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The Playoff Picture With 4 To Go

Posted by Dan Hoard on December 5, 2011 – 7:12 pm

Did you feel lousy after watching Sunday’s rout in Pittsburgh?

Well imagine how it felt if you had been on the receiving end of that pounding and had to watch every mistake all over again on Monday morning.

“It’s a disgusting feeling,” said receiver Andre Caldwell.  “It hurts, but we have to get over it because we have another big game to get ready for this week.”

“It’s a horrible pill to swallow, but we have to have short-term memory, put it behind us, and move on,” said linebacker Manny Lawson.

Lousy performances happen – just ask the Steelers who lost by the exact same 35-7 score in week one to Baltimore.  Despite the blowout, the Bengals are still the final playoff seed in the AFC and play three of their last four games at home.    

“The way we lost hurts, but in the grand scheme of things, a loss is a loss,” said receiver Andrew Hawkins.  “That loss is no different than when we lost close games to Denver and San Fran.”

“The biggest thing is that this game only counts one,” said quarterback Andy Dalton.  “We can’t let it affect us for the rest of the season because we still have four games to go.”

Here’s a look at how the Bengals remaining schedule compares to the other four AFC teams with 7-5 records (along with their conference records for tie-breaker purposes).  Keep in mind that Denver or Oakland is likely to win the AFC West.

Denver (7-5, 6-3 AFC):  Chicago, New England, at Buffalo, Kansas City (combined record = 26-22)

Cincinnati (7-5, 6-4 AFC):  Houston, at St. Louis, Arizona, Baltimore (combined record = 25-23)

Tennessee (7-5, 5-4 AFC):  New Orleans, at Indianapolis, Jacksonville, at Houston (combined record = 21-26)

Oakland (7-5, 5-5 AFC):  at Green Bay, Detroit, at Kansas City, San Diego (combined record = 28-19)

New York Jets (7-5, 5-5 AFC):  Kansas City, at Philadelphia, New York Giants, at Miami (combined record = 19-29)

If you go by combined record, the Raiders have the toughest remaining schedule, the Jets have the easiest, and the Bengals are right in the middle.  While the loss in Pittsburgh virtually eliminated them from winning the AFC North, the Bengals are still playing for playoff position – not draft position.

“We’re still a good team – we have to eliminate big plays and tackle better,” said Lawson.  “You have to watch film, learn from your mistakes, and it has to be like water off of a duck’s bath.  You have to just wipe it off.” 

“We’re all disappointed,” said Hawkins.  “We thought we would go in there and win and we lost.  What we’re doing now is looking at the tape, we’re making corrections, and we’re trying to move past it.  We have six days to get ready for Houston and that’s the most important thing right now.”

If the Bengals win on Sunday, they’ll be 8-5 with three games to go.  Last year, that was Green Bay’s record through 13 games and the Packers lost the following week to fall to 8-6.

They haven’t lost since.

Feel any better?

* * * * *

I hope you’ll join Dave Lapham and me for “Bengals Gameplan” on Wednesday night from 6 to 8 on Fox Sports 1360-AM.  On Friday, I’ll join Artrell Hawkins for “Bengals Pep Rally” from 3 to 6 at the Firehouse Grill in Blue Ash on ESPN 1530-AM.  Andrew Whitworth is scheduled to join us in the final hour.

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

If you Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard

And I’m on Facebook.  Just search for Dan Hoard and look for the photo of me with the handsome lad.


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Notes and quotes

Posted by hobsonschoice1 on December 4, 2011 – 9:25 am

A.J. Green

PITTSBURGH — With five games left and already at 745 yards, wide receiver A.J. Green looks to be a lock to break Cris Collinsworth’s 30-year-old rookie club record of 1,009 and to become the first NFL rookie to grab 1,000 yards in five years since Marques Colston.

He’s just 122 yards from the Bengals’ best rookie year in 17 years when Darnay Scott went for 866 and with 74.5 yards per game, he’ll pass the great Isaac Curtis (843) against Houston at Paul Brown Stadium next week, Eddie Brown (942) the week after in St. Louis and Collinsworth against Arizona on Christmas Eve at PBS.

It’s amazing given that Green is doing it with a rookie quarterback and neither had access to coaching or practice until training camp. Collinsworth had both, as well as an 11-year veteran in Ken Anderson’s MVP season. Curtis had Anderson in his third season. Brown had Boomer Esiason in his second season. Scott did most of his damage in Jeff Blake’s first nine starts, but it was Blake’s third year in offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet’s system.

So in any era it has been tough for even the great receivers to make the jump to the NFL so quickly. A few reasons why Green is an exception from offensive coordinator Jay Gruden:

“He’s got a good feel for the game. And he takes a lot of pride in work,” Gruden last week of Green. “When you’ve got a guy with the demeanor that he has and a guy willing to work hard to get better every day and has the talent he has, he’s got all the makings to be one of the great receivers to play.”

While most everyone believes that Gruden has kept his versatile scheme relatively vanilla for the kids, Gruden has enormous confidence in them.

“They’re great players, that’s why,” Gruden said. “There’s a lot of plays you can run for those guys to be successful. Andy’s a great competitor. He knows what he likes; he knows what plays work against certain things. And of course A.J. is one of the most talented people around.

“It’s exciting to have those two guys here. To know they’re going to be here for a while is even more exciting. And to know what type of people they are makes it even more fun to come to work. That’s the thing about those two guys: you know you’re going to get the best out of them every day and they’re going to learn and be pleasant and want to learn and want to improve.”

Gruden sees Green having no shot of becoming a diva receiver. This isn’t a guy who is huffing and puffing after every series about not getting the ball.

“You have to talk to him and ask him what he likes; he’s not going to tell you,” Gruden said. “He just wants to win and he’s going to do what he’s asked to do and when the game is over he’s going to give it all he’s got. Usually when the game’s over, I’ll be kicking myself as the coordinator, ‘Why didn’t we go to him more often?’ We’ve got other good players. It’s worked out so far.”

If Green ever does start calling for the ball, “he’ll probably have a reason,” Gruden said with a laugh.

But that’s not to say Gruden and receivers coach James Urban aren’t coaching up Green. There are things he needs to develop. He’ll get a big test Sunday against Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor, a guy Gruden calls one of the league’s best technicians that exploits bad routes.

“Sometimes his releases might be too quick, or too predictable, or he doesn’t work the corner at all. He rounds (some routes) or he’s short on some depths,” Gruden said. “Just a little too impatient. He has to get open so quick and maybe the ball’s not there by a second but the quarterback isn’t ready to throw it and the corner closes in on him. Timing and working the corner is every bit as important as athleticism and talent.

“Sometimes you really have to be patient, work the corner, push him up to a certain depth, use your head, use your shoulders. Stick him. Be physical some times.”

Gruden admits that anybody with that much natural ability can get away with bad habits but like he said, “He still runs good routes; he can get a lot better. That’s all I’m saying.”

Which is a bit frightening.

UP FRONT TALK: Look at how much defensive tackle Geno Atkins has improved over his rookie season. He’s leading all NFL defensive tackles in sacks with 6.5, but line coach Jay Hayes says his biggest improvement has come stopping the run.

“He’s just learning the little intricacies of playing it, studying it and using what he has to his advantage,” Hayes said. “His strength, his quickness, his leverage, his foot speed. He understands the game very well. When you point out to him what to do when they do this, he gets it.”

Although Frostee Rucker has moved ahead of Michael Johnson at right end on the depth chart, Hayes is hesitant to call him the starter because he says Rucker is the starter in base and Johnson is the starter in nickel and the individual game depends on who plays the most. But with nickel rusher Carlos Dunlap out again this Sunday against the Steelers, both figure to get a lot of snaps in nickel because Rucker can play left end and inside on nickel if need be. Plus, Johnson can stand up on some snaps.

In his sixth season, Rucker is having a career year with four sacks, more than he had combined in his five previous seasons. Besides the maturity Hayes talks about, there is the health former Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton talks about. By playing Sunday, it will tie his career high for games played at 12.

Thornton, Rucker’s mentor breaking in, also talks about trust gaining him more snaps.

“Veteran coaches like veteran players,” Thornton said. “You have to show them you can stay healthy and be reliable and that takes time. He’s just matured.”

NOT A SNAP: Even though former Browns long snapper Ryan Pontbriand’s rolled field-goal snap was a huge factor last week in the Bengals 23-20 victory, Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons couldn’t help but have pangs of sympathy for him.

Simmons has seen it all too often. Solid performers for years, they inexplicably get the yips. Pontbriand had blown a couple before last Sunday, including one on what would have been a game-winning chip shot.

Simmons saw it happen with the Bengals’ own Brad St. Louis in 2009, his 10th season in the league. He says for special-teamers, there is no such thing as an incomplete pass in first down.

“Every down,” he says, “is fourth down.”

He doesn’t expect any meltdowns from the man that has replaced St. Louis so seamlessly. Clark Harris has had 347 straight successful snaps since he arrived.

“It’s a little different with Clark. He’s played in the league as a tight end,” Simmons said.

And…

“He’s a happy-go-lucky guy.”


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Simms praises care and feeding of Dalton

Posted by hobsonschoice1 on December 3, 2011 – 7:57 pm

Andy Dalton

PITTSBURGH — Phil Simms looked a little out of place without his partner Saturday as Jim Nantz called Kentucky’s win over North Carolina to tip off CBS’s college basketball coverage before heading here to join Simms in the booth for Sunday’s Bengals game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Local 12) against the Steelers for a share of first place in the AFC North.

But Simms, the CBS analyst who took some heat espousing on the relative merits of Andrew Luck a few weeks ago, always feels at home talking about young quarterbacks. Yet when he talks about Bengals rookie Andy Dalton, he starts with his coaches.

Simms, a Super Bowl MVP that enjoyed his best day as an NFL quarterback on the biggest stage, agrees. The NFL is a coach’s league. And he says the Bengals have handled Dalton “almost perfectly” and “borderline great.”

“To me in the NFL the most important people are the coaches,” Simms said Saturday night after he emerged from skull sessions with the Bengals coordinators. “I understand you need players, but I know coaches who have the players and still can’t get it done.”

Count Simms among the growing legion of fans of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, which seems to include certain elements of the Jaguars front office, some college programs, and all of Bengaldom. Thankfully, Gruden’s success has poked holes in a certain inbred arrogance that doesn’t even try to hide in the NFL. Along with quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese and the rest of his staff, Gruden’s guys have made it look almost easy.

One veteran NFL coach sniffed a few weeks after Gruden’s hire about the Bengals hiring an Arena League coach. But, like Simms says, Gruden’s staff has been brilliant in overseeing Dalton’s development without the benefit of spring practice and classroom sessions.

Coaching is teaching and adjusting. Indoors, outdoors, or on the moon.

“The biggest surprise to me is how the Bengals have handled it. How they’ve run the team. How they’ve organized this new-look team,” Simms said. “They’ve handled Andy Dalton as good or probably better than the Carolina Panthers have handled Cam Newton.

“They’ve surrounded him already with good stuff. The offense is smart. It’s not too complicated. They’re making the transition easy for him. They’ve done the right stuff and I’m sure during the year they’ve added a layer on.”

As for Dalton, Simms is holding off on any pronouncements until “he gets the eye test,” which means after studying him on tape on him and watching him on TV since he was a freshman at TCU, Simms finally gets to see him play a game in person Sunday.

Simms doesn’t have any big questions about Dalton. He’s just curious, the way an expert is curious about another member of the craft. He’s impressed and loves the potential.

“With Andy, it’s easy to see the poise and all that on the field,’ Simms said. “That’s wonderful, but I’m anxious to watch him in person, to see how the football comes out of his hand.”

Simms believes quarterbacks have to have some kind of physical trait to set them apart, be it “really big, really fast, or you can really throw it.” He says a quarterback can’t just be “really smart,’ because it doesn’t take all that much to hit the open guy, and Dalton is trying to jack up that completion percentage that now sits at barely 60 percent.

“Andy Dalton right now is in between in all those categories,” Simms said. “What he is to me already is he’s a guy that’s going to stand in there. He’s not a guy quick-footed enough to scramble all the time and get the five yards. He’s going to be a successful quarterback because he can figure out who to throw it to and hit them when they’re open at an unbelievably high rate. And he has the potential to make two or three throws a game that can separate. To me, that’s what it’s going to come down to.”

Don’t get Simms wrong. He likes what he sees on tape and he was particularly impressed with the way the Steelers coaches were surprised this week at how far he was along physically when they played three weeks ago. But he wants to see the guy up close.

“I’m excited for the eye test,” Simms said.

When he was scouting Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger coming out of college, Simms was able to put No. 1 on his list of likes, “Big. And he’ll play big in the NFL.”

No. 1 on his list for Dalton is his throwing motion.

“He has a beautiful throwing motion. I didn’t say that about Carson Palmer,” Simms said. “Carson has a jerkier motion. Andy’s is smooth and that smooth motion will serve him well and his arm will get stronger as time goes on.”


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