O-Line Paves Way For Redemption In Cleveland

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.”

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Prayers Answered On Mistake-Filled Day

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.

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So Watt?

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.

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A Rey Of Hope For Bengals Run Defense

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.”

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Big Challenge In Big Easy For Dalton

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.

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Hill Earns Rave Reviews…From Everybody But Himself

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.

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Bengals Fall Out Of First Place With Shutout Loss To Colts

To paraphrase the old commercial for a medical alarm, the Bengals have fallen and they can’t get up.

At least not yet.

Colts shutout Bengals (440x330)

After a lopsided loss at New England and a bitterly disappointing tie vs. Carolina, the Bengals played their worst all-around game since the 2011 Dalton-Green reboot in a 27-0 defeat at Indianapolis.

“We played horrible,” said Andre Smith. “We didn’t play well in any phase of the game.”

“We’re not playing good football right now,” said Carlos Dunlap. “We’ve got to figure it out and get back to doing what we were doing in the first three games.”

Ah yes, the first three games. Back then, the Bengals were the toast of the NFL having outscored the opposition 80-33. Since then, they’ve been outscored 107-54 over a winless three game stretch and fallen out of at least a share of first place in the AFC North for the first time since the next-to-last game of the 2012 season.

Have we reached a crisis?

“I wouldn’t call it a crisis,” said Dunlap. “We can still be on top of our division if we beat Baltimore (next Sunday), so that’s the biggest goal in mind right now.”

Aside from Kevin Huber averaging 50.7 yards (47.7 net) on 11 punts – tying the team record for most punts in a game – the Bengals didn’t do anything well against the Colts.

“We didn’t attack,” said Marvin Lewis. “We ended up playing from our heels today.”

Especially on offense where the Colts took advantage of injuries to A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, and Tyler Eifert and ganged up on the Bengals at the line of scrimmage.

“They were playing press man-to-man and basically saying, ‘You guys have to beat us down the field.’” said Mohamed Sanu. “We had opportunities there, but we have to capitalize on those opportunities.”

“The Indianapolis Colts had no fear whatsoever of anything being thrown over the top of them,” said my broadcasting partner Dave Lapham. “They were just squatting on everything and breaking on underneath routes. It was like fly paper on the shallow crosses or Geo out of the backfield.”

The Bengals entered the game averaging 7.05 yards on first-down plays – best in the NFL. But on Sunday in Indianapolis, Cincinnati averaged a meager 2.6 yards on 14 first-down plays. On their first 10 first-down plays, the Bengals gained more than three yards just once. That led to numerous third-and-long situations where the Colts were able to get pressure on Andy Dalton.

“We ended up third-and-too much,” said Coach Lewis.

“We knew they were a great defense and knew we had our hands full with them,” said Sanu.

In their previous three games, the Colts had held Tennessee (1-for-9), Baltimore (1-for-11), and Houston (1-for-8) to a combined 3-for-28 on third down conversions. Cincinnati finished 1-for-13.

“They have a lot of good rushers that they can move around and do a whole lot of stuff with,” said Andrew Whitworth. “It’s almost like every third down they’ve got guys in totally different spots and they’re all twisting and turning. Today we gave them a great opportunity. It was third and long for the most part and when you do that you’re going to get everybody’s crazy stuff – everything they have in the playbook.”

“We weren’t in rhythm at all,” said Sanu. “We didn’t find ways to make plays that we needed to make and that’s everybody including myself. We cannot play like that.”

Injuries are obviously a major concern. In addition to the missing targets in the passing attack, the Bengals played most of Sunday’s game without all three of their starting linebackers as well as cornerback Leon Hall.

But even with those injuries, the Bengals should be much better than they were in Indianapolis and I continue to believe they are the best team in the AFC North. Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium would be a great time to show it.

“We’re on to the Ravens now,” said Smith. “We’re playing a division game at home next week and we’re looking forward to the opportunity.”

“We’ve been through struggles like this before and always found a way to bounce back,” said Sanu.

“It’s time to get down to brass tacks and focus and reopen the football season,” said Coach Lewis. “Let’s reopen it at home and get going.”

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How Does Adam Jones Do It?

I asked Adam Jones last week if he remembers his last fair catch.

“No,” he replied.

“It was in November of 2006,” I said. “You had back-to-back fair catches and then you took one back 90 yards for a touchdown.”

“Must have been the Philly game then,” he said with a grin. “That was a pretty good one.”

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Cincinnati Bengals

Indeed it was. Until Sunday’s game against Carolina, it was the longest return of Jones’ career. But after the Panthers scored a touchdown to take a 31-24 lead with 4:50 to go; Adam looked for an opportunity to top it.

“Did you ask (special teams coach) Darrin Simmons to return the kickoff?” a reporter asked Jones after the game.

“Yes I did,” he said.

The 31-year-old cornerback hadn’t returned a kickoff in two years and hasn’t been his team’s primary kickoff return man since playing for Tennessee eight years ago.

“I’ve done it more in practice,” said Jones. “(Darrin) told me to just be smart with the ball. It all worked out for the best.”

Carolina kicker Graham Gano might have the strongest leg in the NFL. Last year a league-high 79.7% of his kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. But with Jones waiting near the back of the end zone, Gano only kicked the ball to the goal line and Adam made him pay for it with a career-long 97 yard return to the Panthers’ 3-yard-line.

“Man, we didn’t win the game so I don’t care,” said Jones.

Mike Nugent’s 36-yard game-ending missed field goal in the 37-37 tie turned Jones’ electrifying return into a footnote, but it doesn’t diminish his remarkable numbers as a return man this season. Adam has only touched the ball six times and has returns of 24, 45, 47, and 97 yards.

“It’s something that you can’t explain,” Jones told me. “I know that Darrin does a good job of getting us prepared to go on Sundays with the guys up front and the blocking schemes so a lot of that goes to him.”

Last week after interviewing Simmons in his office, we watched Adam’s first punt return in each of the last four seasons:

2011: 63-yard return at Seattle.

2012: 81-yard TD return vs. Cleveland.

2013: 50-yard return at Chicago (negated by penalty).

2014: 45-yard return at Baltimore.

How does Jones do it?

“I think he’s got a great amount of confidence in himself, first and foremost, and I think he has a great amount of confidence in our blockers,” said Simmons. “But he has very natural feel. And I think he still has elite quickness and body control and that’s what gets him loose.”

On two of his big returns this year, Jones has used hesitation moves to elude the gunners before bursting into the open field.

“It’s just the little things that I can see before it happens – just to give (the blockers) a second to open up the holes,” said Jones. “Nine times out of 10 I like to just hit it, but sometimes you have to hesitate.”

Jones has returned 82 consecutive punts since his last fair catch (for trivia buffs, Philadelphia’s Dirk Johnson was the punter) but the only streak that mattered to him on Sunday was the Bengals’ home winning streak. He was bitterly disappointed that his long kickoff return that helped to force overtime did not lead to Cincinnati’s 12th straight regular season home victory.

“When the coaches put you in the position to win the game after everything we went through, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t win the game right there. Period,” said Jones.

“I know Mike is going to be hard on himself, but we’re a team so I guess we have to get it back together and try not to get in those situations where we get all the way to the end of the game like that. The only thing we can do is come watch the film and try to get better on Monday.”

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Changing Prime Time Perception Will Have To Wait

The original “Not Ready For Prime Time Players” included Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, and Gilda Radner.

The Bengals will have to live with the same nickname for at least another month.

W2ST7052.JPG

Sunday night’s 43-17 loss at New England reinforced the notion that Cincinnati is a talented team that fails to play its best when the spotlight is brightest. Fortunately, the Bengals still have nationally televised night games against Cleveland (Nov. 6) and Denver (Dec. 22) to change the perception.

“We still have two more prime time games and hopefully we’ll win enough games to have a playoff game,” said George Iloka. “So we still have two or three more chances. We’re not saying, ‘Oh here we go again.’ This is a different team. I feel it. I sense it.”

Now they have to prove it.

The Patriots emphatically answered the critics after a Monday night drubbing at Kansas City by playing their best game of the year against Cincinnati. Suddenly nobody seems to be saying that New England is a mediocre team with a declining quarterback. Instead, it’s the Bengals who are taking potshots after their first poor showing of the season.

“That stuff is just garbage,” said Andrew Whitworth. “I’m not worried about the fans or the media or any of the crap. We just need to play well and win. The same people thought Tom Brady should quit football a week ago so I bet they don’t think that now.

“That’s football. Every week you have to show up and play your best. If you don’t, you’re going to get beat.”

But does a legitimate contender lose by 26 points?

Believe it or not, it’s not uncommon for good teams to get hammered by at least three touchdowns. In fact, four of the last eight Super Bowl champions have suffered a regular season loss similar to what the Bengals experienced last Sunday.

2012 Ravens: 43-13 loss at Houston (week 7)

2011 Giants: 49-24 loss at New Orleans (week 12)

2007 Giants: 41-17 loss vs. Vikings (week 12)

2006 Colts: 44-17 at Jacksonville (week 14)

The Patriots used the embarrassment of a 27-point loss at Kansas City to fire them up six nights later, and the Bengals will attempt to do the same thing as they get ready to face Carolina this Sunday.

“We have to bounce back like they did – that’s a good example,” said Iloka.

“I think there’s an adjustment in how you go about your work and probably a new-found focus,” said Marvin Lewis.

**********

Like the Bengals, the Panthers will come to town on Sunday in first place in their division. Carolina is 3-2 and has a one game lead in the NFC South over New Orleans and Atlanta.

One of the Panthers biggest stars is St. Xavier High School grad Luke Kuechly who has some big fans on the Bengals coaching staff.

“You show him one play and then you come back and run it later on and he’s already standing there where the play is going to come,” said Hue Jackson. “He understands football as well as anybody I’ve ever seen.”

“Luke is probably the finest linebacker I’ve ever evaluated coming out of college,” said Marvin Lewis. “I just thought he had it all. Not only that, but he’s such a great kid. One that was a pleasure to have in our building for a day or so (before the 2012 draft). I’ve known him for a long time – since he was an 8th or 9th grader playing lacrosse with my son.”

Marcus Lewis is now a member of the Bengals coaching staff.

**********

In addition to losing three fumbles on Sunday night, the Bengals lost four points when Jermaine Gresham dropped a touchdown pass forcing Cincinnati to have to settle for a field goal.

Gresham drop (440x325)

I asked offensive coordinator Hue Jackson if Gresham has a hard time bouncing back from a mistake.

“I hope not,” Hue told me. “He can’t let those things linger. It’s unfortunate that it happened to him that night, but it’s just like the fumble by A.J. – that’s football and those things are going to happen. We don’t want it to continue to happen and that’s what we have to guard against. We’ll work at ball security all week and we’ll work on catching the ball better – we want to catch the ball better than any other team in the NFL and we didn’t the other night. So I hope guys don’t let things linger from play to play.”

**********

Brandon Tate did not have a good game against his former team on his 27th birthday.

Tate vs Pats (440x297)

But after watching the “All-22” video of his kick returns and discussing them with special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, I can confirm that there were big plays to be made if his teammates had carried out their responsibilities.

“I don’t have a problem with his decision-making process,” said Simmons. “We put a yard line back there where he lines up. Anything in front of that he can bring out and anything behind that he sets it down. Aside from the fumble which was a big mistake, the rest of the times where he got tackled were not his fault because we didn’t block it well enough. I give New England credit – they changed a couple of things up – and we just didn’t do a good enough job of finishing blocks. We were one block away on a couple of those plays from having huge returns. I don’t say that a lot unless it’s there.”

**********

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The Category Is Great Protection For $1000

 Let’s do this Jeopardy! style. The category is “NFL Rarities.”

Take it away Alex Trebek.

“On December 22, 2013, Everson Griffen and Jared Allen of the Minnesota Vikings did something that hasn’t been done since.”

“What is sack Andy Dalton.”

Correct!

Andy Dalton, Mohamed Sanu

Since Griffen and Allen combined to bring down Dalton in the fourth quarter of last year’s meeting at Paul Brown Stadium, the Red Rifle has thrown an NFL-high 121 consecutive passes without being sacked. In Sunday’s 33-7 win over Tennessee, the Bengals did not allow a sack for the fourth straight regular season game. It’s no coincidence that Cincinnati has won all four.

“Every time we go out there that’s our goal,” said right guard Mike Pollak. “It’s on the board in our room to not give up any sacks. So far we’ve done a great job with that and we’re going to strive to continue with it.”

The sack-less streak seemed unlikely to continue against the Titans under uber-aggressive defensive coordinator Ray Horton. In a season-opening win at Kansas City, Tennessee hit-or-pressured Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith on 14 dropbacks and sacked him four times. The Titans followed that up with four sacks of Tony Romo in week two.

“They have a great front,” said left guard Clint Boling. “There are a lot of guys inside and outside that can get after the quarterback.”

But according to the press box stats after Sunday’s game, the Titans did not register a single quarterback hit against the Bengals.

“They’ve been playing really well up front,” said Andy Dalton when asked about his offensive line. “It’s a point of emphasis. I’m trying not to hold on to the ball too long so that I can help out. My hat’s off to them.”

“It’s a group effort,” said Boling. “From the offensive line, to Andy getting us in the right protections, to (center) Russell (Bodine) making the right calls – it’s the whole group. It’s something to be proud of. Hopefully we can keep it going for the rest of the year.”

One of Cincinnati’s biggest question marks going into the season was how the offensive line would fare with a rookie fourth round draft pick starting at center. Well, heading into the Monday night game the Bengals rank 6th in the NFL in points scored and 7th in total yards and offensive line coach Paul Alexander says Bodine is getting better by the day.

“When we faced Atlanta, the Falcons had Paul Soliai, the big nose guard that we haven’t blocked very well in recent years,” said Alexander. “(Bodine) had him on his back several times. He played big-man football against the Falcons. He went against some big guys and didn’t back down.

“Before that game, we had a line meeting on Thursday and we were going over a couple of things and Russ just out of nowhere said, ‘Hey listen guys. We’re doing it this way. I’m going to call that and that’s how we’re doing it.’ I almost fell out of my chair. He did it three times in the Thursday meeting and I was like, ‘Nice.’ That’s how centers are. That’s how (Kyle) Cook was and that’s how Richie (Braham) was. But they’re usually not like that in the second game of their rookie season. So that was impressive.”

In addition to playing with a rookie at center, the Bengals offensive line has thrived despite injuries. Andre Smith did not take a single snap in the preseason due to a concussion, and this week Pollak stepped in for Kevin Zeitler who appears likely to miss a few games with an injured calf.

“We have to get Zeitler back quickly,” said Alexander. “He’s playing like a top guard really – I don’t know that there’s one better. He’s big, strong, athletic, tough, and smart. He’s everything we wanted.”

After two weeks of the season, Cincinnati and Houston were the only NFL teams that had not allowed a sack. Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was dropped twice in a loss to the New York Giants, so the Bengals are the lone team with a clean slate.

“Everybody’s been bringing that up,” said Pollak. “At some point it’s going to happen.”

That is undoubtedly the case, but for now, a solid offensive line and a quarterback that doesn’t hold on to the ball is proving to be a winning Daily Double.

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

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