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Westerman Brings Toughness In 5th Round

Posted by Dan Hoard on May 1, 2016 – 5:24 pm

Forget about the bench press, 40-yard dash, and three cone drill. When it comes to evaluating offensive line prospects, Bengals coach Paul Alexander has a unique “toughness test.”

“I shake the kid’s hand, I look them in the eye, and I judge the percentage that he would kick my butt,” said Alexander with a laugh. “And if I think he would really destroy me, then I like him.”

Chris Westerman ASU (440x248)

Suffice to say that Alexander would not like his chances in a brawl against the Bengals’ 5th round draft pick Christian Westerman – a 6’3”, 298 guard out of Arizona State who has experience as a boxer.

“It’s something that helped me in the game of football,” said Westerman. “Growing up in Arizona, there’s a weight regulation and I wasn’t able to play (football) until I was a freshman in high school. So for me, just getting in some type of contact sport was essential.

“I liked to hit people back then. I still do – but it a different way.”

“He’s tougher than hell,” said Alexander. “He’s the toughest kid in the draft. When Andrew Whitworth came out he was the toughest kid in the draft. Russell Bodine was (in 2014), and I think Jake Fisher probably was last year. (Westerman) fits right in.

“In this division you’ve got to be. It’s not for the feeble.”

Pro Football Focus gave Westerman a third round grade and ranked him as the best pass protecting guard in this year’s draft. Although Christian has never played center, the Bengals think he is versatile enough to learn the position.

“He’s been a guard and a tackle in his career, but the opportunity at center could be there too” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “All of our interior guys need to learn how to do both things, so that will be something we’ll work with him on.”

“It won’t happen overnight,” said Alexander. “It will be a year away or whatever before he can do that. But I think he’s a versatile guy.”

After fielding a few questions about Westerman’s ability to move to center, Alexander took the opportunity to defend the team’s current starter Russell Bodine who has had bouts of inconsistency in his first two NFL seasons.

“Let me tell you about Bodine,” said Alexander. “He’s better than Clint Boling was after two years. He’s similar to what Kevin Zeitler was – Zeitler didn’t start out all that great. And then I was talking to Whit about Rich Braham and he said, ‘Don’t compare Bodine to Rich Braham.’ And I said, ‘Whit. Rich Braham didn’t step on the field until his third year.’ This is a young player in his second year who is playing with a bunch of veterans that are very good offensive lineman and he’s the last one right now because he’s the youngest. But I don’t care what anybody says – I think Bodine is going to be a helluva player.

“I just think that he’s young. If you look at his birth date, he’s the same age as the kids in this draft. He came out two years early. He’s incredibly strong and tough and just needs to learn how to do it. It’s going to come.”

Unlike Bodine, Westerman will not be expected to start as a rookie. But he will be in the mix to provide immediate depth at both guard spots.

“We feel really good about the chance for him to come in right away and have a chance to uplift us,” said Lewis. “He gives us another young guy on the interior offensive line to compete.”

“I would say my biggest strengths are my overall physical strength, my consistency, and my willingness to be coachable and be a better player every day,” said Westerman. “For me overall, I want to work on technique, my first step, and all of the kinks to it. A lot of things you can get away with in college you can’t in the NFL.”

The Bengals can only hope that Westerman is as successful in the NFL as he was in the boxing ring where he figures he has competed in eight or nine bouts.

So what’s his career record?

“Honestly? I haven’t lost a fight,” he said.

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Bengals Add Versatile Weapon In Boyd

Posted by Dan Hoard on May 1, 2016 – 5:20 pm

When Bengals legend Isaac Curtis stepped to the podium in Chicago to announce the Bengals’ second round pick in the 2016 draft, he said “Tyler Boyd” and then hesitated before adding his position.

Perhaps he was considering how many to mention.

Boyd running (430x440)

Boyd is a wide receiver, but in three years at the University of Pittsburgh he could have been listed on the roster as a “Swiss Army Knife” as Tyler caught 254 passes, ran the ball 63 times, returned 73 kicks or punts, and even completed 3 out of 4 passes.

“I feel like I can help the team a lot with my athleticism,” said Boyd. “I believe they can move me all around the field to create mismatches.”

“You got a chance to see him do a lot of different things because they got it to him a lot of different ways – handing it to him, throwing it to him, and he got to throw the ball,” said offensive coordinator Ken Zampese. “You got to see everything that the guy has which is nice to know. Sometimes you don’t always get to see all of those things. So we have a good idea of what he is and we have a pretty good idea of where we can take him.”

“There are Sanu-esque things in the versatility that he provides,” said receivers coach James Urban.

Boyd combine (293x440)

Like former Bengals WR Mohamed Sanu, Boyd does not have blazing speed as he was timed at 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash at Pitt’s pro day. But that did not prevent him from breaking Larry Fitzgerald’s school records for career receptions and receiving yards (3,361).

“I think he’s got competitive speed,” said Zampese. “You wouldn’t look at his timed speed and say, ‘Wow, he’s going to run by that guy all the time.’ Those numbers don’t bear that out, but when he plays, he competes and he’s productive with the skill set that he has.”

“He does a great job of using his body to create separation,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “He’s great with the ball in his hands and seems to understand the game very well.”

With the free agent departures of Sanu and Marvin Jones, Boyd will have the opportunity to play a significant role as a rookie.

“Tyler has a chance to come in and compete to play,” said Lewis. “We’ve got some guys in the building who feel like they want those opportunities as well.”

“He strikes me as a guy that can play the slot early, and learn the outside spot and be productive out there as we go,” said Zampese.

“I feel like I’m capable of playing in the slot or outside,” said Boyd. “They can move me around a lot. Or even line me up in the backfield so I can get mismatches with linebackers.”

The 21-year-old was raised in the Pittsburgh area and helped his high school team win four state championships before attending Pitt. It’s no surprise to learn that his favorite NFL team is the Bengals’ biggest rival.

“I definitely rooted for the Steelers,” Boyd said with a laugh. “That’s my hometown team. But at the end of the day, I’m going to sacrifice myself to the team that picked me and would rather have me. So I’m going to have to completely go at the Steelers and cause them all hell.”

If not hell, Boyd can at least cause headaches for opposing defenses by giving Andy Dalton another versatile and dependable weapon.

“We think we got a good football player and we’re going to find ways to take advantage of his skill set and we think it’s a good fit,” said Urban.

“He’s certainly not a finished product, but he’s ours and we like him,” said Zampese. “We’re going to drag him and push him and make him compete and drive him to where we think he can be.”

“I can’t wait to start the next chapter in my life,” said Boyd. “I’m really happy and appreciative that the Cincinnati Bengals chose a great player like myself.

“I was waiting around just waiting for that call. No matter what team picked me I was going to be really happy and grateful and just celebrate with my family. I’ve got about 30 people at a hotel to celebrate with me and it’s one of the happiest days of my life.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Vigil Pick Worthy Of Celebration

Posted by Dan Hoard on May 1, 2016 – 5:09 pm

Last April, despite being named the Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year, Utah State linebacker Zach Vigil was not selected in the NFL draft. He eventually signed as a free agent with Miami and played in all 16 games as a rookie.

This year when it was clear that Zach’s younger brother and former college teammate Nick was likely to be selected, their father wanted to throw a party on the second night of the draft.

“I said to hold off until I’m actually drafted and something happens,” said Nick Vigil. “You never know with this whole process. He said, ‘OK.’ But there still ended up being 20 or so people there.”

Vigil tackle (440x321)

Nick should have trusted his father’s instincts as the Bengals selected Vigil in the third round with the 87th overall pick.

“I was surprised,” he said. “I hadn’t had much contract with them throughout this whole process. My cell phone actually dropped the call. I saw ‘Cincinnati, Ohio’ and I saw their pick was coming up and I kind of panicked a little bit. Good thing my mom had her phone on her and they ended up calling her. She handed me the phone and it was pure excitement.

“I didn’t think I’d necessarily go that high. It was the third round and we were thinking more of the fourth round. When I got the call it was a good moment for me.”

Vigil was a two-year starter at Utah State, earning first-team All-MWC honors in both seasons. He ranked sixth in the nation in tackles last season and turned heads at the NFL Scouting Combine by posting the fastest times among linebackers in the three cone drill and the 20-yard shuttle.

“Vig is flat-out productive,” Utah State coach Matt Wells told the Salt Lake Tribune. “He is flat-out athletic. He’s got tremendous upside – especially on special teams.”

His versatility was evident with the Aggies as Vigil saw action at every linebacker spot and even played some running back, including a game with 16 carries vs. BYU.

Vigil run (440x325)

“I don’t know how good I was at running back,” said Vigil. “I’m sure those days are over. In a 3-4 defense in college, I played all four linebacker positions throughout my three years. I was a starter on all of the special teams for a while there as a freshman. So anything I can do to help this team I’m willing to do.”

For starters, he’ll try to follow his older brother’s advice on how to succeed as an NFL rookie.

“He said it’s going to be the hardest year of your life,” said Vigil. “It’s going to be hectic and you’re going to just have to take it all in. Act professional because it’s a job, so treat it like that.”

The Bengals face Zach’s Dolphins in week four on Thursday Night Football, and while Miami has missed the playoffs in each of the last seven seasons, Nick joins a Cincinnati franchise looking to make its sixth straight postseason appearance.

“The culture here is obviously fantastic,” said Vigil. “They’ve won consistently over the past few years. They’ve got a great foundation set by the coaches and ownership. And they’ve got a bunch of core players who’ve been really good for a long time. So I couldn’t have asked for a better place to go.”

Nick was in Cincinnati on Saturday to meet with the team and local reporters, but that didn’t prevent his family and friends from celebrating back in Utah.

“They’re having a big party there today with me,” he said. “My mom said that we were going to have to cancel it and move it to Sunday, but my dad said, ‘No way.’

“They said they were going to have to get a cardboard cutout of me.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Jackson Lands In Cincinnati, Not Pittsburgh

Posted by Dan Hoard on May 1, 2016 – 5:01 pm

Houston cornerback Will Jackson figured he would be drafted in the first round by a team in the AFC North. But he thought it was going to be the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“I definitely did,” said Jackson. “I had dinner with them and we had great chemistry. They were telling me a lot of good things so I felt like they were coming. But I’m happy to be a Cincinnati Bengal.

“They definitely surprised me. I was sitting on the couch and wasn’t even looking at my phone. For me to get that ring – oh man I’m just so excited.”

Will Jackson Houston (320x440)

The Bengals defensive coaches are equally excited to land the 6’0”, 190 pound speedster that according to Pro Football Focus “may be the best pure cornerback available in the draft.”

Jackson had five interceptions last season and led the nation with 28 passes defended.

“When the ball is in the air, he can find it in the blind spot and make plays on the ball with those long arms,” said ESPN’s Jon Gruden.

“It’s just watching a lot of film and knowing what is going to come before it happens,” said Jackson. “I watched a lot of film and nine times out of 10, I knew what was going to happen so it was always there for me to make the play.”

It helps to have great closing speed. Jackson says he ran a 4.29 40-yard dash in junior college and the 23-year-old was timed at 4.37 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Will Jackson combine (440x313)

“I feel like I could always run, but the NFL projections had me at 4.6 and I wanted to prove people wrong,” said Jackson. “So I went out there and did what I had to do.”

Jackson was widely projected to be a first round pick and PFF gave him a Top 10 grade. But rather than attend the draft in Chicago, William elected to watch it at home in Houston.

“I wanted to be around my family and the people that loved me and helped me get to this point,” said Jackson. “I wanted to celebrate with them.

“I didn’t know if I would go first round or not, so I was hesitant about having the draft party. But it worked out well and I’m excited.”

Now he looks forward to returning to Cincinnati after meeting with the Bengals coaches several weeks ago on a pre-draft visit.

“I know a lot about them,” said Jackson. “I watched film when I came on my visit, watched one-on-ones, and watched practice. I have a great feel for what kind of scheme it is, and I’m ready to just come in and work.”

He may have already accomplished something in the eyes of Bengals fans if being selected by Cincinnati disappointed the rival Pittsburgh Steelers.

“The Steelers in the division were eyeing him at number 25, and the Bengals get him at 24,” said ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” said Jackson. “Just sitting there waiting for the call and looking forward to it finally coming in. It’s truly a blessing and I was overwhelmed.

“This is a lifelong dream. I’ve been playing this game since I was in elementary school, and for me to finally make it to this day is such a blessing.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Tobin’s Value Is No Mystery

Posted by Dan Hoard on February 26, 2016 – 11:52 am

For several years, Bengals fans have recognized the important role that the team’s Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin has played in building one of the NFL’s deepest and most talented rosters.

Duke Tobin at combine (440x293)

But when he stepped to the podium at the NFL Scouting Combine on Thursday to discuss the Bengals with the national media – the first time he has represented the team that visibly – the initial question was about his role with the franchise.

“Does this mean you’re running the show there?” asked Chris Wesseling from NFL.com.

“No,” replied Tobin. “There’s no sea change. Our operation remains the same. I was asked to come and talk and it’s a scouting event so it’s a natural thing.”

The self-effacing Tobin typically downplays his importance in Cincinnati, but his acumen in evaluating talent is widely respected throughout the NFL. In January, the Detroit Lions and Tennessee Titans reportedly requested permission to interview Tobin for their general manager openings but he declined to even go through the process.

“It’s flattering, but I knew early on in my job here with the Bengals that this is a place where I wanted to make an entire career,” Tobin said. “I’ve done everything that I could to build myself up within the organization, to add value every year and make that happen. I grew up with a dad who was in Chicago for 18 seasons and he did that for us and for himself and it’s the right thing to do.”

His father Bill is the former general manager of the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts and Duke spent his childhood hanging around his dad’s teams.

“That’s really all I did, other than playing sports myself,” Duke told me. “When I had free time I would be up at Halas Hall being a ball boy, or working security, or pulling the nets at games, or just hanging around the locker room. So I grew up around pro football and that’s really all I’ve ever known.”

His father played a critical role in building the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears who went 15-1 during the regular season before putting together the most dominant postseason stretch in NFL history. The Bears beat the Giants 21-0 in their first playoff game, added a 24-0 shutout of the Rams in the NFC Championship, and then crushed the Patriots in the Super Bowl 46-10.

Duke watched that Super Bowl rout from the Bears’ sideline.

“I’ve got great memories of that team,” he said. “They had ability, they had character, and they enjoyed the game. It was more than a job; it was their lifestyle. When I look at players today, those are the guys I compare them to. Those are the guys I’m always trying to find – Walter Payton being the number one. When you grade a guy, that’s kind of the high end of the scale. A lot of those Bears of the ‘80s shaped my opinion of what a football player should be.”

But his ability to judge talent was also shaped by his own football career. Duke was a highly-recruited high school quarterback who began his college career at Illinois where he was a backup to the eventual number one overall pick in the 1990 NFL draft Jeff George.

“It’s humbling throwing next to a guy like that because it shows all of your deficits pretty quick,” Duke said with a laugh. “When I showed up there, it was a little awe-inspiring to watch how the ball came out of his hand. He had one of the strongest arms and quickest releases that I’ve ever seen.”

After two years at Illinois, Tobin transferred to Colorado where he backed up another quarterback who went on to have a long NFL career Kordell Stewart. Both programs reached the Top 10 in the rankings while Duke was on the roster.

“I was fortunate to be on some good college teams and I think for my job right now, that helped me and shaped what I look for,” he said. “Those Illinois teams were good and then when I went to Colorado we had some very fine teams there with a lot of very good players that played in the NFL.”

Despite only starting one college game, Tobin went on to play professionally in the Arena Football League with the Orlando Predators and Memphis Pharaohs.

“We made a little bit of money and they gave us room and board and an automobile to drive, so there were some positives to it,” said Tobin. “We had a good team as well, and I think a lot of college football players don’t admit when it’s over. I probably fell into that bucket and said, ‘Hey, why not give it another year or two?’ I ended up getting hurt, and it wasn’t worth giving up your knee ligament for it for sure. I started scouting soon after that. I realized where my lot was.”

After spending four years as a scout with the Colts, Duke joined the Bengals scouting department in 1999 before becoming director of player personnel in 2002. His father joined the Bengals scouting staff the following year.

So while his 15 minutes at the podium on Thursday should not be interpreted to mean that Duke’s job has changed, it’s unmistakable that he’s happy with his current role in the Bengals front office.

“Loyalty is a two-way street,” said Tobin. “We really enjoy Cincinnati. I wanted to give my kids that same opportunity that my dad gave us to grow up in one place and establish some roots. We’re Cincinnati Bengals and I knew early on that’s what I wanted to do.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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McCarron Looks Ahead After Heroic Effort

Posted by Dan Hoard on January 12, 2016 – 4:53 pm

As he packed up his locker on Monday, AJ McCarron wore an Alabama sweatshirt and hat. He was obviously looking forward to seeing if his alma mater would beat Clemson later that night for college football’s national championship.

“I’m going to be sitting at the house cheering them on and I can’t wait,” McCarron told me. “It’s an awesome opportunity for those guys and it’s going to be a blast. It’s not nerve-wracking to just sit back and watch the game.”

I’m sure he enjoyed watching ‘Bama win another title, but I’m also certain that McCarron would have rather been preparing for a second round playoff game in New England.

McCarron smoky entrance (440x311)

Statistically, the 25-year-old quarterback did not have a great performance in the playoff loss to Pittsburgh, going 23-for-41 for 212 yards and a passer rating of 68.3. But in the fourth quarter with the Bengals trailing 15-0, McCarron calmly directed the team on three straight scoring drives to give Cincinnati a 16-15 lead with 1:50 remaining.

“Heck, a fourth quarter comeback like that?” said Kevin Zeitler. “You can’t say enough about it. He was able to deal with everything that came his way and he was fantastic.”

“I’m proud of him and proud of what he did, and I know he’ll be nothing but better next season and that’s good for us,” said Marvin Lewis.

“It’s a great feeling when the guys rally around you and everybody believes,” said McCarron. “The whole game when things weren’t going great, guys stayed calm. It’s just a special group that I get to play with and I love every one of them. I had a blast. It was an honor to get to play with them. I know that AD (Andy Dalton) will be back next season, but it was fun.”

And while McCarron came closer to leading the Bengals to a postseason win than Dalton has been able to thus far, the second year quarterback says he has not created a quarterback competition for next season. Dalton led the AFC in passer rating at 106.3 and Cincinnati had a 10-2 record when he broke his thumb.

“This is AD’s team,” McCarron told me. “I am just going to go out and work my tail off and whatever happens happens. But AD is the quarterback and my job is to push him and help make him the best QB that he can be and let the chips fall where they fall. But I support him 100%. I’ve always said that he’s like a big brother to me and I look up to him. That’s the way that it’s going to stay.”

After sitting out his rookie year while rehabbing a shoulder injury, McCarron completed 64% of his passes this season, with 7 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, and a passer rating of 89.7 (including the playoff game). As a result, the Bengals will enter 2016 feeling highly confident about their backup quarterback for the first time in several years.

“The best since 2004 or ’05 with Jon (Kitna) and Carson (Palmer),” said Coach Lewis. “We feel pretty good about things.

“At this point a year ago, we weren’t sure about AJ and his development. We assumed and hoped, and it has worked out.”

Unfortunately, the wild card playoff game didn’t work out, as the Bengals self-destructed in the final two minutes.

“It feels like a bad, bad dream and you’re just waiting for somebody to wake you up,” said McCarron. “It’s tough – especially knowing how hard we’ve worked as a group all season long. A lot of people don’t realize how hard it is to make it to the playoffs in general. There are a lot of teams that don’t have the opportunity that we had. It hurts, but the only thing we can do is look forward and take each day to get better.”

McCarron in playoff game (440x322)

As impressed as I was by McCarron’s play on Saturday night, I was equally impressed by how he handled himself in his postgame news conference. He sounded like a 10-year veteran as he handled a gut-wrenching loss with class and stressed the importance of his teammates sticking together.

He reiterated that message on Monday.

“When things get tough, it’s easy for people to point fingers and run the opposite way,” AJ told me. “In college we always said, ‘Who do you want in your foxhole?’ You want guys that can have your back and have your six. Who do you want in that hole with you? The worst-case scenario would be for the team to divide and take steps backward.”

There are likely to be significant changes on the Bengals roster and coaching staff next season, and McCarron is eagerly anticipating a major change in his personal life as well. AJ and his wife Katherine are expecting their first child – a son – in late May.

“Raymond Anthony McCarron III and we’re calling him Trip,” he said.

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Just Once

Posted by Dan Hoard on January 10, 2016 – 3:12 pm

Just once… Can’t we figure out what we keep doin’ wrong. Why the good times never last for long. Where are we goin’ wrong? – From the 1981 song “Just Once” by Quincy Jones and James Ingram.

One minute and 36 seconds left.

The Bengals had the lead and the ball.

The most dramatic playoff win in team history was theirs.

And ours.

After seven straight postseason losses over the course of 25 years, it was total catharsis for the franchise and the city.

“For the 20 seconds after Burfict’s INT, it was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had,” said Bengals fan Ethan Fields in an e-mail. “My heart was fluttering like it was my wedding night and I was on cloud nine.”

The elation actually lasted a little longer than that. From Burfict’s interception to the start of the next play, roughly 90 seconds of real time elapsed.

The agony that followed is going to be remembered for ages.

“Talk about a roller coaster of emotions,” said George Iloka.

In an attempt to run off as much of the clock as possible and force the Steelers to use their three timeouts, the Bengals handed the ball to Jeremy Hill. I honestly believe that every team in the NFL would have done something similar.

But Hill added his name to a list that includes Earnest Byner and Tony Romo for “most costly fumbles in NFL postseason history”.

“I thought I had the ball tucked in there pretty tight, but it came out,” said Hill. “It’s inexcusable.

“I let the fans down, I let the coaches down, and I let my teammates down. It’s on me.”

But not entirely. The Steelers started at their own nine yard line needing to drive roughly 60 yards in 1:23 to give Chris Boswell a shot at a game-winning field goal. Due to his injured shoulder, Ben Roethslisberger was not able to throw the ball deep.

But Big Ben managed to complete five short throws and Pittsburgh drove to the Cincinnati 47-yard line with 22 seconds to go. The Steelers were out of time outs and the Bengals were still in position to win the game.

Cincinnati basically waived a white flag by drawing two yellow ones.

Steelers Bengals Football

A high pass from Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown sailed incomplete, but Vontaze Burfict was penalized for unnecessary roughness for hitting Brown in the head. Then Adam Jones was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct for his heated reaction to trash-talking Steelers coach Joey Porter. Thirty yards in penalties moved the ball to the 17-yard line and Boswell’s 35-yard field goal ended the Bengals season.

“You can’t have stupid penalties at times like that,” said Andy Dalton.

“You’ve got to be poised and you’ve got to keep playing,” said Marvin Lewis. “There are just things that you’ve got to pull away from.”

“That’s what coach has been saying to us all year,” said AJ McCarron. “It’s going to be hard to win games when we can’t control that.”

The NFL Network’s Michael Silver has dubbed it, “The Meltdown at Paul Brown.”

As he faced the media firing squad after the game, Andrew Whitworth was grilled on the Bengals lack of discipline in the final 30 seconds.

“How hard is it to maintain composure in an atmosphere and a game like this?” asked The Enquirer’s Paul Daugherty.

“I think if you have discipline it’s not that hard,” said Whitworth. “You’ve got to be disciplined and understand the ultimate goal.”

“Who does the lack of discipline fall on?” asked CBSSports.com’s Pete Prisco.

“I’m a leader so it falls on all of us,” replied Whitworth. “If any of us have let it slip, or if any of us have not let it be important, then it’s all of our mistake. Discipline is something to me that’s taught throughout the year. It’s not a one-time moment thing. It’s an every-day thing. It’s just like raising my kids. Discipline is something that I have to be consistent every single day with. I have to be consistent on things that are important, and as a leader of the football team it’s the same thing.”

“At the end of the day you’ve got to keep your cool,” said Dalton.

The late collapse negated an incredible comeback. Down by 15 points to begin the fourth quarter, the Bengals scored on three straight possessions and took the lead on a 25-yard touchdown pass from McCarron to A.J. Green with 1:56 remaining.

Green playoff TD vs Steelers (440x301)

“Everybody was so calm on that last possession,” said McCarron. “It was kind of creepy. It was like everybody has ice water in their veins. Everybody was calm and thinking that we were going to go and make a freaking play.”

“I’m just proud of AJ man,” said Whitworth. “AJ McCarron came in in a tough role – to take on a team that is a contender and have to stand in there and figure everything out in the manner that he had to do it. It wasn’t going to be clean, it wasn’t going to be pretty, we knew things were going to be ugly at times, but the kid just went about it with every bit of effort that he had. I couldn’t be more proud of him for that.”

Instead of getting credit for his first 4th quarter comeback as an NFL quarterback, McCarron watched helplessly as Roethlisberger recorded his 38th.

“This one just really sucks,” said McCarron. “We were so close to bringing this city what it deserves – especially against Pittsburgh. I’m at a loss for words.”

“I can’t fathom it right now,” said Iloka. “It’s déjà vu. It literally feels like yesterday we were having the same talk about losing in the playoffs. Maybe it feels like yesterday because we’ve had this conversation four times. It’s frustrating.”

The Bengals started the season 8-0 for the first time in team history. They finished the regular season 12-4 to tie the franchise’s best record in a 16-game season. Instead of celebrating an AFC North title and what should have been Cincinnati’s first postseason win in 9,135 days, they will face the same old question for at least another year: Why can’t you win a first round playoff game?

“Guys work hard man,” said Iloka. “From top to bottom, everybody in this organization works hard and I don’t know how we keep losing every year to teams that quite frankly don’t have more talent than us. This is a really talented team in terms of athletes and weapons. We’re stacked and the fact that we keep losing in the first round – I’m trying to figure it out. I don’t have the answers. I really don’t.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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“The Journey Is Just Beginning”

Posted by Dan Hoard on January 3, 2016 – 11:13 pm

Last Tuesday at noon, just seven hours after the Bengals got back from a physically and emotionally draining loss at Denver, Marvin Lewis sat down with Dave Lapham and me to tape his weekly TV show.

Marvin cold night (440x302)

It was roughly the 80th time we’ve recorded “Bengals Weekly” together and I saw something that I had never seen on the show before – Coach Lewis getting choked up.

It happened when Lap ended our interview segment with the following question: “At this stage of the season, what are you most proud of about your football team?”

“How hard they play and how disappointed we are when we come up short,” Marvin said as his eyes watered a bit. “It’s hurts them. And then they come back to work, tighten their resolve, put their heads down and work harder.”

That’s a coach that is proud of what he’s built in Cincinnati, and Marvin Lewis has every right to be.

While the 2015 Bengals will ultimately be judged on whether they can end the franchise’s 24-season drought without a playoff win, the players and coaches deserve a ton of credit for putting themselves back into a position to do something about it.

The Baltimore Ravens have missed the playoffs in two of the last three years. If the Jets had won on Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers would have missed the postseason for the third time in four years. The Buffalo Bills haven’t been to the playoffs in 16 years. In other words, getting there is not a given.

But for the fifth straight season and sixth time in seven years, the Bengals are one of 12 teams to make it through the regular season meat grinder and still have a shot at the Lombardi Trophy.

“This is just our first step,” said Coach Lewis. “That’s what our guys know. The journey is just beginning.”

“The playoffs are a brand new season and I think everybody realizes that you have to be at your best,” said Kevin Zeitler.

McCarron vs Ravens (440x293)

The Bengals might not be at their best next week unless Andy Dalton makes a remarkably fast recovery from a broken thumb. The question is, will they still be good enough to win? In his three starts since Dalton’s injury, AJ McCarron has four touchdown passes, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 100.1. If he continues to avoid turnovers, the Bengals defense will keep them in any playoff game that the second-year quarterback starts.

“We didn’t execute everything the right way, but the good thing is that we won,” said McCarron after Sunday’s victory over Baltimore. “It’s not always going to be roses, but we fought hard and we got the win.”

Cincinnati is 2-1 in AJ’s three starts, but the Bengals’ confidence in their young quarterback might have grown the most from the only one he lost – the overtime thriller in Denver.

“That was a pressure-packed night,” said Lewis. “So that was a huge step in his development to go through something like that where every play was win-or-lose on each and every snap. There was a lot of tension, and he was able to stay calm through that, deliver the football, run the offense, and make good decisions.”

So now, we begin what is going to feel like the longest week in history. I promise you that the days are going to crawl as we eagerly anticipate the third and final showdown this year in what’s become one of the NFL’s most bitter rivalries: Cincinnati vs. Pittsburgh.

“It’s going to be a fun game,” said Tyler Eifert. “Obviously this rivalry has heated up in recent years – especially this year. It will be an awesome atmosphere here at Paul Brown.”

“We know that they’re one of the best teams in the league,” said Coach Lewis. “So if you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.”

For Michael Johnson, the opponent at this point doesn’t matter.

“Whoever we’ve got to play, put the ball down and let’s get after it,” Johnson told me. “Whoever. Wherever.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Bengals D Sets Up Showdown In Denver

Posted by Dan Hoard on December 21, 2015 – 2:50 am

In Sunday’s 24-14 win at San Francisco, the Bengals averaged a paltry 1.9 yards on their 36 rushes, converted a mere 4 of 14 third down opportunities (29%), and had to punt a season-high eight times.

“We wanted it to be pretty, you know?” said Marvin Jones with a laugh.

In this case it was substance over style.

Playing for the first time in 82 games without Andy Dalton at quarterback, the Bengals relied on a ball-hawking defense and Kevin Huber’s booming left leg to methodically beat the 49ers.

“We knew coming into this game that defense was going to be key with AJ (McCarron) making his first start,” said Domata Peko. “They say a quarterback’s best friend is running the ball and a good defense so we were really trying to elevate our level of play. Thank God that we did.”

Dunlap recovers fumble (440x313)

The Bengals defense finished with four takeaways including a fumble that was forced and recovered by Carlos Dunlap midway through the second quarter. It gave the Bengals the ball at the San Francisco 11-yard-line and led to a one yard touchdown run by Jeremy Hill.

“That’s something we needed,” said Jones. “We were off to a slow start.”

“(Carlos) is known for doing that type of stuff,” said Peko. “Hawking fools down. Hawking receivers and running backs down and stripping the ball. That was a big play defensively. We needed something to get us going and Carlos did that.”

On San Francisco’s next drive, a “shank you very much” 18-yard-punt by Bradley Pinion led to Hill’s second short TD. On the 49ers following possession, an interception by Vontaze Burfict set up a 20-yard touchdown pass from McCarron to rookie tight end Tyler Kroft.

“It was awesome,” said Kroft after his first NFL TD. “It was kind of everything I dreamed of. They sent pressure and AJ and I knew that I was the hot read on that play so it worked out like it was supposed to.”

After sputtering on their first five drives, the Bengals scored three touchdowns in less than five minutes.

“It took us a little while to get our footing, but when we needed to put points on the board we did it,” said Kroft.

McCarron vs San Fran (440x307)

McCarron did exactly what the Bengals asked him to, completing 15 of 21 passes for 192 yards with 1 TD and 0 INT for a passer rating of 115.6.

“The biggest difference in the football game is that Blaine Gabbert had three interceptions and AJ didn’t have any,” said my broadcast partner Dave Lapham.

“He was cool, calm, and collected,” said Kroft. “Everything that you want in a quarterback.”

“I think he did a great job,” said Hill. “He didn’t turn the all over and that was huge.”

Taking care of the ball was enough to beat San Francisco, but the offense is likely going to have to be far more effective next week in Denver. A win would clinch the AFC North and give the Bengals a first-round bye in the playoffs.

“This is going to be a huge game for us and everybody knows that,” said Jones.

“It feels awesome that we’re in the dance for the fifth time in a row,” said Peko. “But we’re looking to do some damage this year and go further than we’ve ever been. We’re trying to get the ring.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Bengals Lose Passer And Poise

Posted by Dan Hoard on December 13, 2015 – 10:03 pm

The Cincinnati Bengals played their first 10 games of the season without having to put a member of the opening day roster on injured reserve. Through 12 games, the only player to suffer a season-ending injury since the start of the year was Darqueze Dennard.

In other words, the Bengals had been incredibly fortunate in terms of injuries heading into Sunday’s 33-20 loss to Pittsburgh. But the odds caught up to them in Game 13.

“One thing about this league man, to get to that Super Bowl you’ve got to have some luck on your side,” said A.J. Green. “We had some bad breaks today.”

Dalton in cast (440x248)

In this case, the “break” was literal as the Bengals lost the player they could least afford to lose with a fractured thumb.

“It sucks about Andy,” said Kevin Zeitler. “It’s very unfortunate. It was a great play by the Steelers down there and Andy went to prevent the return and stuff happens.”

At this point, we don’t know how long quarterback Andy Dalton is going to be out. Additionally, the Bengals best cornerback Adam Jones missed the game with an injured foot, and the NFL co-leader in touchdowns, tight end Tyler Eifert, exited with a concussion.

“We’ve got to circles the wagons and stay positive,” said Michael Johnson. “If the injured guys have to be out for a while, we’ll have to have other guys step up. We’re built for this.”

In the NFL, you had better be. This season, the list of star quarterbacks who have missed considerable time due to injury includes Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, and Andrew Luck. Dalton had started 81 consecutive games, a record for a Bengals quarterback, and was having his best season with 25 TD passes, 7 interceptions, and a passer rating of 106.2.

“It’s so frustrating and I feel bad for him,” said Zeitler. “He’s been playing great and he’s been a great leader this year. He’s been doing everything he had to do, but it is what it is. We need McCarron to step up, we have talent in this room, and we’ve got to get through it.”

McCarron vs Steelers (440x294)

AJ McCarron did not appear overwhelmed against the Steelers as he went 22-for-32 for 280 yards, with 2 TDs, 2 INTs, and a passer rating of 90.6.

“I thought he did great,” said Green. “To be thrown in the fire like that against the Pittsburgh Steelers who are playing out of their minds right now, I thought he handled it well. The stage didn’t seem too big for him, he commanded the huddle very well, and I think when we get back to work this week and he gets some more reps with the ones, I think he’ll be fine.”

“AJ did not take one snap with the first string offense last week,” said my broadcast partner Dave Lapham. “He was Ben Roethlisberger at practice and ran Pittsburgh’s plays all week. So I tip my cap to him for how he did. He wasn’t happy obviously and was lamenting the two interceptions but that’s how competitive he is.”

“AJ can play – it’s not a secret,” said Johnson. “I expected him to come in and play well and he did. He’ll get more comfortable with more practice time if he has to be in there and hopefully Andy will make a speedy recovery.”

In the meantime, the Bengals next three opponents are San Francisco, Denver, and Baltimore. This weekend, they lost by a combined score of 74-28. Their starting quarterbacks were all backups at the beginning of the season: Blaine Gabbert, Brock Osweiler, and Jimmy Clausen.

“We’ll have a week to prepare with AJ (McCarron) and we’ve got to do whatever it takes to get that chemistry down as fast as we can,” said Green.

“We’ll be fine,” said Johnson. “The main thing is to do what we need to do to keep it a family and stay tight.”

“We’ve got to get ready for San Fran because we can’t get stuck on this,” said Zeitler. “We’ve got to finish strong.”

As bleak as things seemed at the end of the loss to Pittsburgh, the Bengals will clinch at least a wild card playoff berth with a win next week at San Francisco. And regardless of what happens the next two weeks, Cincinnati would win the AFC North by beating Baltimore in the final game of the regular season. The Bengals would also capture the division by winning two of their last three games, or winning one game coupled with a Pittsburgh loss or tie.

**********

In addition to losing their quarterback on Sunday, the Bengals frequently lost their poise. There were numerous skirmishes throughout the game, beginning with the pregame shoving match between Vontaze Burfict and Vince Williams – the Steelers linebacker that had threatened him on Twitter.

“I was shocked, I guess, at the beginning,” said Zeitler. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

“It was one of the least-poised games that I’ve ever been a part of and that was disappointing,” said Johnson. “We have to be better than that. We talked about it all week and they came in and got us to do exactly what they wanted us to do – and that’s get into all of that crap and not focus on playing between the whistles. You can see the outcome.”

“Guys lost their poise sometimes,” said Green. “That’s when you have to channel all of that stuff because you can’t fight on the field. So why get into it? Just go back out there and play the next play.”

“It was a tough, physical game,” added Zeitler. “What else do you expect from Bengals/Steelers?”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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