss at Minnesota, where it faced one of the league's top run defenses. Palmer was 15 of 25 for 94 yards, matching the second-lowest total of his career for an entire game. His longest completion went 15 yards. Receiver Laveranues Coles went the entire game without a pass thrown his way.
``It was our worst passing outing of the year,'' Palmer said. ``Nothing's changed as far as us thinking we're a team that's going to go out and throw the ball 50 times a game. We haven't been that all year. We're a team that throws the ball about 20 times and runs it about 30. That's who we are, and that's who we're going to continue to be.''
Part of it is by design. After finishing last in the league on offense last season, the Bengals redesigned the offense to emphasize the run. They made a turnaround from their four-win season and swept their division games by relying on the running game and the defense, which is among the league's stingiest.
Against the Vikings, the combination wasn't good enough. The Bengals self-destructed with 11 penalties that repeatedly backed them up. It turned into a warning sign of what could happen in the playoffs.
``That's the big point,'' center Kyle Cook said Monday. ``Some teams you can do these things against - you don't want to, but you can kind of get away with them. Against a playoff-picture team, you can't do these things. They're going to hurt you and they're going to hurt you bad.''
Since deep threat Chris Henry broke his arm during a win over Baltimore on Nov. 8, the Bengals have had 63 possessions and scored only five touchdowns. Ochocinco is the only consistent downfield threat, which means he's getting double- and triple-teamed.
Coles, who was signed after T.J. Houshmandzadeh left as a free agent, has only 33 catches in 13 games.
An obvious concern is whether Palmer's right elbow is acting up. He missed all but four games last season after tearing a tendon and ligament in his passing elbow, but the injury had fully healed by minicamp. He has been off-target on some throws, but it seems to be more a measure of the passing game losing its timing.
``Nothing's wrong with my elbow,'' he said. ``Nothing's wrong with my body. My ego's hurt by losing a big game for us in a big environment.''
Palmer would like to think that the Bengals can still throw the ball enough to win some playoff games. The Bengals can clinch the division title with a victory Sunday in San Diego.
``Hopefully we can get more and more out of the passing game,'' he said. ``But because of one loss, we're not going to go back to the drawing board and change our identity and freak out like everybody else is outside this locker room.''