Bengals coming out of wilderness

Afc North Preview

August 09, 2005|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

GEORGETOWN, Ky. - There are several ways to gauge the rise to prominence of the Cincinnati Bengals this season. There is the reinforced defense, the fiery new coordinator, and the on-the-record goal of winning the AFC North.

Then there is the barometer Marvin Lewis uses.

"We've gotten ourselves off of Jay Leno," the third-year coach said, grinning at the mere thought. "We're out of the monologues."

The Bengals under Lewis are a laughingstock no longer. Once ridiculed for their penny-pinching ways and their comedy-of-errors performance, they have been reborn - believe it or not - as playoff contenders.

Just as Lewis intoned, the Bengals have gained respect in the NFL for an offense that averaged more than 23 points a game last year behind one of the league's most promising young quarterbacks in Carson Palmer.

What held the Bengals back in recent years was a punch-drunk defense that took too many shots. Now, these fledgling contenders aim to deliver those punches.

New defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan has simplified the system to unleash the team's athleticism, a keynote in Lewis' reclamation job.

"Because we've simplified it, we're about three steps ahead of where we've been at any point since I've been here as far as our run defense," said Bresnahan, a second-year Bengals coach.

"But," he quickly added, "we still have a long way to go."

Cincinnati took a major step in that direction when it signed free-agent defensive tackle Bryan Robinson. The Bengals last season gave up 128.9 rushing yards a game, a figure that rose to 162.8 in division games.

"They asked me to come here and help bolster a team that was 26th last year against the run, which is right up my alley," said Robinson, an eight-year veteran. "That's what I've done my whole career and I've been pretty effective doing it."

Bresnahan, who played and coached at Navy, shuffled the rest of his defensive line, moving Justin Smith to left end, John Thornton to right tackle and inserting Robert Geathers at right end.

After getting fired by the Oakland Raiders, where he was defensive coordinator, Bresnahan joined the Bengals last year behind then-coordinator Leslie Frazier. When Lewis decided not to retain Frazier, Bresnahan got the promotion.

"He brings a wealth of experience in the NFL," Lewis said. "I think he also has a temperament that helps keep the guys on edge. I think that's important in playing defense. He's not going to settle for mediocrity. He's going to look for people who want to play full speed every play."

The Bengals emphasized defense in the draft, too, when they took David Pollack and Odell Thurman - both from Georgia - in the first two rounds. Although Pollack hasn't signed yet, both are expected to start this season.

Palmer is quick to appreciate the new look in the Bengals' defense.

"There are some stars in the making over there," he said. "[Safety] Madieu Williams [of Maryland] is going to be good. I don't want to jump on him prematurely, but he's an explosive player. You can talk about Odell Thurman and Bryan Robinson. There's change over there, there's speed over there, which is what winning teams have."

Palmer completed 60.9 percent of his passes for 18 touchdowns last season before missing the last three games with a knee injury. He was strikingly impressive in the team's early workouts at Georgetown College, showing the promise that made him the first pick in the 2003 draft.

But Lewis, who spent six years as the Ravens' defensive coordinator, is loath to throw the Bengals' playoff hopes onto Palmer's lap.

"Our football team grew up, that was the key to last season more than anything," Lewis said of a second straight 8-8 season. "Carson didn't feel the need to shoulder the responsibility totally to win every game."

Lewis has preached a basic message this summer. It began when he gave out T-shirts that read, "Do your job," at the start of camp. He doesn't shy from the obvious when asked about his expectations.

"Our expectation is to win the AFC North," he said. "[But] we have not played very well against our division teams, and we need to do that."

Palmer said anything less than a playoff berth this year would be "failure." Robinson, who helped the Chicago Bears to a division title in 2001, is thinking bigger.

"We have one thing in mind and that's to play in Detroit [in the Super Bowl] at the end of the year," Robinson said. "I think that's a realistic goal for us with the parity in this league every year. Why not us? Me, personally, I welcome the challenge. ... I feel this is as good a team as any teams I've played on."

Bengals preview

Most encouraging sign: Avoiding a contract dispute with running back Rudi Johnson and getting wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh signed to bring back all 11 offensive starters.

Boldest move: Drafting linebackers David Pollack and Odell Thurman in the first two rounds and projecting them as starters.

Biggest issue: Improving run defense, which finished 26th last season. Defensive tackle Bryan Robinson, an unrestricted free agent, is expected to upgrade that area.

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