On Sunday the Bucs return to their regular season schedule against a very hungry Cincinnati Bengals team. Coming into the year expectations were high in Cincy, last season the Bengals won the AFC North going 6-0 in their division along the way. The story of last season’s Bengals was a fierce defense and Cedric Benson leading a powerful rushing attack. In a way, the Bengals managed to out-Steeler the Steelers to win their division last year.
So far this season things have not gone as smoothly. In their opener the Bengals were absolutely abused by the New England Patriots. The 38-24 score was not indicative of just how one-sided their week one affair was. The Bengals were decimated by New England. The following week the Bengals followed their Dr. Jeckyll with a little Mr. Hyde and managed to out-flex the Baltimore Ravens on defense, winning 15-10. They beat the Carolina Panthers the next week and seemed to be back on track after a rough opener, then they dropped a head-scratcher to the Cleveland Browns.
A lot of Bucs fans have made the assessment that a Bengals team that lost to the Browns is ripe for the Bucs’ picking. ‘They’re not the Steelers.’ No, but if you’re basing your projections off of what happened last season, the Bengals may still be better than Pittsburgh. This is a team that seems to have multiple personalities, but one of those personalities happens to still be that of an elite NFL team.
Coming into this game the Bengals will be highly focused. They don’t think they’re a 2-2 team, and they’re viewing a Bucs team that just got torched by the Steelers two weeks ago as vulnerable in much the same way a lot of Bucs fans are looking at them. Let’s take a look at what the Bengals do well, and how they may attack the Bucs.
Running Less than Last Season
Last year the Bengals ran for more than 2,000 yards as a team. Cedric Benson was the workhorse behind a rushing attack that took first priority in the Bengals’ offense. Traditionally, before last season, the Bengals had been more of a pass-first team with Carson Palmer and wide receivers like Chad Ochocinco, TJ Houshmandzadeh (now with Baltimore) and the late Chris Henry.
I have no idea what clicked in Marvin Lewis last season, most likely a response to the personnel he had, but the Bengals took to the ground. And coupled with their 6th ranked scoring defense, their ball-control offense helped the Bengals go 10-6 and make the playoffs. This year the Bengals haven’t really followed that blueprint. The team is averaging just 92 yards per game, ranking just 23rd in the NFL.
It’s a combination of blocking and Cedric Benson struggling early on, but Benson has just 80 carries (averaging just 20 per game) and is averaging only 3.3 yards per carry. Arguably, Bernard Scott has been the more dynamic back this season. While Benson is still a highly talented back, the Bengals have been unable to get their rushing game going yet this year. At this point the biggest threat from the Cincy run game may be catching the defense sleeping on a draw to the speedy Scott.
Back to the Air
You may or may not have heard, but Terrell Owens is now a Bengal. Apparently the newfound pairing of Ochocinco and TO, along with Jermaine Gresham and Jordan Shipley, was too good not to throw out last year’s successful plan of attack in favor of the passing game. The Bengals come into their week five matchup with the Bucs sporting the league’s 6th rated passing attack.
Carson Palmer, on paper at least, must love this. But personally I wouldn’t want to be the guy who has to placate not one, but two diva receivers. Regardless, Palmer’s targets can be absolutely lethal. TO, for all his flaws, is still a Hall of Fame receiver and Ochochinco has been one of the league’s top receivers for the last five seasons. Neither of these guys is a slouch, typically you’d want to put a double on either receiver. When both are on the field, one of them is typically going to see single coverage and have a nice day. It seems the two have alternated big games this season.
You can bet the Bengals have seen the game-film from the Bucs last game. The one where Mike Wallace and Charlie Batch went vertical against Tampa for a couple long scores. It loosened the Bucs defense up and let the Steelers get the rushing attack going. You better believe the Bengals will try to emulate that game plan. Attacking the young Cody Grimm over the top until the Bucs loosen up and adjust. Then it will be a healthy dose of Cedric Benson.
Bengals on Defense
The Bengals defense has not been as stout in the first four games of 2010 as they were during last year’s campaign. The Bucs have found the only team in the league which has had less success sacking the quarterback than them (the Bucs have four sacks in three games, Cincy has just three in four). But make no mistakes, this is still a unit that can get to the passer, even if it hasn’t shown up as much this season.
The Bengals tallied 36 sacks last season, and they have one of the best coordinators in the league (Mike Zimmer) dialing things up. The Bengals will find ways to pressure Josh Freeman Sunday. Whether they have to bring pressure from the secondary or scheme and move players around, they will find ways. This isn’t a bad defense, through the first quarter of the year they are in the dead middle of the pack against the run and the pass.
Pacman Jones will be starting for Jonathan Joseph who got banged up in the loss to Cleveland. Jones has all-world talent so that’s not really a step down for Cincy, nor is it a picnic for Freeman and the Bucs passing game. Cincinnati isn’t going to make it easy on the Tampa offense. With the Bucs early-season ineptitude running the ball, chances are Cincinnati will be able to refocus most of their attention on stopping the Bucs through the air and coming after Josh Freeman.
Coming Later Today
Check back in later today when we’ll preview the game and make a final prediction. We may also have one or two more features, the injury report and weather on the day of the game. And make sure to check back Sunday night for post-game coverage.