This just in: the Bengals expect to win their season opener. No, really. In Cincinnati, the thought is that a 5-11 team is coming into their building to open the season and they figure to win that one. Cincinnati figures to beat somebody.
Don't laugh. Turn the page to look at the depth charts and, on paper, the Bengals match up well. The Patriots have a better quarterback and a better secondary, but other than that, they would be hard pressed to gain an edge at any position.
The Patriots offensive line figures to be together for the first time when they line up against Cincy. The Bengals do not have a fearsome front four, but improved their defensive line by adding veterans like Bernard Whittington, Kevin Henry and Tony Williams in free agency. It's not overly talented, but it's better by virtue of its depth and focus on getting off the ball quicker. First-round pick Justin Smith remains unsigned in a contract dispute.
Defensive tackle Oliver Gibson played hurt all last season and put together a strong preseason with three sacks. The pass rush was a major problem in 2000 and one they hope will improve with more fresh legs. As a team, the Bengals managed a paltry 26 sacks last year and only 10 of those came from defensive linemen. In this preseason, Cincy has 14 sacks in four games with nine of the 14 coming from its front line. Williams' addition should help as the zone blitzing defensive scheme utilized by Head Coach Dick LeBeau and new defensive coordinator Mark Duffner looks to generate pressure.
Duffner was promoted to the coordinator spot after coaching linebackers the past few seasons. Like Bill Belichick, LeBeau gave up the additional chore this season.
If the Patriots can handle the rush, they will be facing a suspect secondary not loaded with talented cover men. The team has high hopes for new starting strong safety Cory Hall, but he hasn't lived up to his potential yet. Former Patriot Chris Carter has moved back to free safety after starting on the strong side in 2000. He played free safety during his Patriots career and the Bengals need for more speed at that spot prompted the move. In the preseason, he managed two interceptions and a forced fumble, proving his worth.
The corners are nothing special, but will look like world beaters if the pass rush is effective.
On the other side of the ball, Cincinnati has star quality at running back in Corey Dillon and a trio of talented wide receivers in Darnay Scott, Chad Johnson and Peter Warrick. But their quarterback play is their biggest concern.
Jon Kitna won the starting job over Scott Mitchell in training camp and then Mitchell was lost with an ankle injury. Akili Smith is battling shoulder tendinitis, leaving Kitna the only healthy quarterback.
LeBeau went with Kitna for a variety of reasons. First, his former offensive coordinator from Seattle, Bob Bratkowski, is now the Bengals coordinator. Kitna took the Seahawks to the playoffs in that system and that experience, along with better leadership, better accuracy and better escapability won him the starting nod.
Cincinnati's passing attack can't get worse after a miserable 2000 that saw it average 122 passing yards per game, the worst total in the NFL.
The problem is that Kitna was named the starter just before the final preseason game, which didn't give him much time working regularly with the first offense. In his only preseason action after being named the No. 1, he completed 10-of-21 passes for 117 yards with an interception in a loss to the Colts, but did guide touchdown drives on each of his first two possessions. He will be the 11th Bengals starting quarterback in 10 years counting Boomer Esiason's two stints with the team.