Training camp postcard: Bengals
SI.com has dispatched 10 writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. For the complete schedule of postcards, click here.
SETTING THE SCENE
The Bengals have had only one winning campaign in the last 17 seasons, so it's noteworthy that they drew an estimated aggregate of 13,500 fans to Friday's intrasquad scrimmage and Saturday's mock game at Georgetown College, which is about a 40-minute drive from Cincinnati. Even more impressive is that nearly half of the fans turned out on Saturday when the thermometer in my car read "102" and the humidity seemed to be keeping pace. The heat index was so high that the local fire department set up mist stations for fans.
1. Keith Rivers, the rookie linebacker selected ninth overall from USC, has yet to sign but the defense doesn't appear to be missing him. Free-agent linebacker Brandon Johnson continues to make plays in his absence and is opening eyes. New defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer says Rivers wasn't hurt by missing the first few days of camp because it was mostly review from offseason workouts. But Zimmer has been expanding the playbook in recent days and says Rivers now runs the risk of falling behind, adding, "He needs to get his butt in here."
2. The search for a No. 3 receiver to replace Chris Henry, released in the offseason because of misconduct issues, could end with Antonio Chatman. The former Packer struggled with groin and hamstring injuries the past two seasons but showed his skills over the weekend with a 21-yard touchdown catch on Friday and a 33-yarder on Saturday. Chatman doesn't fit the mold of big receivers the Bengals usually favor, but the 5-foot-9, 185-pound veteran has a knack for getting open. If he builds on the weekend -- and stays healthy -- he could take command of the competition.
3. Wide receivers Chad Johnson (ankle) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (hamstring) have been sidelined by injuries, but each says he hopes to practice in the coming days. Both had issues with the organization in the offseason -- Johnson wanted a trade, Houshmandzadeh a new contract -- but Houshmandzadeh says those issues have not carried over to the field. His agent was in town over the weekend, which could be precursor to a new deal. Or not. Johnson is declining interviews until he returns to the field.
NEW FACES, NEW PLACES
The most important newcomer is Zimmer. It's hard to overstate the impact he has had on the defense, which ranked 27th or lower in seven of the past 13 seasons. Even the offensive players are complimenting him for installing a greater sense of accountability in the unit. Zimmer, the third defensive coordinator of the Marvin Lewis era, demands that his players play fast, smart and with passion. When he doesn't get one of those things, he lets them know it. He also is quick to praise them when they do it right.
LOOKING AT THE SCHEDULE
Football coaches like to divide the season into quarters, and the first four games could set the tone for the Bengals. They open and close September with divisional games (at Baltimore, vs. Cleveland). In between, they host the Titans and play at the Giants, both of whom went to the playoffs last season. The Bengals will need to build momentum because their next four weeks they travel to the Cowboys and the Jets, then host the Steelers and Jaguars.
MEMORABLE IMAGE FROM CAMP
Starting cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall are invigorated by Zimmer's scheme, which calls for a heavy dose of one-on-one coverage on the outside. Joseph had interceptions on Friday and Saturday, returning one 69 yards for a touchdown, and Hall should have had a pick -- but dropped a ball that hit him in the hands. The pair says it loves the challenge of life on the island, and if camp is any indication, one or both of them could be on the verge of a breakout year.
Rookie safety Corey Lynch appears to have brought his playmaking skills to the NFL. Best known for the blocked field goal that gave Appalachian State the upset win over Michigan last year, Lynch had a "sack" and an interception of Carson Palmer in Saturday's mock game. The previous day, he picked off Palmer's brother, Jordan. The Bengals selected him in the sixth round with the belief that he likely would contribute on special teams as a rookie. But Lynch is causing them to take a longer look. That's not to say everything has been perfect -- he was beaten for a long touchdown Saturday. But he showed great resolve by coming back with the sack and pick of Palmer.
As if the Bengals don't have enough weapons on offense, the signing of tight end Ben Utecht and the healthy return of halfback Chris Perry could make them even more dangerous. Utecht is physical enough to be an effective blocker on the line and mobile enough to be a threat in the pass game. And Perry is a perfect change-of-pace for Rudi Johnson. He has excellent hands and speed and is a threat to go the distance at any time. Perry says this is the first time since being drafted in 2006 (first round) that he has felt this healthy in training camp.