No-huddle brings out best in Palmer, Bengals
Although he wasn't Pro Bowl sharp, Carson Palmer emerged from the season opener victorious and unscathed.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Eight months ago to the day, Carson Palmer was prone on the Paul Brown Stadium turf, his knee so twisted and torn no one knew if his playoff game against the Steelers would be his last.
It was a bad moment frozen in time for Bengals fans teased by the first playoff season since 1990. Bengals fans breathed easier Sunday. Palmer put Kimo von Oelhoffen's hit and the knee injury behind him as he led the Bengals to a relatively easy 23-10 victory over an overmatched Kansas City Chiefs team.
"It's been over for me for a while," Palmer said about the knee injury after completing 13-of-19 passes for 127 yards. "Everybody else keeps talking about it, keeps bringing it up. Let's just play football."
The statement Palmer made Sunday is that he's back and he's only going to get better.
"It's just one game and we have a long ways to go," head coach Marvin Lewis said. "We're going to go back to work Monday and get ready for the Browns."
Sunday was a good base for the offense to build upon. In the first quarter, the offense looked ragged, but that's expected from a quarterback few thought would play the first game in 2006. Palmer had only 43 preseason snaps in two games and coaches weren't scheming against him like Chiefs defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham was Sunday.
Twice, Cunningham tried to confuse Palmer by lining eight defenders at the line of scrimmage on third down, leaving only three players to cover three Bengals receivers. The first time the Chiefs tried the unusual front, they dropped three defenders into zone coverage. The next time, they rushed eight, and Palmer missed wide receiver Chad Johnson.
Overall, Palmer was 3-for-5 for 9 yards in a first quarter in which the Bengals gained only 27 yards on 10 offensive plays. Things weren't in sync. Johnson ran the wrong route on the Chiefs' all-out third-down blitz, and the pass wasn't even in No. 85's zip code.
On the first play of the second quarter, Johnson ran a perfect post route but Palmer hit him in the foot on a horrible pass that most observers thought was deflected. The Bengals settled for a 37-yard field goal to tie the game at 3 with only seven seconds gone in the second quarter.
"Chad's the type of guy, if he makes a mistake I expect him to make up for it, and he did, running great routes and getting open," Palmer said. "We're in a very similar situation. When I make a mistake I need to come back and be myself and let him be himself."
The adjustment was going to the no-huddle offense, the staple of the Bengals' playoff drive last season. By the end of 2005, the Bengals were running the no-huddle 80 percent of the time. They didn't do it in the first quarter, and it allowed Cunningham and the Chiefs to get creative.
As soon as the Bengals went no-huddle in the second quarter, they were like a machine. Palmer engineered two touchdown drives in a nine-minute span that put the game on ice.
"The no-huddle throws a defense off-balance," Johnson said. "It's hard to call a defensive play when you go no-huddle. Basically, in no-huddle, you just to line up and just play ball."
The Chiefs' defense went from creative to predictable. Kansas City dropped into a Cover 2 scheme, and Palmer used a two-prone Johnson and Johnson attack. Starting from his 12-yard line with 10:18 left in the second quarter, Palmer kept the Chiefs off-balance with Rudi Johnson runs and Chad Johnson passes.
The result was two impressive touchdown drives. Palmer produced a staggering 128 yards in 17 plays. Rudi Johnson carried eight times for 56 yards. Chad Johnson caught four passes for 41 yards and moved the chains. Overall, Palmer was 5-for-8 for 66 yards on the two drives and set up two touchdown runs -- a 22-yarder by Rudi Johnson against a full Chiefs blitz and an 8-yarder by Kenny Watson on a pitch-out.
"We picked up where we left off last year, showing everybody that we still had that swagger," Chad Johnson said. "I think it was a big game for Carson. It might not have been the kind of game he wanted offensively, due to the weather, but we got the W so we're going to be fine. Nothing is wrong with No. 9 and we'll be ready to go."
Comforted by the 17-3 halftime lead, Palmer and Co. got a little sloppy as the weather worsened in the second half. There were fumbles. There were mistakes. But the best news for Bengals fans is that Palmer wanted to retreat to the tape room and work out the kinks.
"As long as you get a win, that's all that matters," Palmer said. "Offensively, it was ugly. Defense saved us today and really won the game for us, giving up great field position, getting turnovers, getting three-and-outs, killing their momentum when they had it. They gave us the opportunity to score in the red zone. It just took us a while to get going on offense."
The defense was a sidebar to the Bengals' story Sunday. The addition of massive defensive tackle Sam Adams and some interesting game planning made the Chiefs' potent offense impotent all day. The Bengals' defensive line -- starters and backups -- manhandled the Chiefs' offensive line.
Larry Johnson was held to 68 yards on 17 carries. He couldn't run to his left and many of his inside runs were stopped.
"We made them run sideline to sideline although they hit a couple of creases on us," Adams said. "But for the most part, they were trying to hit us on the outside. If they are going to run sideline to sideline, they aren't going to be very good."
Eight months ago, the Bengals wondered about their direction as trainers treated Palmer's knee. Now they know. Palmer is back. So is the swagger. And the defense looks better. Now the Bengals don't have a worry in the world.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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