All eyes will be on Palmer in Cincinnati

Second-year QB Carson Palmer will be in the spotlight in Boston.

Updated: September 3, 2004, 10:50 AM ET
By Mark Curnette | Pro Football Weekly

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

Most of the attention paid to the Bengals this season will be on first-time NFL starting QB Carson Palmer. Palmer takes over for Jon Kitna, even though Kitna had a Pro Bowl-caliber season in 2003.

But the Bengals' defense will have just as much, if not more, to do in determining if the Bengals have another non-losing season.

They added three new starters to the league's 28th-ranked defense, joining the five new starters from a year ago. How well the defense can stop the run will likely be the biggest indicator of how far the Bengals go.

Quarterbacks: Through the first half of the preseason, Palmer made the Bengals look wise. He is mature in the pocket, showing a willingness to check down to running backs instead of forcing passes into coverage. Talent surrounds Palmer, who knows it is his job to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers. There will be inevitable mistakes, but Palmer appears poised to have a quick learning curve. Kitna is supportive and as good a backup as there is in the league. Rookie Casey Bramlet is the third quarterback. Grade: C-plus.

Running backs: Rudi Johnson is no stranger to pressure. At Auburn in 2000, he was charged with revitalizing the program's run offense, which had fallen into disrepair. All eyes were on him then, Johnson said, as they are now. Johnson takes over for the traded Corey Dillon as the Bengals' featured back. Johnson's precision when hitting holes is a reason for his success, coaches say. Johnson, who signed a one-year tender as a restricted free agent, also is playing for a huge contract. His goal of 1,500 rushing yards is realistically not out of reach. Rookie Chris Perry is an outside changeup to Johnson's between-the-tackles power. Perry will get work on third down and should tally a healthy number of receptions when Palmer checks down. Kenny Watson is a capable third back and special-teams staple. There could be a problem at fullback, where last year's rookie starter, Jeremi Johnson, came to training camp overweight and suffered a groin injury. James Lynch has filled in but looks slow and sluggish as a receiver. Look for TE Tony Stewart to get a lot of work as an H-back. Grade: B-plus.

Receivers: Chad Johnson, coming off his first Pro Bowl, might get closer to his goal of 1,800 receiving yards. He and Palmer are developing a knack for hitting on the deep ball. This is a deep corps of receivers, but the health of Peter Warrick's right knee could be a problem. He missed the first two preseason games because of lingering weakness, the result of postseason surgery to repair cartilage damage. Warrick gives defenses another headache and helps to open space for Johnson. Behind Johnson and Warrick, second-year receiver Kelley Washington is emerging as a fine possession target. Veteran T.J. Houshmandzadeh, healthy after a season of hamstring problems, gives the team a solid No. 4. At tight end, the Bengals need either Reggie Kelly (thumb) or Matt Schobel (hamstring) to stay healthy and provide depth. Fourth-year player Tony Stewart might supplant Kelly as the starter. Grade: B-plus.

Offensive linemen: The Bengals made two significant moves in the offseason: re-signing C Rich Braham and signing C-OG Larry Moore as a free agent. Moore, with more than 30 NFL starts at guard and center, brings important depth to the line. With little proven experience behind starting OTs Levi Jones and Willie Anderson, the Bengals now can move OLG Eric Steinbach to left tackle if injury occurs. Moore could fill in for Steinbach at left guard. Newcomer Bobbie Williams is the starting right guard, and the Bengals will run the ball in an attempt to control the clock and reduce pressure on Palmer. Grade: B-plus.

Defensive linemen: This unit is one of the biggest question marks on the team. Inconsistent at best in '03, the line returns all four starters - DEs Justin Smith and Duane Clemons and DTs John Thornton and Tony Williams. Carl Powell and Glen Steele, re-signed in camp after his release by the Giants, are the top backup tackles. Powell also can play end, where second-year player Elton Patterson could provide a spark as a pass rusher. Rookie DT Matthias Askew and rookie DE Robert Geathers appear to be a year away in their development. Grade: C.

Linebackers: Besides Palmer, MLB Nate Webster faces as much individual pressure as any player on the roster. The unrestricted free agent, signed from Tampa Bay, will be counted on to improve a run defense which tied for 25th last season. Webster's arrival allows the Bengals to move Kevin Hardy back outside to strong-side linebacker, his natural position, a switch that also should help against the run. The steady Brian Simmons returns as the weak-side starter. Rookie Caleb Miller adds speed and playmaking ability as Webster's backup. Fellow rookie Landon Johnson has had shoulder problems, but veteran Frank Chamberlin has played well in the preseason. Second-year backup Khalid Abdullah is likely lost for the season with a dislocated ankle. Grade: C-plus.

Defensive backs: CB Deltha O'Neal's ankle injury prevented the Bengals from gaining cohesion in the secondary in the preseason. Rookie Madieu Williams, a safety-cornerback, has started at cornerback in O'Neal's absence. Tory James is the other corner. Rogers Beckett returns at strong safety. Kim Herring, released by the Rams after missing the '03 season with a broken forearm, reunites with Lewis (Baltimore in 2000) to give the Bengals a centerfielder who knows exactly what coaches want. Rookie Keiwan Ratliff fell behind because of a contract holdout but will play at least on special teams. The secondary is deeper than recent years but needs time to jell. Grade: C-plus.

Special teams: Special-teams coach Darrin Simmons has several new players to work with. In '03, Simmons turned the kicking game from a negative to a neutral. The goal this season is to make it a positive. PK Shayne Graham returns with a big contract - the Bengals matched Jacksonville's offer in free agency - and owns the franchise's accuracy record (22-of-25 FG attempts) after just one season. There are problems at punter, where incumbent Kyle Richardson tore a biceps muscle. Rookie Kyle Larson has been inconsistent, and the Bengals are hoping for a sooner-than-expected return by Richardson. A waiver-wire pickup is likely if Richardson is out for the season, and Larson doesn't improve. Houshmandzadeh and Patrick Johnson are getting turns as the primary kickoff-return man. Grade: B.

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