Bengals take AFC North look

Published 2:26 am Wednesday, November 11, 2009

CINCINNATI — Turns out the Bengals are pretty good copycats.

In only half a season, they’ve changed their identity. Instead of trying to win games with fancy passing, they’ve adopted the ways of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, who have won championships with solid defenses and dependable running games.

The Bengals (6-2) are beating them at their own game.

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“I think Baltimore and Pittsburgh have set the tone for the AFC North and were the ones to come up with the formula, which is good solid defense, run the football and control the field position game,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “I think that is something we have turned into.”

A 17-7 victory Sunday over the Ravens kept the Bengals in first place, heading for a showdown next Sunday in Pittsburgh. The winner of that game will control a division that has a reputation for bruising defense and brawny running backs.

These Bengals are starting to fit the profile.

The defense has allowed only 17 points in the last two games. With Cedric Benson leading the way, the running game has piled up 361 yards in wins over Chicago and Baltimore. Sprinkle in some well-placed passes by Palmer, and it’s been a familiar combination for fans in other AFC North cities.

In Cincinnati, they haven’t had this for years.

The Bengals last reached the Super Bowl during the 1988 season, when Boomer Esiason joked that he had become a glorified triple-option quarterback because he spent most of his time handing off to Ickey Woods and James Brooks. Cincinnati led the league in rushing that year and was 15th in defense.

When they drafted Palmer in 2003, the Bengals had a reputation as a finesse team. They broke their drought of 14 straight years without a winning record by going to the playoffs in 2005, when Palmer threw 32 touchdown passes and the Bengals overwhelmed teams with their passing game.

Didn’t work for long. They haven’t had a winning record since.

“We used to be an air-it-out, explosive offense, and when you play in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Baltimore and Cincinnati, you get to those December games and you can’t throw the ball 40 times,” Palmer said. “You have to be able to run the ball. We are at a good point now.”

After the offense finished last in the league in 2008, the Bengals revamped the offense to feature Benson. They loaded up on running plays that feature extra blockers. The players noticed the coaches’ commitment to it.

“They said at the beginning of the year that we want to be a run-first, throw-second football team,” center Kyle Cook said. “You’ve got to be able to run the ball. You can’t rely on sitting back there and hoping guys are going to get open.”

Benson has four 100-yard games and ranks second in the NFL to Tennessee’s Chris Johnson with 837 yards. Benson has carried 198 times, a league high.

The last time the Bengals finished a season in the Top 10 in rushing was 2000, when Akili Smith struggled to complete throws and Corey Dillon’s running provided the bulk of the yards. After the win over Baltimore, Cincinnati ranked ninth overall in rushing.

“They’ve been doing a great job,” defensive lineman Domata Peko said Monday. “Cedric has been running amazingly. I’m pretty sure he’s going to be in the Pro Bowl. And when you have Carson healthy, he can do those things.”

The defense is coming off solid games against Chicago and Baltimore. It was ranked 14th overall, but second against the run, following the win on Sunday. Cincinnati hasn’t finished in the Top 10 in defense since 2001, when it was ninth overall.

Coach Marvin Lewis coordinated the Ravens defense that led it to a Super Bowl championship during the 2000 season. The Bengals defense has played two of its best games this season against Baltimore, allowing only 14 points.

Although it was impressive, Lewis tried to play down the importance of the win that kept Cincinnati in first place.

“Everybody seemed to make it a bigger game than it was,” Lewis said on Monday. “It was another game in our division, and that’s what it was — no more, no less. For whatever reason, people thought we were playing the ’68 Packers, and we weren’t. It was another game in our division, and that’s what it’s all about.”