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Bengals Fall Out Of First Place With Shutout Loss To Colts

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

At least not yet.

Colts shutout Bengals (440x330)

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

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

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

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

Have we reached a crisis?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Does Adam Jones Do It?

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

“No,” he replied.

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

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

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Cincinnati Bengals

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

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

“Yes I did,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2011: 63-yard return at Seattle.

2012: 81-yard TD return vs. Cleveland.

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

2014: 45-yard return at Baltimore.

How does Jones do it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Changing Prime Time Perception Will Have To Wait

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

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

W2ST7052.JPG

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

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

Now they have to prove it.

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

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

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

But does a legitimate contender lose by 26 points?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**********

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

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

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

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

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

**********

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

Gresham drop (440x325)

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

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

**********

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

Tate vs Pats (440x297)

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

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

**********

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The Category Is Great Protection For $1000

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

Take it away Alex Trebek.

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

“What is sack Andy Dalton.”

Correct!

Andy Dalton, Mohamed Sanu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bengals Put On Tackling Clinic In Grounding Falcons

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

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

Bengals tackle Falcons (440x343)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As in the site of Super Bowl XLIX.

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Holton Is Ready For Chance To Fly

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

Johnny Holton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It sounds like the kid that cooked wings can fly.

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Dalton Checks Winning In Baltimore Off List

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

Not anymore.

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

Dalton at Baltimore 2014 (440x293)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Green think Ravens fans are sick of him?

“I hope so,” he said with a laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Burfict Returns To Arizona As One Of NFL’s Best

Vontaze Burfict left Arizona State in a cloud of controversy after a junior season that included too many personal fouls, a benching in his final college game, and a disastrous showing at the NFL Combine that contributed to him going undrafted.

He returns to Phoenix this weekend as one of the best linebackers in the NFL.

“Going back to Arizona is exciting, but that’s not on my mind,” Burfict told me. “This will be the game where the ‘ones’ and ‘twos’ will play a little bit more, so I’m going in locked-in like it’s a regular week. I’m not worried about a homecoming or anything like that – it’s a business trip for me.”

And business is good for the NFL’s leading tackler last season.

Burfict leads defense (440x284)

Despite being the Bengals youngest starter on defense, the 23-year-old Burfict has emerged as the team’s emotional leader on that side of the ball.

“He’s intense and everybody feeds off of his energy,” said defensive end Robert Geathers. “He’s a football-smart guy and when you’re prepared like that and have his energy, it doesn’t matter how old you are.”

“If you don’t want to play with a guy like that next to you, I don’t know what to tell you,” said safety Reggie Nelson. “I love playing next to him.”

“He’s as confident as any player I’ve ever seen at any level, and that’s what really impresses me,” said linebacker Jayson DiManche. “You’ll never know if and when he makes a mistake out there because he’s always going so fast and playing so hard. His attitude and effort level are off the charts. That’s something as a young linebacker that you try to emulate. It’s crazy because Vontaze is actually younger than me.”

Burfict’s intensity level extends to the practice field where he could often be seen jawing with offensive players during training camp as it were the Super Bowl instead of a routine drill.

“You have to have fun,” said Burfict. “In training camp you’re with the guys almost 40 days straight and it gets old around day five. So you want to make it competitive and have fun with it and talk crap. When I talk to Andy, Gio, BenJarvus – it spices things up. You don’t think about the reps, you just think about competing and trying to win that rep. I feel like bringing a bit of an edge and talking a little trash makes us play better and faster.”

“All of the great ones pretty much have that personality,” said cornerback Darqueze Dennard. “Lawrence Taylor…Ray Lewis…you see the passion in all of that barking and hollering and you see that in Vontaze. I love it and I think the rest of the guys appreciate that. He motivates guys and gets them going. When you see a player who is running around having fun and screaming and hollering after he makes plays, it makes you want to go out there and have fun with him.”

Burfict forces fumble (440x314)

Burfict played in his first Pro Bowl last year and intercepted an Andrew Luck pass in his team’s win. His guests in Hawaii included fellow linebacker Rey Maualuga and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.

“I wouldn’t be able to make plays without Rey,” said Burfict. “He helped me learn the playbook and now it’s my turn to try to pass it on to other guys.”

“When I heard that he made the Pro Bowl, I almost broke down crying,” said Guenther. “The first time that he walked into my meeting room I said, ‘Just do everything that I ask you to do and be where you need to be.’ He did everything to the utmost. To make the Pro Bowl in his second year after everything that kid’s gone through and to be out there in Hawaii to celebrate with him was such an honor. It’s something that I will always remember.”

Vontaze is entering the final year of his rookie contract and while the Bengals will control his rights next season as a restricted free agent, the team would undoubtedly prefer to sign Burfict to an extension before reaching that point.

Now that the Andy Dalton megadeal is done, does Burfict think he’s next?

“I don’t know,” said Burfict. “It’s not on my mind. If it does come it’s God-blessed. If I just work hard it will possibly come.”

(Shortly after this story was published, the news broke that the Bengals have reached an agreement on a contract extension with Burfict.  It is reportedly a 4 year/$20 million deal that will pay him $7.6 million this year).

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

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Tyson Fighting For Starting Spot

Bearcats safety Mike Tyson packs a punch…tattoos the wide receiver…will look to take a bite out of the opponent’s passing attack.

When you share a name with the controversial former boxing champ, the one-liners are inevitable.

“Yeah, everybody jokes about his name,” said linebacker Nick Temple.

“I always hear, ‘Are you related to Mike Tyson? Or is your name really Mike Tyson?’” the sophomore safety told me. “Some people think that I’m lying, but I’m telling the truth. It was my dad’s name and it runs in the family.”

Mike Tyson INT

Cincinnati’s Mike Tyson is from the Tidewater region of Virginia and got into nine games for the Bearcats as a true freshman last season, finishing with 18 tackles and two interceptions. This year he’s been lining up with the first team defense in training camp as the safety opposite of Zach Edwards.

“He’s so much more comfortable than he was last year,” said head coach Tommy Tuberville. “Last year he didn’t have a clue about what he was doing but we had to play him. I think playing last year helped him some. He’s grown up, he’s a lot more comfortable with what we’re doing in zone and man, and he and Zach work well together. It’s going to give us a pretty good one-two punch for the next few years if we can just keep them healthy.”

“Last year I just played on athletic ability,” said Tyson. “I knew some things, but not a lot. My understanding of the defense is much better now.”

“I think he’s really progressed,” said defensive coordinator Hank Hughes. “When you’re a freshman, everything is brand new but he’s doing a good job of catching on to the scheme and playing aggressive and physical.”

The most memorable moment of Tyson’s freshman year was a 95-yard interception return against UConn. Unfortunately, as he neared the goal line, the Cincinnati safety had the ball punched out of his hands and it rolled through the back of the end zone for a touchback (click here to hear the radio call).

“To be honest, I was really tired,” said Tyson. “I was holding the ball wrong and a dude came up from behind and stripped it. I think about that play all the time – every time I play football I think about it. I look at it as a gift and something that I have to build on.”

Tyson says it was a gift because he knows that he’ll never make the same mistake again.

“You got that right,” he said with a laugh.

While UC’s coaching staff is obviously looking for Tyson to intercept and deflect passes, he’ll also be counted on to help stop the run. At 6’2” and a chiseled 200 pounds, the sophomore has the potential to add an intimidation factor to the secondary.

“We could put him at linebacker today and he would play pretty solid for us,” said Tuberville. “He doesn’t shy away from contact – he likes it.”

After all, you would expect a football player named Mike Tyson to hit hard right?

“It’s not a bad name at all for a safety,” said Temple. “It’s a good name actually.”

So what does UC’s Mike Tyson think of sharing a name with the former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world?

“I’m more of a Muhammed Ali fan,” he said with a grin.

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

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Kiel Hopes Long Wait Is Almost Over

When the Bearcats take the field on September 12th vs. Toledo, it will have been 2 years, 9 months, and 25 days since quarterback Gunner Kiel played in a football game that counts – the final game of his decorated high school career at Columbus East HS in Indiana.

“It feels like a decade,” said Kiel. “It’s awful – it’s a terrible, terrible feeling not to be able to play for three years. I’m really excited to get back under center and be able to throw the ball, run the ball, and do whatever it takes to win a football game again.”

Kiel at Higher Ground

When UC opened training camp on Monday, Kiel took the first team reps at quarterback and the 21-year-old sophomore is considered the frontrunner to be Cincinnati’s starter – although Jarred Evans and Munchie Legaux will be given the opportunity to win the job over the next few weeks.

“We’re going to have some competition,” said head coach Tommy Tuberville. “It’s not a given on who is going to be our quarterback.”

“I know that Coach Tuberville is going to name a starter whenever he is ready to, so it’s up to me to compete, work my tail off, do the right things, and be a good teammate,” Gunner told me.

Kiel says that his confidence skyrocketed after the spring game when he completed 17-of-22 passes for 300 yards despite sitting out the second half. He got another confidence boost in June when he was among 40 college quarterbacks invited to be a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy along with the likes of Florida State’s Jameis Winston, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, and UCLA’s Brett Hundley.

“To be invited to the Manning Camp is such an honor and a true blessing.” said Kiel. “To be with the best quarterbacks in the country and a hero of mine (Peyton Manning) was unbelievable. It’s definitely something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

I asked Gunner if he learned anything in particular from the Broncos’ 13-time Pro Bowl quarterback.

“Footwork,” he answered. “For a quarterback, it all begins with your feet – the way you deliver the ball, the accuracy, how fast you can get the ball out. I think that’s something that I definitely have to work on. My footwork is a little slow, but I know that. (Quarterbacks) Coach Hinshaw and I are going to work on that and it’s something that Peyton definitely preaches.”

“The thing about Gunner is that he’s got to set his feet some, and he’s got to get his body in position,” said Coach Tuberville. “Playing quarterback in this type of offense is as much about footwork as it is about the arm. But he’s starting to make more good decisions, he’s more consistent with his decisions on who to throw the ball to, and I think the receivers that we have are really going to help him because he’s going to have a lot of targets.”

One of the biggest things that stood out on the first day of camp was how deep the Bearcats are at wide receiver. In addition to having four productive receivers back from last year’s team in Shaq Washington (team-leading 78 receptions), Chris Moore (45 rec, 9 TD), Max Morrison (29 catches, 3 TD), and Mekale McKay (16 rec, 7 TD), UC adds two receivers with NFL size and speed in Johnny Holton and Casey Gladney, gets Alex Chisum back from an ankle injury, and will use Ralph David Abernathy IV more frequently as a slot receiver.

“It’s amazing – we have eight guys that can fill a spot,” said Kiel. “They’re fast, they run crisp routes, they go out and get the ball, and you can throw it anywhere.”

“We’re going to have some weapons,” said Tuberville. “Now we just have to be able to get it to ‘em.”

After redshirting for a year at Notre Dame and sitting out last season after transferring to Cincinnati, Kiel hopes that his long wait is almost over.

“I haven’t played a game, so I have to come out and prove myself,” he said.

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

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