Week 3 of the Terrell Owens Reunion Tour visits Orchard Park tonight after games against Dallas and Philly, two of T.O.’s other former stops. Lost in the “Batman and Robin” hype surrounding the Bengals’ talkative wide receivers and reality-show stars? Cincinnati won its division in 2009 and stands to be a serious contender in the AFC this season.
Stat that will probably surprise you (unless you watched a few Bengals games last season): the defense, for years among the dregs of the NFL, finished fourth in overall yardage and sixth in points allowed. How did they get so good? The 2008 hire of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer – who somehow continued to coach after the devastating death of his wife last October, guiding his unit to one of the best seasons in team history – might have had something to do with it. And as far as he’s concerned, there’s still room to improve.
“If things continue to go as I envision, we’ll be a defense that can contend,” said Zimmer, who worked as Chan Gailey’s defensive backs coach in Dallas. “We have to get better in some areas, but with the group we have coming back, I feel pretty good. They’ll be better because we’re not changing a bunch of things.”
Getting Antwan Odom back might help, too. The seventh-year defensive end was tied for the NFL lead in sacks when he ruptured his Achilles’ tendon in Week 6 of the 2009 season, and has spent most of the last year rehabbing the injury. He returns to a deep defensive line anchored by tackle Domata Peko. (Guessing that before the night’s over, you’ll notice him for more than the mane cascading out the back of his helmet.) The linebacking trio of Rey Maualuga, Keith Rivers, and veteran Dhani Jones is a distinct improvement over the injury- and suspension-riddled unit we saw on their trip here in 2007. Leon Hall and Johnathon Joseph have quietly become a very good tandem at cornerback, but the team’s been beset by injuries at safety.
Oh yeah, the offense. With Chad Ochocinco the only true threat at wide receiver following the injury to (and subsequent death of) Chris Henry, it’s remarkable that quarterback Carson Palmer still managed a 3,000-yard, 21-touchdown campaign in 2009. The Bengals restocked the depth chart during the offseason, signing Owens and former Jaguars problem child Matt Jones and drafting Texas Longhorns star Jordan Shipley. (Antonio Bryant, who they originally chose instead of Owens after both worked out for the team, may never play a down in orange and black due to an ongoing knee problem.) If first-round pick Jermaine Gresham can come all the way back from his own knee issues to take over at tight end, Palmer should have plenty of inviting targets to throw to. At running back, onetime Bears bust Cedric Benson has revitalized his career in Cincinnati, finishing last season with 1,251 yards despite missing three games.
QB: Chan Gailey may claim the quarterback competition is still open – “I can’t see a lot of movement in stock one way or the other because they’ve all done a pretty good job,” he said earlier in the week – but all signs point to Trent Edwards holding onto the job. The 70-yard touchdown strike to Lee Evans against the Colts should provide a jolt of confidence; let’s see how he looks in extended playing time against another 4-3 front. Who gets the second-team reps, and is that the guy they plan to keep? Your guess is as good as mine, because Gailey isn’t saying a word.
RB: So ... this Spiller kid looks like he might turn out okay, don’t you think? Kidding aside, his scintillating 31-yard touchdown run showcased precisely the type of playmaking ability the Bills have lacked in recent years. More of that, please and thank you. There also has to be room on this roster for Joique Bell – and to be honest, I wish there was a way to keep both him and Chad Simpson.
WR: It’s hard to imagine that only a couple of years ago, none of Buffalo’s top three wideouts stood over 5’ 10”. No wonder the “fade” pass spent much of that time buried deep in the team’s red-zone playbook. Lee Evans and Roscoe Parrish are now the only two receivers who don’t crack the 6-foot mark, and the last roster spot at the position could come down to a battle between two 6’5” players, David Nelson and James Hardy. Far as I’m concerned, Hardy didn’t stand out even when he was healthy, and it should be Nelson’s job to lose at this point. Further down the depth chart, rookies Donald Jones and Naaman Roosevelt get another chance to unseat Chad Jackson, but that looks like an uphill climb at this point.
TE: Do the Bills still have any tight ends? Right now, projected starter Jonathan Stupar is the only healthy holdover from last year, as multiple injuries at the position forced the team to add free agents J.P. Foschi and Andrew George this week. Undersized and oft-injured Derek Schouman may be in his final days on the Buffalo roster, and with an upcoming suspension added to his own injury issues, Shawn Nelson hasn’t done himself any favors this summer.
OL: I’ll be keeping an eye on the tackles tonight (although Demetrius Bell might see only limited action), trying to ease my concern that they’ll be overmatched in pass protection again this season. With Bills rushers averaging more than five yards per carry this preseason, runblocking doesn’t seem to be an issue.
DL: The only question I see here is whether they keep six or seven linemen, and who John McCargo is battling for the final roster spot. And if Spencer Johnson hadn’t missed so much time, I wouldn’t even be asking the second part.
LB: With Reggie Torbor out until at least the season opener, Chris Ellis is the latest player to move ahead of Aaron Maybin into the starting lineup. Great. While it doesn’t say much for the progression of last year’s No. 11 overall pick, keep an eye on Ellis, because he earned the promotion. The inside trio of Andra Davis, Paul Posluszny, and Kawika Mitchell would appear to be set, leaving some interesting competition between veteran Keith Ellison, free agent Donovan Woods, and rookies Arthur Moats and Antonio Coleman at the bottom of the roster.
DB: Should be fun to watch the matchup between “Batman and Robin” and the Bills’ secondary, although we all miss Jairus Byrd. Going into training camp, I expected Ashton Youboty to be the odd man out at corner, but both Reggie Corner and Ellis Lankster have struggled at times. Think Corner’s safe, but unless they keep all six, I’m not so sure about Lankster.
Lori Chase, a staff columnist for Two Bills Drive, can be contacted at lchase (at) twobillsdrive.com.
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