In recent years the Cincinnati Bengals have been known as an offensive-minded squad that struggled on the defensive side. Quarterback Carson Palmer guided a high-octane offense that featured wideouts Chad Ocho Cinco and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, along with running back Rudi Johnson, a consistent 1,000-yard rusher.
The Bengals have sputtered through the first three weeks of 2008, ranking 26th in the league with 152 passing yards per game and 25th with 86.7 rushing yards per contest. These are confounding trends for a team that sat in the NFL's top 10 in total offense for the last five years.
It has been a tumultuous 2008 up to this point:
They're coming off a positive swing, though. After recording 369 offensive yards combined in their first two games against the Baltimore Ravens and the Tennessee Titans, the Bengals showed signs of life by putting up 347 in Week 3 against the New York Giants. Housh recorded double-digit receptions last week, while Palmer went 27-for-39 with 286 yards and his first passing touchdown of the season.
The problem: Going into the season, the Bengals offense consisted of four players that went on average in the first five or six rounds of fantasy football drafts. Johnson was the original back in that group, and Perry gained draft momentum when reports first came out that he could start.
So far, Palmer, Ocho Cinco and Housh have fallen well short of their projected offensive output at this point in the year. Perry has been solid but not outstanding.
Can the offensive stars for the 0-3 Bengals build on the improvements they showed in Week 3 and help fantasy football owners for the remainder of '08? It's hard to discount them so soon, but negative signs are visible.
Much of the blame for the early offensive swoon rests with the five behemoths up front. The Bengals' line proved vital last year by allowing just 17 sacks, setting the franchise record while ranking second in the NFL that year; they gave Palmer time to throw for a career-high 4,131 yards.
The only change in the line from last season was the departure of veteran tackle Willie Anderson, who missed nine contests in '07 due to foot and knee injuries. His exit wasn't much of a change since they played without him for more than half of the '07 slate. The Bengals tagged tackle Stacy Andrews, one of the team's best pass blockers, as their franchise player, so they committed to keeping last year's line intact.
Despite these efforts, Palmer has already been brought down nine times, including six times against a dominant Giants pass rush last week. The Bengals favor a vertical passing attack, meaning the offense needs time for long plays to develop. Left tackle Levi Jones was abused in Week 3, reportedly responsible for allowing at least two sacks. Last year, run blocking was more of a concern. This year, they have struggled in both facets.
Opposing defenses have taken advantage of the Bengals' sloppy timing by utilizing more two-deep, man-to-man coverage to halt the receivers' downfield progress, which if all goes well forces Palmer into a hasty throw. Consider, though, that two of the Bengals' first three opponents, the Giants and the Tennessee Titans, finished first and second, respectively, in sacks last season; thus, that's not a proper sample size by which to judge the rest of the season.
Palmer attempted 51 combined passes in his first two games, and they resulted in a 49.0 completion percentage. His 69.2 percent rate in Week 3 was leaps and bounds above that mark. Twelve of Palmer's 27 completions during Week 3 action went for more than 10 yards. Given, seven of those came in the fourth quarter, much of which was against prevent defenses, but he showed flashes of his old self.
Despite rediscovering the team's effective passing game, Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski went with conservative play calling in overtime in Week 3 after the offense showed sparks in regulation. He ran Perry up the middle on the first two downs before the Bengals went three and out.
This isn't necessarily reflective of the offense as a whole; it's natural for teams to favor possession in overtime for the most part. However, it shows that he might still be reluctant to let Palmer direct the air offense in full force.
In the preseason the Bengals also expressed a desire to control the clock more. They're failing to do so, sitting at 28th in the NFL's time of possession rankings by averaging just 28:09 with the ball per game.
Ocho Cinco was verbal about legally changing his name this year, but he hasn't shown frustration so far over his eight-catch, 88-yard campaign so far. Although he has registered at least 87 catches in each of his last five seasons, Ocho Cinco has been a very inconsistent fantasy performer; he has statistical explosions in spurts, making him a spotty play in head-to-head leagues.
He has been playing with a partially torn labrum in his left shoulder; it's harder to make catches when you're worried about extending your arms or landing on your shoulder. This might be causing him to be a little more conservative when attempting to catch a pass. Observers note that the injury hasn't had any visible effect thus far, though. The problem seems to be that, after missing half of the preseason, Ocho Cinco isn't where he needs to be with his conditioning. Chad says he hasn't been playing with much confidence, and that is likely why.
Housh tailed off in the second half last year, catching just two touchdown passes after Week 9. He is still the more valuable option in head-to-head leagues given his more consistent week-to-week displays. After compiling just six catches in his first two contests, he hauled in 12 passes against the Giants.
Ocho Cinco has been targeted just six times per game this year, receiving five, six and seven looks in the first three weeks, respectively. Houshmandzadeh is averaging 9.33 targets per contest and was sought out 15 times in Week 3. The upward trend in both players' numbers could signal a return to offensive comfort.
Missing in action
The struggles of the top two wideouts in the first two games might also be partially attributed to the absence of receiver Chris Henry, whom the team re-signed after cutting him due to disciplinary issues. He's suspended for the first four contests this year, meaning he hasn't been there to take some attention away from the big two.
Henry will be eligible to rejoin the team entering practice for their Week 5 game against the Dallas Cowboys. This would ordinarily be a sign that the offense was about to receive a significant boost, considering Henry's talent level. However, there have been indications that head coach Marvin Lewis doesn't plan to involve Henry heavily at the outset of his return. It's perhaps a curious decision given the offense's struggles, but the West Virginia University product has a lot to prove to the Bengals yet.
Slot receiver Antonio Chatman has benefited, averaging four targets and 2.67 receptions per game; he caught six passes for 70 yards in Week 3. He hasn't played a significant offensive role since his '05 season with the Green Bay Packers, when he caught 49 passes for 549 yards and four touchdowns.
After Henry was released, the team said they planned to involve tight ends Ben Utecht (chest) and Reggie Kelly more in the offense. Utecht, who has four targets this year, caught just two passes for 10 yards before leaving the Week 2 game with an injury; he missed Week 3. Kelly has been targeted 12 times so far this year and has 51 yards on eight catches.
The Bengals aren't known for incorporating the tight end into the offense; Cincy used them just 2.93 times per game last season.
Perry takes over
The most promising offensive player so far has been Perry, who assumed the starting job after the Bengals cut ties with Johnson before the season. Management favored Perry's ability in the receiving game to Johnson's up-the-gut style that seemed to slow him.
Perry was frequently tackled behind the line of scrimmage in Week 1 but has broken through in the last two weeks for a combined 138 yards and two touchdowns on 41 rushes. That's still a pedestrian 3.4 yards-per-carry average, but it's better than his 3.0 average when Week 1 is included. The offensive line simply hasn't done a great deal to spring him. Still, Perry, who also has four catches this year, has the versatility to offer Palmer another receiving outlet if Palmer struggles to throw downfield.
Fantasy football outlook
The lack of high-round production out of the Bengals is worrisome but could be rectified. It's unsound to panic after the first three weeks; Palmer, Ocho Cinco and Housh are established fantasy players.
Cincy also faced stalwart defenses the first two weeks of the season; the Giants offered a friendlier secondary to attack despite putting ample pressure on Palmer.
The offensive line was a prime reason for their success last year; if they show some improvement this coming week, better fantasy numbers should follow. Palmer still was able to make a difference in the passing game against an excellent pass rush last week.
The low likelihood of someone trading a player of equal value for a Cincy skill player means that fantasy owners are stuck for the moment. They will likely have to wait until their resident Bengals show signs of life before a deal can take place.
The return of Henry in Week 5 could bring another weapon to the passing offense. His impact, though unlikely immediate, makes this unit a better bet to rebound as the season moves on. Utecht, who has caught at least 31 passes in his last two years, could play in Week 4, which would give Palmer another midrange passing option.
Those who have Palmer on roster should hang on to him. He is a year removed from a 4,000-yard season and still has ample upside for this season. It's unadvisable to start him now despite the tempting Week 4 matchup against the Cleveland Browns' 23rd-ranked total defense. However, for the right price, Palmer is an intriguing buy-low candidate, given the potential at his disposal.
Perry should continue to be a vital piece of the offense, especially since he has little competition from backup Kenny Watson. Perry's versatility makes him a solid No. 3 running back and a low-end No. 2 option in some weeks. He should be leaned on a bit more, especially if the downfield game doesn't capitalize on its Week 3 performance.
Housh showed signs of coming around in Week 3 and should be held in all formats unless a trade offer fits your team's needs. Those in PPR leagues should be encouraged by his latest output.
Ocho Cinco isn't as safe of an option given the injury that he's playing with, but most fantasy owners aiming to acquire him should try to grab him at a bargain rate. He's too valuable to drop outright as he has ample fantasy potential, but owners should play the matchup game with him until his production hints a return to his 90-reception form. As each week passes, he should be closer to football shape and ready to post better fantasy numbers - assuming the shoulder doesn't become an issue.
If you drafted Ocho Cinco as your No. 1 wideout, your receiving corps probably needs some help. If he's your No. 2 or - if you went heavy on wideouts - your No. 3 option, you might be able to wait it out a bit longer because you likely have other sources of more reliable production.
That being said, if he's still in a drought in a few weeks, it's time to acquire a more productive replacement. Selling low is not the most desirable option, but as the current U.S. economy has shown us, be sure to pick your spot to jump off the wagon.
Don't bother with Utecht and Kelly; regarding the Bengals extensively using the tight ends, you should believe it when you see it. Watson has been involved little, so his sole value comes as a handcuff to Perry at this stage.
Henry should be kept on watch lists if you want to target a boom-or-bust wideout; his return to the No. 3 role should bump Chatman out of fantasy discussion.
About Tim Heaney
Tim's work has been featured by USA Today/Sports Weekly, among numerous outlets, and recognized as a finalist in the Fantasy Sports Writers Association awards. The Boston University alum, who competes in the prestigious LABR and Tout Wars, has won numerous industry leagues in both baseball and football.
He appears frequently, including every Sunday, on Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio, as well as every Wednesday on 1570 AM WNST in Baltimore.
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