Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Defense Bengals' biggest issue

Preseason loss to Bucs reveals pressuring QB as team's weak point

Mark Curnutte
TAMPA, Fla. - Though preseason games generally serve as tuneups for veterans and auditions for low-round picks and rookie free agents, some truths about the 2004 Bengals began to emerge Monday night in their 20-6 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The offense is ready to be ranked in the top 10. Special teams will play better when its best players are used. And the defense - until proven otherwise - more than quarterback Carson Palmer, remains the team's biggest concern.

• The running game should be a strong point.

Rudi Johnson and Chris Perry rushed for a combined 46 yards on 12 carries against Tampa Bay despite never getting into a rhythm.

Johnson looks quicker to the hole than in 2003 without having lost his power, and Perry - despite the fumble in the second quarter - has the look of an NFL-ready back.

If the Bengals can control the ball for 32 to 33 minutes a game, they have a chance to improve on last season's 8-8 record. (They won six of the eight games in which they had a time-of-possession edge.) Tampa Bay had the ball for six more minutes than the Bengals on Monday night.

A consistent ground game will take pressure off first-time starter Palmer. It also will provide opposing offenses fewer shots at the Bengals' defense.

And Johnson and Perry will be working behind an improved offensive line. Larry Moore already displayed his value by filling in Monday for ailing Eric Steinbach (elbow) at left guard.

• Palmer made the most of his apprenticeship.

In his first start in more than 19 months and first game action in a year, Palmer should have had better passing numbers than 3-for-8 for 74 yards and one interception. Had Chad Johnson not let a ball slip through his normally sticky fingers and T.J. Houshmandzadeh not deflected a well-thrown pass to Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber, Palmer would have been 5-for-8 for more than 100 yards.

Palmer did not force the ball into coverage and, as Chad Johnson said: "When I was in there, he was money. He threw a rocket on that one across the middle. That was nice."

• Backup quarterback Jon Kitna is a lot better than he showed while playing with second- and mostly third-string players through the third quarter.

Kitna faced constant pressure from the Buccaneers' pass rush. Tampa Bay sacked Kitna twice and third-stringer Casey Bramlet twice.

Sometimes, too, Kitna's receivers weren't in the right places.

• Special teams will be sharper later in the preseason and at the start of the regular season.

Special teams coach Darrin Simmons said some roster spots hinge on performance in the cover and return games, and the only way to make evaluations is to let the youngsters play.

Tampa Bay had better punt and kickoff return averages Monday night, and the Bengals had an offside penalty (Kim Herring) on a kickoff. But as Simmons pointed out, the Bengals' special teams forced Tampa Bay into penalties in the kicking game.

The Bengals must get pressure on the quarterback if the defense is to improve over last year's dismal showing.
• The run defense might be improved, but the Bengals could be defending the run at the expense of pressuring the quarterback.

This topic is a touchy one at training camp.

The Bengals did a good job against the run, limiting the Buccaneers to a 3.2-yard average on 28 attempts. But the scheme appeared to have the ends and outside linebackers pinching inside to bolster the middle. As a result, the ends didn't always take normal rush lanes toward the quarterback.

The Bengals didn't even get close to a sack, and second-year Tampa Bay quarterback Chris Simms looked like another blond left-hander (Boomer Esiason). Simms was 12-for-15 passing for 110 yards and a 97.2 passer rating.

Bengals cornerbacks, especially now with the enforcement of the 5-yard chuck zone, are going to have a hard time staying with receivers if the defensive front doesn't harass the quarterback.

• This team, beginning the second year of the Marvin Lewis coaching regime, still has a small margin of error.

The Bengals were minus-two in turnover differential at Tampa Bay, reflecting their 0-6 record in 2003 when turning over the ball two or more times - regardless of how many takeaways they achieved. The Bengals won all six games they played without a turnover and were 2-2 when committing just one.

Couple the turnovers with dropped passes, at least two botched interceptions and Houshmandzadeh's failure to get his second foot inbounds on a sure-fire touchdown pass from Kitna, and the Bengals on Monday showed they can't make too many mistakes - turnovers or otherwise - against good teams and win.

"We want to do better in that," Lewis said after the game.

He did see plenty of good: "The first half ... we threw the ball accurately. We executed the running game very well, and we played well on defense. Those are key parts of the game."



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