Bucky Brooks
Saturday September 6th, 2008

The Bengals' surprising decision to release former Pro Bowler Rudi Johnson means they are relying on former top pick Chris Perry to shoulder the bulk of their running game. Though Perry has averaged 4.6 yards per carry throughout his career, he has only played in 22 of a possible 64 games in four seasons, and hasn't played in a regular season game since November 2006 due to an assortment of leg and ankle fractures. Thus, scouts are unsure if Perry is durable enough to handle the responsibility of being the Bengals' workhorse.

"He has some talent," said an AFC scout. "But he has never finished a season, so I don't know if he can handle the workload of being a feature back."

While Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski has hinted using a back-by-back committee philosophy, Perry is envisioned as a "three-down" back by most scouts. His ability to steady the team's inconsistent ground game is essential to improving their recent offensive woes. With Rudi Johnson suffering from injuries the past two seasons, the Bengals saw their rushing average fall from 119.4 yards per game to 97.2 yards per game in 2007. Witht he Bengals unable to successfully run on early downs, defenses used more two-deep coverage to diffuse the team's explosive aerial attack. As a result, Carson Palmer's passer rating declined in that span (101.1 in 2005 to 86.7 in 2007), and his number of interceptions increased in each of those years.

Thus, it is imperative for the Bengals to rediscover their potent ground game to provide better offensive balance and create more big-play opportunities for Palmer off play-action.

"They have great personnel at receiver," said a former secondary coach of an AFC rival. "But they need the running game to get going to keep defenses from using two-deep coverage exclusively. If Perry can give them enough to merit some eight-man looks, the big play will reappear in their offense."

Though preseason games are not indicative of regular season success, signs are encouraging that Perry is ready to step into the role of feature back. He was solid during his four starts in preseason and flashed some of the talent that made him a top pick in the 2004 NFL Draft.

"His play during the preseason has been impressive," said an AFC scout. "He has three-down potential. He is a tough runner and a credible receiver. If he stays healthy, he could be a difference maker for them."

If Perry can prove to be a credible threat in the backfield, the Bengals' offense may regain the big-play element that has been missing the past two seasons.

That's what league observers are pondering as the team opens the season with veteran receivers Bobby Engram and Deion Branch on the sidelines due to injuries. Burleson, the team's second leading receiver last season with 50 receptions for 694 yards and nine scores, becomes the team's feature receiver in their absence. That promotion was viewed with skepticism by league observers.

"He isn't a No.1-type receiver," said an NFC personnel executive. "He doesn't have the special attributes to command a double team or carry a passing game as a lead guy."

To that point, several scouts cited Burleson's disappointing stint as the Vikings' top receiver after Randy Moss' departure in 2005. Burleson finished that season with only 30 receptions in 12 games after posting career highs in receptions (68), receiving yards (1,006) and touchdowns (9) the previous year as Moss' sidekick. He struggled facing top corners and failed to find a way to be productive as defenses made stopping him a priority.

Burleson's struggles continued after he signed his blockbuster deal with the 'Hawks in 2006. Despite being paid as a feature guy, Burleson failed to win a starting job immediately and was relegated to being the team's third receiver/return specialist. Though his production increased dramatically in his second season, he still doesn't strike opponents as a difference-maker in their offense.

"He is a good receiver," said a former NFL secondary coach. "But he isn't a guy that needs special attention in the game plan. You don't give him the kind of credit that top receivers typically demand."

In spite of all the cynicism expressed about Burleson and his impact, don't expect the Seahawks' passing game drop off. The team has never had a true No. 1 receiver, but has consistently ranked among the top ten passing offenses for the better part of a decade because the system uses an assortment of formations, shifts and motions to create favorable match-ups. With Burleson slated to play the 'X' (split end), Holmgren will likely move away from a strong-side passing game (passes directed to the flanker/tight end side), to a more balanced attack that includes more weak-side throws.

Also, the 'Hawks running game should be more productive with the combination of Julius Jones, Maurice Morris and T.J. Duckett in the mix; that should open up an efficient play-action pass attack that features an assortment of quick, rhythm intermediate throws.

While Burleson may not fit the bill as the prototypical No.1 receiver, expect him to be productive in his new lead role for the 'Hawks.

Several rookie receivers have been tabbed for instant success this season, but the receiver quietly poised to make the biggest impact in his first year is the 49ers' Josh Morgan. The team's sixth round pick was spectacular during the preseason, and is in line to earn a starting spot at split end against the Cardinals.

While Morgan has benefitted from Bryant Johnson's extended absence from training camp due to a strained hamstring, the rookie has impressed scouts with his athleticism, running skills and maturity.

"He plays the game with a maturity that is uncommon for young players," said an NFC scout. "He is so smooth and polished that you can't tell that he is a first year player."

Morgan, who finished the preseason with nine receptions for 182 yards and a score, has drawn comparisons to the Packers' James Jones, and tough match-up for defenders because of his combination of size and strength. In Mike Martz's system, he will make a living catching short and intermediate crossing routes over the middle, and his exceptional running skills makes him a threat to produce big gains on a consistent basis.

"He is going to be a pretty good player," said an NFC executive. "He has the talent to develop into a big time player in this league."

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