Posted by hobsonschoice1 on June 21, 2010 – 2:11 pm

A few final impressions as the Bengals head into summer vacation.

DEFENSE SNIFFS ELITE: The numbers suggest what the practices have shown. Mike Zimmer‘s unit is on the verge of – dare we even think it – pushing Pittsburgh and Baltimore as the best defense in the AFC North.

After climbing from No. 27 to No. 12 to No. 4 under Zimmer in two seasons, the third year brings the exact same starting lineup and coaching staff and that has allowed Zimmer to reinvent his playbook without missing a beat. Someone on offense said two-thirds of what the defense showed them this spring was completely different. That is going to be a major pain for offensive coordinators.

They are playing fast and with confidence and versatility. Of course, they face a backbreaking schedule in the last two Super Bowl quarterbacks (Drew Brees and Peyton Manning), the guy who leads all active QBs with rings (Tom Brady), as well as a two-time ringmaster in Ben Roethlisberger.

But the Bengals have a lot more answers than most and it starts at cornerback. If Adam Jones stays clean, they’ve got three guys that can cover better than anybody. It is also time to extend both starters. Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall as a tandem are as important to this team as quarterback Carson Palmer. And their young linemen (Peko, Mike Johnson, Pat Sims, Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap) to go along with the Geathers, Fanenes and Ruckers give them some explosive depth up front for the first time since maybe ever.

This has always been an offensive franchise.  But last year is proof that you can win a division title with a good defense and a mediocre offense.  The Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason years showed it is too hard the other way around. This is the unit, the 2010 defense, that turns it into a defensive franchise and it doesn’t mean Palmer is a lesser quarterback. If he cashes the wins, everybody is legit.

RECEIVERS UNDER GUN: Is there some uneasiness out there about what Palmer has at wide receiver? There are some questions that linger into summer. But this is also a better crew than he had last year. Antonio Bryant is better than Laveranues Coles, Andre Caldwell is better than Andre Caldwell, and Jordan Shipley is better than anybody they had in the slot last year.

Bryant looked good early, but when his knee began to give him some trouble last week, he ended the camps looking like he had all the elusiveness of the anchor formerly known as Coles. They think he’ll be OK once he gets proper rest and some rehab, and it also shows they’ve got a tenacious, conscientious guy that tried to stay on the field so he could learn the offense. If he gets the proper rest, he should be OK, but it makes the sun a little hotter.

The Ocho looked good in five practices but is that good enough to be a No. 1 receiver? He looked quick and energetic, but when you struggle surrounding your No. 1 guy like they have the last two years, he can look like a No. 2 because the defense can take him away. It’s not five years ago, but he does look like he can still be a handful if they don’t let double teams swallow him.

The best receiver in camp was Caldwell. He can play outside, inside, he knows all the spots, and he’s physical. You also wish he was more consistent catching the long ball. But he’s going to disappoint the Andre-haters out there because he looks like he’s ready to emerge in that third season.

You’ve got to love the rookie Shipley and, for that matter, Jermaine Gresham, the rookie tight end. But how much can we expect in 2010? Rookie receivers historically struggle and the slot guy and the tight end have the most on their plate mentally in the pass game besides the QB because of all the adjustments to defenses, and hot reads necessitated by playing inside. How much can rookies produce at those spots?

That said, these two guys are keepers. Gresham is the next Rodney Holman and Shipley has the tools to be a clutch third-down receiver.

But when?

So, at wide receiver, The Ocho, Bryant, Caldwell and Shipley, right?  Who are the last two to make the roster? Anybody’s guess. After running by people the first couple of weeks, Matt Jones hasn’t been as visible and they worry about his quickness in getting available in time for blitz reads. Still, he and improving Jerome Simpson give them something they haven’t had (size and hands) since Chris Henry’s injury in Game 8 last year.

How much can a 20-year-old Dez Briscoe, the sixth-rounder, reasonably help them right now? He looks good, but when?

Which seems to be the theme of it all. There is more talent at this position than in’ 09, but will we see it in ’10?

ANDRE SMITH: The Blind Side is turning out to be a better read than The Down Side. The thing is, we just don’t know enough about Smith to know what they’ve got.  Is he going to be Chris Perry or J.Joe? Is he going to be David Pollack or Leon Hall?  Is he going to be known for his play or for getting hurt?

Marvin Lewis said Smith will be back for training camp and if he can string together six weeks of practice without his foot bothering him, they’ve got a force. When he did play last year, he flashed enough to make you think they’ve got quite a specimen here that can be a factor for a long time if…

Backing him up right tackle, they’ve got a big, physical presence in the 6-9 Dennis Roland that has earned the rep as a superb technician that can tilt the running game. There is also the athleticism that makes Anthony Collins a good pass protector. It worked rotating them last year.

KICKERS: Can you go off practice where nobody is rushing and a miss or make only means the difference between when practice is over? Maybe. At the very least it has to be encouraging that Mike Nugent and Dave Rayner combined to go 23-for-24 last week and the only miss was Rayner’s 54-yarder. Shayne Graham has never made a 54-yarder, so who knows?

But you do get the sense they may be OK there. The one question is if they’ll extend the competition to training camp. With a bunch of roster battles and five preseason games, can you have two spots taken for kickers? They could decide no.

GEORGETOWN: Could we be heading to the last training camp as we know it? If the season is delayed in 2011 because of labor strife, the school won’t be an option because it will be back in session. And if the new CBA in 2012 moves back the start of training camp to accommodate an 18-game regular season, same problem. So camp would be, presumably, at Paul Brown Stadium. But that’s a big what if, isn’t it?

SPRING BALL: Good riddance. Playing football in shorts, helmets and shoulder pads is pseudo football.  Even the media controversies in May and June struggle for legitimacy, never mind the play.

In what other sport is the practice version so different than the game version?

In some sports, you can qualify for the pole and the U.S. Open in what amounts to practice sessions. In baseball you can tell if a guy can hit left-handed pitching or play the outfield as opposed to first base in simulated situations or even batting practice or infield practice. In basketball you know if a guy can shoot free throws or play defense from a simple shirts-and-skins scrimmage.

But football? If you’re not wearing pads, you’re not playing the sport.

Fourth-round pick Geno Atkins looked unblockable this spring. He looked like he was wearing the QB’s jersey he looked so alone. They think Gresham can block, but they don’t know. They think safety Roy Williams’ healed broken arm will hold up, but it hasn’t been hit consistently yet.

In the spring, the questions around an NFL team always seem to be like your lawn. They just keep growing.

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