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James Harrison on returning to Pittsburgh, the meaning of intimidation, and more

On Wednesday afternoon, Marvin Lewis referred to James Harrison as a “very respectful bully.”

“He’s going to be gruff about everything he can be,” said Lewis when asked to clarify.  “That’s his fun.  We spend a lot of time together and guys have to have fun.  That’s his fun.  To always be on edge – to keep people on edge.

“He’s had an exceptional career.  You can’t take anything away from James Harrison’s career.  He’s won, he’s been a great player, and he helped a team win championships.  Guys like that eventually end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”

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Harrison’s upcoming return to Pittsburgh for the first time since leaving the Steelers is one of the big storylines this week.  And yes, the five-time Pro Bowler and 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year kept me “on edge” in this one-on-one interview for Sunday’s pregame show on the Bengals radio network.

This is your first trip back to Pittsburgh.  Is it going to be emotional for you?

No.

Not at all?

No.

Why not?

I’ve already had a chance to see those guys here, so it’s going to be no different seeing them there.

Before that first game you got a little choked up talking about Dick LeBeau.  What is it about that relationship that meant so much to you?

He’s more of a father figure than he is a coach.  He has a real tight bond with a lot of us players – former and present.  He’s not just a coach.

You were in for 87% of the defensive snaps last week.  Are you happy with the way your role on this team is evolving?

Yeah, it’s a good thing.  I’m starting to get a chance to get out there more, learn more of the defense, and get an opportunity to play a little more.  That’s part of getting comfortable.

This team has lost a lot of key pieces on defense and yet you’ve continued to play at a very high level.  How have you done it?

Each guy that is behind a starter we call a “starter in waiting.”  When he gets his opportunity due to the misfortune of somebody else, he’s got to come in there and step up.  We want him to play to the level – if not better – than the person that he’s replacing.  Right now I think we’ve got guys that are stepping in and continuing to play at a high level.

You’re an Ohio guy who played in Pittsburgh for a long time – how do you feel about December weather?

I like December weather.  I’m used to it, so it’s no big deal.

This team is two games up with three to go in the division race.  How do you avoid looking beyond this week?

It’s simple – you don’t.  Nobody looks beyond this week.  We’re playing the Pittsburgh Steelers and that’s our focus.  I couldn’t even tell you who we play after that.

You’re in the first year of a two-year deal with the Bengals.  Do you think you’re going to be playing beyond next year?

I don’t know.  We’ll see how my body feels.

How does it feel right now?

It’s alright right now.  I’m not having to do too much with it.  It’s getting to be where I’m getting opportunities to be out there a little more and I’m liking it.  My body is feeling fine.

Is this team what you expected it to be, or are the individuals in this locker room different than you anticipated?

Nothing was expected other than I thought that I was coming to a team that could contend for a championship and that’s what I’ve got.  That’s what we have right now and that’s what we are going to continue to strive to do.

Last year’s Bengals/Steelers game in Pittsburgh was one of the more physical ones that I recall watching.  Is that what we should anticipate this Sunday?

I think every game is going to be a physical game just because we’re in it.  So yeah, I would expect a physical game.

I think when you signed with Cincinnati, a lot of folks wondered if you would add “swagger” to the defense.  Do you think you have?

I don’t know.  You would have to ask them.

What does the word intimidating mean to you?

It means nothing because I’m not intimidated by anything.

Do you think you intimidate others?

You would have to ask them.

I find you a little intimidating from a reporter’s standpoint.  Do you like to give that image?

It’s not an image that I’m trying to give off.  I guess it’s just my natural body presence.

Do you think there’s a misconception about your image?

There’s a misconception about a lot of people’s images.  If you see a person on TV and all you get fed is a certain image than you’re going to believe it.  So for people who don’t know me and just know of James Harrison the football player – yeah they’ll believe it.  But for those who know me, understand me, people that I love and love me, they have a whole different image of me.

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Tuberville Looks To Add To Big Game Reputation

When Whit Babcock introduced Tommy Tuberville as Cincinnati’s new head coach at a quickly-arranged news conference last December, he brought up the time they spent together at Auburn and said that he was impressed with Tuberville’s leadership style, family-centered values, and how he treated people.

“I was also impressed with his knack for winning the big games,” said Babcock.

I thought that might be worth bringing up before the Bearcats host Louisville a week from Thursday in one of the biggest games in Nippert Stadium history.

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Tuberville has a 7-3 record in bowl games, went 7-3 vs. archrival Alabama during his years at Auburn, and has gone 6-3 in his career when facing teams ranked in the Top 5.

So what’s his secret?

“I was fortunate to grow up as an assistant coach in a lot of big games and rivalry games with coaches like Dennis Erickson, Jimmy Johnson, and R.C. Slocum and the one thing that I took from all of those guys was to let the players win the game,” Tuberville told me.  “Don’t try to outcoach the other team.  If you try to do too much and throw too much on the wall and players are confused, you always end up with problems.  So we’ll prepare them and get them ready to go, but it’s going to happen between the whistles and between the lines at Nippert Stadium.  Just get out of the way and let ‘em play.  There’s no secret to it.  Get ‘em ready to go and turn ‘em loose.”

Cincinnati is clearly playing its best football of the year going into the showdown against the 10-1 Cardinals.  After beating Houston on Saturday for their sixth straight win, the 9-2 Bearcats have climbed into the Top 25 for the first time this season.  That seemed hard to imagine in early October when the Bearcats walked off the field after a loss at USF with a 3-2 record.

“We were just trying to find out if we could score points, much less win football games because we were struggling on offense,” said Tuberville.  “About midseason we were flopping around just trying to find an identity and we started getting a little bit better and better and guys started to make plays.  We haven’t done anything different – our guys are just kind of absorbing everything that we’ve put in over the past year and it takes a while to do that.  I’m proud of all of the players.  The seniors have done a great job of keeping this team focused and the leadership has just been outstanding.” 

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No senior has played a more important role than quarterback Brendon Kay.  During the Bearcats’ six-game winning streak, Kay has averaged 330 passing yards and thrown 15 TD passes while completing 72% of his throws.

“It’s remarkable – 60% is good,” said Tuberville.  “You’ve got to give some credit to the receivers like Mekale McKay, Chris Moore, and the two little guys inside (Shaq Washington and Anthony McClung) catching everything that he throws.  But still, you’ve got to find the open man and get the ball there.  And people forget, he’s been about 70 to 80 percent healthy for the last few games because he’s been beat up.  I’m really proud of Brendon.  He came in and he was the back-up quarterback before Munchie got hurt and he struggled for a couple of games, but he’s just been gangbusters for the last few weeks.

“He’s the most accurate guy that I’ve been around, and I’ve been around some Heisman Trophy winners at Miami (Vinny Testaverde and Gino Torretta).  But none were as accurate as Brendon for such a long period of time.  He’s been on target for the last five or six weeks.  He’s throwing the deep ball, the short ball, the screen passes – all of those things are on target.” 

While the offense has made huge strides since the USF loss, the defense has been solid in every game this season but the week two loss at Illinois.  Cincinnati is ranked 5th in the nation in rushing defense, 9th in yards allowed, and tied for 9th in points allowed.

“We’re not overpowering,” said Tuberville.  “We don’t do anything fancy.  We’ve got two or three guys that are good senior leaders.  We’ve got a lot of first-time players, but those guys are 11 games into the season and they’ve gotten much better.  I think it’s the overall scheme of Art Kaufman and all of his coaches pulling the trigger and saying, ‘Listen.  Let’s do what we do and don’t do anything special and let ‘em play.’  It’s worked out pretty well for us.”

The Bearcats are one win from reaching 10 victories for the sixth time in the last seven seasons and still have a chance to win their fifth conference title in the last six years.  Additionally, if Cincinnati beats Louisville and UCF loses one of its final two games to either USF or SMU, the Bearcats could earn a trip to the Sugar Bowl.

If only Bearcats had not have dropped their conference opener at USF…

“We’ll take 9-and-2 after the start we had,” said Tuberville.  “You can always look back and say, ‘Man, what if?’  But you don’t want to do that.  You want to look at where you are today and what you have in front of you.”

What Tommy Tuberville has in front of him is his biggest game so far at Cincinnati.

And if you’re like me, it can’t get here soon enough.

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Zimmer Expresses Confidence Despite Mounting Injuries

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

Zimmer (376x440)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cincinnati Wrecks Ryan And Crushes Jets

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dalton vs Jets (440x293)

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

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

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

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

Marvin Jones leaping TD (304x440)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trust me. They did.

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More Weapons Mean More Wins For Bengals

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

AJ and Calvin jersey swap (440x435)

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

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

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

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

Cincinnati Bengals v Detroit Lions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can Dalton Lead Bengals To Super Bowl

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

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

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

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

Technically speaking that’s accurate, but really?

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

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

Not exactly a rip job.

Dalton vs. Bills (440x307)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Put me down as 100% convinced.

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Bengals Weather The Storm

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

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

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

Brady in rain (348x440)

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

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

Adam Jones INT in rain (440x273)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Big Willie Comes To Dalton’s Defense

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

Willie Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big #71 still has the quarterback’s back.

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Bengals Woes 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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