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Zimmer: “If We All Play Good Together, We’ll Still Be A Good Defensive Team”

Posted by Dan Hoard on November 4, 2013 – 10:46 pm

If you know anything about Mike Zimmer, you know that he’s not about to say “Woe is me” after injuries ravaged his 5th-ranked defense.

Zimmer (376x440)

Even after losing Geno Atkins, Leon Hall, Robert Geathers, and Taylor Mays with season-ending injuries, the Bengals defensive coordinator exudes confidence.

“Obviously we can’t replace some of the talent we’ve lost, but we can play really good as a team,” said Zimmer.  “We can do our job, we can play really hard, and we can make sure that we understand all of the situations and those kinds of things.  This is the NFL and this isn’t the first time that this has happened.  I take it as a great opportunity and a great challenge to get this group of guys to play really good defense.”

Still, the loss of Atkins will force Zimmer to make changes since the two-time Pro Bowler is the best interior pass rusher in the NFL and helped the Bengals consistently get pressure on the quarterback without constantly having to blitz.

“Obviously we won’t have the same pressure that we had with Geno with just three guys or four guys, so we’re going to have to manufacture it a little bit more.  That will be our challenge as coaches – to try to find ways to still create pressure on the quarterback.

“It hurts because there were a lot of times where schematically we were trying to put Geno in one-on-one situations.  Now we won’t be doing that quite as much.  We’re going to have to turn to our ends and try to find situations where we can get them into one-on-one matchups.”

The bulk of Geno’s playing time figures to go to second-year pro Brandon Thompson who was in for 36 snaps in Thursday’s loss at Miami.  Like Atkins, Thompson is freakishly strong as evidenced by this YouTube clip of him bench-pressing 495 pounds.

“I look at it as an opportunity,” Thompson told me.  “It’s my chance to showcase my talents and what I bring to the table.  It’s hard losing a player like Geno.  He’s probably one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL if not the greatest.  I’m not going to be able to replace him, but I’m going to come in and do what I do.  I’m rough in there and I’m going to do whatever I have to do to get to the ball.”

“Whoever is playing in place of Geno is going to step up and make plays – I can tell you that for sure,” said Terence Newman.  “That’s how good our depth is on the line.

“It’s a great challenge.  Geno is a great player.  He’s one of the best in the league at his position.  He’s one of the best defensive players in the league period.  It’s a great blow, but like I said, it’s an opportunity.  Whoever is in that position is going to try to step up and make his presence felt.”

As a rookie with Dallas in 2003, Newman was part of a Zimmer-coached defense that finished number one in the NFL in yards allowed and second in points allowed despite not having a dominant pass rusher (Greg Ellis led the team with eight sacks).

“We had a great group of guys that were unselfish and did what they were supposed to do,” said Zimmer.  “They played really hard, and played really smart, and I think this group can be like that.  Obviously we still have more talent than we probably did when I was in Dallas.  Collectively if we all play good together, we’ll still be a good defensive team.”

Zimmer was named the NFL Assistant Coach of the Year in 2009 when the Bengals finished fourth in the league in total defense despite not having a Pro Bowler on that side of the ball.

“When I first got here, we obviously didn’t have the talent that we have now and we played pretty good,” said Zimmer.  “I take a lot of pride in getting 11 guys to do their job, and do it as well as they can, and playing great team defense.  I do feel like we have a nucleus of guys and we have some other good players that can go in there and play well.”

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Cincinnati Wrecks Ryan And Crushes Jets

Posted by Dan Hoard on October 28, 2013 – 1:05 am

New York Jets coach Rex Ryan ran with the bulls in Pamplona last summer.

I wonder if he felt like he was being chased by angry beasts again on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.

“This is one of the best performances that we’ve had here from start to finish,” said James Harrison.

“We suffocated them all day,” said Chris Crocker.

The final score was Cincinnati 49 New York 9.  Did A.J. Green feel like he was back in a college game at Georgia?

“A little bit,” Green said with a laugh.

Dalton vs Jets (440x293)

It was the Bengals most dominant all-around performance in the Andy Dalton/A.J. Green era.  The 49 points scored were 11 more than the Bengals had tallied in any previous game with Dalton at quarterback, and the 40-point margin of victory was Cincinnati’s most lopsided win since Sam Wyche famously rubbed Jerry Glanville’s nose in a 61-7 drubbing of Houston in 1989.

“The whole team’s just clicking,” said Green.  “I feel like this is the first game where we actually put all three phases together.”

On offense, Andy Dalton threw a career-high five touchdown passes, joining Carson Palmer and Boomer Esiason as the only Bengals quarterbacks to throw five-or-more in a game (Palmer holds the team record with six).  During the Bengals 4-game winning streak, Dalton is 89-for-131 (68%), 1246 yards, 11 TD, 3 INT for a passer rating of 116.8.

“Dalton was hot,” said Rex Ryan.  “That’s the thing about him – when he gets hot like that, we’ve seen over the last 3 weeks (he’s passed for) over 300 yards.  He’s talented enough to do it and he’s got an outstanding group of receivers and skill position players.”

Marvin Jones leaping TD (304x440)

Green topped 100 yards receiving for the third straight game with three catches for 115 yards, but the star was Marvin Jones who finished with eight catches for 122 yards and four touchdowns.  The Bengals have had some outstanding wide receivers over the years like Isaac Curtis, Cris Collinsworth, Carl Pickens, Chad Johnson, and Green (among others), but none of them caught four touchdown passes in a game.

“It’s pretty cool,” said Jones of setting a team record.  “It means a lot.”

“I’m happy for him because he comes to play every week man,” said Green.  “He plays with a chip on his shoulder like he has something to prove every week.”

“It’s hard when you have a guy like A.J. who is the focal point and going to get a lot of balls, but Marvin’s made the most of his opportunities and has gotten a lot better since his rookie year,” said Crocker.  “I’m proud of the guy.”

On defense, the Bengals held their opponent without a touchdown for the second straight home game and scored a pair of TDs on interception returns by Crocker and Adam Jones.

“I give all the kudos to Coach Zim for putting us in great situations the whole game,” said Adam Jones.  “We played a helluva game on defense today.”

Perhaps the biggest mistake that the Bengals made all day was when the 33-year-old Crocker tossed the ball into the crowd after scoring his second career touchdown and first in nine seasons.

“I wanted to go back and get it, but that’s the emotion of it,” Chris told me.  “When you’re having such a good day like that – let the fans enjoy it too.”

Trust me.  They did.

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More Weapons Mean More Wins For Bengals

Posted by Dan Hoard on October 21, 2013 – 12:01 pm

A.J. Green and Calvin Johnson traded compliments before the game…spectacular highlights during it…and jerseys after the Bengals 27-24 win.

AJ and Calvin jersey swap (440x435)

“I’ve worked out with this guy for three years and he taught me a lot,” A.J. told me.  “I’m glad I came out OK in a comparison of my stats to his.  I know our trainer was proud of us today.”

Remarkably, Green and Johnson each finished with 155 receiving yards.

“It was like fantasy football out there,” said Marvin Lewis.  “It was a helluva deal.”

“It’s kinda fun to watch those guys,” said Andy Dalton.

Cincinnati Bengals v Detroit Lions

But take away Green’s six catches and Dalton still completed 18 of 26 passes for 217 yards, 2 TD and 0 INT.  That’s a passer rating of 120.2 to guys not named Adriel Jeremiah Green.  Dalton’s overall passer rating of 135.9 was the highest of his NFL career.

“He played really well again,” said Tyler Eifert.  “I was looking up at the fantasy stats that they displayed on the scoreboard during the game and he was up there with the leaders and only had half of the attempts of the other guys.  He’s an efficient guy and he’s playing really well.”

“A win is a win and that’s all that I care about,” said Dalton.

Last week, Boomer Esiason was in the TV booth when Dalton earned AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors after throwing for 337 yards and 3 touchdowns in Buffalo.  In that game, Andy completed passes to a season-high eight receivers, led by Green was six catches for 103 yards.

“You go where the defense takes you,” Boomer told me a few days later.  “And believe you me, A.J. Green would much rather be on a team where he catches five balls for 110 yards and a touchdown and wins, than opposed to being targeted 15 times, catching seven balls for 155 yards and losing.  It’s a team game for a reason, and the more guys that you can get involved; the more morale is going to be really high.  They’re going to want to make plays for you because they know that the ball is going to come.”

Esiason proved that at age 36 in his final NFL season when he replaced Jeff Blake in the starting lineup for the final five games and posted a 100+ passer rating in all five outings.

“One of the things that happened during those last five weeks that I would try to impress upon Andy Dalton now as he moves forward – especially after the success he had last week in Buffalo – is that Jeff Blake and Carl Pickens had something very special together,” said Esiason.  “It was ‘Shake and Blake,’ it was big bombs down the sideline, but that morphed into a situation where it was always Carl Pickens and there were guys like David Dunn, Darnay Scott, James Hundon, Tony McGee, Marco Battaglia, Ki-Jana Carter, Eric Bieniemy, and Corey Dillon that all sat around watching those two play football and not really feeling like they were a part of something.  When I got in there, I said, ‘Guys, I’m going to where the defense takes me.  Plus, I can’t throw it 80 yards down the field so you had all better be ready.  You had better have your thinking caps on, your eyes open, and you better be ready for the ball when it comes to you.’  I think the guys really appreciated that they all got to participate in those last five games and I think it’s one of the reasons why we were so successful and I was so successful.  That young group of players had a new toy – it was called a football and they could actually go make plays with it.”

??????????????????????

In Sunday’s win in Detroit, Dalton threw touchdown passes to Eifert and Marvin Jones, completed a big 30-yard pass to Jermaine Gresham to set up a third quarter field goal, and hit Mohamed Sanu for a 12-yard gain on 3rd-and-9.  And with :26 left, needing to gain about 15 yards to give Mike Nugent a shot at a game-winning field goal, Andy hit Dane Sanzenbacher for seven yards and Giovani Bernard for eight.  That’s six critical passes that were not to A.J. Green.

“In order to be a great offense, we have to be efficient,” said Marvin Jones.  “I think Andy did a good job of that – especially with the play-calling and getting all of us rolling.”

“We’re able to spread the ball around to a bunch of different guys,” said Dalton.

Since a subpar performance in Cleveland where 15 of his 42 passes were thrown to Green (36%), Dalton has been spectacular during the Bengals three-game winning streak, going 70-for-101, for 921 yards, 6 TD, 2 INT, and a passer rating of 109.4.  Green has been targeted 27 times for 27% of Dalton’s attempts.

By taking what the defense is giving and relying more heavily on the running game, the Bengals have managed to pull out three straight thrillers and take a two-game lead in the AFC North.

“To be in a game like this with your brothers who you’ve went through a lot with for three straight months of grinding and training camp – these are the moments you live for, practice for, and get ready for,” said Green.

“We keep it interesting don’t we?” said Jones.  “That just shows the heart of the team.  We stick together for four quarters and that’s what we have to do to win games.  Every game is going to be tough in this league.”

“It was one of those games where you just keep fighting and scrapping and it was really a dogfight,” said Chris Crocker.  “I’ll tell you what – I’m gonna have gray hairs when this year is over.”

It will be well worth it if a certain teammate with red hair continues to shine.

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Can Dalton Lead Bengals To Super Bowl?

Posted by Dan Hoard on October 16, 2013 – 9:58 am

You know that the bashing of Andy Dalton has gone comically over-the-top when a compliment is twisted into a criticism.

Here’s what Adam Jones said to Erik Kuselias of NBCSN’s Pro Football Talk when asked, “Are you 100% convinced that Andy Dalton is good enough to take this team to the Super Bowl?”

“I’m convinced,” said Jones.  “I’m 99% convinced that Andy can take us to the Super Bowl.”

That comment produced this headline “Adam Jones Not 100% Convinced Andy Dalton Can Lead Bengals to Super Bowl.”

Technically speaking that’s accurate, but really?

When pressed to say what it would take to be completely convinced, here’s what Adam added:

“I think he just needs to step up vocally and lead the team,” he said.  “That’s about the only thing – the other one percent.  But I think he has all the tools and all the weapons, to lead us there.”

Not exactly a rip job.

Dalton vs. Bills (440x307)

Listen, we all know that quarterbacks – especially in the Twitter era – are going to be hammered every time they make a lousy throw.

“That’s what he signed up for,” said offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.  “I tell him all of the time that if he didn’t want the criticism, he should have sold insurance.”

The harsh spotlight has been warranted in the playoffs where Dalton has not performed well in a pair of losses to Houston.  But it’s hard to find too much fault with what he’s accomplished in the regular season.  After inheriting a 4-12 team that was expected to be among the NFL’s worst squads in 2011, Dalton has completed 61% of his career passes, with 55 TD and only 35 INT.  The Bengals are 23-15 in his 38 regular season starts.  I doubt that a single Bengals fan would have objected to those numbers when Dalton was selected in the second round of the draft.

“It comes with the position,” said Marvin Lewis.  “If he were 38-0, everybody would feel better – I know I would.  But you’ve got to love his demeanor.”

Last week in Buffalo, the Bengals quarterback was 26-for-40 for 337 yards, 3 TD and 1 INT for a passer rating of 105.9.  However, Dalton still took heat for not throwing the ball downfield since 243 of his passing yards came after the catch.

“Andy had an amazing game,” said Giovani Bernard.  “He was able to limit the turnovers, move the ball, and control the tempo.”

For those who have a negative opinion of Dalton, it generally centers around two things we knew about him before he ever put on a Bengals uniform:  That he’s not that tall and doesn’t possess a John Elway-like cannon for a throwing arm.

“I think what it comes down to is whether you believed in Andy Dalton or not,” said ESPN’s John Clayton.  “I’m sure that those who did not believe in Andy Dalton are saying, ‘Told you so.  Told you he didn’t have the strongest arm,’ and all of that stuff.”

But is Andy’s arm strong enough to get the job done?

“Repetitive accuracy is the number one quality we’re looking for in a quarterback,” said Eagles coach Chip Kelly when asked about arm strength during last year’s draft.  “We’re not trying to knock over milk cartons at the county fair.”

I don’t mean to suggest that all criticism of Dalton is unfair.  His deep ball accuracy is the most obvious area of concern, and Andy remains a work in progress in terms of reading defenses and reacting to pressure in the pocket.

“I think he comes in every day with the right frame of mind trying to get better,” said Gruden.  “He knows he’s not perfect, but he’s trying to get there.  He’s doing the best that he can and we’re trying to help him find plays that he’s comfortable with and trying not to force things down his throat.  We’re trying to keep him protected in the running game and the short passing game, but if we get down or he needs to throw it deep, he needs to do a better job.”

Uh-oh.  I can see the headline now:  “Gruden Says Dalton Needs To Do A Better Job.”

Let’s get back to the original question:  Can Andy Dalton lead the Bengals to the Super Bowl?

Jeff Hostetler, Brad Johnson, and Mark Rypien are Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks.  David Woodley, Neil O’Donnell, and Rex Grossman guided their team to the Super Bowl before losing the big game.

Put me down as 100% convinced.

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Bengals Weather The Storm

Posted by Dan Hoard on October 7, 2013 – 1:25 pm

About five minutes before our radio pregame show began on Sunday; I called my friend and favorite meteorologist – Fox 19’s Steve Horstmeyer – to get a weather forecast for the Bengals-Patriots game.

“Scattered showers between one and four o’clock,” Steve told me.  “And there could be a brief heavy downpour.”

Accurate as usual – but Steve neglected to point out that the downpour would arrive when the Bengals needed it most.

Brady in rain (348x440)

With 1:48 left in the game and Cincinnati leading 13-6, the Patriots got the ball at their 35-yard-line giving Tom Brady a chance to engineer his 39th career fourth-quarter comeback.  But Mother Nature provided the 12th man (woman?) as heavy wind and rain made it difficult to throw, catch, and even see.

“I was praying for a monsoon,” said Chris Crocker.  “It just came down at the perfect time.”

Adam Jones INT in rain (440x273)

On the Patriots final drive, Brady was 1-for-6 for 6 yards, and his final pass of the game was a wobbly, underthrown deep ball that was intercepted by Adam Jones.

“I was thanking God for the rain as it came down,” Jones told me with a grin.  “I was like, ‘Thank you Jesus!’  It worked out man.”

While the Bengals got some heavenly help in the final two minutes, they didn’t need any in the first 58.

Cincinnati’s defense was nothing short of remarkable.  Brady only completed 48% of his passes (18-for-38), his lowest completion percentage in a game since 2007, and the Bengals ended Tom’s near-record streak of 52 straight games with at least one touchdown pass.

“Honestly, I don’t think that any of the DBs even knew that,” said Crocker.  “Seriously, Zim knows stuff like that, but we could have cared less.  People were saying, ‘Brady is a Hall of Fame quarterback…it doesn’t really matter what receivers he has’ and we just felt like, ‘We’re pretty daggone good in the back-end.’ We can play, and we took that as a challenge.

“We really smothered those guys all day.  And you have to be aggressive with a team like that because when you sit back on your heels it’s like seven-on-seven and Tom Brady just picks you apart.”

Brady came within inches of extending his TD streak early in the fourth quarter when he connected with a wide-open Danny Amendola as he fell over backwards at the one yard.  But moments before the Patriots wide receiver rolled into the end zone, Crocker alertly touched him to prevent the touchdown.  The Bengals came through with a goal line stand and forced the Patriots to settle for a field goal.

“Goodness gracious…he could have literally leaned over and put the ball across the goal line,” said Crocker.  “It was one of those games where it fell right for us.  I’ve been in a situation where hell, the balls gets tipped in the air and Brandon Stokley catches it at the end of the game and runs for a touchdown.  I’ve been on the other side of it.”

And while the Bengals offense only scored one touchdown, they had to drive 98 yards to do it.  The biggest play coming on 3rd-and-15 from the 2-yard-line when they quick-snapped it to Andy Dalton and he delivered a perfect throw between two defenders for a 28-yard gain to Marvin Jones.

“The quick snap was the perfect call,” said Jones.  “Andy threw a good ball and I just came down with it.  In those situations, all you care about is that football.  I told myself, ‘Whatever happens happens.  If I get hit, then I get hit.’  But it was a great call.

“Normally when you’re on the two-yard-line, you think about just getting out of there and punt it away.  But we didn’t want to give them a short field and we capitalized on our opportunities.  That just goes to show you that we can drive the ball.”

Giovani Bernard followed with a 28-yard run as the Bengals put together a 14-play drive that took 7:48 off the clock. On the touchdown drive, the Bengals called for seven passing plays and seven runs

“This week we really emphasized calling the run and getting after them,” said Clint Boling.  “I felt like we did a good job of doing that.  We stuck to the run throughout the game and kept calling them even though some of them didn’t work.  I feel like that really helped us.”

“We knew that we were going to have to body them up and be physical,” said Marvin Lewis.  “We worked all week at that.  I thought that we did a great job on Wednesday and Thursday at practice and I almost had to back off as we went through the week because we had guys so sore.  We had to go back to being us.”

After a poor performance in Cleveland, you might say that the Bengals weathered the storm.

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Big Willie Comes To Dalton’s Defense

Posted by Dan Hoard on October 3, 2013 – 3:48 pm

For 12 years, Willie Anderson protected Cincinnati quarterbacks as well as nearly any offensive tackle in the NFL.

Willie Anderson

Even though the four-time Pro Bowler played his last game for the Bengals in 2007, he’s still trying to prevent the Cincinnati quarterback from taking too many hits.

Last Sunday as Andy Dalton struggled to a 58.2 passer rating in Cleveland – the fifth lowest of his 38 NFL starts – Anderson took to Twitter to defend the Bengals QB.

 

Anderson joined Dave Lapham and me on “Bengals Game Plan” on Wednesday night (ESPN 1530) to discuss his defense of the Red Rifle.

“To be able to say that you’ve taken your organization to the playoffs in your first two years with that young of a team is a big deal,” said Anderson.  “In Cincinnati, we as fans are so desperate to get over the hump that I think sometimes we lose perspective.  This kid was fresh out of college as a second round draft pick and he’s playing with a lot of young guys on the offensive side of the ball.  They’re 2-2 now, and you can’t judge this kid’s career four games into year three.”

Anderson also cautioned people that are blasting Dalton to remember what happened to the quarterback that preceded him in Cincinnati.

 

“Carson turned cold toward the city because of the way things transpired around him,” said Anderson.  “This kid Andy has a very good team around him.  I think the coaches have changed.  I think the personnel and the perspective of the team have changed.  Carson was brought into Cincinnati to be the savior, and unbeknownst to him, he had some things around him that he couldn’t control.  It wore down on him and you saw this southern California kid lose interest in football.

“I’ve never met Andy Dalton, but I’ve heard from coaches and people that work in the building that he’s a strong-minded kid.  So rest assured, even though I defended him on Twitter, I don’t think the pressure is getting to him.  He wouldn’t have made it this far in his career as a quarterback if he listened to outside pressure.  One of the things that Marvin preaches is not to listen to critics outside of that building.”

After a dozen years in Cincinnati, Willie ended his career with one season in Baltimore.  That year, the Ravens won a pair of playoff games before losing in the AFC Championship game to Pittsburgh.  Baltimore’s quarterback was a 23-year-old rookie named Joe Flacco.

“I remember in my last year with the Ravens, we were on the practice field joking around and Joe Flacco said, ‘Man, I’ve never won anything.’  I said, ‘What do you mean?’  And he said, ‘I never won in high school or in college.’  But with the Ravens, he got put into a situation where the guys around him were so good that he learned what to do.  He won some playoff games but he had a veteran team around him.  I think the progression with Andy is still going upward.  Give the kid some time because I definitely think that he’s the kind of guy that you want running your franchise.

“There are a lot of teams in the NFL that would love to have Andy Dalton as their starting quarterback and I think we as fans should be patient and give it some time to play out.”

Big #71 still has the quarterback’s back.

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Bengals Woes Started On First Down

Posted by Dan Hoard on September 30, 2013 – 11:45 am

Marvin Lewis puts a major emphasis on third down – whether it’s converting on offense or getting off of the field on defense.  It was a big factor in Sunday’s loss in Cleveland as the Bengals went 4-for-14 on offense (29%) while allowing the Browns to convert 50% (9-for-18).

“We didn’t convert good enough on third down and that ended up being the difference in the day,” said Lewis.

But it wasn’t just inefficiency on third down; first down was equally troubling.

Mingo hits Dalton (440x298)

Entering the game, Cincinnati ranked 5th in the NFL by averaging 6.1 yards on first down plays.  Against the Browns, the Bengals gained 99 yards on 25 first down plays – an average of 3.96 per play.  Take away a 29-yard-pass to Tyler Eifert and that average drops to 2.92 per play.  Through four weeks, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay are the only teams in the NFL averaging fewer than four yards on first down plays.  It’s no coincidence that they are a combined 0-and-8.

“We have way too much talent to be this bad offensively,” said Andrew Whitworth.

The Bengals were particularly ineffective when they attempted to pass on first down.  In the first half, Andy Dalton was 0-for-3 with one sack on first down passing attempts.  In the second half, Dalton was 6-for-12 for 64 yards with nearly half of those yards coming on the pass to Eifert.

“I thought we had a good scheme put together so it’s disappointing when we go out there and don’t play as well as we’re capable of,” said Eifert.

The Browns defense certainly deserves much of the credit.  Through four games, Ray Horton’s unit ranks first in the NFL in fewest yards allowed per play.

“They kicked our butt,” said A.J. Green.

“I think they’re good, but I think it had more to do with how terrible we played than how good they were,” said Andrew Whitworth.

The Bengals left tackle provided some troubling insight into the Bengals offensive woes in a postgame interview with Dave Lapham while describing a two-yard loss on 4th-and-1 at the Browns’ 7-yard-line.

“I think half of the people knew the play and half of the people didn’t,” said Whitworth.  “It’s one of those things that you can’t let happen.”

AJ Green mystified (440x293)

After failing to score an offensive touchdown in two of their last three games last year, the Bengals appeared to have added the necessary firepower to fix the problem with the additions of Eifert and Giovani Bernard and the return of a healthy Mohamed Sanu.  But after four games, Cincinnati ranks 22nd in the NFL in both total yards and points scored.

“We’re just not clicking,” said Green.  “I don’t know man.  It’s tough, it’s frustrating, but it’s a long season.  We’ve got to grind it out and eventually we’ll get it.”

“We have to figure out how to be a lot better than this,” said Whitworth.  “There’s not a position on the offensive side of the football where we don’t have the ability to be good.  An outing like this is embarrassing, and we have to do something about it.”

And it has to start on first down.

*****

After one incompletion to A.J. Green on Sunday, I remarked on the radio broadcast that a taunting punching gesture by Browns cornerback Joe Haden was reminiscent of this iconic photograph of Muhammed Ali standing over a fallen Sonny Liston.

Ali Liston photo (414x440)

I was amazed by how similar Haden’s gesture was when I saw this photo on Monday.

Haden taunting Green (440x427)

*****

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Polian Lists Bengals Among Legitimate Contenders

Posted by Dan Hoard on September 26, 2013 – 2:36 pm

At the start of the season, former NFL G.M. and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian broke down the potential candidates for winning this year’s Super Bowl into three categories:

Legitimate contenders
San Francisco
Seattle
Atlanta
New England
Cincinnati

Teams with question marks
Denver
Baltimore
Green Bay
Washington
Houston

Teams on the rise
Kansas City
Detroit
Carolina
New Orleans
Chicago

Polian recently joined Dave Lapham and me on our Wednesday night “Bengals Game Plan” show and said that Cincinnati appears to be ready to win in the postseason for the first time since January of 1991.

Polian and Marvin (385x440)

“They’ve been to the playoffs,” said Polian.  “They’ve won the division.  They know what it’s like to play in big games.  You have to learn how to do that.  You have to show the fans and the local media that you’re relevant and that takes a while.

“All of those things have occurred.  They’re now in a position where they are legitimate and genuine contenders.  All of that can be derailed by key injuries in any given year – that’s a fact that doesn’t go away.  But other than that, I think they’re in great shape.”

Polian built powerhouse teams in Buffalo in the early 90’s as quarterback Jim Kelly led the Bills to four straight Super Bowl appearances.  As the general manager in Indianapolis, he drafted Peyton Manning who led the Colts to a pair of Super Bowl trips, including a win over the Bears in February of 2007.

I asked Polian what he looked for in drafting a quarterback and if Andy Dalton has those traits.

“You would like to have a little more stature and maybe a little bit stronger arm with Andy,” said Polian.  “Those were the two negatives when he was coming out of school.  Everything else he has in spades.  He’s a gym rat – he studies and puts in the time.  He has great football intellect.  He’s got great leadership.  He’s a gritty, tough guy.  He’s very, very smart – not only football-smart but very smart genuinely.  He’s got really good understanding of what he needs to do with the offense and his timing is impeccable which makes up for the arm strength.  So while he doesn’t have the arm that Jim Kelly had, he’s probably pretty close to Peyton Manning, and that’s good enough.  All the rest of it is far more important than arm strength or stature.  All of those other things are what makes a winning quarterback.”

Of course, it helps to have a great target to throw to and Polian puts A.J. Green in the same category as the best wide receivers on his squads in Buffalo and Indianapolis:  Andre Reed, Marvin Harrison, and Reggie Wayne.

“You can mention his name in the same breath – he’s got all of the same skills that they do,” said Polian.  “He’s got great speed, great route-running ability, really good hands, and he’s a tough guy.  He’ll go get the ball.  He gets the ball at its highest point.  He probably jumps better than any of the guys that I was associated with.  He has everything that you would look for in a quality receiver.”

You can listen to the entire interview here.

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

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Fight Goes Distance As Bengals Beat Packers

Posted by Dan Hoard on September 22, 2013 – 9:06 pm

It’s customary for Marvin Lewis to show his players a motivational movie clip on the night before a game.  I’m guessing that he has rarely chosen one that proved to be more prophetic then what the Bengals watched before their 34-30 roller coaster win over Green Bay.

Ali Frazier (440x405)

“I believe everything stemmed from last night when Coach Lewis showed a clip of a Muhammed Ali-Joe Frazier fight,” Rey Maualuga told me after the game.  “The whole fight, Frazier had him on the ropes and kept beating him down, beating him down, and everything was about not quitting.  Part of the success that we had today was about not giving up.”

It would have been easy to fold after Cincinnati’s offense committed turnovers on four straight possessions for the first time since the 1994 Shula Bowl (Don’s Dolphins beating Dave’s Bengals 23-7).  After bolting out to a 14-0 lead less than six minutes into the game, Cincinnati surrendered 30 straight points to trail by 16 with 5:30 left in the third quarter.

“A lot of times when things aren’t going well, guys are on the sidelines bickering with one another – there was none of that today,” said Terence Newman.  “I think that was the key to us playing the way we did.”

“I think it all goes back to the first week,” Adam Jones told me.  “We were all so disappointed by the way we lost our composure in Chicago.  Today everybody kept their composure and there was no point where we thought we were going to lose the game.  I was reading all of the Tweets (after week one) about how dumb of a team that we are, but good teams fix their mistakes and leave the past behind.”

The offense broke out of its funk and went on 65- and 95-yard scoring drives to pull within three points in the fourth quarter.  And after a successful replay challenge by Marvin Lewis turned a Packers first down into a fourth-and-one with 4:01 to go, Michael Johnson knocked the ball away from rookie running back Johnathan Franklin and Terrence Newman carried the bouncing ball 58 yards for the game-winning score.

“Thank God that Coach Lewis challenged that play,” said Domata Peko.  “We were able to get them in a fourth-and-one there and we just executed the game plan.  We penetrated every gap, (Franklin) tried to jump over the pile, and we got the ball out and scored.  If we keep making plays like that, we can go a long way this season.”

Rodgers sacked (440x340)

It wasn’t just one or two plays; the Bengals defense held Aaron Rodgers to 244 yards and a pedestrian passer rating of 64.5.  That extended Cincinnati’s NFL-best streak of going 18 games (including playoffs) without allowing a 300-yard passer, even though they have faced Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Carson Palmer, Phillip Rivers, Tony Romo, Robert Griffin III, Jay Cutler, and Ben Roethlisberger (three times) during that stretch.

“Those are the games that you live for – you know what I mean?” said Jones.  “We had to hear about the number one offense and this and that, and I commend these guys in here because nobody was worried about that.  Zim and Marvin had a marvelous game plan, and this is a sign of a good team that’s getting closer to being a great team.  We have a lot of things that we still have to fix, but it’s good to know the character of this team.  Nobody gave up, and everybody kept playing hard.”

“That was a huge measuring stick for us,” said Peko.  “They came in as the number one offense in the league with a Pro Bowl quarterback – I don’t even know how many times Aaron Rodgers has been to the Pro Bowl.  The key to the game for us was to get after their offensive line.  A big shout-out to all my D-linemen here.  We played our hearts out, we were able to get after the quarterback, and that really helped us get the W.”

“A lot of people didn’t give us a chance coming into this game,” said Newman.  “We took that personal on defense because we don’t think we’re bad, and we aren’t going to lay down or let them come in and take whatever they want.  They will have to work for whatever it is they get.”

After enjoying the Ali-Frazier movie clip on Saturday night, the Bengals can look forward to watching the game film from a great comeback win on Monday.

“Everybody had a part in this – even the offense,” said Jones.  “You can say what you want about what they did, but they came through when it was time to come through.”

“It was a big win for us,” said Maualuga.  “The Packers are one of the best teams in the NFL.  Coach says, “if you want to be a great team, you have to beat great teams.’  This is the first step in going in the direction that we want to.”

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If Dalton’s The Key, Week One Bodes Well

Posted by Dan Hoard on September 11, 2013 – 11:30 am

Nearly every preview story about the 2013 Bengals fits the same basic theme:

“Cincy has the defense and the game-changing wideout – all it needs is Andy Dalton to elevate his game to win the AFC North crown and finally make some postseason noise.” – Andy Benoit (MMQB.si.com)

“If the Bengals are to be taken seriously, which I think we all feel they are, (Dalton) definitely has to go to the next level.  He has to be a difference-maker if they want to make it to the Super Bowl.” – Boomer Esiason (NFL on CBS)

“So why is there trepidation when it comes to making the Bengals a Super Bowl contender?  Look under center.  That’s where you will see quarterback Andy Dalton.  Despite leading the Bengals to two playoff appearances in his first two seasons, Dalton has a ton of doubters.” – Pete Prisco (who picked the Bengals to win the Super Bowl on CBSSports.com)

“But Dalton knows – everyone in Cincinnati knows – that he has to be a more complete passer for this team to play at home in January instead of being a road wild-card team destined for an early exit.” – Peter King (Sports Illustrated)

If there is any truth to the “Bengals Will Go As Far As Dalton Takes Them” meme, then Cincinnati should feel good about its prospects this season despite the loss in Chicago.

Dalton in Chicago

After one week, Dalton leads the NFL in completion percentage (78.8) and ranks 7th in average yards per attempt (8.55).  And if A.J. Green had not dropped a perfect pass that ricocheted to Charles Tillman for an interception, Andy would have had a passer rating of 112.4 instead of 97.2.

“There are a couple of plays that I’m sure he wishes he had back – as we all do – but for the most part, we’re happy with his performance,” said offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.  “He played very well.  Seventy-nine percent on the road against Chicago’s defense is impressive.  We just have to do a better job of protecting the ball.”

Dalton is constantly questioned about his ability to throw deep, but in the season opener, Andy was 3-for-3 for 107 yards on passes thrown more than 20 yards in the air and completed all six of his passes thrown more than 10 yards down the field.

“We spent a lot of time in the spring identifying what the issues are, and what the next level is for him in a lot of areas – mental, physical, and technical,” said quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese.  “It was good to see what the product was going to be as the bullets started flying.  I like the improvement he’s made.”

At the age of 25, Dalton has 35 NFL starts under his belt after starting 49 games at TCU.  At this point, has he seen about all there is to see from opposing defenses?

“Probably percentage-wise,” said Zampese.  “He’ll see some things that are new every week because everybody comes up with such great stuff in this league, but he’s seen a lot at an early age which is good.”

That includes four looks at the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense under Hall of Fame coordinator Dick LeBeau.  After losing his first six games against AFC North heavyweights Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Dalton ended last season with back-to-back victories over the Steelers and Ravens, and Zampese says it was significant for Dalton to get “over the hump” against those division rivals.

“There are all sorts of mental humps that you have to get over because somebody always puts something in front of you:  You haven’t done this yet or you haven’t done that yet,” said Zampese.  “It never ends until you retire.  That was something that got overcome last year.  But we haven’t beaten them this year, so there you go Andy.”

He’ll get his next chance against Pittsburgh on Monday night at Paul Brown Stadium, and while Dalton’s play will obviously be under the spotlight, his head coach sounds confident in his quarterback – this week and beyond.

“If everybody else plays up to Andy’s standards, we’ll be fine,” said Marvin Lewis.

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