Something isn’t quite right with the Cincinnati Bengals’ offense, but the reigning AFC North champions aren’t going to complain about the aesthetic value of their consecutive victories.
They’ll settle for some occasional imperfection if they can extend a lengthier streak.
The Bengals (2-1) never found the end zone in a 15-10 win over Baltimore in Week 2, then let rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen(notes) and Carolina hang around well into the fourth quarter of a 20-7 victory Sunday.
Most concerning is a passing game that hasn’t clicked even with the addition of Terrell Owens(notes) to a cast of targets that includes Chad Ochocinco(notes) and highly touted rookies Jermaine Gresham(notes) and Jordan Shipley(notes). Carson Palmer(notes) threw two interceptions against the Panthers and had many more dropped by defenders for a third straight week.
“It wasn’t one of his better games,” offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said of Palmer.
The two-time Pro Bowler has completed 48.6 percent of his passes and has a 56.6 rating the past two games - 29th in the NFL. Punter Kevin Huber(notes) has been needed 14 times in the wins as Palmer and the offense have converted eight of their 35 third downs (22.8 percent).
Coach Marvin Lewis defended his quarterback, but knows Palmer and his teammates need to start clicking.
“I think he does a good job of directing us,” Lewis said. “He’s been a good leader. … It goes back to we’ve got to go from the meeting room to the practice field to out there on the game tape and see the same things and not leave our quarterback out there wondering, ‘What’s going on now?’”
Perhaps a trip to Cleveland (0-3) will get Palmer going. He’s thrown 14 touchdown passes and six interceptions in five visits, with his 95.5 rating there being his best among cities where he’s played more than twice. Plus, Palmer has won eight of his last nine games against the Browns.
The Bengals have won eight in a row versus division foes, a streak that began with a 14-0 victory at Cleveland on Dec. 21, 2008. Cincinnati won there last season on a late field goal and beat the visiting Browns 16-7 on Nov. 29 in the most recent meeting.
Cleveland has lost nine of 10 division contests after Sunday’s 24-17 defeat at Baltimore, but quarterback Seneca Wallace(notes) sees progress from a team that’s dropped three games by a combined 12 points.
“We’re getting closer all the time,” Wallace said. “Remember, we’ve got a lot of new faces on this team, and we’re working hard to get better. We will work our way out of this and get a win soon.”
One of those new faces might be able to help the Browns avoid a second consecutive 0-4 start. Hillis, acquired in the deal that sent Brady Quinn(notes) to Denver, ran for 144 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries and also caught seven passes against the Ravens while filling in for injured starter Jerome Harrison(notes).
That was enough to earn him the starting job again.
“I really felt strongly about Peyton when we had the chance to trade for him - really strongly about him,” coach Eric Mangini said. “He had close to 200 yards of offense between his carries and his catches, that to me is not a fluke. He is a good player and I think he’ll continue to get better.”
It appears that Hillis will be taking handoffs from Jake Delhomme(notes) instead of Wallace this week. Delhomme has been cleared to practice and as long as there are no setbacks with the sprained right ankle that kept him out two games, the veteran will be back under center.
“He’s our starter,” Mangini said Thursday. “If he’s ready to start, he’ll start.”
Whoever starts at quarterback will have his hands full against a secondary led by Leon Hall(notes) and Johnathan Joseph(notes), but Cincinnati’s cornerbacks would appreciate more help up front. The Bengals have two sacks, tied for the fewest in the league.
Palmer might finally be facing a defensive backfield he can effectively attack. Baltimore’s Anquan Boldin(notes) caught three touchdown passes against Cleveland cornerback Eric Wright(notes), a performance Ochocinco and Owens certainly noticed.
The Browns have been held below 200 yards in six of their last nine division games.