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Special Teams Will Be Key For Keo

Posted by Dan Hoard on June 5, 2015 – 1:57 pm

When the Bengals signed free agent safety Shiloh Keo five days after last year’s playoff loss in Indianapolis, the news didn’t get big headlines.

Shiloh Keo

After all, the four-year veteran didn’t play last season after being released by Houston following the fourth week of the season.

“We brought him in for a workout about mid-season and he wasn’t healthy (calf injury) so we didn’t sign him,” said defensive backs coach Vance Joseph. “But we knew that if he was healthy enough to play in the spring that we would sign him and he’s been a plus for us.

“He’s a reliable guy. He’s very smart and very tough. As a safety, he has all the qualities you want. He tackles well, he’s got ball skills, he plays hard, and he loves to play. He’s a great addition.”

Joseph was on the Texans’ coaching staff two years ago when Keo started 11 games at safety. But the former fifth-round draft pick in 2011 made his biggest impact on special teams. Shiloh was named Houston’s special teams captain midway through his second NFL season.

“We played against him several times when he was in Houston, and I knew that he was a good special teams player,” said special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons. “He was a tough, hard-nosed guy that was in the middle of their group. He was an impact player for them and it was exciting to see when we picked him up. He hasn’t disappointed.

“He’s behind right now in the terminology and knowing exactly what we want to do, but it’s just a matter of him learning it. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to pick it up quickly.”

“Whenever you’re not a starting guy you have to make it on special teams – especially if you’re a veteran,” said Keo. “I had a lot of experience on special teams in Houston and did a good job there. I just want to carry-over what I did there and take it one step further.”

“That’s where he’s made his name,” said Joseph. “If he can be a good special teams player for us and be a reliable backup at safety, it’s a plus having him on the team.”

With Reggie Nelson and George Iloka entrenched as Cincinnati’s starting safeties, and Shawn Williams expected to be the top sub, Keo will go to training camp in a likely battle for the final safety spot with sixth-round draft pick Derron Smith and college free agents Floyd Raven Sr. and Erick Dargan.

“That fourth safety spot is critical because of the special teams value,” said Joseph. “You want the guy who is the best of both worlds.”

“He has to be a dominant special teams player,” said Simmons. “That’s where a Pro Bowl-type special teams player comes from – that fourth safety spot, or fourth receiver, or fourth corner. That slot is where those guys come from.”

Keo obviously has a fan in Vance Joseph and the feeling is mutual.

“He’s hands-down the best coach I’ve ever had,” said Keo. “He’s so detail-oriented and makes sure that everybody is ready to play. He gives the same coaching to everybody – whether it’s a first year undrafted guy or a 10-year vet. He expects everybody to play at a high level and I definitely think that he brings the best out of everybody. I’m really fortunate and blessed to be here with the Bengals because I really like Vance Joseph and like I said, he’s the best coach I’ve ever had.”

But it will obviously be important for Keo to impress his new special teams coach as well.

“He’s at a point in his career where it’s kind of ‘go time’ for him,” said Simmons. “It’s a spot where guys either propel themselves forward or fall off a cliff. He’s smart enough and has been around long enough to see that. He’s a good kid and a tough guy and those are the kind of guys we want. I like guys that I know where they’re going to be and I can count on them.”

“I think this is a great fit for me,” said Keo. “I think they expect me to come in here and help the team out in any way that I can – whether it be defense or special teams – and that’s what I want to do.”

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

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Zeitler On Quest To Be The Best

Posted by Dan Hoard on June 3, 2015 – 10:17 am

Paul Alexander is in his 21st season on the Bengals coaching staff. Before that, the offensive line guru was an NFL assistant with the New York Jets and coached at the college level for Penn State, Michigan, and Central Michigan. In short, he’s worked with hundreds of guards, tackles, and centers.

But he’s never coached anybody quite like Kevin Zeitler.

Zeitler at OTAs (440x375)

“He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever been around – he really is,” said Alexander. “He’s a pleasure to coach, loves to work, and has aspirations to be great.”

Zeitler earns similar praise from Dave Lapham who spent 10 years on the Bengals offensive line and is heading into his 30th year in the broadcasting booth.

“In some ways he reminds me of Anthony Munoz,” said Lapham. “Anthony wanted to be the best and physically did everything he could to try to get there. I think Zeitler is doing that, and I think his preparation with studying film and things like that are extraordinary as well. That’s high praise to put him with a perennial Pro Bowler and Hall of Famer, but I think that’s where he wants to be. And that’s where his preparation and work ethic are trying to take him.”

Since being drafted in the first round (27th overall) in 2012, Zeitler has been one of the Bengals biggest and strongest players. But when the players returned to Cincinnati in April for the start of voluntary workouts, Zeitler was visibly bigger in the upper body.

“This last offseason I worked really hard,” Kevin told me. “I did double-days for two straight months which actually put me in a bad position where I reached an overtraining phase. But I’ve healed from that and I’ve definitely put on some muscle. I got down to 12% body fat where I had a six pack showing for a while. Now I’m performance eating and having a few more carbs than I normally have.”

But his offseason work went beyond the weight room. Zeitler asked a member of the Bengals staff to provide video of the best guards in the NFL.

“I think I must be a jealous person in general,” said Zeitler with a laugh. “I’ve watched a lot of film this offseason and I see other guards do so many things so well. I just really want to do it at the top level, and whatever I have to do to reach that, I’m willing to put in the time.

“I love what we do here, but it’s always nice to see little things that other people do. I’ve watched San Fran, Seattle, Dallas – you can pretty much name any O-line and I’ve tried to learn something from each of them. You can always learn something.”

Last season, ProFootballFocus ranked Zeitler as the 9th-best guard in the NFL (#5 among right guards). Baltimore’s Marshal Yanda was ranked first at the position by a wide margin. In fact, PFF ranked Yanda as the fifth-best overall player in the NFL.

“Yanda is definitely one of my favorites to watch,” said Zeitler. “He’s just so smooth, so strong, and he’s always in the right place. That type of consistency is invaluable in the NFL and there’s a reason why he’s an All-Pro.”

So how close is Zeitler to playing at that level?

“We’ll see this year,” said Alexander. “I think he’s made a jump every year. He’s always been good and gotten better, but I think this year may be his biggest jump.”

“He wants to be the best there is,” said Lapham. “He’s so driven and I think he’s very hard on himself. It’s a good attribute to be your own best critic, but I think sometimes he takes it to the point where it can be a little bit harmful. It’s a balancing act and I think he’s doing a better job of finding that line. He’s not beating himself up over something he thought he could have done better. Sometimes you just have to move on. I think that’s where he can probably get better. In every other area he’s a pro’s pro in every sense of the word.”

“I have perfect images in my mind of how I do everything, and my only goal is to work every day to get there,” said Zeitler. “I doubt it will ever happen, but I’m going to be the closest I can get to that every day.”

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

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Moore Hopes To Fill Piece In Bengals Puzzle

Posted by Dan Hoard on May 28, 2015 – 2:00 pm

Raise your hand if you expected the Bengals to select a wide receiver in one of the early rounds of last month’s NFL draft.

I’ll admit that my hand is up and while Cincinnati did grab West Virginia speedster Mario Alford with their final pick, it’s worth noting that there’s another new receiver on the roster with the proven ability to stretch the field.

26-year-old Denarius Moore signed a one-year deal with the Bengals as a free agent in early April after spending his first four NFL seasons in Oakland.

“I’m loving it so far,” Moore told me. “I like everything that I’m seeing and it’s a great environment. The people here welcome you with open arms and make sure that you’re comfortable.”

Denarius Moore (440x294)

Moore made several catches on Tuesday when the Bengals opened OTAs – the only practice this week that reporters were allowed to attend.

“I think he did some good things,” said offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. “Obviously he has to continue to learn to play at our pace and adjust to the way we go about doing things. Maybe things are a little bit different than they were in Oakland, but I think he has talent.”

“You see glimpses of it,” said receivers coach James Urban. “He’s not consistent enough yet, and he would be the first person to tell you that, but there are glimpses where you say, ‘That’s the guy.’ We just need to keep trying to get to the point where it’s showing up more and more.”

The Raiders drafted Moore out of Tennessee in the 5th round in 2011 after he averaged 17.9 yards per catch in his college career and was timed at 4.39 in the 40-yard dash at his pro day. Jackson was Oakland’s head coach in Moore’s first season, and was a key reason why he wanted to play in Cincinnati.

“That was huge,” said Moore. “I feel like he understands me and understands what I can do.”

“I know there are things that he does really well, and we’re going to put him in those situations,” said Jackson.”

“Early in his career when we was with Hue it clicked for him,” said Urban. “Hopefully we get the same result. That’s why you take a guy like him who has some experience. You hope that it clicks again.”

Moore had 33 catches for 618 yards (18.7 ypc) and 5 touchdowns playing for Jackson as a rookie in 2011, but posted even better stats under Dennis Allen the next two years when he averaged 48.5 catches for 718 yards (14.8 ypc) and 6 TD. But his numbers plummeted last season when Allen was fired after four games as Denarius finished with 12 catches for 115 yards and 0 TD.

“I’m still trying to figure it out, but at the same time I’m trying to forget about it,” said Moore. “I guess I let it mess with my confidence which I’m trying to get back now.”

“He was a very productive guy for a couple of years and then it sort of got away,” said Urban. “I’m just hoping we can get it back. That’s the goal. You’ve got a veteran guy who knows how to play and it won’t be too big for him. Maybe we can get back whatever what was lost.”

“It starts with making plays,” said Jackson. “That’s the case with any good football player. When you start to make plays, the confidence starts to come and he made some big catches today. It was good to see. But he has to continue to grind and we’ll build this thing over time.”

The Bengals typically keep six wide receivers on the 53-man roster and A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, and Mohamed Sanu are locks for half of those spots if healthy. That puts Moore in the mix for one of the final three openings with (alphabetically) Alford, Cobi Hamilton, Jake Kumerow, Tevin Reese, Brandon Tate, and James Wright.

“Any time before you come in and sign a contract, you look at the depth chart and see who you’re going to be competing with,” said Moore. “I don’t really know where I am on that depth chart right now, I’m just looking to come in and compete.

“I’m looking forward to training camp. With the defense we’re in right now, you really can’t see that much until we put on the pads. That’s the time when I can really showcase my talent.”

“We’ve got on our shorts right now and we’re trying to learn our system and how we do things, but as we get closer to training camp, that’s when guys really have to show what they have,” said Jackson. “I think he has some abilities, so we’ll see how it all unfolds.”

After injuries devastated the wide receiver corps in last year’s playoff loss to the Colts, the Bengals are determined to improve the depth at that position this season.

Can Moore return to the form that he flashed in his first three NFL seasons?

“Yes, but that was in the past,” said Moore. “This is a ‘what have you done for me now’ type of league, so I’m just looking forward to a new start. I worked as hard as I could in the offseason and I’m coming back strong. “

“I think he’s going to be good as soon as he gets comfortable with everything that we’re doing,” said Andy Dalton. “Obviously he’s been in Hue’s system before and he played well in it. The more he gets thrown in, the more we’ll be able to see from him, but I think he’s going to be a good help for us.”

“I’m just looking to be another piece of the puzzle,” Moore told me. “If they’re missing a piece, I’d be more than happy to apply for it.”

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

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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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