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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

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

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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

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

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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

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

And I’m on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dan.hoard.1


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