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Will Williams Emerge In Third Season?

Posted by Dan Hoard on May 26, 2015 – 4:18 pm

While the Bengals suffered a rash of injuries at two position groups last year – linebacker and wide receiver – their starting safeties were remarkably durable.

According to ProFootballFocus.com, George Iloka only missed 12 of 1,222 defensive snaps, while Reggie Nelson missed a mere 25. That means the two of them were on the field for 98% of Cincinnati’s defensive plays.

The safety duo was nearly as durable in 2013 as Iloka and Nelson were on the field for 94% of the Bengals’ defensive plays.

As a result, there haven’t been many opportunities for Shawn Williams to play safety in his first two NFL seasons. The former Georgia standout has been a key contributor on special teams, but has only seen 39 snaps on defense.

“I understand what’s going on and I respect the guys in front of me,” said Williams. “George and Reggie are two very good safeties, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t be ready when my number is called – whenever that may be.”

The third-round 2013 draft pick got the call to practice with the first team defense when the Bengals opened OTAs on Tuesday as Iloka sat out with an undisclosed minor injury.

“Shawn’s doing good – really good,” said defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. “George (Iloka) is a little dinged-up, so Shawn has the opportunity to run in there and get a lot of snaps. It’s a big time for him. It’s his time to make a move.”

That’s not the first time that a Bengals coach has mentioned that it’s time for Williams to play a more significant role. In an interview with Bengals.com editor Geoff Hobson and the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Paul Dehner Jr. at the NFL Owners Meetings in March, Marvin Lewis brought up Williams when asked which young players would be expected to emerge in 2015.

“I think Shawn Williams now is going into his third season,” said Lewis. “He’s a little different than Darqueze (Dennard) – he’s like where Dre Kirkpatrick was. He’s done everything we have asked of him on special teams. He’s a guy who in practice does a great job. I think he does things in practice that ought to transition well onto the playing field. This season he’s got to challenge Reggie and George and give them everything he can to work to play.”

“I feel like I’ve grown and matured and I’m doing everything I can do to show that I’m dependable,” said Williams. “I have to stay focused and be ready for whenever my time comes.”

Williams faced a similar situation in college. Shawn only started three games in his first two seasons at Georgia, before starting 27 of 28 possible games at a junior and senior.

“Patience is hard for me,” said the former Georgia captain. “But I feel like I’ve been put in that situation before so I have to take it in stride. That’s part of being patient, growing, and learning.”

Nelson and Iloka are both due to be free agents at the end of the season, so the Bengals need to know if Williams is capable of taking over in case either does not re-sign.

But for now, Shawn is simply focusing on being ready if his opportunity to play arises.

“Reggie is awesome and George has had two very good years,” Williams told me. “I respect their work. So for me, I have to back up both of them and be ready in case anything happens.”

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

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Battered Linebacker Group Helped Flowers Grow

Posted by Dan Hoard on May 24, 2015 – 4:29 pm

Last season, the Bengals starting linebacker trio of Vontaze Burfict, Rey Maualuga, and Emmanuel Lamur missed a combined 17 regular season games due to injury. If you’re looking for something positive that came from their absence, it meant that the team’s younger backups were able to get significant NFL experience.

“Now those are some rose-colored glasses right there,” said linebackers coach Matt Burke with a laugh. “I certainly wasn’t feeling blessed about it at the time.”

But it was a blessing in disguise for rookie Marquis Flowers, a sixth-round draft choice who appeared in every game and got 22 snaps at linebacker in the playoff loss at Indianapolis.

“I ended up getting a lot of snaps and one of the biggest things that I learned is that you’ve got to be ready,” said Flowers. “Obviously you always want to play, but I wanted to be ready. You don’t want to go in there and feel like you did badly.”

“He actually played all three spots at times for us last year,” said Burke. “That’s tough for a rookie, but I threw him in and at least he has a little bit of a foundation everywhere.

“Part of my approach this offseason is rolling guys through. Every one of them is playing at least two of the positions to cross-train them.”

The adjustment to the NFL was especially big for Flowers because he only played linebacker at the University of Arizona for two seasons after beginning his college career at safety.

“My rookie year was a big learning curve,” Flowers told me. “I learned from the older guys that it’s a long season and you have to take care of your body and be patient. I’m glad my locker is right next to Vinny Rey’s because he helped me out tremendously last year. He could tell when I came back this year that I’m a lot more comfortable. But I’m still young and I’m still learning.

“I got a chance to get on the field last year so this year I know what to expect. I know what the game is like and what the speed is like and this year I’ve got to be more comfortable with the playbook so that the coaches will trust me and can call whatever they need to.”

His position coach has already noticed a difference.

“We gave the whole defense a test in a meeting the other day and he got a 100% on it,” said Burke. “He was one of three linebackers that got ‘em all right.”

“We’re going to put it to the text next week when OTAs start,” said Flowers. “I’ve been doing well and have (the defense) down, but it’s all about what happens when it’s ‘go time.’ I’ve done a lot of studying and I’ve been preparing, so we’ll see next week.”

The 23-year-old returned to Cincinnati for voluntary workouts noticeably larger than last season when he was listed at 230 pounds coming out of college.

“I actually put on 17 pounds,” said Flowers. “I plan on dropping four or five to get to my playing weight, so everything is falling into place. It’s year two and I’m a lot more comfortable in everything that I do. I definitely know what to expect.

“I basically wanted to get my body right and get stronger in the offseason. I ended up having a great offseason. I got bigger, faster, and stronger.”

“The work that he put in the offseason really shows,” said Burke.

Flowers definitely does not resemble a safety anymore.

“The safety in me has been gone since college,” he said. “I started eating like a linebacker since I moved to the position.”

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

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Hawk Enjoying Fresh Start In 10th Year

Posted by Dan Hoard on May 22, 2015 – 8:31 am

A.J. Hawk is 31 years old, has nearly a decade of NFL experience, and has started 147 games including a Super Bowl win.

“I like being ‘the old guy,’” he said with a laugh. “People say it like that’s a bad thing, but I don’t mind it at all. Physically I feel great, and mentally as well.”

AJ Hawk (440x319)

But as one of the Bengals newcomers taking part in the team’s voluntary offseason program, he sounds like a rookie.

“It feels like when I started out in Green Bay,” Hawk told me. “Most of these guys have all played together for a while and they know what’s going on. So I’ve been picking their brains and asking them questions about how they do certain things.

“Everything is obviously new to me, but after being in one place for nine years, it feels good to come to a new team and feel the energy of a lot of young guys and a lot of great players. Every day is a learning experience for me – that’s for sure – and I’m just trying to do my job and be accountable to everybody. But I’m having a good time honestly. I’m having a lot of fun.”

The former Ohio State star signed a 2-year, $3.25 million contract in March as the Bengals looked to shore up their depth at linebacker after the position group was hammered by injuries last season. Although he didn’t miss any games, Hawk also dealt with an injury in Green Bay last year, resulting in surgery to remove bone spurs from his ankle after the season.

“I feel really good moving around now,” said Hawk. “It was something that I knew I had to have fixed and get cleaned out, and as soon as I got done with the surgery with Dr. (Robert) Anderson down in North Carolina, he said, ‘Trust me. I think we got what was bothering you.’ So I feel really good. I haven’t been limited at all and I’ve been full-go since I got here.”

“He’s been moving around well,” said linebackers coach Matt Burke. “I’m excited and happy to have him around.”

While the Bengals remain hopeful that Vontaze Burfict will be ready for the start of the season as he recovers from microfracture knee surgery, Hawk gives Cincinnati a veteran capable of starting at any of the linebacker spots if needed.

“Obviously he’s a professional in every sense of the word,” said Burke. “He’s really intelligent and he’s played a lot of ball in the league. For him it’s just translating to our language a little bit. He understands it all; it’s just what we call things and how to communicate it.”

Hawk went to the playoffs in seven of his nine seasons in Green Bay, winning the Super Bowl in his fifth NFL season.

So having played on a championship team, do the Bengals have what it takes to contend?

“Everywhere you look there are stud players,” said Hawk. “They have crazy athletic ability and talent and it’s a really tight team too which is good to see. Everyone knows that the best teams that they’ve been a part of – whether it’s sports, business, or whatever – they enjoy being around each other and trying to make each other better. I’ve seen that from day one here.

“For that one team that finds the way to win it all, everything kind of clicks at the right time. So why not us? We should be in that group of teams that are competing for the Super Bowl for sure.”

Hawk’s transition to a new team has been made easier by its location. He grew up about 45 minutes from Cincinnati in Centerville and maintained a home in Columbus while playing in Green Bay.

“The great thing is that I don’t have to take any flights,” he said. “Normally at this time when I was in Green Bay, I would fly back to Columbus every weekend to be with my family. So I’ve been driving back and forth to Columbus every week and I’ve also been to Centerville multiple times because my parents and my brothers are all there. It’s still weird for me to be back in Ohio and knowing that this is where I’m working.

“I’ve always wanted to get back to Ohio and now I’m here. It’s exciting.”

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

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Healthy Hopkins Ready For Roster Battle

Posted by Dan Hoard on May 13, 2015 – 12:57 pm

When the Bengals opened the preseason at Kansas City last year, center Russell Bodine was not the only rookie that started on the offensive line. Trey Hopkins lined up next to Bodine at left guard.

Hopkins and Bodine

“He was doing a good job at camp and all of the sudden I threw him in there with the first group,” said offensive line coach Paul Alexander. “Clint (Boling) was still coming back from his ACL repair, so Trey got a lot of reps. He was looking really good. He had a good chance to help us last year.”

Unfortunately, Hopkins suffered a broken leg in Cincinnati’s third preseason game.

“It was just on a combo block,” said Hopkins. “I plant-stepped and it just kind of shook and popped. At first it felt a little numb and I got up and tried to jog it off, and that’s when I knew it was bad.”

But Hopkins says his leg is fine now.

“I’m 100%,” he said. “I got cleared in the last week of December. There were still a few limitations then, but they gave me the go-ahead to start training in the offseason. For the past couple of months I’ve been pushing it and haven’t had any problems.”

“He’s moving around and it looks like nothing is bothering him,” said Alexander. “He’s missed a few days because he’s been back at school finishing up to graduate, but most of the time he’s been here and looked good.”

Despite being a two-time All-Big 12 selection and starting 42 games at Texas, Hopkins went undrafted last year before being signed by the Bengals as their highest-paid college free agent.

“I used it as motivation,” Trey told me. “It’s disappointing when you don’t get that call. You see your buddies get those calls and you want to be happy for them, but there’s always that biting feeling in your stomach because you’ll never know how it felt to celebrate with your family on that day. But you still have an opportunity if you got invited to camp and get to participate in OTAs. You just have to use those opportunities.”

The biggest challenge for the 6’3”, 310-pound guard was to change the footwork that he had learned at Texas.

“He was taught different techniques in college that I thought would hinder him in making the transition to the NFL,” said my broadcast partner Dave Lapham. “He unlearned and relearned about as quickly as any young guy that I’ve seen. He’s got good overall athletic ability. He’s got the ability to finish blocks, good hand placement and feet, and has some strength to him. He’s just a good prospect.

“In my mind it’s hard to project how quickly a guy will be able to go through the process of unlearning and relearning. You wonder if he will go back to his old ways in the heat of battle and Trey proved to me that he was capable of putting those away. He did a really good job of that.”

“Last year I worked hard, studied a lot, and put a lot of effort into learning the techniques that Paul teaches,” said Hopkins. “I’m pretty much going to have to do the exact same thing again. But I’m not starting from complete zero. Now it’s just training that muscle memory again and getting used to the techniques for the steps and pulls and stuff like that.”

“He has a combination of very good athleticism, excellent intelligence, and want-to,” said Alexander. “The want-to kind of puts the other two together and he did a really good job.”

The Bengals typically keep nine offensive lineman on the roster and Hopkins will have to earn a spot in training camp. After missing an entire season, Trey is looking forward to the battle.

“You always kind of wonder what your life would be like without football,” said Hopkins. “Sometimes it’s really a grind, but when it gets taken from you, you really start to appreciate the fun in it. You play football since seventh grade – even before that for some people – and I don’t think you ever realize how different your life will be when that’s over with. It may be refreshing for a little bit, but after a while it’s maddening because you’re just itching to be part of it.

“My goal right now is to get back into the swing of things. It’s been almost a year since I’ve done any of this, and even when I was healthy I had a lot of room for improvement.”

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

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Four Key Offseason Additions For Bengals

Posted by Dan Hoard on February 20, 2015 – 1:38 pm

After spending Thursday at the NFL Scouting Combine, I am prepared to describe four key players that the Bengals anticipate adding to the roster next season.

  1. A sideline-to-sideline tackling machine at linebacker with a high football I.Q. Plays with an attitude. Prone to excessive penalties. Possible concussion concerns.
  2. A fluid receiver with the ability to stretch the field. Makes tough catches in the red zone. Ideal complement to pair with A.J. Green.
  3. An elite pass-catching tight end. Stands 6’6” with long arms. Has size to beat defensive backs and speed to beat linebackers. Must continue to improve as a blocker.
  4. A road-grading right tackle with surprisingly nimble feet. Must keep an eye on weight.

Those players are Vontaze Burfict, Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert, and Andre Smith.

Bernard at combine (440x293)

Don’t get me wrong, Cincinnati will undoubtedly add an immediate contributor or two (maybe more) in this year’s draft.  The Bengals are on a run of six straight productive drafts as they’ve placed at least one player on the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team in every season.

2014: Jeremy Hill

2013: Giovani Bernard

2012: Kevin Zeitler

2011: A.J. Green

2010: Carlos Dunlap, Clint Stitser (not a stellar group of rookie kickers apparently)

2009: Quan Cosby (as a punt returner)

But regardless of who the Bengals add in the draft, it’s hard to imagine that any of the rookies will have a bigger immediate impact than the return of Burfict, Jones, Eifert, and Smith – assuming that they’re healthy.

Burfict is recovering from the most serious injury after having microfracture surgery on his left knee.  Marvin Lewis told reporters at the Combine that he expects the Pro Bowl linebacker to be back on the field this season.

“Vontaze is working his tail off in rehab and it’s an important offseason for the Cincinnati Bengals and Vontaze Burfict together,” Lewis said.  “He’s one of our dynamic players and he’s a dynamic leader.  We’re a better team with Vontaze on the field, so we hope to get him back full speed and healthy as quick as we can.  It’s important.  He knows the importance of it for us, for him, and for his career.”

Marvin at combine 2015 (440x294)

Coach Lewis added that Jones and Eifert are on good recovery timetables as they return from ankle and elbow injuries respectively.

“(Jones) is fine, healthy, and he’s ready to go,” said Lewis.  “He’s got a lot of prove.  It’s an exciting time for us.  He’s a young player with a lot of ability, a lot to prove, and a lot on the line.  I like guys with a lot on the line.

“Tyler’s development, if you are familiar with him, was a little bit retarded this year because he was injured nine plays into the season.  He’s doing well.  It’s important that we get Tyler back and productive in his third season for us.”

Adding Jones and Eifert to an offensive that includes Green, Hill, Bernard, and Mohamed Sanu would give Andy Dalton as many offensive weapons to distribute the ball to as nearly any quarterback in the NFL.

Two years ago with minimal injuries among running backs and receivers, Dalton set franchise records for single season passing yards (4,293) and touchdown passes (33).  However, he also threw a career-high 20 interceptions.  His INT total dropped to 17 last year, but his rate per attempt slightly increased.

“We’ve got to get Andy to continue to take care of the football all of the time,” said Coach Lewis.  “He doesn’t have to feel pressed.  We know the next down is coming.  The one area where we weren’t quite as good this year was protecting the football.  We have got to do a better job of that.  There were times where he became a little impatient and his patience has to continue to grow.

“To be a productive NFL quarterback, we want that interception number to be down.  That’s the most important thing.  There are going to be some interceptions that happen.  There are going to be some balls that go off hands that are tipped, and so forth.  But the ones that he is directly responsible for – we want to make sure that that number is almost non-existent.”

Over the last four seasons, the Bengals are 40-23-1 despite playing in one of the toughest divisions in football.  That’s the sixth-best record in the NFL during that period behind New England, Green Bay, Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle.  Despite their playoff failures, the Bengals roster is good enough to contend.

But it’s hard to overcome a rash of injuries that wipe out entire position groups as the Bengals had at times last year at wide receiver and linebacker.

“When you get a lot of injuries at one position, your depth is non-existent,” said Lewis.

That’s why the return of Burfict, Jones, Eifert, and Smith is so important.  It allows the Bengals not to draft for need but to continue their highly-successful approach – particularly in the early rounds – of taking the highest-rated player regardless of position.

“We want to upgrade the football team in general so there’s not one area,” said Lewis when asked about draft priorities.  “We have to upgrade every area.”

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

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The Drought And The Doubt Continue

Posted by Dan Hoard on January 5, 2015 – 12:18 am

The Arizona Cardinals had little chance of advancing in the playoffs with third-stringer Ryan Lindley at quarterback.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were much easier to defend when Le’Veon Bell was sidelined before the opening round loss to Baltimore.

And the Bengals latest postseason failure was significantly due to injuries at wide receiver, tight end, and linebacker.

“We’re definitely not using that as an excuse and I hope that’s not the storyline,” said George Iloka.

That’s not an excuse – it’s a reason.

“You see it every year,” said Andrew Whitworth. “One team might not be the best but it’s the healthiest.”

Lamur down on bench (373x440)

Before you fire off an angry “every team in the NFL has injuries” e-mail, I will readily admit that’s true. But not all injuries have the same impact. Show me the team that won a playoff game (ever?) without its top two receivers (A.J. Green and Marvin Jones), top two tight ends (Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham), and top two linebackers (Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga).

The Bengals chances of postseason success were heavily dependent on a successful running attack led by Jeremy Hill. When Green and Gresham were ruled out before Sunday’s game, it became much easier for the Colts to “stack the box” on defense to make it difficult to run.

“There could be 11 guys on the line – you still have to make plays,” said Hill who finished with 47 yards rushing. “You’ve got to make guys miss and break tackles – that’s what the great running backs do and I didn’t do that today.”

While I appreciate Jeremy’s sentiments, I didn’t see many holes to run through.

Instead, the Colts strategy dared the Bengals to beat them with downfield passes, but Cincinnati’s longest completion was a 26-yard throw to converted running back Rex Burkhead. Andy Dalton had an opportunity for a big play on a flea-flicker to Brandon Tate but did not lead him enough on the heave.

“I felt like there were some good things out there, but I didn’t play good enough,” said Dalton. “That’s what it comes down to. I’ve got to do more. I’ve got to push our guys to do more, but it all starts with me.”

Dalton joined Hall of Famer Y.A. Tittle as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to lose their first four playoff games. Marvin Lewis joined Jim Mora as the only coaches to go 0-6 in the postseason.

“They say it is Marvin’s record or Andy’s record but it’s our record,” said Vinny Rey. “It’s my record too. I want to turn this thing around. We didn’t do it today, but if we don’t learn from this then we’ve gained nothing.”

So what did we learn?

Last year when Dalton had a full stable of healthy receiving targets, he set team records by throwing for 4,293 yards and 33 touchdowns. This year without Jones, Eifert, and Green (for most of six games), those numbers plummeted. A handful of quarterbacks can thrive regardless of who they’re throwing to, but Andy is not on that list.

Donte Moncrief, Hakeem Nicks

The Bengals also need to rediscover their pass rush. Cincinnati was dead last in the NFL with 20 sacks this year after having 43, 51, and 45 in the previous three seasons. Andrew Luck dropped back to pass 46 times on Sunday and was only sacked once. How many times did he bounce around in the pocket for ages before finding an open receiver?

“I hate playing those types of quarterbacks – like Big Ben – the guys that can keep the play alive because it’s hard to stay in coverage that long,” said Iloka. “Most coverages are built for ‘One, two, three, ball is out.’ After that, you’re scrambling around trying to find who is open and cover them.”

Perhaps the biggest thing that we’ve learned is that it’s hard to enjoy being one of only four teams to go to the playoffs each of the last four years when the postseason ends in the first round.

“It sucks,” said Giovani Bernard. “It’s not fun. We’ve got to rebound, get some new additions to the team and take it from there.”

“I feel bad for the players, I feel bad for the city and the fans,” said Marvin Lewis. “We fought our butts off, but we didn’t get enough done today.”

The last time the Bengals won a playoff game, George H.W. Bush was President, the Wire-to-Wire Reds were the reigning World Series champions, and the UC Bearcats were in their second season under a brash young coach named Bob Huggins.

The drought and the doubt continue.

“It’s motivation,” said Hill. “That’s all you can do at this point. The season is over so you’ve got to use it as motivation in the off-season and come back stronger than ever.”

“There’s a reason we’re in it every year and that’s because we set out at the beginning of the year – myself and the leaders of this team – and we create that atmosphere,” said Whitworth. “That atmosphere isn’t going anywhere as long as I’m here. You can’t guarantee anything, but I promise you that we’ll put in the time to be here again next year.”

“You get back to work and you get ready to beat down the door again,” said Lewis. “That’s all you can do.”

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

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Demon Exorcised…For Now

Posted by Dan Hoard on December 24, 2014 – 6:26 pm

Moments before kickoff on Monday night’s broadcast, I encouraged Bengals players, coaches, and fans to close their eyes and imagine they were on Wake Island – a small atoll in the central Pacific Ocean where the local time is 17 hours ahead of Cincinnati.

In other words, when it’s 8:00 at night in Cincinnati, it is 1:00 in the afternoon on Wake Island.

Whatever it takes to fix the Bengals’ prime time woes right?

But Marvin Lewis took a more straight-forward approach with his players.

“I tried to defuse it with them and have them not worry about it,” Lewis told me. “Every opportunity is a new opportunity. So don’t worry about that. This is the game at hand and go win it.”

But it was hard for the players not to worry about it. After losing four straight prime time games and a playoff game by an average of 15 points, it was nearly impossible to tune in to the NFL Network or ESPN without hearing about the Bengals inability to win when the spotlight shines brightest.

Monday’s 37-28 win over Denver has quieted that talk – at least for now.

Dre in the rain (440x289)

“That was a huge monkey on our backs and one that we needed to get off,” said Hue Jackson. “The truth of the matter is that we hadn’t done well in those games but it’s not like the guys weren’t competing and trying. It just didn’t happen for them. I would hope last Monday night that we exorcised that demon – not just for the players but for the organization, Mike Brown, the Brown family, and for the city. Peopled watched the Cincinnati Bengals defeat a very talented team on Monday Night Football and I think our players can walk away from that with some confidence as we continue to move forward.”

“I’m going to be honest with you,” said Wallace Gilberry. “That was a playoff environment from snap to finish – the crowd, the weather, the intensity – it was a playoff-type game. So it had a lot of meaning.”

But it wasn’t just winning the game – it was how the Bengals won.

When Andy Dalton’s second pass of the night was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by Aqib Talib, the sense of impending doom at Paul Brown Stadium was palpable.

Raise your hand if you were thinking, “Here we go again.”

“We obviously didn’t want the interception to happen, but I talked to the guys the night before the game and said, ‘Whether it goes good or it goes bad, we can’t worry about it. We have to keep playing.’” said Jackson. “After the interception, I think the guys came to the sideline, kind of looked at each other and said, ‘This isn’t going to be the same outcome.’ It started with Andy Dalton, Andrew Whitworth, and the rest of the offensive line. Sure enough, on the next play we were able to send a message.”

Hill long run Denver (440x307)

That play was an 85-yard touchdown run by Jeremy Hill that tied the score and showed that the Bengals weren’t going to come unglued after an early mistake.

“I think it ignited our team,” said Jackson.

And it established a pattern. Whenever the Broncos made a big play, the Bengals answered.

“To keep coming back and answering every score was just great,” said Lewis. “I’m proud of the players and their resiliency.”

The 85-yard TD was the start of another big night for Hill who has averaged nearly 104 yards a game over the last eight weeks, with three runs of 60 yards or longer.

“Prior to the last season, one of the things that we felt that we needed to be able to do was make more explosive runs to go along with the big plays in the passing game,” said Lewis. “Obviously with Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, we’ve been able to find two guys that have that kind of ability.”

Bernard began this season as the Bengals primary ball carrier, but Hill has taken over the role in the last two weeks and rushed for 148 yards against Cleveland and 147 yards against Denver.

“It was a tough call – but a good call – and I thought it was the right thing to do,” said Jackson. “Talking to Coach Lewis, I thought it was the direction that we needed to go. I’m used to having one guy dominate the carries and another guy play. I give kudos to Gio because he didn’t bat an eye. He said, ‘Coach, if that’s what’s best for the team in order for us to win, then that’s all I’m interested in.’ That’s says a lot about him because this was his chance and obviously he got injured and things have kind of changed. But at the same time, he knows that he’s going to play and that he’s a very valuable member of this football team. I’m still expecting big things out of him, but Jeremy’s done a great job.”

When Jackson replaced Jay Gruden as offensive coordinator he vowed to make Cincinnati a more effective running team. After rushing for 244 and 207 yards in their last two games, the Bengals have climbed to number five in the NFL in rushing. The defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks are number one.

“When I took this job I said that this is what we would do – but if you go back and play the tape I never said when we would do it,” said Jackson. “You want to be a balanced football team and be able to thrive by land or by air. We’ve had some of our pass catchers get hurt, we’ve had some inconsistency in our play, and the one thing that I’ve always known you can lean on is the running game. I try to tell people that we’re still building our offense. I knew eventually that this thing would take off. To have 200 yards rushing in back-to-back in the NFL says a lot.”

That will be hard to replicate on Sunday night in Pittsburgh. In the first meeting between the two teams, the Steelers only allowed 86 rushing yards but surrendered 327 passing yards.

“We’re going to go into the game with a great plan – I know that,” said Jackson. “Honestly, if we have to throw it 40 times then we’re going to throw it 40 times. If we have to run it 40 times, then we’ll do that. We just want to win and we’ll do whatever it takes. But we know where it starts. We like to run the football and we’re going to attempt to run the football.”

And when we go on the air this week, I will not be encouraging anybody to imagine being in a different time zone. The Bengals have proven they can beat a good team in prime time. Now they’ll try to do it twice in six days.

“Our guys will be ready to play,” said Lewis. “We just have to handle the emotion of it and play with great poise for 60 minutes. That’s one thing that we have to improve upon from last week. We have to make plays in critical situations and then handle it. Handle success, handle failure, and move on to the next play.”

“This is the game of the year for us so far,” said Gilberry. “You play this sport to have meaningful games in December.”

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

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O-Line Paves Way For Redemption In Cleveland

Posted by Dan Hoard on December 16, 2014 – 3:20 pm

Here’s a key lesson from the Bengals 30-0 win over Cleveland: The video screen is more powerful than the bulletin board.

Nelson screaming (440x327)

For all the talk of the Browns getting added motivation from Jeremy Hill’s “they’re worse than I thought” comment or Marvin Lewis’s “midget” gaffe, that was nothing compared to the Bengals doing a slow burn when they watched the video from their previous loss to Cleveland on Thursday Night Football.

“They came into our house and kicked the door in and we remembered that,” said Reggie Nelson.

While Andy Dalton’s 2.0 passer rating was the stat most frequently mentioned after the first game, the number 2.6 was just as discouraging. That’s how many yards the Bengals averaged on their 63 offensive plays in the home game vs. Cleveland.

“It was just a debacle,” said Hill after rushing for 148 yards in the rematch.

For obvious reasons, the Bengals utter domination of Johnny Manziel was the big story after Sunday’s win, but the tone was set before the rookie quarterback ever set foot on the field. Cincinnati’s offense began the game with a 14-play, 81 yard touchdown drive that took 7:07 off of the clock. Six of the plays were runs by Hill.

Hill vs Cleveland (440x307)

“Coming out of the gates like that was key,” said George Iloka. “It sucked the wind out of their fans.”

“The offense did a great job on that first drive of wearing them down,” said Carlos Dunlap.

Particularly the O-line.

“They were embarrassed on Thursday night and our guys have a lot of pride and they’re fighters,” said offensive line coach Paul Alexander.

His fighters delivered knockout blow after knockout blow as the Bengals rushed for 244 yards on 45 carries.

“It’s kind of the way football should be played,” said Alexander. “Guys were pushing around, fighting, getting muddy and dirty, sweaty and bloody. It was a fun game – it really was.”

“It all started up front,” said my broadcasting partner Dave Lapham. “I thought the offensive line played a whale of a game and I thought (fullback) Ryan Hewitt was about as dominant as I’ve ever seen him – and he’s been pretty dominant.”

“I think they’ve been dedicated to being a physical group for a long time around here,” said Eric Winston.

Sunday’s performance lifted the Bengals to 6th in the NFL in rushing yards this season and Cincinnati ranks 4th in the league in fewest sacks allowed. That speaks to strong play from the entire offensive line and in an interview for this week’s “Bengals Gameplan” show (Wednesday from 6-8 on ESPN 1530), Coach Alexander shared some thoughts on his offensive lineman:

LT Andrew Whitworth and RG Kevin Zeitler

“I think they both are certainly Pro Bowl players,” said Alexander. “Whit this year – as crazy as it sounds at his age – I think he’s having his best season ever. He’s completely healthy, the game has really become easy for him because he’s played so long and is so experienced, and he’s leading with great toughness. And Zeitler is really coming into his own now. There are times where he looks absolutely beautiful – technically, physically, and with toughness. He’s very hard on himself and that’s probably why he’s developed into such a good player. I think they’re both outstanding football players.”

Rookie C Russell Bodine

“I think he’s gotten significantly better over the course of the season,” said Alexander. “I remember people saying, ‘Oh my God, he can’t even shotgun snap to the quarterback,’ after OTAs and obviously he’s long past that. He runs the show now and he’s such a tough, solid guy in the middle. He gets along with the other guys and they have fun in there together. He can knock a nose guard back as well as any center in the league really. He still has to continue to work on catching linebackers and so forth, but I’d take the one over the other any day.”

LG Clint Boling who has helped replace the injured Andre Smith at RT

“He did great against Pittsburgh,” said Alexander. “He went out there and graded above 90 percent and I can’t imagine anybody could do that. He helped us out and he helped himself out by being able to do that. He gave up a couple of pass protections that he would like to have back in the Cleveland game, but overall, he’s done better at tackle than you think a guy would who has played guard his whole life.”

Recently signed RT Eric Winston who was in for 33 snaps last week at Cleveland

“He came in the first week and knocked it out,” said Alexander. “I give a pretty difficult test the night before the game, and I was amazed – he’s probably the first player to come in and get 100% on the test in one week. So he’s a very quick study, he knows the players in the league obviously, and he’s still a good player. He played a little bit more last week and we’ll see how this week goes.”

The Bengals offensive line faces a difficult challenge this week in a Denver defense that ranks number one in the NFL in yards allowed per play.

“They’re excellent,” said Alexander. “They’ve got a huge nose guard in there – the kid from Temple, Terrance Knighton – he’s a big man and he clogs up the middle. That helps because their inside linebackers are extremely fast. And if that’s not enough, they’ve probably got the best pair of outside linebackers in the league in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. Those guys are great rushers and are also athletic and great in the run game.”

The players will surely be reminded this week of how poorly they’ve played in their two previous prime time games this year, and perhaps video from those games should play on an endless loop in the locker room.

Redemption proved to be a great motivator last Sunday in Cleveland.

“It meant a lot,” said Iloka. “And if anybody says anything different they’re lying.”

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

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Prayers Answered On Mistake-Filled Day

Posted by Dan Hoard on December 1, 2014 – 6:11 pm

Let’s review some of the events of Sunday’s win at Tampa Bay shall we?

Green TD vs Bucs (440x343)

On the first play from scrimmage, the Bengals upchucking quarterback (no, not you Matt Scott), hurls the first of three first half interceptions.

In the second quarter, a red zone sack by Geno Atkins that would have forced the Buccaneers to kick a field goal is negated by a face mask penalty. Two plays later, Tampa Bay scores a touchdown to take a 10-0 lead.

Roughly five minutes after that, the puking passer tosses a cookie into double coverage that is picked off in the end zone.

Near the end of the half after an interception by Terence Newman gives the Bengals the ball at the Tampa Bay 40-yard line, Cincinnati fans universally scream “CALL A TIMEOUT” before the Retching Rifle attempts to heave a pass out of bounds only to have it float into the hands of a Bucs defender.

In the third quarter after finally taking the lead for the first time, the Bengals attempt an onside kick that fails miserably. Even if it had worked, they were penalized for being offsides.

In the fourth quarter, the Rapidly-Recovering Rifle threads the needle between three defenders on third-and-16, only to see the ball dropped 20 yards downfield by the normally sure-handed Mohamed Sanu.

With 1:28 left in the game, Bucs quarterback Josh McCown throws a screen pass to Bobby Rainey with Reggie Nelson in position to make the tackle for a two-yard loss. But Nelson fails to make the stop and Rainey races 29 yards to put Tampa Bay in position for a game-winning field goal.

Did I miss anything?

Oh yeah, despite all of that the Bengals won.

“It’s an ugly win but it goes in the win column,” said my broadcasting partner Dave Lapham. “When you look at the standings there’s no ‘UW’ for ugly win or ‘PL’ for pretty loss. It’s a win or a loss.”

“At the end of the day all you need to win by is one point,” said Andy Dalton. “When you look back on it, it’s a win. This one was pretty crazy.”

Dalton vs Bucs (440x331)

And pretty gutsy – pun intended – for Dalton who wasn’t just a little under the weather. As Bengals.com editor Geoff Hobson described in great detail, the Bengals quarterback was seriously ill. But in the second half as he began to feel a little better, Andy went 12-for-16 for 114 yards, 1 touchdown, and a passer rating of 115.1.

“I told him after the game – and I don’t even know if it registered because he was pretty sick – I was like, ‘Man, I just really appreciate the way you battled for us,’” said George Iloka.

“I told him that Michael Jordan did it with the flu and you’re no different than him,” said Wallace Gilberry. “My hat goes off to him. He was throwing up before the game and you could look into his eyes and tell that he was not feeling right. He came out and did what he could do and it was up to us to uphold him and we did that.”

With a huge assist from the 2-and-10 Bucs.

Tampa Bay had the ball at the Cincinnati 31-yard line with 44 seconds and no time outs remaining. From there it would have been a 49-yard field goal attempt for Patrick Murray who is 4-for-5 from 50+ this season. But in an attempt to get a little closer, the Bucs tried a running play and center Garrett Gilkey was called for holding. That pushed the Bucs out of field goal range meaning Josh McCown had to pass.

After an incompletion, McCown hit Louis Murphy for what appeared to be a back-breaking 21-yard gain, but Bengals players and coaches quickly realized that the Bucs had 12 men on the field.

“We were having a hard time getting lined up on defense because of the 12th man,” said Marvin Lewis.

“After the play, they still had 12 on the field,” said Carlos Dunlap. “We told the ref to count them and he counted up to 12 so he called the penalty on the current play. Then we asked him to review the last one because they didn’t sub anybody.”

“I didn’t know they had too many players on the field until the coaches were coming off of our sideline talking about it,” said Leon Hall. “I was just basically hoping they were right.”

Hall was not the only Cincinnati player that didn’t see the infraction.

“To be honest with you, I had my eyes closed so I missed it,” said James Wright with a smile.

“Closed because you were praying?” I asked.

“It was in my thoughts,” Wright replied.

“Your prayer was answered, but maybe not the way you were thinking,” I responded.

“I don’t want to waste God’s time, but I’m happy that it happened like that,” Wright said.

The prayers of Bengals Nation were soon answered when the Steelers, Ravens, and Browns all lost to fall a game-and-a-half back in the AFC North. Cincinnati’s brutal slate of December games begins on Sunday at home against Pittsburgh.

“It’s the first time we’ve been home since the bad loss to Cleveland right?” said Iloka. “We owe our fans a good performance.”

That would be nice.

But we’ll all settle for another win.

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

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So Watt?

Posted by Dan Hoard on November 23, 2014 – 9:56 pm

In the words of Yosemite Sam (you know you have an 8-year-old when you cite cartoon characters), J.J. Watt’s initials could stand for “Jumpin’ Jehosaphat!” this year.

But on Sunday against the Bengals, the overwhelming favorite to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year didn’t have a sack, force a fumble, intercept a pass, or score a touchdown. More importantly, his team didn’t get a win.

“Losing sucks,” said Watt. “You all know how I feel about it. As an athlete, that is the worst feeling.”

“They had Watt down for seven tackles – four unassisted – and I can’t remember all of those tackles,” said my broadcasting partner Dave Lapham. “He did bat down a pass and have a quarterback hurry when he got a hit on Andy, but he did not wreck the game plan which he has done to almost every team he’s played this season.”

Bengals block Watt (440x342)

Cincinnati’s ability to neutralize Watt was even more remarkable when you consider that the Bengals lost the primary player assigned to block him. When Andre Smith went down with a triceps injury in the first quarter, Marshall Newhouse had to square off against #99.

“Coming off the bench and having to go up against J.J. Watt is not the easiest thing to do,” said A.J. Green. “Hats off to him today. He played well; he was ready and accepted the challenge.”

“(Watt) makes you honest on every play,” said Newhouse. “Every snap in the first, second, third, and fourth quarter. I think I did pretty well for myself. I hold myself to a high standard.”

Regardless of down or distance, running play or passing play, Newhouse frequently remained standing before the snap or, in football language, in a two-point stance.

“It was a mix (of two-point and three-point stances) and it just depended on the play and where the ball was going,” said Newhouse. “Occasionally it was to make sure I stayed back and make him make the first move.”

“I thought the technique of playing in a two-point stance quite a bit of the time impacted (Watt) a little bit,” said Lapham. “I don’t think he quite knew how to attack that. If you lunge or lean against J.J. Watt you’re playing right into his hands and they didn’t do that.”

The Bengals didn’t leave Newhouse on an island as they frequently used Jermaine Gresham and Ryan Hewitt to assist Newhouse on double-teaming Watt and also adjusted the game plan to account for J.J.’s unique strengths.

“He’s ‘Mr. All-Everything’ so it is hats off to our offense, our O-line, and Coach Hue for putting together a good game plan,” said Rey Maualuga.

“We ran a lot of plays at him, away from him; we were kind of all over the place pass blocking,” said Newhouse.

“He didn’t really have explosive plays like he normally does so kudos to our offensive line,” said Mohamed Sanu.

The bottom line is that the Bengals turned J.J. Megawatt into So Watt?

“Marshall Newhouse deserves a lot of credit, but I thought the entire offensive line really did a good job,” said Lapham. “Across the board every single one of them should take a bow.”

“He’s a fantastic player, but they have a lot of other good players and we knew that we were going to have to block all of them in order to win,” said Andrew Whitworth.

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

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