Resiliency of youth

Posted by hobsonschoice1 on September 18, 2011 – 11:44 am

DENVER — This one just goes to show that an opener means next to nothing.

The Bengals play the team that broke their hearts but didn’t break them when they play the Broncos on Sunday (4:15 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Local 12).

In one of the more significant games in Bengals history, Kyle Orton’s Spike Strike, The Immaculate Deflection, The Tip, whatever you want to call it, beat the Bengals from 87 yards out in the 2009 opener they had won with 11 seconds left. But the Broncos ended the season imploding while the Bengals swept the AFC North and won the title.

It set up arguably the biggest victory of the Marvin Lewis era the next week when the Bengals won in a place they had never won in a 31-24 victory at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, sending them on a 4-1 start that included three division wins all secured in the last 22 seconds.

So, don’t write that opener in stone just yet.

“Just because you lose that game doesn’t mean you go to the playoffs and vice versa,” said cornerback Leon Hall, whose play on the ball went horribly wrong when the tip went behind him and not into the sidelines. “We were able to answer. For the defense it was one of the toughest losses because we played so well and we weren’t able to come up with a win.”

Maybe the most amazing thing about it all is that the Bengals were able to survive such a heartbreak with the NFL’s least experienced roster in that first month of ’09. This ’11 team has the fourth least experience with an average of 3.6 years, according to a chart released by the NFL on Friday, but it’s still a young group. They have the fewest players age 30 and over (cornerback Nate Clements and safety Chris Crocker) and are the third youngest team in the league by average age and youngest in the AFC at 25.74 years.

We’re talking days and percentage points, but it feels like more that to Crocker, 31.

“We’re a lot more younger now,” he said. “It’s a different team than ’09. The only thing that’s similar is nobody expects us to win. We’re really a different team. That was a good locker room. This is a good locker room. We were very talented then and we’re very talented now. It’s hard to compare.”

The biggest difference, of course, is the experience at quarterback. In ’09, Carson Palmer willed the Bengals to the title with seven last drives in regulation and overtime that either tied the game or gave them the lead with 2:03 left or less. Although the Bengals relied on the run to get into those situations, Crocker agrees they have to ride running back Cedric Benson even more.

“Offensively, we’ve got to run the ball. That’s how we have to win,” Crocker said. “Now we’ve got to really run the ball.”

Two years and still young. But not that young.

The Bengals are below the AFC average of 11.2 rookies and first-year players with nine. They’ve got a big number of young players who are 24 or younger and are at least in their second year of being a starter or regular: Seven with middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (24), right tackle Andre Smith (24), right end Michael Johnson (24), tight end Jermaine Gresham (23), wide receiver Brandon Tate (23), defensive tackle Geno Atkins (23), and left end Carlos Dunlap (22).

Plus, you’ve got two guys that will be making their 61st and 60th starts today in defensive tackle Domata Peko and cornerback Leon Hall, respectively, and they are only 26.

“We’ve got a lot of young guys who have a played a lot of football,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “You want young guys. You’ve got to stay young at heart. That’s part of the deal. As long as we’re mature and hopefully we’ll continue to mature.”

So when guys like Crocker and Hall say it is different than ’09, you have to believe them.

“There are a lot of different people,” Hall said. “The linebacking corps is new. Certainly there’s a different feel.”

Such as on the defensive front, where the only additions have been huge in the second-year Atkins and Dunlap. But players like Johnson and defensive tackle Pat Sims have improved.

“They’re a lot better. Even in our four-man rushes we’re getting pressure or pushing the pocket just enough. They’ve been playing like that since the preseason,” Hall said.

Hall is a prime example of that ’09 comeback. He recovered to have a career-high six interceptions and along with cornerback Johnathan Joseph was part of a duo that became the linchpin of the fourth-ranked Bengals defense. After The Tip, during the next 15 weeks wide receivers caught just eight touchdown passes.

Hall was even willing to watch tape of the play Wednesday morning, but he noticed that secondary coach Kevin Coyle left out The Tip on his video of that game, as well as Joseph’s play in that series in which he caught an interception out of bounds. Hall said he knows why Coyle showed it. The Bengals responded to Orton and his receivers and virtually shut them down until The Tip. Until then, the Broncos had just two field goals.

“I was actually looking forward to seeing it,” Hall said of the play. “I’m over it now.”

So is Crocker, it seems.

“Pure luck,” he said. “You can’t explain why anything like that happens. Stuff just happens.”

Some would argue that two openers later, fate conspired to help the Bengals last Sunday in Cleveland as they got a flukey play when they caught the Browns defense breaking late out of its huddle and conjured up the winning 41-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver A.J. Green with 4:28 left in a game they were almost out as much as the Broncos were in ’09.

“We caught them,” Crocker said. “And we took advantage. Stuff happens.”

Other age tidbits: The Steelers are the oldest team in the league as far as age (27.28) and years of experience. They have 13 players 30 and older, but the Chargers lead with 17. The youngest team is Tampa Bay at 25.17, Seattle second at 25.72, and the Bengals are tied with Green Bay 25.74. The Bucs also have the most inexperienced team with 3.3 years of NFL service.

In the rest of the AFC North, Baltimore has 13 players 30-plus and the Browns nine. But Cleveland is the least experienced team in the AFC with 3.5 years while averaging 26.02 years. The Ravens are a year older than the Bengals and Browns at 4.6 years of experience and 26.45 years of age.

What’s better?

Ask the Steelers. If you lose, you’re too old. If you win, you’re mature and experienced.

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