Author Archive

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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Be Prepared For Anything And Everything Under Tuberville

We are nine days away from the Bearcats season opener at Nippert Stadium.  With fewer than 1000 tickets available to the general public, it appears that the game is going to be sold-out, so here is a quick reminder to those of you who are lucky enough to attend: 

Come Early. 

Be Loud. 

Wear White. 

And Don’t Get Up To Use The Restroom If It’s Fourth-And-Long.

 Image

That final item is a tongue-in-cheek reference to new head coach Tommy Tuberville and his history of making gutsy calls in hopes of pulling out a win.

“It started back when I was at Ole Miss,” Coach Tuberville told me.  “We weren’t very good and had to take a lot of chances.  Tim Brando was working for ESPN at the time and we went for it on fourth down a couple of times and made it and did some other crazy stuff and ended up winning the game.  That’s when he nicknamed me ‘The Riverboat Gambler.’  We really had no choice.” 

“When we first got to Ole Miss together, the program was kind of in disarray,” said offensive coordinator Eddie Gran.  “We had to ‘smoke and mirror’ some people, and he told our guys before every game that we weren’t going to hold anything back.  We were going to go for it on fourth down, we’re going to have fakes, and we’re going to do it when they’re not expecting it.  That’s what he did.  It was a lot of fun and the kids believed in it.”

“I like to take chances,” said Tuberville.  “I don’t like to give games away, but I like to give players a chance to win games.”

One of Tuberville’s most famous gambles came in the “Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry” between Auburn and Georgia in 2001.

“They were probably favored by three touchdowns,” said Tuberville.  “We were only down by seven with a few minutes left in the half.  They had a really fast return man and we couldn’t cover him on punts, so on fourth down and about a foot at our own 13 yard line I said, ‘If we punt it, they’re going to return it to about the 15 and score anyway so let’s go for it.’  We ended up making it.  A few plays later, it was fourth-and-nine in our own territory (27 yard line…you can look it up) and we faked a punt and picked up the first down.  That was probably one of the crazier things that I’ve done, but it worked.”

Final score:  Auburn 24 Georgia 17

“In another game, we were able to score but we couldn’t stop the other team,” Tuberville told me.  “So I told the players at halftime before we went back out that there was no reason for our punter to even come out.  We were going to go for it on every fourth down.  We ended up going for it on fourth down three times in the second half.  We made it every time and won the game.”

Beginning in his third year at Auburn, Coach Tuberville led the Tigers to at least one victory over an AP Top-10 team in a school-record seven consecutive seasons.  He had a stretch of six straight wins over archrival Alabama in the Iron Bowl.  Two years ago as a four-touchdown underdog, his Texas Tech team ended Oklahoma’s 39-game home winning streak.  Tuberville’s record in bowl games is 7-3.

Is there a correlation between winning big games, pulling off upsets, and making the occasional risky call?

“I don’t think there’s any question about it,” said Gran.  “Sometimes you see head coaches in big games and if they get stressed out and are hooting and hollering and screaming, then that’s the mentality that the kids are going to take.  They feed off of the mentality of the head football coach.  He’s always been unbelievable in big games.”

Of course, the calculated gambles don’t always work, but after 17 years as a college head coach, Tuberville says he’s not afraid to be second-guessed.   

“I don’t care about that – we’re trying to win games,” Tommy told me.  “Everybody is going to second-guess you – there are times where people want you to go for it and you punt.  I’m going to do what I think will give our players the best chance to win the game and a lot of times it’s by gut feeling.

“You can’t be predictable.  And you want the guys in the Red and Black to know that this guy is trying to win the game.”

Just remember that before you leave your seat.

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

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With Migraines Sacked, Moch Takes Aim At QBs

Dontay Moch had 30 sacks in college at Nevada and has 4.5 in seven NFL preseason games with the Bengals.

So for those of us who will never know, what does it feel like to blow by an offensive lineman and nail the quarterback?

“It’s the same feeling that you get when you finish a Thanksgiving meal,” said Moch with a grin.

In other words, total satisfaction.

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But the 25-year-old defensive end has rarely been able to enjoy that sensation in his first two years in Cincinnati.  Moch has only appeared in one regular season game due largely to chronic migraines.

“You can’t really see anything…you get a ringing noise in your head…all different types of things,” said Moch when asked to describe the symptoms.  “It brings you to your knees because of the pain.”

The good news is that the former third-round draft pick says that he hasn’t had a migraine in nine months.

“I’ve made a whole lifestyle change to take complete control over what I do and that seems to have fixed the problem,” Dontay told me.  “Dietary stuff, supplements, prescriptions if I have to take them…preventative things.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people.  I went out of my circle to get other opinions – different doctors and different routes and ways.  It took a little bit from everybody to figure out my situation because everyone is different.  It helps because it gives you a path toward understanding it better.”

Defensive end is one of Cincinnati’s deepest positions with Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap, Robert Geathers, Wallace Gilberry, and second-round draft pick Margus Hunt all likely to make the 53-man roster.  Moch’s path toward claiming one of the final spots lies in his ability as a situational pass rusher and as a special teams contributor.  Dontay is also eligible for the practice squad.

“We have a guy that got the franchise tag and a guy that just signed a six-year contract as well as a couple of vets behind them,” said Moch.  “Then we have a bunch of young guys that are nipping at their toes.  It’s a challenge, but I definitely feel like there is a place for me on the roster.  I’m going to show them that I can contribute and do my one-eleventh and be the man that they want me to be out there.  That’s all I can really do.”

“He has produced in these preseason games,” said Marvin Lewis.  “He had an opportunity.  As we’ve given opportunity other times, it hasn’t been the same.  Hopefully he continues to produce when it counts, against people that are more likely to be around on another club’s 53-man roster, to show proof that he can be productive on Sundays.”

Moch is a freakish athlete who set a record for defensive lineman at the NFL Scouting Combine by running a 4.44 40-yard dash (watch video here).  Now that the migraines are hopefully behind him, Dontay is trying to be a headache for opposing offensive lineman.

“My goal is to try to get penetration and get a sack or to try to force the quarterback to throw a bad ball,” said Moch.  “I’m healthy and I’m playing the best that I can.  This is going to be a great year to show what I can do because I’m 100% full-go now.”

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

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Johnson Has New Look, Big Contract, And Same Attitude

Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson is a spiritual person who includes a bible verse from Philippians at the top of his personal website (mj93.org).

But unlike the biblical character of Samson, Johnson is not concerned that his great strength comes from his long hair.  In the past week, Michael has gradually gone from having long braids to the completely bald look.

“It was time for a change,” said Johnson.  “It’s something that my mom has been petitioning for since I began to grow my hair.  It feels good to cut if off – I probably should have done it a long time ago.”

Johnson bald (248x440)

Unfortunately, Johnson’s new look has been on display at practice for several days because he hasn’t had his helmet on.  Michael has been sidelined with a sore back, but says his absence from drills is largely a matter of being cautious at this stage of training camp.

“Yes, I would say that,” Johnson told me.  “We’re really not supposed to say much about that type of stuff, but everything is going to be fine.

“I’m staying involved mentally.  I’m in all of the meetings, all of the practices, and making sure that I’m doing all of the walkthroughs.  I’m trying to make sure that I get mental reps and keep my focus on this team and make sure that everything is going in the right direction on the field and with my rehab as well.”

Johnson sack (339x440)

The 26-year-old is coming off of his best season as Johnson tied for ninth in the NFL with 11.5 sacks.  He was scheduled to become a free agent, but the Bengals used their franchise tag rights to retain his services for $11.1 million for this year.

It’s not uncommon for players to openly gripe when they are “tagged” instead of being given long-term extensions, but Johnson is not complaining.

“That’s just not the way I was taught,” said Johnson.  “I was raised to believe that you show up for work, you go to work, and you do your best.  You don’t gripe about stuff that you don’t have control over.  I’m going to go out and work and we’ll see how things play out.  I pray on the situation – me and my family – that things will work out for the best and obviously this is the best situation for both sides.

“Man, I’m from Selma, Alabama.  I didn’t have everything that I wanted, but I had everything that I needed.  It taught me that you don’t have to have the world to be happy and blessed.  Sure you want to get as much as you can out of this game, but I’m thankful for the opportunity and I’m going to go out and do what I love to do and make the most of it.  It’s a nice sum for one year and a whole of people don’t see something like that in their whole lifetime.  I’m going to continue to work my tail off.”

Johnson’s work ethic extends to the classroom as he returned to Georgia Tech this winter.  He’s three classes away from earning a degree in Business Administration.

“When you say that you went to Georgia Tech, people’s eyes light up,” Michael told me.  “It’s like, ‘You weren’t playing around.’  It’s a great school and when I’m finished, I’ll be one of the select few who have earned a degree from there.

“It will feel better when I go out to talk to kids about the importance of education.  I can say, ‘Look.  I’m in the NFL and I went back to school and finished.  It’s not something that I’m just saying; it’s something that I really believe in.’ I put my actions behind my words and kids enjoy when you actually do the stuff that you’re talking about.”

Whether he is bald or has braids, wearing a mortarboard at graduation will be Johnson’s best look yet.

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After Trying To Make “Idol”, Stephens Aims For NFL

Like all of the rookies in training camp, defensive tackle Terrence Stephens is hoping to impress Marvin.

Roughly six years ago, his goal was to impress Simon.

Terrence Stephens (440x294)

The undrafted free agent out of Stanford is undoubtedly the only member of the Bengals who has auditioned for American Idol.

“I was 16 and it was something that I had always wanted to do,” Stephens told me.  “I didn’t get as far as I wanted to, but it was an interesting experience to say the least.”

Terrence auditioned in front of producers for the show but didn’t advance far enough to sing for Simon, Paula, and Randy.  But last week while the Bengals were practicing in Atlanta, he belted out the Luther Vandross hit “Superstar” (most famously performed by The Carpenters) for a different group of judges.

“I guess Coach Lewis found out that I can sing from word of mouth,” said Stephens.  “So he called me up at the beginning of a team meeting and put me on the spot.”

“Everybody was looking for somebody to make fun of or to rip on, but he impressed everybody,” said wide receiver Ryan Whalen.  “He got a standing ovation.”

The “standing O” came as no surprise to a pair of former Stanford teammates.

“Everybody has the ability to sing, but he can SING – you know what I’m saying?” said rookie cornerback Terrence Brown.  “In our freshman year in college, he came out and sang at a talent show and that’s what everybody knew him for – the person on the team that could sing.”

“He’s always singing to himself in the locker room,” said Whalen.  “I think he was in an a capella group at Stanford and really likes to sing.”

“I did some things during college that allowed me to keep up with the craft,” Stephens told me.  “You can ask these guys – I pretty much sing all of the time.  I’ve had fun with it.”

Stephens started 20 games at Stanford and earned a contract with the Bengals after an impressive tryout in the team’s rookie minicamp.  My broadcast partner Dave Lapham was impressed with his play in the preseason opener in Atlanta, but Terrence wasn’t satisfied.

“I’m really hard on myself,” said Stephens.  “I graded out OK for being in my first NFL game, but at the end of the day I was not happy with my performance.  I’m looking forward to this week’s game and getting a chance to dominate.  I think that’s what is expected out of me.  Even being an undrafted rookie guy, I’m looking to be a force in the middle.”

The Bengals have one of the deepest and most talented defensive lines in the NFL, so barring injuries, Stephens best chance to stick with the team is probably as one of eight members of the practice squad.

“I’m blessed because this is such an experience to be here around people who really care for you individually,” said Stephens.  “From Michael Johnson to AC (Anthony Collins) to Andre Smith to Domata (Peko), these guys really take care of you.  I feel like it’s a big family.  It’s probably a bit premature, but I’m looking forward to being part of it.”

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

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