This season represents a window of opportunity for the Bengals. If the defense improves – and it is expected to – 2007 could erase the bitter memories of 2006, when just one victory during an 0-3 closing collapse could have landed the team in the postseason.
The franchise also will try to get past its off-field troubles – the Bengals had nine players arrested in a nine-month period through January – and the on-field operation would be helped immeasurably by a distraction-free season.
One thing is clear: The Bengals have the offensive firepower to get to the playoffs.
Offense: The offense is explosive, dangerous and balanced, and is built around quarterback Carson Palmer and a plethora of talented skill-position players. Coordinator Bob Bratkowski has a unit capable of striking through the air – even with Chris Henry out while serving an eight-game suspension – or grinding out first downs with a power running game that uses two-tight end sets and spread formations. The unit is deep and versatile, which will allow it to exploit opponents in a variety of ways as the team uses more no-huddle looks.
Defense: Coach Marvin Lewis came to Cincinnati in 2003 with the reputation as a defensive guru. But after four years of struggling as a league bottom-feeder – the unit ranked 28th, 19th, 28th and 30th in total defense the past four seasons – the club still is searching for answers. Coordinator Chuck Bresnahan spent the offseason tweaking the personnel in his 4-3 unit but stopped short of an overhaul. The Bengals released veteran Brian Simmons to clear a path for second-year linebacker Ahmad Brooks to start in the middle and signed free-agent tackle Michael Myers, who led the Broncos in tackles last season.
QB Carson Palmer: In 2006, Palmer threw for more than 4,000 yards, and he did it on one good leg. The team has high hopes for what he'll accomplish now that he is a full season removed from major surgery on his left knee. He spent the offseason strengthening his shoulder and working on his lower-body strength so he can be a more effective thrower when he rolls out or gets flushed from the pocket. Palmer sometimes gets overaggressive, and that can lead to trouble. Instead of going for the jugular with the lead, he should be patient, spread the ball and shorten the game with clock-killing drives.
RB Rudi Johnson: Johnson is a workhorse built to take a pounding. A more disciplined diet and flexibility training have allowed Johnson to improve his quickness and speed and maintain his power. With him, the Bengals move the chains. Johnson's biggest weakness is his lack of breakaway speed; his longest run last season was 22 yards.
DE Robert Geathers: The Bengals' defensive line was passive and reactionary last season; it must become more aggressive, which will be tough because it's aging. The objective is to contain the run on early downs so edge rusher Geathers can enter on third down. Geathers broke through with 10½ sacks last year, and the coaches expect him to pressure the quarterback and force turnovers with his explosive quickness.
CBs Jonathan Joseph and Leon Hall: Team officials allowed right cornerback Tory James to leave as a free agent because they say Joseph is ready to start in his second season. Joseph is a gifted athlete but dropped several potential interceptions as a rookie. If he corrects that flaw, he'll be special. If left cornerback Deltha O'Neal doesn't show dramatic improvement, Hall, the team's first-round draft pick in '07, will take that job. Hall – arguably the most NFL-ready corner in the rookie class – is a smart, physical run defender who is effective in man, zone or press coverage. Hall is expected to be the nickel back immediately and will push O'Neal for a starting job by midseason, if not sooner.
VINNIE IYER'S TAKE
The Bengals will get a boost from Palmer's improved health and defensive adjustments by Lewis and return to their playoff-caliber level of two years ago.
Prediction: 10-6 (first in the AFC North).
Anything short of reaching the playoffs will be a major disappointment. The Bengals have enough talent, especially on offense, to wrestle the division title from the Ravens and Steelers, but they don't have enough playmakers on defense to go far in postseason.
The aging defensive line is shaky, the linebackers are young and the secondary is weak. The offense must generate a lot of points for the team to win games. But as long as Palmer stays healthy, the window to the Super Bowl will be open.
Chick Ludwig covers the Bengals for the Dayton Daily News and Sporting News.