September 2013

Bengals Woes Began On First Down

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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Fight Goes Distance As Bengals Beat Packers

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

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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A Gift-Wrapped Opening Loss In Chicago

At the end of Chicago’s 24-21 win over Cincinnati, long after the most of the players had made their way to the locker rooms; A.J. Green and Charles Tillman met at the 50-yard line, removed their jerseys, then signed and traded them.

Green and Tillman (440x298)

It was the last of many giveaways by the Bengals.

For much of the game, Cincinnati demonstrated why it is considered a Super Bowl contender:  Green was unstoppable with 9 catches for 162 yards, Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert showed the potential of a two tight end attack as they combined for 10 receptions, and the Bengals defense held the Bears to 97 yards in the first half.

But three turnovers, eight penalties, and poor clock management proved to be costly as the Bengals squandered an 11-point second half lead.

“We had chances to kind of put it away and we weren’t able to do it,” said Andy Dalton.  “We turned the ball over, and turnovers killed us offensively today.  Whenever you turn the ball over as often as we did, it’s hard to win.”

“There are things you can’t do, and we did all three today,” said Marvin Lewis.  “We lost on third down defensively at critical moments; we turned the ball over when we were making positive plays, and then the penalties.  We’ve got to get it cleaned up.”

“Terrible penalties, bad time-out management – that’s an understatement saying it was bad – bad game management at the end of the first half,” said CBS broadcaster Phil Simms.  “Those little mistakes added up to just enough.”

The Bears obviously deserve credit.  After all, the Bengals head-scratching decision not to run out the clock from deep in their own territory at the end of the half might have been forgotten if Robbie Gould didn’t drill a franchise-record 58-yard field goal.  And the turnovers didn’t just happen – Tillman made a great play on his first interception and a great catch on his second one, and the Bears’ uncanny ability to force fumbles by punching the ball out of receivers’ hands resulted in Mohamed Sanu’s critical fourth quarter fumble.

Sanu fumble (440x296)

That final turnover gave Jay Cutler the opportunity to lead the Bears on an eight-play, 81-yard touchdown drive that saw Chicago overcome a 3rd-down-and-three, a 2nd-down-and-20, and a 4th-down-and-one before the game-winning TD pass to Brandon Marshall.

“If you give Jay Cutler some opportunities to throw it down the field he’ll usually get it done,” said Simms.

“They executed – especially in the fourth quarter,” said Leon Hall.  “A lot of times in close games like that, that’s really what it comes down to.  They just executed better than we did – flat out.”

“It’s disappointing,” said Vontaze Burfict.  “They’re a great team, but I feel like we folded a little bit.”

“We allowed them the opportunity to stay in the game and beat us,” said Lewis.

As last year’s 44-13 week one drubbing in Baltimore proved, a season-opening loss doesn’t necessarily portend a disappointing season.  But the Bengals are not trying to repeat their trip to the playoffs; they are trying to advance in the postseason.  Teams that win in January simply can’t make the mistakes that Cincinnati made in Chicago.

“We played really hard and that’s good to see, but we just didn’t play smart at all times,” said Dalton.  “That’s what hurt us and that’s what lost the game.”

“Everybody had a hand in this today,” said Lewis.

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Ten Week One Questions…And Answers

Heading into week one of the season, every team in the NFL has issues.  Here are 10 questions that I’ve been asking this week and some of the more revealing answers that I’ve received.

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Is Andy Dalton ready to take another step forward in his third year as an NFL starter?

The Bengals quarterback inherited a 4-12 team in 2011 and has taken it to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons.  There has been far more good than bad in his 34 NFL starts.  But after two poor playoff performances, it’s fair to ask if he has shown significant improvement in training camp and the preseason.

“He’s gotten a little bit stonger and I’d like to think he’s gotten a little bit quicker,” said Jay Gruden.  “He’s more decisive, and we feel like he has more command of the offense.  So I think he’s improved in a lot of areas, but I guess it’s to be determined week in and week out in year three.”

“I think the first year he was busy just trying to be the quarterback,” said Marvin Lewis.  “In the second year he was trying to be the leader of the offense.  Now I think everybody knows that he’s the leader of the football team.  He’s embraced that and continued to grow as a player and person.”

Eifert training camp (440x326)

Will the Bengals follow the Patriots lead in using a two tight end offense?

With a 25-year-old, two-time Pro Bowl tight end on the roster in Jermaine Gresham, many people were surprised that the Bengals used their number one draft pick on Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert.  The question is, how often should we expect to see the two of them on the field at the same time?

“It should be a lot,” said Gruden.  “I think it’s our best personnel group when those guys are on the field together.  Obviously on third down and long, we might want to take out a tight end and bring in another skilled guy like Marv or Mo, but I think those two together is a good group to have because you can run and throw the ball equally.  If a team wants to match-up in nickel, then you have a mismatch in the running game.  If they want to stay in their base, then we can spread them out and get Gresham or Eifert on a linebacker or safety and we feel like we can win that match-up.  If they want to play single high (safety) to stop the running game, we also have #18 (A.J. Green) out there who is a pretty good weapon.  So we feel pretty good about the weapons that we have and the choices that Andy has – it’s just a matter of keeping everybody happy.  Hopefully that won’t be an issue.”

Dalton and Green (440x307)

After finishing 22nd in the NFL in total offense last season, will the Bengals take a significant step forward this year?

The Bengals added the first tight end selected in the draft in Eifert and the first running back selected in Giovani Bernard.  They get Mohamed Sanu back from injury after catching four TD passes in the last three games he played in last year.  Clearly Andy Dalton has more weapons to work with than ever before.

“I think this is an offense quite frankly that is going to look to be more explosive in the pass game and maybe alter the run-pass ratio a little bit,” said Greg Cosell of NFL Films on this podcast.  “They’re not going to become pass, pass, pass – I’m not suggesting that it’s going to be shotgun and throw it on every play – but I think they feel that they can expand their pass game now.  Andy Dalton is ready for that, they’ve increased the weapons, and everybody has been in the system for a few years.  Obviously they have two rookies in Eifert and Bernard, but those guys are really effective in the pass game.

How much will Giovani Bernard play?

BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for 1094 yards last year, including 607 yards in the second half of the season (despite resting in the regular season finale).  Bernard certainly gives the Bengals more of a big-play threat, the question is, how evenly will their playing time be split?

“I think it will be close,” said Gruden.  “We’ll see how the game goes.  As a running back, there’s so much feel involved – if Benny has a hot hand and rushes for 50 or 60 yards in the first couple of drives, then he’ll probably stay in there.  But Giovani has shown that he can not only run outside and in space, but also between the tackles.  I think the more that we get him the ball the better off BenJarvus will be.”

Whitworth blocks (550x330)

What about Whit?

After having knee surgery in the off-season, Andrew Whitworth did not take a snap in a preseason game.  All signs point toward him missing the season opener in Chicago.  Was there a setback at some point during training camp?

“There have been things that I’m not really at liberty to discuss – that’s more for Marvin to discuss,” said Whitworth.  “I continue to stay on the progress that I went to be on in order to play effectively.  That’s what I’ve continued to do every day and it’s the only thing I’ve focused on.

“It’s frustrating.  I’m a guy that’s always been on the field and hasn’t missed anything.  This is a critical game and if I do have to miss it, this will be the first one that I’ve had to miss in my career in a critical situation.  It’s tough, but you deal with it and move forward and realize that it’s a process.”

Can Anthony Collins handle Julius Peppers?

If Whitworth can’t play, Anthony Collins will take his place at left tackle and line up against one of the best pass rushers in the NFL.  Collins hasn’t started a game at left tackle since 2008, but did perform well in Whitworth’s place during the preseason.

“I’m just at one position now – the left side,” said Collins.  “Probably later in the season they might need me on the right, but when you stick to one side, your whole body structure changes and it gets used to one side.  So it helps a whole lot when you can stick to one side.”

“He’s been amazing,” said Whitworth.  “He’s a guy that has always stepped in when he’s been needed, and I’ve always been a big advocate of his and pushed that he should be starting in this league somewhere if not here.  He continues to be solid and does all that he’s asked to do on the football field.  He’s a guy that makes you proud.”

Atkins (550x455)

Can Kyle Long handle Geno Atkins?

The Bears used their number one draft pick (20th overall) on offensive lineman Kyle Long – the son of Hall of Famer Howie Long.  After beginning his college career as a defensive lineman (like his dad), he’s only been playing on the offensive line for a couple of years.  He’ll get a “Welcome to the NFL” experience on Sunday when he squares off against Geno Atkins.

“He’s a good prospect,” said Marvin Lewis.  “Kyle is a good athlete and we were very high on him.  They drafted him in the first round and they have him right in there playing.”

What will the Bears do on offense under new head coach Marc Trestman?

Trestman has a long history as an NFL quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, but it’s relatively ancient history – his last NFL job was in 2004 with the Dolphins.  Since then, the Bears head coach spent two years as the offensive coordinator at NC State and the last five years as head coach of the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes.  Andrew Hawkins spent two seasons playing for Trestman in Canada and provides a scouting report.

“His philosophy is that you can’t go broke taking a profit,” said Hawkins.  “So it’s check-downs and little dink-and-dunk passes to set up bigger plays and to inch your way down the field.  Everything in his offense is called for getting a first down.  He’s just looking for first downs.  That’s his philosophy and I can’t imagine it’s going to be anything different.”

That’s not what we’re used to seeing from the Bears rifle-armed quarterback Jay Cutler.

“No, that’s not Jay Cutler so it’s going to be an adjustment,” said Hawkins.  “Jay will have to buy into what he does because that’s who he is and I can’t imagine it changing.”

Can Taylor Mays fill Emmanuel Lamur’s role in the nickel defense?

Lamur was Cincinnati’s best linebacker in pass coverage, and his season-ending shoulder injury leaves the Bengals (at least for now) without an obvious replacement in the nickel defense.  Safety Taylor Mays, who is nearly as big as Lamur, has begun training under linebackers coach Paul Guenther to potentially assume a similar role.

“It’s definitely exciting,” said Mays.  “I think maybe naturally for me it’s a little better (fit) because I’m more in the box and that could be a better position for me.  I feel good about it and I like the kind of plays that linebackers get to make.  I think maybe with my skill-set it fits me well.”

Iloka practice (341x440)

Do the Bengals know who will start at safety opposite Reggie Nelson this year?

Last year in the first three weeks of the season, the Bengals started Mays, Jeromy Miles, and Nate Clements in that spot before bringing Chris Crocker off of his couch in week four.  George Iloka is listed as the starter for Sunday’s game in Chicago, despite breaking his right hand when he punched a teammate’s helmet a little more than two weeks ago.

“Well I hope we don’t have three different starters in the first three weeks,” said Mike Zimmer.  “I think George has a chance to do the things that I’m asking him to do.  He’s athletic back there, and has good acceleration and coverage ability.  He has to understand his role in the defense and that’s about keeping everybody on the same page.  Let’s do everything right, let’s not make a bunch of mistakes, and I think we’ll be fine.”

So those are 10 questions that I’ve been asking.  We’ll begin getting the real answers on Sunday in Chicago.

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Atkins Worth Every Penny

Carlos Dunlap doesn’t hesitate when asked if he has a favorite Geno Atkins highlight.

Atkins GIF sack

“The one where he took the Steelers lineman (Willie Colon), threw him down, and then sacked Ben Roethlisberger,” said Dunlap with a laugh.  “That lineman was every bit of 350 pounds and Geno make him look like 250.”

A.J. Green picks a play from when he and Atkins were teammates at the University of Georgia.

Atkins sacks Tebow (440x387)

“I remember one time where Geno said, ‘A.J., I’m about to go make a play in the backfield.’” recalled Green.  “He made it for about a 10-yard loss.  We knew from day one that he was going to be a great player.”

 

NFL teams obviously didn’t know how great Atkins was going to be when he lasted until the fourth round of the 2010 draft, but his status as one of the league’s best defensive players was made abundantly clear on Monday when Geno agreed to a 5-year, $55 million contract extension with Cincinnati.  One member of the team told me that players cheered when news of the extension began spreading in the locker room.

“I’ve never seen him take a day off, or a play off, or anything like that,” said Green.  “You want a player like that to be rewarded.”

“You want to keep those core guys that have been around here for a little while and are a big part of where we want to go,” said Leon Hall.  “I think it’s important to keep those kinds of guys here.”

“The work he puts in on the football field doesn’t even match what he does off of it – he trains and works out as hard as anybody,” said Andrew Whitworth.  “When you see a guy like that who has worked his way toward success, you’re happy for him.  And it means a lot to the locker room because it shows guys where you can be if you apply yourself.”

And while Atkins is considerably wealthier than he was 24 hours ago, the Bengals expect him to remain a no-nonsense grinder who leads through actions and not words.

“He’s still the same guy, man,” said Green. “It doesn’t matter how rich he is, or how much money he has, he’s still going to be the same old humble Geno that comes to work every day.”

“It’s great that he works his tail off and tries to outwork everybody in the building because that kind of sets the tone for all of the young guys,” said Whitworth.

Nobody knows that better than second-year guard Kevin Zeitler who is constantly matched up against Atkins at practice.

“He has definitely helped me improve,” Zeitler told me.  “Just the combination of his strength, speed, and all of his moves.  I haven’t faced another defensive tackle so far who can come close to what Geno brings.  It makes game day feel a little easier when I get out there.

“He never takes a rep off and he’s deserving of every penny that he gets.  The only downside I guess is that I have to go against him in practice every day for the next five years.”

Don’t forget to join Dave Lapham and me for “Bengals Game Plan” this Wednesday night from 6 to 8 on ESPN 1530 and ESPN1530.com.

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