Bengals Rapid Fire: 11/30

This is a feature I started two weeks ago where I bring up a player or a topic and give you my quick take on the matter.

Brandon Johnson vs. Keith Rivers – I know a lot of Bengals fans are anxious for Rivers to get healthy and return to the starting lineup at weak-side linebacker. But why? If he wasn’t the ninth overall pick of the 2008 draft, what would you honestly think about his play? Yes, we haven’t seen a lot of him due to him missing over half the season last year (because of the jaw-breaking cheap shot from Hines Ward) and due to his injuries this year, but he’s played enough to make an impression. And from where I stand, it hasn’t been a very good one.

For my money, Johnson is clearly the better player. Watching them, you would think Johnson was the former first-rounder and Rivers was the former fifth-rounder. I don’t think Rivers is terrible, I just think it’s clear that Johnson brings more to the table at this stage of their careers.

Was very impressed with Johnson last year after the Bengals signed him as a free agent (he played two years for the Arizona Cardinals) and I continue to be this year. He yaps a little too much for my tastes (he and Dhani Jones feel the need to wildly celebrate every simple tackle they make), but I sure like the brand of football he plays. He’s very athletic, tough and has a nose for the football.

Rey Maualuga – Just get the feeling this guy is on the verge of a breakout where he literally is the difference-maker for the Bengals on defense and wins a game for them. He keeps getting better and looks somewhat comfortable at the strong-side linebacker spot (even though it’s obvious he is the middle ‘backer of the future and will move there when Jones’ days are done). Maualuga is a sure-tackler and I love his wrecking-ball style of playing linebacker. And he might not be fast in the 40, but he has good football speed and can make plays sideline-to-sideline.

Sweeping the AFC North – I actually felt good about the Bengals entering the 2009 season. However, if you would have told me they would sweep the AFC North with a 6-0 record and would be 8-3 at this stage of the season, I would have told you to hop in the first vehicle you could find (unless it was driven by Tiger with his wife swinging golf clubs at you) and get to the nearest psychiatric ward.

However, it has become a reality and I’m still trying to allow it to sink in. That might be something Bengal fans never see again. Even going 5-1 would have been a great year in what is a very tough division (minus the Browns of course). Those four wins over the Steelers and Ravens have been the highlight of the season thus far.

Carson Palmer’s mobility – I’m not ready to nickname him “Crazy Legs Carson” but I am very impressed with his ability to scramble when things break down. Palmer showed somewhat good mobility early in his pro career, but the last few years he’s been a bit of a statue back there. However, something is different this year and I like it. Maybe it’s taken him this long to fully get over the mental hump after his knee injury in the playoffs four years ago. Palmer is never going to beat teams with his running ability. But picking up a few cheap first downs on scrambles kills a defense and can be the difference in winning or losing a game.

Larry Johnson – Any more questions as to why the Bengals signed this guy? He looked great against the Browns with 22 carries for 107 yards – his first time reaching triple-digits in yards since last year. Johnson breaks tackles, is quick through the hole and can carry defenders along with him for extra yards.

Could there be some friction between Johnson and Cedric Benson in the locker room? Perhaps, but I’m not all that worried about it. And bringing LJ in was a very good insurance policy because there is no guarantee that Benson will stay healthy the rest of the way. I also like Bernard Scott – quite a bit in fact – but there is nothing wrong with building depth.

Also, if Benson starts to whine about the competition (which I don’t think he will do), then he’s not the kind of long-term back the team wants anyway. Good players welcome competition.

Furthermore, if Benson is smart, he will realize that there is no way LJ is coming back to the Bengals next year, while Benson is signed through 2010. Some other team will offer LJ a decent deal after this season (read: more money than the Bengals will offer) and will tell him they will give him more opportunities to carry the ball than the Bengals could.

Signing LJ was just a half-year thing for the Bengals this season to cover their ass for the playoff run. There is no question the top two running backs on the team next year will be Benson and Scott. I say that for two reasons: they’re good and they’re under contract.

LJ will be with another team next year, but I’m sure glad to have him now. He didn’t look good against the Browns … he looked great. (Yeah, yeah, I know … how much can you tell from playing the Browns. But there’s no getting around the fact that LJ still has some gas in the tank.)

The rest of the schedule – It sets up very nicely for the Bengals from my perspective. If Cincinnati finishes 3-2 down the stretch – putting them at 11-5 for the season – that would clinch the division title since Pittsburgh and Baltimore would have to win out just to get to 11-5 (and both teams would lose the tiebreaker against the Bengals).

In my estimation, the Bengals have two easy games (Detroit and Kansas City at home), two tough games (Minnesota and San Diego on the road) and one game that is a toss-up of sorts (at N.Y. Jets).

Despite the inexcusable loss in Oakland – and the idea that the Bengals always find a way to play down to their competition – I think they’ll take care of business against the Lions and Chiefs at Paul Brown Stadium. That would put them at 10-6 at worst to finish the season (meaning if the Steelers lose one game and the Ravens lose one game at any point during the next five weeks, the Bengals will clinch the division title).

But I think the Bengals will be at least 11-5 to finish out the year. Obviously beating the Vikings or Chargers on the road will be a difficult task, but I think Cincinnati could go 1-1 in those games. 0-2 might be more likely, but don’t discount the idea that the Bengals could win at least one of those games. The Steelers (who beat Minnesota) and the Ravens played the Vikings very tough and there’s no reason to think the Bengals won’t do the same. The Chargers are one of the hottest teams in the NFL right now, but they’re not exactly a well-coached team and I think the Bengals will be tough to beat even in Southern California. The Bengals play down to their competition at times, but they also have the ability to bring their best in big games.

The Jets on the final weekend of the regular season is tough to call. Hopefully the Bengals have already clinched a playoff berth by then and they are just positioning for a good seed (and maybe even a first-round bye). The Jets have a good defense, but rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez has been shaky of late and that is another game that I think the Bengals could win on the road.

Right now, I think the Bengals are looking at 12-4 at best and 10-6 at worst. I think they’ll finish right in the middle at 11-5.

Andre Smith: It’s about time he played. Now we just need to work on the little thing called playing well. The Bengals already have one obvious bust in the 2009 draft (third-round TE Chase Coffman) and they certainly can’t afford their first-rounder (sixth overall!) to reside in Bustville as well. I’m encouraged Smith finally saw the field. Now we’ll see if he can beat out players who are far-less talented than him like Dennis Roland. Not sure what Smith’s best position is (right tackle, guard?) but the Bengals better have a good idea since they were the ones that drafted him so early despite some red flags (going AWOL from the combine, weight issues, getting suspended for his final game at Alabama, going back-and-forth in terms of hiring an agent, etc.).

Quan Cosby – Love what this guy brings as a punt returner. He always does a good job of going north-south and getting what he can. What a find he was as an undrafted free agent. The Bengals haven’t had a good punt returner in a long time and he’s already borderline-excellent and will only get better. I also love that he’s physical for a smaller guy and will knock someone on their ass if given the chance. When he gets a chance to block (like on Scott’s kickoff return for a TD against the Steelers three weeks ago) he is extremely effective and literally lays guys out.

The Bengals’ lack of a killer instinct – We’ve seen it far too many times this year: The Bengals get comfortable and completely shut down offensively. Tresselball might work at Ohio State, but I don’t want to see Marvin Lewis adopt that philosophy. It works for the Buckeyes (barely, sometimes) because they are far more talented than most of the teams they play. The talent level is pretty equal across the NFL and you need good schemes to beat good teams.

Right now, I am not seeing good offensive schemes from coordinator Bob Bratkowski. A good offensive coordinator would be getting much more out of a franchise quarterback like Carson Palmer.

Kudos to the Bengals for building a strong running game; it was certainly needed if they were going to establish themselves as a playoff team. However, that doesn’t mean you have to completely forget about Palmer’s ability to throw the ball downfield – especially to Chad Ochocinco who looks as good as ever this year.

I fear the Bengals have gone too conservative on offense. It cost them a win in the Raiders game after they completely shut down shop after building a 14-0 lead (and lost 20-17). It almost cost them in the second Ravens game when they shut down shop after building a 17-0 lead (they won 17-7 but the Ravens were still in the game until late in the fourth quarter when it looked like it was going to be a blowout). And Sunday’s lackadaisical effort in the second half against the Browns reminded me of almost every OSU game I’ve watched in recent years.

But Carson Palmer is no Terrelle Pryor. Palmer can actually throw the football. Note to Bratkowski: allow him to do it more often. You have one of the best QBs in the game and you’re treating him like Ryan Fitzpatrick.