GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- It's a new era in Cincinnati. But will it result in more victories?
That's the question facing the new-look Cincinnati Bengals this season.
Cincinnati hit the reset button after a disappointing 4-12 campaign in 2010. The Bengals moved on from the Carson Palmer-Chad Ochocinco era, replacing them with rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and No. 4 overall pick A.J. Green.
But going young often brings growing pains. That was evident in Cincinnati's lackluster 34-3 loss to the Detroit Lions in Friday's preseason opener. The Bengals' starters and backups looked shell-shocked and were dominated on offense, defense and special teams.
"It's our first step in a long, long journey," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis told reporters Friday night. "There's a lot of work to do. I knew it coming in. Now we have a chance to coach off the tape and make corrections off the tape and get after it quickly."
The rebuilding Bengals have nowhere to go but up this season. They were ranked last in ESPN.com's preseason Power Rankings.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Is Andy Dalton ready?
Palmer's unexpected retirement in January thrust Dalton into the starting lineup as a rookie.
This is unfamiliar territory for Lewis. Lewis sat Palmer, a No. 1 overall pick, during his entire rookie year in 2003.
I asked Lewis this week about his different approach with rookie quarterbacks.
"The football team that I took over in 2003 couldn't afford to lose games because of the quarterback," Lewis said. "They had a guy who had been in the seat and a lot of people were very, very comfortable with. Jon [Kitna] had done some good things, so it was a different situation.
"This football team is put together differently. They're tough, they're physical, they know how to go out there and compete. I didn't know those things coming in 2003. I know what this team is made of now. I know where the leaders are. I didn't know those guys then."
The Bengals hope to get immediate results from Dalton. He made some rookie mistakes in practice during the week and looked shaky in his preseason debut. Dalton's first throw was an interception. His third pass attempt was a sack. He finished with 69 passing yards and a pick.
Overall, Dalton is confident and has good presence. But things will not come together overnight.
2. How is Cincinnati’s new West Coast offense?
The West Coast offense is known for its precision passing. But expect a heavy dose of tailback Cedric Benson in Cincinnati's system.
First-year offensive coordinator Jay Gruden acknowledged that he wants a power running game to protect his rookie quarterback. Benson is coming off back-to-back 1,100-yard seasons. He is the most reliable offensive commodity the Bengals have.
If Benson runs well, it should open things up for Cincinnati's passing game. Gruden is particularly high on starting receivers Green and Jerome Simpson.
Look for Cincinnati's opponents to stack the box against the run this season. But Gruden will not be afraid to take shots downfield with Simpson and Green, based on what I've seen in practice.
"Those two guys on the outside are very athletic," Gruden said. "You almost have to take a different approach as a quarterback when those two guys are running down the field. If a defensive back has his back turned, you have to give [the receiver] a chance. A lot of times you want to tell a quarterback, 'It's either us or nobody.' But with these two guys you can throw it up high and let them go get it."
3. Can the defense rebound?
The Bengals were No. 4 in total defense in 2009. That led to a playoff run.
In 2010, Cincinnati's defense dropped to No. 15. The Bengals finished 4-12 last season.
The success of the defense is vital. The Bengals return veterans such as cornerback Leon Hall, defensive lineman Domata Peko, safety Chris Crocker and third-year linebacker Rey Maualuga. The team also added cornerback Nate Clements to replace Johnathan Joseph and new linebackers Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard.
Improving the pass rush will be key. The Bengals only had 27 sacks in 16 games last season. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap accounted for 9.5 of those sacks.
Speed on defense also is an issue. Cincinnati is not very fast in the front seven or in the secondary.
I went into Bengals camp unfamiliar with Colin Cochart. But by the end of the week, the undrafted rookie tight end from South Dakota State was one of my favorite players.
Cochart is an aggressive blocker, which is a valued commodity. He blocked in every practice as though it was the Super Bowl. That got under some teammates' skin and caused some extra pushing and shoving.
I wanted to see more from backup running back Bernard Scott. But he has been sidelined most of training camp with a hamstring injury.
Many players across the league, particularly speedy ones, are suffering hamstring injuries after the lockout. Scott showed flashes in past seasons. But he needs to stay healthy and be more reliable to back up Benson this season.
Green is the real deal. He is an extremely good athlete with great hands and the ability to go up and get the football. But he needs to work on is his routes. Green relied mostly on athleticism in high school and college. He needs to be more precise getting out of his cuts to get the most out of Cincinnati's West Coast offense. There is little margin for error at the NFL level.
Former 2009 first-round pick Andre Smith is in much better shape this year. He is down to 335 pounds. Smith's quickness, footwork and endurance have improved. This is his first full training camp. He missed the first two camps because of a contract dispute and prior injuries. Smith's weight loss also takes pressure off his surgically repaired foot.
Veteran backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski looks to be a decent signing. Gradkowski knows the West Coast offense and is making plays in camp. The Bengals are counting on Dalton to be the starter. Dalton's ceiling is higher. But right now there isn't a wide gap separating Cincinnati's top two quarterbacks.
Simpson looks ready to bust out. He was one of the best players in practice last week and continues to make highlight-reel catches, even when covered by defenders. Simpson has been quiet for three seasons in Cincinnati. But he finished strong in the final month of last season. Simpson has to prove he can be productive for 16 games.
The Bengals can use a healthy Adam Jones this season. The backup cornerback will miss all of training camp after neck surgery. Jones is by far Cincinnati's best athlete in the secondary. It doesn't appear the commissioner will act on Jones' offseason arrest for disorderly conduct. Jones says he was wrongfully arrested.
Michael Johnson looks more comfortable back at defensive end. The Bengals experimented with moving Johnson to outside linebacker last season, but he never looked comfortable standing up. Now, Johnson is making more plays in training camp at his natural position. He was listed as a starter on the team's first depth chart.
Maualuga is another player who looks better at his natural position of middle linebacker. He has good instincts and is a force against the run. Maualuga sheds blocks well and gets to ball carriers. He had two tackles for loss Friday against Detroit. The past two seasons Maualuga often was forced to cover tight ends in pass coverage and struggled.