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.

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Bengals Put On Tackling Clinic In Grounding Falcons

The Bengals should take the game tape from Sunday’s 24-10 win over the Falcons and sell it as a “How to Tackle” instructional video.

“That’s one thing that the coaches here stress – being physical and tackling,” said Adam Jones. “Last week when the Falcons played New Orleans, the Saints missed a lot of tackles so that was a big emphasis.”

Bengals tackle Falcons (440x343)

According to ProFootballFocus.com, New Orleans whiffed on a mind-boggling 16 tackles in last week’s game including six by safety Kenny Vaccaro. PFF credited Atlanta with 195 “yards after catch” in the passing game and 73 “yards after contact” in the running game, helping the Falcons set a franchise record with 568 yards of total offense and score a league-best 37 points.

“That is a good bunch of receivers and they’re going to catch some balls, so when they catch it you have got to get them on the ground,” said defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.

In Sunday’s game at Paul Brown Stadium, I can recall Rey Maualuga missing a tackle on a swing pass to Steven Jackson that the veteran running back turned into a 7-yard gain, but that’s about it. On the remaining 23 passes completed by Matt Ryan, the receivers were typically stopped in their tracks the instant the ball arrived.

“Coach (Guenther) put a lot of emphasis on running to the ball and gang tackling them,” said Emmanuel Lamur. “We did a great job of that.”

One week after posting an NFL-best 128.8 passer rating, Ryan managed a 48.6 rating against the Bengals. Since the start of last season, 8 of 9 quarterbacks to face the Bengals defense at Paul Brown Stadium in the regular season have posted passer ratings under 75 including Ben Roethlisberger (73.1), Aaron Rodgers (64.5), Tom Brady (52.2), and Joe Flacco (49.8).

“Me personally, I try to get those guys on my resume and as a defense we feel the same way,” said Carlos Dunlap.

After converting 6-of-11 third down opportunities last week, the Falcons went 3-for-12 against the Bengals as Cincinnati’s sure tackling led to several third-and-long situations. The average distance of Atlanta’s 12 third down attempts was third-and-10.

“You tackle the catch when it’s second-and-10 and now it’s third-and-eight or third-and-six, as opposed to third-and-one,” said Marvin Lewis. “That makes a huge difference throughout the course of a football game. Even the situation today in the fourth quarter where we’ve got the lead and we’re tackling them and they’re not able to get the ball out of bounds. Those are huge plays in the football game to keep the clock going. If we want to be a great defensive football team, we’ve got to continue to be a great tackling team.”

“I want us to be ‘smart bullies.’” said Guenther. “I know you’ve heard that saying, and what I mean is that we understand football, we understand how to attack offenses, and we frustrate the other team. It’s like playing those guys at the YMCA in basketball that have knee braces on, but you can’t beat ‘em.”

In four of the last five years, the Bengals finished in the NFL’s Top 10 in yards and points allowed under Mike Zimmer, and the defense is off to a strong start under his replacement Guenther. After scoring 16 points on opening day against the Bengals, Baltimore increased that to 26 this week in a win over Pittsburgh. Atlanta’s point total dropped from 37 against the Saints to 10 against Cincinnati.

“They came in as the number one offense and we held them to 10 points and it probably should have been three,” said Jones. “We all have stuff that we have to work on, but if we just keep getting better every week and guys stay healthy, we have a good chance to be in Arizona.”

As in the site of Super Bowl XLIX.

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Holton Is Ready For Chance To Fly

One of the guys you’ll be rooting for this year might have cooked you chicken wings last year.

Johnny Holton

Wide receiver Johnny Holton joined the Bearcats program last year after two seasons at a junior college in Illinois, only to find out that he wouldn’t be allowed to play.

“He practiced with us for a couple of days and then the NCAA kicked out a grade,” said head coach Tommy Tuberville. “He had to go back to school, re-take that, and now he’s back this year.”

Holton was not allowed to practice or work out with the team until he gained eligibility.

“I had to finish taking classes online, so I stayed up here in Cincinnati and got a job at Buffalo Wild Wings,” Holton told me. “I was in the back cooking wings.”

It was a familiar story for the Miami, Florida native who worked at a grocery store during his high school years instead of playing football.

“I have 10 siblings and it was hard for my mother to take care of them, so I decided to get a job and try to help out a little bit,” said Holton. “I played Pop Warner but I stopped at the age of 13. That was the last time I played until I was 19 and went off to the College of DuPage and played junior college football for two years.

“I was playing flag football with one of my fellow students at Coral Cables High School. He was going to play football at the College of DuPage and asked me if I wanted to go there. I told him I would like to give it a shot, but I didn’t have any film. So I flew out there and tried out and they gave me a chance.”

In two junior college seasons, Johnny had 40 catches for 837 yards (20.9 ypc) and 15 touchdowns.

“He’s kind of a thin kid, but he’s very strong for his build,” said Tuberville. “His top-end speed is out of sight, and that’s what you’re looking for in an outside receiver.”

Holton is 6’3”, 190 pounds, and says that he’s been timed at 4.34 in the 40-yard dash. In addition to playing wide receiver, Johnny will return kickoffs.

“Not only is he fast – he’s physical,” said offensive coordinator Eddie Gran. “We always talk about competing and there are some guys that compete most of the time. He competes all of the time. When that ball is up in the air, he wants it.”

“I have a lot to learn,” said Holton. “I’m working with (wide receivers) Coach (Blake) Rolan and I’m getting better each and every day.”

After bagging groceries and cooking chicken wings, Holton has the potential to eventually make money playing in the NFL.

“I believe that with all of my heart,” said Gran. “If he keeps working and keeps listening to (strength coach) Joe Walker and Tommy Tuberville on how to develop and continues to improve every single day from now until when he graduates, I think the sky is the limit for him.

“From last year when he stepped on campus to now, it’s night and day. He had some setbacks with school and everything, but he came through that and I’m so proud of him.”

Since learning this winter that he would be eligible to play for Cincinnati in the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Holton has looked forward the season opener against Toledo.

“There were tears of joy,” Johnny told me. “My first game is going to be a little emotional. I thank the compliance office for helping me out. I’m just blessed and thank God for everything.”

“He smiles all the time, he’s glad to be here, and he works his tail off,” said Tuberville. “He’s got some weaknesses from not playing a lot of football, but we’re really glad to have Johnny here because he can stretch the field for us.”

It sounds like the kid that cooked wings can fly.

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Dalton Checks Winning In Baltimore Off List

Leading the Bengals to a playoff win is obviously the number one thing that Andy Dalton needs to do to shut up his critics. But beating the Ravens in Baltimore was on the list too.

Not anymore.

“Nobody can say that the young guys haven’t won here because they did,” said offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. “Kudos to Andy. I’m very proud and excited about what he did today.”

Dalton at Baltimore 2014 (440x293)

Dalton finished 25-for-38 for 301 yards with 1 TD, 0 INT, and a passer rating of 98.7. If you include the preseason, Andy has completed 68% of his 72 pass attempts without an interception or fumble.

“The biggest thing we’ve been preaching is that if we don’t turn the ball over, we’re going to be hard to beat,” said Jackson.

“That’s the one thing that’s been an emphasis for us – taking care of the ball,” said Dalton.

But avoiding turnovers isn’t always enough to win. In Sunday’s season opener, the Bengals appeared to be in trouble after blowing a 15-point halftime lead, as Joe Flacco’s 80-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith put the Ravens in front with 5:46 remaining.

“We didn’t flinch man,” said A.J. Green. “Our sideline was very calm.”

It didn’t stay calm for long as a celebration broke out just 48 seconds later when Dalton delivered a 77-yard strike to Green to win the game.

“We knew all that we needed was a field goal, but we had a chance to hit a big one,” said Dalton. “It comes to executing those and A.J. made a great play.”

“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” said Green. “I was telling the guys that if we want to take that next step toward being great, that this is one of those games that could get us ready for heading into the playoffs in December where everything is not going to go your way. But when your number is called and you’ve got a chance to make a play, then you’ve got to make a play.”

The touchdown went to the same end zone where Green hauled in a 51-yard “Hail Mary” on the final play of regulation to force overtime in last year’s game in Baltimore.

Does Green think Ravens fans are sick of him?

“I hope so,” he said with a laugh.

It was Dalton’s seventh fourth quarter come-from-behind victory and he clearly outperformed Flacco. The Ravens quarterback threw an interception, had a passer rating of 71.0, and inexplicably held on to the ball for the last 8 seconds of the first half deep in Bengals territory to cost his team an easy field goal.

“That was probably the stupidest play I’ve ever made in football,” said Flacco. “I kind of just got caught up in the play and forgot about the situation. There’s no excuse for it – can’t happen.”

Imagine the national bash-fest if Dalton had done the same thing.

Instead he played a smart, turnover-free game and while the Bengals offense obviously has to improve in the red zone, Dalton can check another thing off of his “haven’t been able to do” list.

“There are a lot of tough places to play in this league and this is certainly one of the toughest,” said Dalton. “It was the only place (in the division) where I had not won since joining the Bengals. This was a complete victory by our whole team, but we have to remember it’s just one win and we have a lot of games left.”

“I thought our quarterback played his tail off,” said Jackson.

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

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