- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 11
GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- The Cincinnati Bengals are now the hunted, and they believe they have enough talent to prove last year's AFC North division title was no fluke.
It has been 28 years since the Bengals last posted back-to-back winning seasons. But coming off a playoff appearance and new offseason additions, this is the deepest and most talented group Marvin Lewis has coached in eight seasons.
Cincinnati's six-win improvement was one of the biggest jumps in the NFL last season. On paper, this year's team looks even better, although the Bengals have to prove they can handle a brutal first-place schedule.
"Nobody is really sleeping on you. Everybody knows that you can play," Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers said of the upcoming season. "So we have to make sure we come out swinging, because teams are going to come out swinging against us."
Pro Bowl receiver Chad Ochocinco said it would be a "shame" if Cincinnati doesn't win the Super Bowl. That's one example of how high expectations are for the Bengals, who have to address several key issues this summer if they want to make a playoff run.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Can the Bengals improve their passing game? Cincinnati's passing offense was a disappointment last season, particularly late in the year. The Bengals aggressively attacked the problem by adding new weapons such as first-round draft pick Jermaine Gresham and receivers Terrell Owens, Antonio Bryant and Jordan Shipley.
As a result, Cincinnati could have as many as three new receivers in the top four of its rotation to join Ochocinco. And Gresham is projected to start at tight end for the Bengals, surrounding Carson Palmer with enough weapons to make any quarterback happy.
"In the grand scheme of things, we're very explosive," Palmer said.
The chemistry between Palmer and Owens is still a work in progress. The difference between Palmer's comfort level with Owens versus his comfort level with Ochocinco, whom Palmer has worked with for eight years, was noticeable in camp.
The deep ball disappeared from Cincinnati's offense during the second half of last season. But with Owens (Batman?) taking some of the pressure off Ochocinco (Robin?), and added receiver depth, expect more fireworks this year.
"What I want the focal point of this team to be is I want the offense to be our strength again," Ochocinco said this week. "I think the defense has sort of taken over the outlook as the strength of the team. I want our receiving corps and the rest of our offense to be that strength, that backbone of this team."
2. Will the Bengals' defense generate a pass rush? The Bengals were the fourth-best defense in the NFL last season. But one area where they can improve is getting to the quarterback.
Cincinnati had 34 sacks last year, which was middle of the pack at No. 16. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has made it a priority to dial up new and better ways to increase the sack numbers.
The healthy return of starting defensive end Antwan Odom should help. He was the team's top pass-rusher last season until he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury. The Bengals also have young, athletic players who could see playing time in passing situations such as linebacker Michael Johnson and rookie defensive end Carlos Dunlap.
3. Who’s the kicker? Kickers aren't important until you need them. The Bengals know that all too well after their experience with Shayne Graham, who had a knack for missing field goals in key moments.
Nugent is hurt this week, which may have allowed Rayner to take a slight lead. But Rayner has had his ups and downs as well. Earlier this week he made all six of his field-goal attempts, but on Wednesday Rayner was 5-for-8. He missed two 50-yard attempts that were very wide left.
Expect this competition to be settled during the preseason.
He is not the biggest player or the fastest, but there is something about Shipley that continues to stand out in camp. He has even caught the attention of Ochocinco, who said early that the rookie has potential.
Shipley seems at home in the slot. He has a knack for getting open and has sure hands and good ball security in traffic once the catch is made. The Bengals are very deep at receiver this year, so it's questionable how big a role Shipley could have. But for now he's making the most of his opportunities.
Former first-round pick Matt Jones seems to be falling behind daily in an effort to earn a roster spot. Once a big athlete with freakish speed, Jones clearly has lost a couple of steps after taking a year away from football.
Jones also suffered a foot injury recently, which hasn't helped his case. Ochocinco, Owens, Bryant, Shipley and Andre Caldwell probably will take up five slots at the receiver position. That leaves only one or two more roster spots for Jones and several other receivers to compete for. Do not be surprised if Jones doesn't make the cut.
Despite signing just before camp, Owens arrived in very good shape. He still has to learn the offense, but Owens has shown some flashes of what he can do. On Wednesday night, Palmer connected deep with Owens, who beat cornerback Leon Hall, streaking down the sideline for a 55-yard touchdown. The play was one of the highlights of camp thus far.
Bryant continues to rehab his knee. He participated in the first day of camp but has missed every practice since. The Bengals signed Bryant to a four-year, $28 million contract but he hasn't looked explosive as he continues to heal from offseason knee surgery. The team is hoping he continues to progress.
Watch out for second-year running back Bernard Scott. He is my sleeper pick for the Bengals this season. Scott has a chance to contribute both as Cedric Benson's backup as well as a kick returner. With increased opportunities, Scott should have increased production.
Adam Jones should help the Bengals in some capacity this year. His technique as a cornerback still needs improvement, but he is competing hard in practice and his physical abilities are still apparent. Jones also looks natural as a kick returner and could be an early favorite to win punt and/or kickoff return duties.
Although none of the injuries is major, the Bengals have been banged up this week. Fullback Fui Vakapuna hurt his shoulder and missed practice time. Dunlap suffered a concussion. Linebacker Rey Maualuga injured his hamstring and cornerback Johnathan Joseph also had a thigh injury.
The Bengals don't have a lot of depth at fullback, but the position might not be as important as it once was. Cincinnati's offensive personnel dictates the team will run a lot of three-wide receiver and two-tight end sets. In both instances, the fullback will be taken off the field.
I have not been impressed with Cincinnati's pass protection early in camp. You cannot see everything, because players cannot touch the quarterback. But the number of defenders getting in the passing lanes has been noticeable. That will be something to keep an eye on in the preseason.
I'll exit with a prediction: I have a sneaky feeling the Bengals will keep only two quarterbacks this season. Cincinnati has waves and waves of players at other positions, and cutting the No. 3 quarterback -- most likely Jordan Palmer -- is one way the Bengals can save a roster spot to retain an extra receiver, defensive back or linebacker. Carson Palmer and J.T. O'Sullivan would be the team's quarterbacks, while the Bengals could always add Jordan Palmer or someone else down the road in the event of an emergency.