In 2008, the Cincinnati Bengals finished 4-11-1 despite a sneakily-good defense that ranked 12th in the NFL. The problem was a 32nd-ranked offense that surely didn't benefit from being without veteran starting quarterback Carson Palmer for three-fourths of the season.
In 2009, the Bengals were one of the NFL's surprise turnaround teams, winning the tough AFC North on the strength of a 6-0 intradivision record and a defense that continued to improve, up to fourth in the NFL. Palmer returned to start every game, and that clearly helped, but statistically the biggest improvement wasn't in the passing game.
The real difference-maker just might have been a full season from Cedric Benson, the former Chicago Bears running back who didn't become a Bengal until he was released by the Bears in June of 2008 and picked up by Cincinnati at the end of September. In 2008, the Bengals averaged 95 rushing yards per game and 3.6 yards per rush, though Benson definitely started to find his groove down the stretch. In 2009, the Bengals averaged 128.5 rushing yards per game and 4.1 yards per carry. Cincinnati's rushing offense climbed from 29th in the league to ninth, and that certainly helped them compete against such rugged division foes as Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
Doing most of the work was Benson, who gained 1,251 yards and scored six touchdowns on 301 totes.
"He's a great running back," said Buccaneers linebacker Quincy Black. "He rushed for like 1,200 yards last year, and they're looking to get the running game going."
Indeed, Cincinnati's most noticeable decline in the NFL rankings is in rushing offense, where they have slipped back to 27th with 92.0 yards per game while starting out 2-2. The most relevant stat there is "2-2," because four games does not come close to defining a season and Benson (3.3 yards per carry so far) is a good bet to find that groove again. Further, the Bengals don't believe their current offensive imbalance is a problem as long as the wins continue to come.
"When you try to label a team one certain way, that's when you're not going to be successful," said Bengals tackle Andrew Whitworth. "We don't have to run the football. We can throw it. And we can run it. We can do whatever we want. We just have to be efficient. When we get out of the mindset that we have to be one way, we'll be better."
And, no, Cincinnati didn't bring Terrell Owens into the fold and pair him with Chad Ochocinco (more than 1,700 career receptions between them) to do nothing but grind it out. Like every team, the Bengals, who have the sixth-best passing attack in the league so far, want balance and versatility. So whether or not the Bengals are planning a Benson-heavy game plan this week, the Buccaneers still expect their opponent to work hard to establish a running attack.
"Cedric Benson did a great job of sparking their club last year," said Morris. "He came to their football team and sparked their club with his presence and his ability to run. It was kind of a bounce-back year for them. They want to get their running game going as well. This year they're looking for the spark to come from Terrell Owens and Chad, and that will happen. Cedric Benson and their running game really sparked this thing and turned them into a playoff team last year. They're going to use that same formula."
Healthy Bucs Face Tough Decisions
Linebacker Adam Hayward was slowed by an illness on Friday and did not practice, but he is likely to be over it by the time the Buccaneers jet off to Cincinnati on Saturday. Other than that, every player on the Bucs' 53-man roster was able to practice without limitations on Friday.
Thus, the Buccaneers' final injury report of the week, while five players long, is essentially spotless. Hayward, linebacker Niko Koutouvides (ankle), defensive end Kyle Moore (shoulder), wide receiver Maurice Stovall (back) and tight end Kellen Winslow (knee) are all considered probable for Sunday's game against the Bengals. Koutouvides and Stovall are returning after missing Tampa Bay's last game.
Cincinnati's Friday injury report, the first to include game-status designations, was longer (eight players) and a bit more impactful. Two Bengals, in fact, have already been ruled out for the game: defensive end Jonathan Fanene (hamstring) and wide receiver Jordan Shipley. Fanene, considered the Bengals' number-three end behind Robert Geathers and Antwan Odom, hasn't played since aggravating a pre-existing injury in the season opener. Shipley, however, is new to the injury report this week, having sustained his concussion on a hard hit by Cleveland safety T.J. Ward last Sunday. The rookie out of Texas is Cincinnati's fourth-leading receiver with 15 catches.
Starting strong safety Roy Williams is likely to miss Sunday's game, as well, after not practicing all week due to a knee injury. The Bengals list Williams as doubtful to play against the Buccaneers. Cincinnati added wide receiver Chad Ochocinco to the injury report on Friday with a groin ailment that kept him out of practice, but he is considered probable for the game. The same is true of linebacker Dhani Jones (hamstring), cornerback Johnathan Joseph (forearm), running back Bernard Scott (hamstring) and defensive tackle Pat Sims (knee).
The Buccaneers' clean bill of health presents the coaching staff with a pleasant problem: With no injured players to take up the eight inactive spots on Sunday, the decisions will be made solely on strategic grounds. And with the team contemplating expanded roles for the likes of Kareem Huggins, LeGarrette Blount, Erik Lorig, Michael Bennett and others, it's fair to say the coaches could easily make use of 50 active players.
"That's a sign of the team being better," said Morris. "We're really looking forward to it. Huggins is one of those guys that was part of the plan right from the beginning but had the unfortunate injury, so we look forward to getting him back going. The emergence of Arrelious [Benn] – he was already up on the roster but we can't wait to get him out there. Lorig is one of the guys who's going to be up there and will be able to play at fullback. Obviously that battle between him and [fullback Chris] Pressley will continue on throughout the season and we'll let those guys play it out.
"All these new guys…putting guys in the lineup and figuring out who you're going to put down. Those things make you excited because of the constant ascending players on our football team that you feel like are getting better."
Getting It Done on Third Down
One reason the Buccaneers have enjoyed a fine 2-1 start to the 2010 season is that they have been proficient on third-down plays – getting off the field on defense and prolonging drives on offense.
Tampa Bay is above league average in both categories, having converted 42.2% of their third-down attempts on offense and having allowed opponents to convert on just 36.8% of their tries. The NFL average for third-down conversions so far is 38.7%.
Offensively, the Buccaneers rank 11th in the NFL in third-down conversions, and defensively they rank 13th. While those numbers edge to the middle of the pack, what is most noteworthy is that the team has succeeded on both sides of the ball.
Only three teams in the NFL have outdone the Buccaneers in both third-down conversions on offense and third-down defense: Atlanta, Baltimore and Houston. Not coincidentally, those three teams have combined for a 9-3 record so far.
If the Buccaneers can maintain their current levels of success on third downs, offensively and defensively, it would mark significant progress over the 2009 season. Last year, Tampa Bay finished the season with a 32.6% offensive conversion rate on third downs, while its opponents converted 40.2% of their tries. Both of those rates were worse than league average.