As the Bengals Showed, Blocking and Tackling Still Rule the NFL

Thank Carson Palmer for his debut performance on Sept. 12, because the Bengals gave too little other indication they'll be contenders. They'll entertain us this year, but that's not going to ma

Jerry Dowling

Thank Carson Palmer for his debut performance on Sept. 12, because the Bengals gave too little other indication they'll be contenders. They'll entertain us this year, but that's not going to make us happy. Maybe next year.

We're not trying to kill the season after just one game, but this game, football, again and again is about blocking and tackling. If you can't block and tackle, it doesn't matter how well you run and throw. We'll see all the running and throwing we'd like this year. But we won't see winning until we see tackling.

Did you see tackling in the Bengals' 31-24 season-opening road loss to the New York Jets? When the Bengals defenders at least found the ball carriers, we saw tackling. That usually happened about 10 yards past the line of scrimmage.

Palmer can't do anything about that.

Happiness is winning. Entertainment is daring feats in the passing game. The old wisdom has it that offense sells tickets and defense wins games. So step right up for the greatest show on earth. Just don't cry when you lose.

The Bengals will compete from game to game because they have the weapons to stay alive offensively. We saw lots of that against the Jets, and we'll love seeing more. Palmer looked like a guy who must have won the Heisman Trophy in college, completing 18 of 27 passes for 248 yards in his first try against an NFL defense.

He also threw one away with two minutes left from his own 49 as the Bengals drove toward the tying score. A Jets rookie, Erik Coleman, notched the interception. But when you ask your debuting quarterback to ring up 300 passing yards and pull out a road game with a drive at the end against a middle class NFL team, there's too much else wrong with your football team.

Training camp opened with fans worried about a reprise of the David Klingler experience, just hoping the organization would surround its young quarterback with enough weapons to protect him from bodily harm. The Bengals, to their credit, have handled Palmer perfectly, giving him a year to train and plenty of weapons.

The Bengals mostly stayed out of third-and-long Sunday, and when they couldn't, Palmer usually handled it. The news is good.

But the flip side already is obvious. It's great that Palmer has a bit of offensive line protection, nice receivers who come open, the knowledge to find them and the arm to get the ball to them.

But even if his productivity is off the charts, he'll usually come up short because of a slow and inert defense. Game by game, the Bengals will compete because of their offense. But you don't go to the playoffs for competing. You get there by winning. Which requires tackling.

For reasons no one would sensibly choose, the Bengals will put their name in lights this year as a thrilling and interesting football team, transformed naturally into an aerial circus without design help from the coaches. They'll simply be forced to throw because they'll usually fall behind. The Bengals won't win nine or 10 games this year without one of the best passing offenses in their history.

And these guys might end up producing the best passing offenses in Bengals history, but their best days won't be coming this year. In the meantime, don't sleep on this talent.

Palmer won a Heisman Trophy, wide receiver Peter Warrick was going to win one at Florida State and Chad Johnson already is one of the NFL's best wide receivers. They'll light it up.

For the Bengals to win, though, these guys will have to be better this year than they presumably will have to be in future seasons. Perhaps, in the future, the Bengals can put together a defense that doesn't routinely back up seven yards after off-tackle plays. It doesn't look like that's going to happen this year.

Sunday night, for the first time on national television since a 30-3 drubbing on a Sunday night in Atlanta two years ago, the Bengals will be back under the TV eye against the Miami Dolphins. Because the Dolphins have no offensive players the equal of Curtis Martin or Chad Pennington, we might expect that the Bengals' defense will at least look a little better.

At the same time, their offense might not be a match for the tough Miami defense. If the Jets game was Palmer's debut, the Miami game will be his first truly stern NFL test.

The test for the Bengals' defense will be less stern, but it's no more certain they can pass it. Martin, the Jets' 31-year-old running back, said he didn't even feel tired after torching the Bengals for 196 rushing yards. We can't be sure Lamar Gordon or A.J. Feeley will feel any differently.

Entering the Sept. 12 NFL openers, we would have thought the Bengals would be favored against the Dolphins, who are in complete disarray. Even before Ricky Williams reserved his tent in the Orient, the Dolphins were only marginally in the playoff picture. Now they might be gunning for the top draft pick.

When the Bengals allow 219 rushing yards to the Jets and now face a team that didn't even rush for one-third of that, hopes have to run high. But the early-season questions are running right with the hopes. Was the Jets' rushing offense that good or was the Bengals' rushing defense that bad? Was the Dolphins' rushing offense that bad or was the Tennessee rushing defense that good?

Who would have thought the Bengals would hire as their front man and head coach Marvin Lewis, the best defensive coordinator in football, and the defense would still be this bad in his second season? The Bengals finished 28th in NFL defense last season, made some marginal acquisitions and the Jets torched them in the opener for 438 yards, half on the ground. In their last five games, the Bengals have given an average of 205 rushing yards.

It's a different Bengals defense this year, the statistics to the contrary. During the bad old days, the highlight reels touched lives with visions of the Bengals haplessly missing tackles. The Bengals were much stickier tacklers against the Jets, but they too seldom even had tacklers present when Martin or some other Jets performer turned the corner or reached the edges of the defense.

So far Lewis has overhauled the offense without really touching defense. We might be puzzled, but we should be relieved, since we wouldn't have known he could fix the offense and we're certain he'll improve the defense in time. The Bengals were a big job when Lewis took it and, for all his achievement, remain a big job today.

We should have known, when Lewis took the job, that he wouldn't put the Bengals into the playoffs in two years. Now, we're almost sure of it.

contact bill peterson: [email protected]

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