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NFL Preview - Cincinnati (7-2) at Oakland (2-7)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - As the old adage goes, "If it's not broke, don't fix it."
In this case for the Cincinnati Bengals, re-energized running back Cedric Benson's injured hip prompted the current AFC North leaders to sign mercurial running back Larry Johnson this week as a precautionary measure. Many speculated the head-scratching move will spoil the karma in Cincinnati, which will find out soon enough when it visits the Oakland Raiders this Sunday.
Benson has been limited in practice this week, but says the injury is nothing serious. The team apparently didn't think so and added Johnson to a backfield that also contains Bernard Scott and Brian Leonard. Johnson practiced with the team for the first time on Wednesday and could see action against the Raiders if Benson is unable to continue his recent success this week.
Johnson is very familiar with the Raiders after playing his first seven years in Kansas City. He owns 938 yards and 11 touchdowns in 10 career games versus Oakland, and was signed eight days after the Chiefs released him following his second suspension in 12 months. Johnson was recently suspended for two weeks after ripping Chiefs head coach Todd Haley and posting a homosexual slur on his Twitter account.
Much like Johnson, Benson was signed to a one-year deal last season by the Bengals after a tumultuous few years in Chicago. Since then Benson has rejuvenated his career in the Queen City and is currently sixth in the NFL in rushing with 859 yards. He had only 22 yards on seven carries last week in Pittsburgh, however, before sustaining his injury.
The Bengals have their fingers crossed hoping that Johnson can walk a straight line and follow the success of Benson. Meanwhile, the team is 5-0 against AFC North opponents this season thanks to sweeps of both Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Cincinnati just defeated the Steelers, 18-12, this past Sunday and sits one game ahead of the defending Super Bowl champions in the division standings. Cincinnati, which still has to win as many games as Pittsburgh to claim its second division title in five years, is also still alive for top record in the AFC behind the 9-0 Indianapolis Colts. Winners of three straight, the 7-2 Bengals have a favorable upcoming schedule, as they're pitted against teams with a combined four wins over the next three weeks.
Oakland made some news of its own this week by naming backup Bruce Gradkowski the starting quarterback over JaMarcus Russell. Russell was benched in last week's loss to the Chiefs, with Gradkowski taking over and throwing a pair of interceptions before suffering a hamstring injury. The injury seems to be minor, as evidenced by head coach Tom Cable's decision to bench former No. 1 overall pick Russell.
Russell should have it seen it coming sooner or later, since he has just two touchdown passes and nine interceptions this season for a 47.7 passer rating. Russell, who was also pulled in a loss to the New York Jets back on October 25, helped transform the Raiders into one of the worst offensive teams in the NFL. He may get a chance to earn his job back if Gradkowski's start doesn't go as originally planned, but Cable noted that this is where the Raiders are headed and his new signal-caller will take the team and go with it.
While Cincinnati's next three games are against also-rans in Oakland, Cleveland and Detroit, the Raiders have three difficult matchups looming, with the Bengals, Cowboys and Steelers on the upcoming docket.
Oakland continued its downward spiral of mediocrity by falling to 2-7 this season after last Sunday's 16-10 loss to the AFC West-rival Chiefs.
The Raiders have a 17-8 edge in their all-time regular season series with the Bengals, but were 27-10 road losers when they last met Cincinnati, in 2006. Oakland won the previous three meetings, including a 23-20 triumph when the teams last met in the Bay Area in 2003. The Bengals are 0-4 in regular season road games against the Raiders since winning at the L.A. Coliseum in 1988, and is 0-8 in regular season road games played in Oakland all-time.
The Raiders have also won the only two postseason tilts between the teams, taking AFC Divisional Playoff Games in 1975 and 1990. Including playoffs, the Bengals are 0-9 in Oakland all-time, and 1-13 in all series road games.
Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis is 1-1 against the Raiders all-time, while Cable will be meeting both Lewis and the Bengals for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer (2,010 passing yards, 14 TDs, 7 INT) passed for just 178 yards against the Steelers, but really didn't have to do much because the special teams and defense set the tone. Palmer hasn't thrown an interception in three straight games, with six touchdown passes and a 111.0 rating in that span. Palmer needs just four more touchdown strikes for 125 in his career, and would become the third Bengal in franchise history to reach the mark (Boomer Esiason, Ken Anderson). The former Heisman Trophy winner should have a relatively easy afternoon against Oakland's defense, and has been sacked just 14 times this season. Palmer has been sacked five times in the last five games for the Bengals, whose receiving corps will be looked upon to lead the way now that Benson is nicked up. Flamboyant wideout Chad Ochocinco (46 receptions, 668 yards, 5 TD) was held to a season-low two catches for 29 yards last week in Pittsburgh and hasn't reached the end zone in two straight games. He has scored just twice in the Bengals' past five contests. Ochocinco, however, has played well in his career against Oakland, with two straight 100-plus yard performances. Wide receivers Andre Caldwell (33 receptions, 3 TD) and Laveranues Coles (27 receptions, 3 TD) are also at Palmer's disposal.
The Raiders' best feature is their pass defense led by cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (21 tackles), who has yet to record an interception because teams tend to avoid throwing his way. Asomugha has a tough job ahead of him against the enigmatic Ochocinco, though. Cornerback Chris Johnson (44 tackles, 3 INT) and safety Michael Huff (30 tackles, 3 INT) are tied for the team lead in interceptions, while Johnson leads the Raiders with six picks since the start of the 2008 campaign. He has recorded an interception in back-to-back contests. Hoping to apply pressure on Palmer so the secondary won't get scorched under the Bay area sun is defensive end Richard Seymour (30 tackles, 4 sacks). He and fellow veteran end Greg Ellis (18 tackles, 4 sacks) are even for the team lead in sacks with four apiece. Ellis did not play in the recent loss to the Chiefs because of a shoulder injury and is listed as questionable for Sunday's battle with the Bengals.
Benson (859 rushing yards, 6 TD) is nursing a hip ailment, but has been a pleasant surprise for Cincinnati this season. The rugged back may not be able to shake the problem this week, however, and his workload may have caught up to him. Benson was coming off consecutive 100-yard games, with a total of 71 carries in those two contests, before going down early in the Steel City. Rookie Scott (95 rushing yards) had 33 yards on a career-high 13 carries in Pittsburgh, while Leonard (30 yards) is another option for Lewis. Larry Johnson, meanwhile, may see action in his new digs sooner than later with Benson hampered, and has a strong track record to back up. Johnson has rushed for 498 yards and five touchdowns in five career games at Oakland. He had back-to-back 1,700-yard seasons for Kansas City in 2005 and 2006, and hopes he can turn things around personally in his new surroundings. If Johnson does play on Sunday, he'll be running behind a cohesive offensive line led by guard Bobbie Williams and tackles Dennis Roland and Andrew Whitworth. Center Kyle Cook has been a staple at his position for the Bengals, who are 11th in rushing at 122.3 yards per game.
Luckily for Cable, Benson will most likely be limited in his role, if not out on Sunday. Oakland is 29th against the rush this season and is allowing 155.6 yards per game on the ground. Kansas City second-year running back Jamaal Charles ran for 103 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries last week on a defense that may face a familiar opponent in Larry Johnson, whose history against the Raiders is a good one. There's no doubt Cincinnati will try to get the running game established early to avoid what happened to the heavily-favored Philadelphia Eagles, who were upset by a determined Raiders club in Week 6. The Raiders have a decent defense to make life miserable for Palmer, especially with linebackers Kirk Morrison (80 tackles) and Thomas Howard (53 tackles, 2 sacks). Morrison had 10 stops last week versus the Chiefs and has recorded double digits in tackles four times this season.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
Gradkowski (163 passing yards, 2 INT) was signed by Oakland in the offseason as an insurance policy, since the Raiders thought Russell would be the quarterback to turn the franchise around when they drafted him No. 1 out of LSU in 2007. Gradkowski doesn't have the arm strength like Russell, but is a more accurate passer and tends to make better decisions when given enough time. He has shown flashes of that in his brief time as a backup in Oakland, but needs to get a full 60 minutes under his belt. Cable is standing by his decision to keep Russell sidelined, since the Raiders are 31st in the league with only 118.6 passing yards per game. Russell has been pulled twice in the last three contests for ineffectiveness, and Cable hopes his recent move to jump-start the team will keep owner Al Davis somewhat satisfied. In 28 career games, Russell has completed 51.6 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns, 21 interceptions and 14 lost fumbles for a passer rating of 65.5. He never really had the type of receivers suitable for this type of offense, as Oakland's leading receiver this season is tight end Zach Miller (29 receptions, 1 TD). Miller also leads the team with 430 receiving yards, while Louis Murphy (16 receptions, TD) is second in that category (232). 2009 first-round draft pick Darrius Heyward-Bey (6 receptions) is coming along slowly and is still searching for his first career touchdown.
Pro Bowl candidate and top Cincinnati cornerback Johnathan Joseph (38 tackles, 4 INT) recorded two passes defensed last week and owns seven in the last two games. Joseph's four interceptions this season are tied with fellow cornerback Leon Hall (48 tackles, 4 INT), who is second on the team in tackles. The two corners have an advantage against an inexperienced quarterback in Gradkowski, but still have to be aware of Miller, Murphy and Heyward-Bey. Cincinnati is 21st against the pass, allowing 231.0 yards per game, but held Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to 174 yards with an interception. Pittsburgh wideout Santonio Holmes had the team's best output with 88 yards on seven receptions. Safeties Chinedum Ndukwe (42 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Chris Crocker (41 tackles, 2 INT) combined for 10 stops against the Steelers. Ndukwe has replaced injured safety Roy Williams in the base defense and made his fifth start of the year at Pittsburgh. Right defensive end Jonathan Fanene (20 tackles, 5 sacks) has done a fine job as Antwan Odom's replacement after the big lineman was lost for the season because of injury. Fanene had two sacks of Roethlisberger last week, while end Robert Geathers (11 tackles, 2.5 sacks) had the other for the defensive front. End Frostee Rucker (6 tackles, 1 sack) played in just his fifth game last week and made a key play with an interception in the third quarter that set up a game-tying field goal.
While Oakland's offensive line has allowed Russell to get sacked 24 times and Gradkowski three this season, it hasn't done much either for the ground game. The Raiders are 20th in rushing, averaging 103.4 yards per game, and welcomed the return of injured running back Darren McFadden in last week's loss to the Chiefs. McFadden (157 rushing yards, 1 TD) was sidelined four straight games and returned to post 11 yards on four carries last Sunday. Michael Bush (350 rushing yards, 2 TD) leads the team in rushing, while Justin Fargas (304 rushing yards, 2 TD) is right on his tail. Bush rushed for 119 yards on 14 carries, including a 60-yard run, against Kansas City, while Fargas scored his second touchdown of the season. All three backs will experience trouble successfully running the football this week against a stingy Bengals defense. In injury news on the offensive line, guard Robert Gallery and tackle Cornell Green are expected to be back in the lineup this week despite nursing injuries.
The Steelers had just 80 yards rushing against the Bengals' second-rated run defense last week. That's been the case all season for defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's unit, who figures to face an even easier test against Oakland's struggling ground attack. Tackles Pat Sims (22 tackles, 0.5 sacks), Domata Peko (21 tackles) and Tank Johnson (14 tackles, 1 sack) are the main lane pluggers up front and will resume their healthy rotation on Sunday. The beefy linemen make life easier on the linebackers, especially leading tackler and middle man Dhani Jones (59 tackles, 2 sacks), who had nine stops and a sack against the Steelers and helped slow down second-year running back Rashard Mendenhall. Linebacker Brandon Johnson (36 tackles, 1.5 sacks) started his first game of the season last week as an injury replacement for Keith Rivers, and didn't disappoint with four tackles and two passes defensed. Johnson replaced Rivers in the base defense as well last season after the latter suffered a jaw fracture. Rookie Rey Maualuga (36 tackles, 1 sack) is another player Fargas, McFadden and Bush must avoid if they have any intentions on gaining positive yardage.
Even though the struggling Raiders are 2-7 this season, they still have a few fantasy-worthy players to inject in respective lineups. Bush and Fargas are solid choices because Oakland is terrible in the passing game. Miller is another option as the main target in that anemic aerial attack, while kicker Sebastian Janikowski is a must-start every week. As for the surging Bengals, Palmer's connection with Ochocinco is welcomed by all fantasy owners, while Scott is a good choice with the current injury to Benson. Benson may see limited action, so picking him may be a risky move. Putting Larry Johnson in the lineup is a huge gamble, but could pay off if Cincinnati finds itself struggling to perform offensively on Sunday. The Bengals' defense and kicker Shayne Graham will do their part this week.
The biggest reason for Cincinnati's success this season has been its ability to win on the road. The Bengals have won a franchise-record five straight road games dating back to last year, and can establish a new record for consecutive road wins in the same season with one in Oakland. Cincinnati will do just that against a Raiders team rolling out a new quarterback in Gradkowski, who is only 3-9 as a starter in stints with Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Cleveland and now Oakland. He'll be making his first start for the Raiders against a Bengals defensive unit that will stumble a bit in a close competition. Cincinnati, which went 4-11-1 last season, is kicking off a stretch of three straight games against inferior opponents, and is hoping the injury to Benson won't have any lingering effects on the team. The Bengals also hope the addition of Larry Johnson won't leave a sour taste with some of the players trying to make this magical run last into the playoffs. If Johnson doesn't get a chance to make a difference this week, he'll definitely have a front-row view of how team chemistry leads to success.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 27, Raiders 21
11/19 18:13:06 ET
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