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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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A Rey Of Hope For Bengals Run Defense

Posted by Dan Hoard on November 16, 2014 – 10:04 pm

For the first time this season, the Bengals excelled at stopping the run in Sunday’s 27-10 win at New Orleans.

For the first time in five games, Rey Maualuga was in the middle of the Bengals’ defense.

So how much of a difference did Rey’s return make?

“Like night and day,” said Adam Jones. “When we get 5-5 back (Vontaze Burfict) we’ll be right back on stride. But I take my hat off to the other guys too. They play hard and play to the best of their ability but Rey makes a big difference. He’s one of the most physical guys that you’re ever going to meet and that’s what we need right now. Somebody that’s going to go full speed and go downhill at that position.”

Maualuga vs run (440x313)

Maualuga gets roasted on talk radio and message boards for his deficiencies in pass coverage, but for the NFL’s 31st-rated run defense going into the New Orleans game, he was exactly what the doctor ordered.

“All of you Rey Maualuga haters – how do you like him now?” said my broadcasting partner Dave Lapham. “You don’t realize how important he is in defending the run until he’s not in there. He’s a 260 pound downhill linebacker that will rattle your fillings. That’s exactly what he did and everybody started feeding off him. Domata Peko had his best game of the season in my estimation and it’s a huge ripple effect.”

“We had to get better at stopping the running game and I thought we did today,” said Marvin Lewis. “That was big and Rey was a big part of that. His presence and his abilities – both mentally and physically – showed up out there.”

But Rey’s impact wasn’t limited to running plays.

The defensive play of the game came early in the second quarter when the Saints went for a touchdown on 4th-and-goal from the one yard line with the Bengals leading 7-3. Drew Brees threw a swing pass to fullback Erik Lorig and Maualuga drilled him for a one yard loss to keep New Orleans off of the scoreboard.

“Sometimes it’s a guessing game,” said Maualuga. “You have to figure out, ‘OK, what kind of plays could they do here?’ Shawn Williams came over late and ended up taking my responsibility which was the seven route by the tight end. The fullback went out into the flat and we just swapped responsibilities and I took his job. We were heads-up and didn’t go too fast downhill. It was a play-action play and we did a good job. I think it started from there. It gave a spark to our defense that we could come out and stop a high-powered offense.”

After allowing at least 23 points in six straight games, the Bengals held the NFL’s second-ranked offense to a season-low 10 points.

“Despite what we’re ranked and what we’ve done, we’re a damn good defense” said Maualuga. “Sometimes people make mistakes and it shows in the stats, but we still have more games to fix what we need to fix. Somebody said that we were 31st in the league against the run and I promise at the end of the year we won’t be 31st.

“It’s just a sense of want-to. It was there on Monday after we had a couple of days to replenish ourselves after the Thursday night game. Coach (Guenther) said if somebody wasn’t doing the job or being coachable than you weren’t going to be in the game. I think that hit everybody hard and we had a good week.”

Having #58 back in the lineup was a big reason why.

“I’m just excited to be playing with my brothers and my teammates,” said Maualuga. “I’m glad to be back.”

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

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Big Challenge In Big Easy For Dalton

Posted by Dan Hoard on November 11, 2014 – 7:05 pm

What do Hall of Fame quarterbacks Johnny Unitas, Otto Graham, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Namath, Dan Fouts, Warren Moon, Len Dawson, and Bob Griese have in common?

They all had single-game passer ratings lower than the 2.0 posted by Andy Dalton in last week’s loss to Cleveland.

I’m not trying to suggest that Dalton is as accomplished as any of those eight names or that his performance against the Browns isn’t cause for concern. But the fact of the matter is, even the best quarterbacks in history have had atrocious games.

Like Ken Anderson.

At the age of 32, his 11th NFL season began with his worst-ever performance. In his 124th regular season start, Anderson went 5-for-15 for 39 yards and 2 INT in the 1981 opener at Riverfront Stadium for a passer rating of 2.8.

Anderson’s former road roommate hopes that Dalton rebounds from his lousy game much like a previous #14 did.

“He threw two early interceptions and Forrest Gregg pulled him because we were down big to the Seahawks,” said Dave Lapham. “Turk Schonert came in and rallied the troops to victory and Ken Anderson had to basically beg Forest Gregg to get his starting job back. It was just like this – bad game at home for the quarterback and we went on the road the next week to face the New York Jets. They had the “Sack Exchange” with Joe Klecko and Mark Gastineau and they’re bringing it. Ken Anderson had a great day, we won the game 31-30 in a shootout, and Kenny felt like the best thing for him was to be on the road after a performance like that at home. He went on to win MVP, we won the first playoff game in team history and went on to the Super Bowl, but it started terribly for Ken Anderson. He did not let one terrible performance turn into two.”

Browns tackle Dalton (344x440)

That’s the challenge for the Red Rifle this Sunday in New Orleans: To immediately bounce back with a solid game after a prime time flop that’s taken Dalton-bashing to a new level.

“He looks like he’s in a panic state at times,” said Rich Gannon on CBS Sports Network’s “NFL Monday QB” show. “He’s pre-determining where to go with the football. I don’t trust Andy Dalton right now and I think it’s a real problem for the Cincinnati Bengals.”

“My first thought after last week’s game was, ‘This genie is going to be hard to completely put back in the bottle for Andy Dalton,’” said Don Banks from Sports Illustrated. “It wasn’t that it was a bad night; it was a historically bad night. I don’t know if it was the wind, or the grip on the footballs, or his mojo was off, but he was so far from what you normally see from an NFL quarterback. He’s going to have to own that performance and live with that until he makes it go away.”

On Tuesday, I asked Marvin Lewis if he was worried about Dalton’s teammates losing confidence in their quarterback.

“Andy’s teammates had a lot to do with that rough game so no I’m not,” said Lewis. “To the naked eye it looks like it’s the quarterback’s issues, but there were a lot of issues to go around – both offensively and defensively. We have to do everything better and just allow Andy to do his job.”

But let’s face it; Dalton will be under a white-hot spotlight this Sunday.

Prior to last week, the lowest passer rating of Andy’s career was in the third game of his rookie season when he posted a 40.8 clunker in a loss to the San Francisco 49ers. The following week, Dalton rallied the Bengals from a 17-3 halftime deficit to beat the previously undefeated Buffalo Bills 23-20.

“Andy’s track record is to be resilient and bounce back,” said Banks. “He seems to have the ability to put blinders on and refocus.”

Last week on the “Bengals Gameplan” show on ESPN 1530, special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons discussed the challenge that Mike Nugent faced after missing a potential game-winning field goal at the end of the 37-37 overtime tie against Carolina.

“One of the first things that Mike told me was, ‘I can’t look at any of my teammates. I can’t face them.’” Simmons recalled. “I said, ‘Sure you can. You have to because that’s what they need. They don’t want you to hide; they want you to confront it.’ That’s what ultimately defines you as a player and as a person – it’s how you deal with adversity. Everybody gets knocked down, it’s how quickly you get back up that matters. I told him that he was at a career defining moment right now.”

Nugent hasn’t missed a field goal or extra point in the four games since.

Andy Dalton can’t erase his 2.0 passer rating against the Browns, but here’s another number worth mentioning: .623. It’s the Bengals’ winning percentage in Dalton’s regular season starts and it’s the highest of any Bengals QB with more than 10 starts.

Let’s see what number everybody is focusing on next week.

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

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Hill Earns Rave Reviews…Except From Himself

Posted by Dan Hoard on November 2, 2014 – 9:18 pm

After rushing for 154 yards on 24 carries in his first NFL start, rookie Jeremy Hill must have been excited to race home and watch the tape of his performance. Especially the 60-yard touchdown run that helped put the Jaguars away in the fourth quarter.

Then again, maybe not.

“Honestly I’m not,” Hill told me. “There are probably five or six plays that I would like to have back. Just bad reads man. Obviously the fans and people that watched the game are going to be stuck on the big play, but as runners, we get bent out of shape on the stuff that we didn’t get right.

“It’s like one of my high school coaches told me, ‘The tape is never as good as you think or as bad as you think.’ Once you go watch it you can analyze it and see.”

Hill stiff arm (440x294)

We’ll have to take Jeremy’s word for it that he made a few mistakes, because he was good enough to post the fifth-best rushing performance in the NFL this season.

“Running the ball is about having an attitude,” said center Russell Bodine. “Jeremy carried the ball really well. He ran with good low pads, ran some guys over, and made some guys miss.”

“He’s a consistent player,” said fullback Ryan Hewitt. “He shows up every day and comes to work. It was no surprise to anybody in this locker room – it’s what he does. Obviously we can’t wait to get Gio back, but it’s awesome to have depth like that.”

With Giovani Bernard out of the lineup with hip and shoulder injuries, Hill didn’t need to be told by coaches and teammates that he had to carry the load against Jacksonville.

“I don’t think anybody had to do that,” said Hill. “Like I’ve said, I’m a great self-motivator and there’s probably no bigger critic of my play than myself. I expect the world out of me and sometimes it’s to my disadvantage but I continue to keep pushing.”

Hill’s long TD run came when the Bengals desperately needed it. After Jacksonville scored two touchdowns in less than two minutes to pull within a field goal with 8:13 to go, Cincinnati started its next possession at the 40 yard line.

“I honestly didn’t know how (offensive coordinator) Hue (Jackson) was going to go about it,” Jeremy told me. “I didn’t know if he was going to be aggressive and try to pass or if he was just going to pound it. I really didn’t have a clue.”

Jackson’s decision was to pound it. The Bengals put two tight ends on the right side of the line and ran in that direction. Jermaine Gresham, Kevin Brock, Mike Pollak and Hewitt opened a gigantic hole and Hill did the rest, putting a great fake on safety Josh Evans before running through his attempted tackle inside the 10 yard line.

 

“If you look at it, everyone was blocked up and it was just up to me to make one guy miss,” said Hill.

“It was just a heck of a play,” left guard Clint Boling told me. “Everybody did what they were supposed to do. Jeremy made a heck of a run and in that situation it was huge. We really needed that, and everybody got it done.”

“He does a great job of running downhill and was awesome today,” said Marvin Lewis.

Before that play, Hill’s longest NFL run was 15 yards. The 60-yard touchdown was reminiscent of Jeremy’s LSU days where he had six rushes of 50-or-more yards last season.

“That’s what the coaches have been telling me for a while now,” said Hill. “Just get back to the old SEC way and do the things I did in college. I put the onus on myself as well to keep working and running like I used to. I had a few flashes of that today and want to continue to pick up where I left off and put myself in position.”

Halfway through his first NFL season, the 55th pick in this year’s draft is averaging 4.7 yards a carry and shares the team lead in touchdowns (5) with Bernard.

And he won’t need to watch the tape to remember his first NFL start.

“I’m going to take this with me for the rest of my life and hopefully it will give me the momentum and the confidence I need going down the stretch to help keep us on top of this division,” he said.

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

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