Bengals preview: Team will attempt to minimize distractions

As many as 12 Bengals have made headlines the past two years. None were for anything they did on the football field.

That has to change and coach Marvin Lewis said he was committed to it before training camp opened. It appeared he was when he released troubled WR Chris Henry and LB Odell Thurman during the offseason. But after several wide receivers got hurt in camp, the Bengals re-signed Henry under orders from owner Mike Brown. This undermined Lewis' credibility and left people around the league wondering about the Bengals' commitment to straightening out their own house.

What Lewis knows he must do regardless of that is straighten out his defense. While off-field problems have been a significant distraction, his real trouble has been with a defense never ranked better than 19th in the league since 2003. Last year, the Bengals finished 27th in the league, allowing nearly 349 yards a game. You better be ready to score a ton to negate that number.

The problems are at every level of their defense, but the holdout of No. 1 draft pick Keith Rivers retarded any progress they had hoped for. Rivers was supposed to step in and start at weak-side linebacker and have an impact. Instead, he failed to show for the start of training camp, which had a negative impact.

Offensively, the Bengals have been an oddity. They can throw it with anyone as long as Carson Palmer is pulling the trigger and Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh are going downfield. When he's healthy, bull-like Rudi Johnson can run it as well.

The fact they were 11th in the NFL in points scored seemed to indicate they could get in the end zone on anyone, but they also averaged less than 100 yards rushing per game and need to improve that to take some pressure off Palmer.

Overall, the Bengals need a major overhaul on defense and more timely and consistent production from the running game if they're going to be in contention.

On the hot seat

Chad Johnson spent much of the offseason making his unhappiness known but wasn't able to talk his way out of town. Now, he's back, and if he doesn't live up to the way he's played in the past (five straight Pro Bowls, six straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons) the Bengals will be in trouble.

Difference-maker

Rudi Johnson has to bounce back from an injury-riddled year in which he slipped badly after averaging 1,300 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns over the previous three seasons. Johnson rushed for only 497 yards last season and averaged a paltry 2.9 yards per carry. He's only 29, so there's hope, but he looked worn out. If he can deliver another 1,000-yard season it will make a difference. If he doesn't, that will make a difference of a different sort. That is, unless Chris Perry, who hasn't played since Nov. 2006 because of ankle problems, shows a strong preseason was no fluke.

Hard road to hoe

The first five weeks of the season could be a tough stretch for the Bengals and a turning point in their season. Cincinnati opens at Baltimore, comes home to face Tennessee, travels to New York to face the defending Super Bowl champion Giants, comes back home to host division rival Cleveland and follows that with a trip to Dallas to face the Super Bowl contending Cowboys. That's not the ideal way to open the season.

Bengals will be better than you think if ...

Free agent DE Antwan Odom plays the way he did last year for the Titans when he had eight sacks. For the defense to improve it has to get after the quarterback. For that to happen, Odom has to lead the way.

Bengals will be worse than you think if ...

Young cornerbacks Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph don't continue to improve significantly. If they level off, it leaves Cincinnati with a below average secondary standing behind a below average pass rush.

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