After a disappointing 2007 campaign for the Cincinnati Bengals, who went 7-9 despite having two Pro Bowl receivers on the roster, all eyes were focused on the defensive side of the ball for 2008. After all, that's where the problems were -- and in fact, the improvement from a very young unit was quite significant. Cincinnati jumped from 27th in the league in yards allowed to 12th, and yet, the team finished with only four wins.
So what went wrong?
Well, Carson Palmer missed 12 games due to a partially torn ligament in his passing elbow. While Ryan Fitzpatrick filled in admirably, he was no Carson Palmer, topping 200 yards in passing only twice all season. Meanwhile, the running attack never materialized with Rudi Johnson released right after the preseason and the underwhelming combination of Kenny Watson and Chris Perry getting outrushed by the quarterback position during the regular season. It speaks volumes that "fantasy hemlock" Cedric Benson was able to come in and take over the lead back role. In fact, shockingly, the team was 4-0-1 when Benson carried the ball 20 times or more.
In 2009, Palmer is back, and although T.J. Houshmandzadeh has taken his receiving talents to Seattle, the Bengals QB still has two Pro Bowl-caliber options in a rededicated Chad Ochocinco and newly acquired Laveranues Coles. They spent their top draft pick on Andre Smith, a run-blocking specialist who should help Benson continue his surprising success of last season, as well as keep Palmer from a return to the injured list. With the offense back to its high level of success, and Marvin Lewis' defense getting a boost from veterans Tank Johnson and Roy L. Williams, along with Rey Maualuga (drafted out of USC), the Bengals are primed and ready for a trip to the postseason for only the second time since 1991.
What to look for in camp
Key position battles: Based on his performance in the second half of 2008, along with the new two-year deal he signed, it's clear that Benson will be given first chance at running back for the Bengals. However, he has yet to produce a 1,000-yard season in his four-year career, and if he reverts back to the "Cedric Benson of old," Cincinnati will need to have a solid backup ready to jump into the huddle.
Watson was, at first, cut by the team last season, and then brought back for a disappointing encore, and he's clearly not held in incredibly high regard by the team. That could open the door for Bernard Scott (a rookie with five arrests on his rap sheet) or Brian Leonard (acquired in an offseason trade with St. Louis) to grab the No. 2 job outright in camp. Also in the mix will be returning players DeDe Dorsey and James Johnson. In the end, it might come down to which of these players does the best job on special teams, as the ultimate hope for this offense is that a No. 2 back won't actually be needed, except in mop-up duty.
Another key battle that will come to a conclusion in the preseason is the one between Chris Henry and Andre Caldwell for the No. 3 receiver behind Ochocinco and Coles. Henry has motivation to excel; he's in the final year of his contract, and certainly needs to be on his best behavior in order to ensure he'll find employment in the league in 2009 and beyond should he and the Bengals ultimately decide to part ways.
Caldwell, on the other hand, is finding that he's already getting a lot more put on his plate. In the final game of last season, Caldwell got to try his hand at the "Wildcat" and rushed four times for 49 yards against the Chiefs, in addition to catching five balls for 34 yards. That added wrinkle, along with his kick-return abilities, makes him a definite possibility for seeing increased action in 2009. If so, it's going to come at Henry's expense.
Fitting in: Coles will have to work alongside Ochocinco, and the concern is that the two receivers are used to covering the same territory on the field. While Houshmandzadeh was content to lay his body on the line over the middle of the field, that's not exactly Coles' forte. Both Coles and Mr. 85 are also in the habit of being the main man when the Bengals are inside the red zone. If the two are to coexist peacefully, one is almost certainly going to have to be willing to take the backseat ... and we're pretty sure Ochocinco isn't going to be first to volunteer for that.
Defensive tackle Tank Johnson and strong safety Williams were brought into a defensive unit that will most likely have seven starters with three or fewer years of experience. Given Johnson's offseason issues over the years, we're not sure how he'll take to such a role, but as for Williams, a second chance to play under former Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer might be enough motivation to take a more hands-on role with his younger teammates.
Finally, a good camp may allow the Bengals' third-round draft pick, tight end Chase Coffman, to work his way into the offensive plans. Reggie Kelly has no hands, and is basically an extra offensive tackle with a uniform number in the 80s. Ben Utecht had plenty of injury problems last season, and has been a disappointment since coming over from Indianapolis. Enter the 6-foot-6 rookie, whose primary obstacle to becoming a fantasy sleeper is seemingly the broken foot from which he is currently attempting to recover.
On the line: Veteran guard Bobbie Williams is the ancient warrior on a line featuring second-year players Kyle Cook at center and Nate Livings at guard. One tackle position will go to either Scott Kooistra or Andrew Whitworth, with the other spot going to Smith, the Bengals' No. 1 draft pick out of Alabama. If this group can keep defenses away from Palmer while also opening up holes for Benson, there's every reason to believe the Bengals' offense can once again be one of the league's most potent units. However, it may take a few weeks for all these pieces to fall into place. Hopefully, this time around, Palmer will be able to survive until these growing pains work themselves out.
The bottom line
Lewis and company have gone "all-in." By drafting Smith and entrusting him to protect their franchise quarterback, they're taking a huge gamble, but it's one that could pay huge dividends. Palmer was sacked 11 times in his four starts last season. If that number gets cut in half, and Benson has a couple of 100-yard rushing days of his own in the first month of 2009, this Cincinnati team will seriously contend for, at the very worst, a game on Wild Card Weekend. If not, prepare yourself for a second half chock full of J.T. O'Sullivan screen passes and the chants of "We want Cowher!" echoing down from the stands.
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.