Good health first step in turning around Bengals

mmaloney@herald-leader.comJuly 29, 2009 

CINCINNATI — Mike Brown, president of the Cincinnati Bengals, didn't hesitate when asked what his team needs to do to be competitive this season.

"I'd like us to stay healthy," he said Tuesday during the team's pre-training camp media luncheon at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals open camp Friday at Georgetown College.

Cincinnati was inundated with injuries last year, compiling the worst record (4-11-1) in Lewis' seven seasons as head coach. Is he on the hot seat?

"Not in my mind," Brown said. "I think Marvin had a difficult hand to play last year."

Brown added that Lewis "would have to be Knute Rockne" to have succeeded.

Injuries hit on both sides of the ball. Most notably, quarterback Carson Palmer played only four games because of an elbow injury.

All the Bengals are healthy now, Lewis said.

But health isn't the only concern. The 2008 Bengals finished 32nd — last — in points per game (12.8) and yards per game (245.4).

"We've tried to make some revisions, both with personnel, with schemes and change things up so we can really utilize the skills of the guys that we have," Lewis said. "Getting the ball down the field and pushing the ball like we were used to doing in the past."

Lewis said Palmer is chomping at the bit. The coach said he is less concerned about Palmer's elbow than about a possible shoulder injury.

"You always monitor your quarterbacks," Lewis said. "Our quarterback liked to take every snap. So we have to pull him back off of every snap so that the other guys get some preparation and work."

Palmer's brother Jordan returns as the No. 3 quarterback. No. 2 is J.T. O'Sullivan, who started eight games for the 49ers last season.

Andre Smith, the team's unsigned No. 1 draft pick, is expected to start at right tackle. Lewis said he talks with Smith "all the time, and he's doing good. He's working hard and he's hopeful this (contract) gets done."

Another rookie listed No. 1 on the depth chart is fifth-round pick Kevin Huber, a Cincinnati native who led the nation in punting the last two seasons at the University of Cincinnati. Last year's starter, Kyle Larson, has been released.

"We've really upgraded there," Lewis said. "(Huber)'s a stronger guy (than has) been out in the draft in years and years and years. Secondly, he's got the attributes to handle this."

With all-pro receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh gone via free agency, in comes Laveranues Coles. He had 70 catches (his sixth season with at least 70) for 850 yards and seven touchdowns with the Jets last season. Lewis sees Coles as a perfect complement to Chad Ochocinco.

"A very strong-willed, independent person, and I think that's important," Lewis said of Coles. "That's what we were looking for, to add somebody that could exist independently and that understood his existence."

Running back Cedric Benson will be in camp this year after having joined the team four weeks into last season.

"It'll be night and day for him," said Bob Bratkowski, the offensive coordinator. "Because he's been able now to come in and learn the offense the way you're supposed to."

It will be the job of a young offensive line — Smith and center Kyle Cook have never started and left guard Nate Livings has six starts — to open holes for Benson.

"The No. 1 thing will be to run the ball," Bratkowski said. "If we can run it and scare them to death with the run game, I think some of the play-action stuff will allow the blockers an easier time to protect the quarterback."

In addition to Ochocinco and Coles, the play-action stuff figures to target Chris Henry. He reportedly has looked great in mini-camp and seems to have reformed after personal-conduct suspensions the past three seasons.

"I think he'll be productive, but he has to prove he can go through the season and not misstep," Brown said. "I think he's reached the point in his life where he understands. But there are no guarantees."

On defense, ends Robert Geathers and Antwan Odom, tackle Pat Sims, linebacker Keith Rivers and cornerback Johnathan Joseph are healthy after missing a combined 31 games because of injury

Additions include five-time Pro Bowl safety Roy Williams and tackle Tank Johnson, both signed away from Dallas.

■ Tight end Chase Coffman, a third-round draft pick, signed Tuesday. Linebacker Rey Maualuga (second round) and end Michael Johnson (third round) are unsigned.

Excellence rewarded

Brown presented Dale Mueller, head football coach and athletic director at Highlands High School, with the eighth annual Paul Brown Excellence in Coaching Award. The award includes a $5,000 donation to the Highlands athletic department.

Mueller is 188-33 with seven state titles in 15 seasons at his alma mater. The 5A state champion went 14-1 last season.

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