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Saturday, August 13, 2011
Camp Confidential: Cincinnati Bengals

By James Walker

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

Andy Dalton
Cincinnati could face growing pains with rookie QB Andy Dalton.
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 acknowledges 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, that 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.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

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, 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.

Cochart's blocking makes him a sleeper to make the Bengals as a third tight end behind Jermaine Gresham and Bo Scaife.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

I wanted to see more from backup running back Bernard Scott. But he's 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.

OBSERVATION DECK