Healthy Eifert Could Have Huge Impact For Bengals

During training camp I’m often asked, “What player has been the most impressive?”

In each of the last two years, my answer has been Tyler Eifert.

But don’t take my word for how good the tight end looks at practice. Just listen to former Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

The 2007 Pro Bowler served as a coaching intern during the Bengals’ June minicamp and wore a GoPro camera on his chest during a workout for Bengals.com. Houshmandzadeh could be heard gushing about Eifert as he watched him run pass patterns.

“Every time I see that boy run a route I can’t believe it,” said Houshmandzadeh. “I can’t believe that man! He’s too big to be moving like that. That’s crazy.”

On Thursday, I asked Eifert if he had seen the Houshmandzadeh video.

“I have a family friend that sent it to me,” Tyler said. “When he first got here I told him that I want to be coached. Any advice you have for me about route running let me know. He helped a lot.”

Of all of the injured players that the Bengals look forward to having back this season, Eifert could have the biggest impact. Consider that the former first round draft pick was only on the field for eight snaps before suffering an elbow injury in the season opener last year and had 3 catches for 37 yards.

“It was a lot of fun – I remember that,” said Eifert. “The most catches I ever had in a game was five my rookie year, so I was like, ‘This could be a lot of fun this year.’ Then I didn’t make it through the first quarter. Hopefully I can change that this year.

“You really don’t realize how much you miss being out there until you can’t be out there. It was hard and I’m excited to contribute this year and help us win games.”

Tyler Eifert

Those eight snaps in Baltimore provided a glimpse of the wide variety of ways that offensive coordinator Hue Jackson can use the 6’6”, 250 pound tight end. Eifert lined up as a traditional tight end four times, a slot receiver three times, and an H-back once. The Bengals averaged 7.5 yards per play with Eifert on the field and he caught all three passes that were thrown to him. Additionally, Andy Dalton was 8-for-10 for 78 yards before Eifert’s injury.

“It’s good to have him back and good to see that he’s feeling better,” said Dalton. “He’s a big matchup mismatch for us. The more that he can do, the better we’ll be.”

In addition to dislocating his elbow at Baltimore, Eifert tore labrum in his shoulder during OTAs before last season. Both injuries eventually required surgery, but the former Notre Dame standout says they are no longer an issue.

“I feel good,” he said. “I feel healthy, strong, in-shape, and ready to go.

“I saw (4-time Pro Bowler) Jake Long down in Pensacola and every season he’s had a surgery. I’m just going to go out and play hard and not worry about any of the other stuff.”

Although Eifert is only in his third NFL season, he is the Bengals only tight end with regular season experience (not including H-back Ryan Hewitt) following the departure of free agent Jermaine Gresham.

“It is a little bit weird when you put it that way, but I’m confident in what I can do on the field and being a leader in this locker room,” said Eifert.

“I’ve seen him emerge this spring that way,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “That’s a good thing. Another guy who missed all of last year basically and had to sit and watch so it’s been great to see him break out of that and progress the way we want him to.”

If you make it to one of the Bengals 14 open-to-the-public practices during training camp, I suspect that Eifert will stand out as one of the most impressive players.

And if he stays healthy, the 24-year-old could be poised for a breakout season.

“There’s only so much that you can control and getting hurt isn’t one of them,” said Eifert. “And how many balls you get thrown to you isn’t one of them either. It’s just, go out and work hard, understand the offense, and do your job.”

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Hunt Hopeful For Rapid Return

Remember the “Margus Hunt Show” in the Bengals’ final preseason game last year?

Margus Hunt vs Colts

The 6’8,” 290-pound defensive end terrorized the Indianapolis Colts with three sacks and three additional QB hurries in a 35-7 win.

Unfortunately, one week later, Hunt suffered the first of several injuries that limited his impact as he finished with one sack in 12 regular season games. He added a shared sack in the playoff loss at Indianapolis.

“I was called injury prone a lot, but it wasn’t anything that had to do with me being weak,” said Hunt. “In the first game at Baltimore, Steve Smith Sr. knocked the wind out of me and bruised my ribs. That lingered for half of the season. Then I got hit on the side of the knee in the Tennessee game. It was just all of these little things. An ankle injury kept me out for four weeks – it was just stuff like that. But this is football. Everybody gets hurt.”

The ribs, knee, and ankle have healed. Now the 28-year-old is trying to rebound from a lower back injury suffered in the offseason.

“With an injury like that you have to be really careful, so we were really cautious about the rehab process and the strength process,” said Hunt. “It just takes time to really get it to a point where we can start adding more stuff to it.

“It’s about 80% now if not even more. I’ve been working out really good for a while now, but that is kind of different from what happens on the field.”

Hunt will open training camp on the Active/Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list. He can be activated to practice as soon as he is cleared medically.

“I feel positive and confident that I will be back during camp and will be able to play in a preseason game at least – if not two – we’ll see how it goes,” he said. “It’s just a matter of the coaches, the training room staff, and (strength coach) Chip Morton seeing where I’m at with football conditioning.

“We’re still on the rough timeline for where we thought we would be. I was expecting and hoping to be back sooner and being healthy to go right now. But I will be taking part in the conditioning and testing and trying to see where I’m at with that and we’ll go from there.”

The former second round draft pick faces stiff competition for a roster spot in the crowded defensive line room.

“It will be a very competitive camp,” Hunt said. “I have this little setback, but I just feel that if I go out there and do what I’ve been doing and what I can do, I definitely feel positive about still being part of this team.

“We’re at the point right now where I can’t take part in team activities yet, but it’s a day-to-day basis. As of right now I’m still planning on playing in the regular season.”

Hunt would not commit to a specific timetable for when he expects to practice, but the former SMU standout is clearly optimistic.

“I have a good feeling about it being sooner rather than later,” he said. “There is no pain whatsoever right now.”

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RIP Van Miller

If you live in Los Angeles, you have Vin Scully. If you live here in Cincinnati, you have Marty Brennaman. And if you grew up when I did in Western New York, you had Van Miller.

Van Miller with dates

The legendary Voice of the Buffalo Bills died last Friday at the age of 87 and while I only talked to him a few times, he had a profound impact on my life and career.

When I was a kid, Van Miller was everywhere. He not only called Bills’ games on the radio, but he was also the voice of the NBA’s Buffalo Braves (now the Los Angeles Clippers), the primary sports anchor on the local CBS-TV affiliate, and the host of a televised high school quiz show called “It’s Academic.”

(I actually joined my high school quiz bowl team in hopes of meeting him, but we didn’t advance to the TV round. There apparently weren’t enough sports questions for me to make a significant contribution.)

Van was outstanding at all of those jobs, but you could tell that he loved doing play-by-play of live sporting events the most. It’s one of the reasons why that became my dream job for as long as I can remember.

Like any great play-by-play announcer, Van provided a detailed and accurate description of the game, but what made him one of the all-time greats was his enthusiasm and flair for the dramatic.

Check out his call of “The Comeback” – Buffalo’s record-setting rally from a 32-point deficit to beat Houston 41-38 in the 1992 NFL playoffs.

I get chills every time I hear him say, “It is bedlam! It is pandemonium! It is fandemonium! It is…(slight pause) fantastic.

NFL Films loved using Van Miller’s calls. Here’s what the late Steve Sabol, former president of NFL Films, once told the Buffalo News:

“We have an expression called ‘deliver the moment,” Sabol said. “The ability to rise to the occasion when something great is happening, to deliver the moment that may be engraved in fans’ memories and their ears and eyes forever. You could see a great Bills play and you knew you were going to get something from Van that would match and complement and enhance whatever we were going to do with the music and the picture and the story. Van was like having an Academy Award-winning supporting actor always ready to deliver that moment when you needed it.”

Van was also hysterically funny without being snarky. His humor wasn’t mean-spirited – it was more of a gentle nudge than a shot to the ribs.

I have never consciously attempted to sound like another announcer, but when I listen to old clips of Van, I realize that my style and many of the expressions that I use were heavily influenced by listening to him.

During Buffalo’s run of four straight trips to the Super Bowl, I covered many of their games for WTVH-TV in Syracuse. I introduced myself to Van in the press box and got a big kick out of the full-length fur coat that he wore in the booth when the weather turned nasty in Buffalo (usually about mid-September). But I never had a long conversation with him during those seasons.

Van Miller fur coat

Two years ago when the Bengals played in Buffalo, I finally had the opportunity to tell Van how much I admired his work and that he was one of the biggest reasons why I pursued a career in sports broadcasting. He was delighted to hear that I grew up near Jamestown – not far from his childhood home in Dunkirk. When I asked if he would pose for a picture, Van suggested that we take two – one serious photo and one where we pretend to fight.

Van Miller

The Bengals return to Buffalo this year on October 18th. I’m saddened that Van won’t be there. If not for him, I might not be there either.

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A Room With A View

Aside from the hard working folks at Turner Construction, few people have had a better view of the renovation of Nippert Stadium than Bearcats head coach Tommy Tuberville.

Nippert pic Tubs office

His seventh floor office at the Lindner Center offers a perfect vantage point to observe the $86 million project, highlighted by the four-story addition of luxury boxes, suites, and premium seating that Tuberville can see as he looks across the playing field.

“The stadium is totally transformed,” said Tuberville. “Everybody thinks that we’re just putting in a few seats for suites and a press box, but we’re pretty much re-doing the entire stadium. Our Board of Trustees and President Ono decided to put in a lot of restrooms, concession stands, and re-do the seats in the stadium and I think it’s really going to be nice. I’ve been excited watching this thing go up.”

He’ll be even more excited when his Bearcats move back in.

After playing last season at Paul Brown Stadium – AKA “Nippert on the Banks” – UC opens the 2015 season at home against Alabama A & M on September 5th at 7 pm. Tuberville expects the renovated stadium to provide a huge home field advantage.

“It’s very closed-in and the noise is going to be deafening,” he told me. “With the height of the new structure and the buildings on each end of the stadium, I think it’s going to be really difficult for the visiting team to be able to hear and that’s what it’s all about.”

Tuberville takes field (440x316)

After going 9-4 in each of Tuberville’s two seasons at Cincinnati and sharing the American Athletic Conference title last year, the Bearcats figure to contend for the league crown again in 2015.

On offense, Gunner Kiel returns for his second year as starting quarterback, along with his top seven receiving targets and three of the Bearcats’ top four running backs.

“It’s a very hard offense to stop,” said Tuberville. “I talked to Virginia Tech’s defensive coordinator Bud Foster – who is probably one of the better ones in the country – after our bowl game and he said he was pulling his hair out trying to find ways to stop the run, stop the short passing game, and stop the deep ball threats that we have. We have a lot of options.”

Defensively, Cincinnati hopes to continue the progress that it made last season. After allowing an average of 40.8 points in their first five games last year, the Bearcats only surrendered an average of 18.8 in their final eight games.

“We’re starting to get better personnel, more depth, more speed, and better athletic ability on defense,” Tuberville told me. “Any time that you follow an offensive head coach which I have done at most places – Terry Bowden at Auburn, Mike Leach at Texas Tech, and Butch Jones here – those guys always lean toward the offensive side of the ball in recruiting. It never fails. So we’re having to put together the defense. We’ve taken some junior college players and have been able to hold our heads above water, but now we starting to move up some of the high school players that we’ve signed as they’ve started to get experience. We’re working on our depth and we’re also working on the speed of our defense. We’re not there yet. Is this going to be the year? I think we’re going to be better, but it’s a growing process knowing that we pretty much had to start from scratch in recruiting.”

Recruiting is Tuberville’s number one off-season priority, but he has had the opportunity for some rest and relaxation since the end of spring practice including a round of golf with the hottest player in the world.

“I had an opportunity to play golf with Jordan Spieth just a couple of weeks after he won The Masters,” said Tuberville. “What a great kid. He just turned 21-years-old and he’s not an overbearing personality or player, but he hits the ball down the middle. He knows where his ball is going – that’s a little bit different from you or me most of the time. That was a lot of fun.”

Tuberville also attended his first hockey game – Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals between Tampa Bay and Chicago.

“To be there in person and watch the contact – I’ve been on the sidelines for many years in football and my gosh, those hockey guys have tremendous collisions into the wall and each other,” said Tuberville. “They’re very quick and athletic and I really enjoyed it. It made me a hockey fan.”

I’m sure that the United Center in Chicago must have been rocking that night for playoff hockey.

I suspect we’ll be saying the same thing about Nippert Stadium when the Bearcats come home in early September.

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Dennard Hopes That Wait Is Over

Last year while fellow 2014 first round draft picks Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, and C.J. Mosley were playing starring roles as rookies, Darqueze Dennard mostly watched and waited.

Darqueze Dennard

The 24th pick in last year’s draft made a significant contribution for Cincinnati on special teams, but only played 77 snaps on defense. For the sake of comparison, Mosley played 1,243 snaps on defense for the Ravens.

“I continually tried to tell myself, ‘Patience is a virtue. Patience is a virtue.’” said Dennard. “Sometimes I want things to happen how I want it and when I want it, but it doesn’t always happen like that.”

“He wanted to play and was frustrated last year,” said defensive backs coach Vance Joseph. “But watching Terence Newman, Leon Hall, and Adam Jones is going to help him be a better player.”

“We didn’t have to throw Darqueze in the fire,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “We stayed fairly healthy at the spot and didn’t have to do that.”

And as Coach Lewis is fond of saying: “That’s a good thing.”

Rookie cornerbacks rarely excel. It’s interesting to note that the last 16 Associated Press NFL Defensive Rookies of the Year have been defensive lineman or linebackers. The last cornerback to win the award was Charles Woodson in 1998.

“I think if cornerbacks or quarterbacks play too early and have negative experiences – that can really ruin a player,” said Joseph. “But if he watches for a while, learns how to play, and plays well when he gets a chance to play, it carries confidence throughout his career.

“I am in a great situation,” said Dennard. “I didn’t get thrown into the fire too early. You see a lot of first round corners thrown in too early and they fade out of the league. You don’t hear too much about them anymore.”

Instead, Dennard learned from a trio of cornerbacks that ended last season with a combined 28 years of NFL experience.

“I knew a lot about the college game, but the NFL is completely different,” Darqueze told me. “Having guys like Terence, Leon, and Adam helping me out by coaching me, showing me how to watch film, and staying on top of me about playing with good technique helped me out a lot. I really appreciate those guys looking out for me last year.

“The older guys did a great job of telling me that things happen for a reason. Just continue to work on your craft. This is a time where you can go back to the lab and get better. When you get an opportunity, you can make the best of it.”

“He got a chance to learn behind some great pros and we’re reaping the benefit now,” said Lewis.

One of the biggest lessons that the former Michigan State star learned from the veterans was how to take care of his body.

“I’ve been taking precautions to make me better,” said Dennard. “I’m not eating bad food, stretching daily, doing yoga, and things like that.”

“Last year he had a college football player’s body and this year he has an NFL body,” said Joseph. “His body fat is down and that’s a big deal because now he’s running better and he can run fast for a long time now.”

After the 36-year-old Newman signed a one-year deal as a free agent with Minnesota, there is an opportunity for more playing time this season for Dennard and 2012 first round pick Dre Kirkpatrick.

“They’ve been taught to do it the right way, they’ve been taught to earn it, and they’ve got a solid foundation when they get out there,” said Lewis.

“The competition is high, everybody is making each other better, and that’s going to make the team better,” said Dennard.

The 23-year-old from Dry Branch, Georgia made a positive impression during the Bengals mandatory minicamp in June.

“He had a good spring,” said Joseph. “The last two weeks he came on strong. He had four or five interceptions, he’s playing nickel and outside corner, so I’m excited about Darqueze for training camp.”

Biding his time as a rookie wasn’t easy, but Dennard can see the benefits now.

“I had four first round picks (including Kirkpatrick) in front of me that have all been in the same shoes that I’m in,” Darqueze told me. “Having those guys tutoring me is going to help me out a lot.

“And not playing defense meant less stress on my body. I was playing special teams, but it wasn’t like I was playing 80 snaps a game, so hopefully it will add a year on to my career.”

“It’s OK that he hasn’t played yet, because he’s going to be a great player in the future,” said Joseph.

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

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A Work Of Art…By Sam

I am not a big sports memorabilia collector, but last month at the annual Marvin Lewis Community Fund Golf Classic, there was an auction item that I was thrilled to purchase.

Wyche and Boomer

Former Bengals coach Sam Wyche has created 150 unique works of art – at least for avid football fans. They are diagrams of plays meticulously drawn with a white marker on a black canvas. Each drawing is approximately 16 by 20 inches. Another one will be up for auction at the Marvin Lewis Football 101 event on Wednesday, October 21st.

“They are plays that were used in Super Bowls that I was a part of,” said Wyche. “Super Bowl VII when I was a player with the Washington Redskins – that was the year that Miami had the perfect record so that tells you how we did in that game. Super Bowl XVI when I was the director of the passing game under Bill Walsh with the San Francisco 49ers. We won that game with Joe Montana against the Bengals. And of course, Super Bowl XXIII when I was the head coach of the Bengals.”

Wyche play (640x480)

I was able to purchase #90 in the series. It’s labeled the “best basic run in 1988.”

“That play helped take us to Super Bowl XXIII down in Miami,” Wyche told me. “We had a zone-blocking running game under Jim McNally – probably the best offensive line coach of his day and maybe ever. He was certainly as good as any of them. We probably had the best offensive line in football that year if you think about it. Anthony Munoz, Bruce Kozerski at center, Max Montoya and Bruce Reimers at guard, Joe Walter at tackle, and some guys that would come in that were just as good. So we would take good splits, take a little drop step, and then we would – as Jim McNally used to say – cover up the guy in front of you. If he wants to go to his left, take him farther to his left than he wants to go. If he wants to go the other way, take him farther that way. But cover him up and let James Brooks go downhill. He would line-up deep in the backfield in an offset ‘I’ and come downhill. He could hit the hole off tackle, off guard, cut back over the other guard, or cut back all the way over the other tackle. After James got tired we gave it to Ickey, and if he got tired we gave it to Stanley Wilson or Stanford Jennings. We had fresh guys that could run that, and all they did was run downhill and look for the crack in the offense. We didn’t try to push them back; we tried to push them where they wanted to go which created seams. Then we let the running back pick the seam. We were the number one offensive in the National Football League several times during the eight years that I was there and it was mainly because we had a great offensive line, terrific running backs, and deep threats running down the field.”

In the 20-16 loss to the 49ers, the Bengals were held to 106 rushing yards after averaging 155 per game during the regular season. Wyche thinks they would have fared better if Wilson had not succumbed to a cocaine relapse the night before the game.

“I think Stanley Wilson would have been a difference maker because the field had not been watered properly and it was coming up in 18-inch chunks because they re-sodded the whole field,” said Wyche. “For our big backs that took away their quickness, their speed, and their decision making somewhat. Stanley was more of a Barry Sanders-type runner – feet real close to the ground, wide stance, dance on a dime. He could have made them miss that day I think.”

Kicker Jim Breech didn’t miss that day, as he drilled three field goals including a 40-yarder that gave Cincinnati a 16-13 lead with 3:20 remaining.

“I still remember Cris Collinsworth coming over and poking me with that bony old elbow that he got at the University of Florida and saying, ‘Sam, I think we left too much time for number 16.’ That was the way he worded it. Number 16, of course, was Joe Montana.”

Montana led San Francisco on an 11-play, 92-yard drive that ended with a game-winning touchdown pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds left.

Wyche says he regrets that he was not able to hand the Vince Lombardi Trophy to the man that signed him as a player and hired him as a head coach.

Paul Brown black and white

“Paul Brown had been – by poll – a national champion high school coach, won a national championship at Ohio State, and his Cleveland Browns teams were World Champions back in those days when they didn’t have a Super Bowl,” said Wyche. “The only trophy he didn’t have was the Super Bowl trophy. That meant something to the players. Obviously they wanted to win it for themselves too, but it meant something to them to try to get that trophy for Paul Brown. It certainly meant something to me having played for him. I was a free agent when he, Mike, and Pete Brown gave me the opportunity to come to camp in 1968. I really wanted that trophy to be one repayment for a favor that led to a career for me. We fell 34 seconds short.”

Cincinnati returned to the playoffs two years later under Wyche and beat Houston in the Wild Card round 41-14. The Bengals have not won a playoff game since.

Much of the criticism for their last four playoff losses has been heaped on Andy Dalton, but Wyche remains supportive of the Bengals quarterback.

Dalton vs Jets (440x293)

“It’s an 11-man operation every time the ball is snapped,” said Wyche. “The guy that gets most of the credit or blame is the quarterback because he’s got the ball in his hands on virtually every snap. He’s got the close-up shots on him, but viewers don’t see the routes that are run, the coverages that are good, the pressure from the defensive line – a lot of things happen to the quarterback. After watching Andy Dalton, I see a good quarterback.

“Quarterbacks have to be two things – they have to be accurate and they have to be smart. When I say smart – they have to be poised, they have to be able to get you out of trouble with an audible, and they’ve got to be able to go the right receiver at the right time. A lot of that last point – going to the right receiver at the right time – is experience. Andy is now an experienced guy. I think he’s definitely accurate and I think he’s definitely a smart guy. From the little bit that I’ve talked to him, I have no doubt that he can handle the pressure. The comments always circle around the quarterback – that’s just the way it is – but I think he’s good enough not only to take them to a playoff win but well into the playoffs. Then, of course, it’s a single elimination tournament and you’re playing the best teams that year so you may or may not win.”

Cincinnati did not quite win Super Bowl XXIII, but under their innovative head coach, the Bengals pioneered the use of the no-huddle offense, led the league in scoring, and even introduced the “Ickey Shuffle.”

For Bengals fans, it was a work of art.

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Special Teams Will Be Key For Keo

When the Bengals signed free agent safety Shiloh Keo five days after last year’s playoff loss in Indianapolis, the news didn’t get big headlines.

Shiloh Keo

After all, the four-year veteran didn’t play last season after being released by Houston following the fourth week of the season.

“We brought him in for a workout about mid-season and he wasn’t healthy (calf injury) so we didn’t sign him,” said defensive backs coach Vance Joseph. “But we knew that if he was healthy enough to play in the spring that we would sign him and he’s been a plus for us.

“He’s a reliable guy. He’s very smart and very tough. As a safety, he has all the qualities you want. He tackles well, he’s got ball skills, he plays hard, and he loves to play. He’s a great addition.”

Joseph was on the Texans’ coaching staff two years ago when Keo started 11 games at safety. But the former fifth-round draft pick in 2011 made his biggest impact on special teams. Shiloh was named Houston’s special teams captain midway through his second NFL season.

“We played against him several times when he was in Houston, and I knew that he was a good special teams player,” said special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons. “He was a tough, hard-nosed guy that was in the middle of their group. He was an impact player for them and it was exciting to see when we picked him up. He hasn’t disappointed.

“He’s behind right now in the terminology and knowing exactly what we want to do, but it’s just a matter of him learning it. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to pick it up quickly.”

“Whenever you’re not a starting guy you have to make it on special teams – especially if you’re a veteran,” said Keo. “I had a lot of experience on special teams in Houston and did a good job there. I just want to carry-over what I did there and take it one step further.”

“That’s where he’s made his name,” said Joseph. “If he can be a good special teams player for us and be a reliable backup at safety, it’s a plus having him on the team.”

With Reggie Nelson and George Iloka entrenched as Cincinnati’s starting safeties, and Shawn Williams expected to be the top sub, Keo will go to training camp in a likely battle for the final safety spot with sixth-round draft pick Derron Smith and college free agents Floyd Raven Sr. and Erick Dargan.

“That fourth safety spot is critical because of the special teams value,” said Joseph. “You want the guy who is the best of both worlds.”

“He has to be a dominant special teams player,” said Simmons. “That’s where a Pro Bowl-type special teams player comes from – that fourth safety spot, or fourth receiver, or fourth corner. That slot is where those guys come from.”

Keo obviously has a fan in Vance Joseph and the feeling is mutual.

“He’s hands-down the best coach I’ve ever had,” said Keo. “He’s so detail-oriented and makes sure that everybody is ready to play. He gives the same coaching to everybody – whether it’s a first year undrafted guy or a 10-year vet. He expects everybody to play at a high level and I definitely think that he brings the best out of everybody. I’m really fortunate and blessed to be here with the Bengals because I really like Vance Joseph and like I said, he’s the best coach I’ve ever had.”

But it will obviously be important for Keo to impress his new special teams coach as well.

“He’s at a point in his career where it’s kind of ‘go time’ for him,” said Simmons. “It’s a spot where guys either propel themselves forward or fall off a cliff. He’s smart enough and has been around long enough to see that. He’s a good kid and a tough guy and those are the kind of guys we want. I like guys that I know where they’re going to be and I can count on them.”

“I think this is a great fit for me,” said Keo. “I think they expect me to come in here and help the team out in any way that I can – whether it be defense or special teams – and that’s what I want to do.”

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Leviticus Has Unusual Name And Position

Leviticus Payne is 5’10”, 187 pounds, but he doesn’t act like it.

“I try to play like I’m 6’5”, 230,” said Payne with a laugh. “I really try to man.”

Although he isn’t big, Payne plays a huge role on the Bearcats defense.

As college teams increasingly go to spread offenses, defenses have had to counter by having more players on the field with coverage ability. On the Bearcats roster, Payne is a cornerback. But on the depth chart, he is listed as the starting strongside linebacker.

“He’s a little bit of both,” said head coach Tommy Tuberville. “He’s playing a linebacker position, but everybody plays four or five wide receivers now so you always play nickel. That’s pretty much our base defense now. We call it a 4-2-5 instead of a 4-3-4.”

“I think you have to have five defensive backs on the field,” said co-defensive coordinator Steve Clinkscale. “Most teams’ normal formations have a three wide receiver look and you need to match- up. I think we can still play our coverages and fit the run with this type of defense.”

“When they gave me the opportunity, I tried to take advantage of it and this is where I am right now,” said Payne. “I’m truly blessed to be honest with you. I love that nickel spot. I love it.”

“I thought it worked pretty well for us,” said Tuberville. “We kind of fell into it. He has a lot of experience now and I expect him to have a good year.”

Payne’s position requires a unique skill set: Quick enough to cover receivers, but physical enough to defend the run.

“He’s a great man-to-man cover guy,” said Clinkscale. “He matches up well with the slot receivers and either though he’s small in size; he’s very physical and aggressive. He’s a great player for us and has helped us really build this defense around him.”

“If the other team comes with two backs and a tight end in the game, he has to line up with the big boys,” said Tuberville. “He handles it well. He has good athletic ability and can make big guys that are trying to block him miss.”

“As a kid, I played middle linebacker and fullback if you can believe that,” said Payne. “So I’m used to contact and I really enjoy it to be honest with you.”

Payne finished fourth on the team in tackles last year with one interception and a pair of sacks, including a critical fourth quarter sack of Miami’s Andrew Hendrix in the annual Battle for the Victory Bell.

Leviticus will be expected to make big plays as a senior at a position that is as unique as his first name.

“I’m a hybrid,” he told me. “Just a hard-nosed little guy with some quickness.”

“You always want to coach guys that reflect what you believe,” said Clinkscale. “I’m an aggressive person. That’s the way I was raised in Youngstown, Ohio. Payne is from Detroit, Michigan. He’s going to hit you. He’s going to try to knock out your biggest guy. He wants to cover the best receiver. He wants to be the guy who makes the play for the team. He definitely plays big and we couldn’t do it without him.”

“My main goal is to get to another BCS bowl and get to the (four team) playoff,” said Payne. “I’m going to do anything in my power to help us get there.”

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Zeitler On Quest To Be The Best

Paul Alexander is in his 21st season on the Bengals coaching staff. Before that, the offensive line guru was an NFL assistant with the New York Jets and coached at the college level for Penn State, Michigan, and Central Michigan. In short, he’s worked with hundreds of guards, tackles, and centers.

But he’s never coached anybody quite like Kevin Zeitler.

Zeitler at OTAs (440x375)

“He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever been around – he really is,” said Alexander. “He’s a pleasure to coach, loves to work, and has aspirations to be great.”

Zeitler earns similar praise from Dave Lapham who spent 10 years on the Bengals offensive line and is heading into his 30th year in the broadcasting booth.

“In some ways he reminds me of Anthony Munoz,” said Lapham. “Anthony wanted to be the best and physically did everything he could to try to get there. I think Zeitler is doing that, and I think his preparation with studying film and things like that are extraordinary as well. That’s high praise to put him with a perennial Pro Bowler and Hall of Famer, but I think that’s where he wants to be. And that’s where his preparation and work ethic are trying to take him.”

Since being drafted in the first round (27th overall) in 2012, Zeitler has been one of the Bengals biggest and strongest players. But when the players returned to Cincinnati in April for the start of voluntary workouts, Zeitler was visibly bigger in the upper body.

“This last offseason I worked really hard,” Kevin told me. “I did double-days for two straight months which actually put me in a bad position where I reached an overtraining phase. But I’ve healed from that and I’ve definitely put on some muscle. I got down to 12% body fat where I had a six pack showing for a while. Now I’m performance eating and having a few more carbs than I normally have.”

But his offseason work went beyond the weight room. Zeitler asked a member of the Bengals staff to provide video of the best guards in the NFL.

“I think I must be a jealous person in general,” said Zeitler with a laugh. “I’ve watched a lot of film this offseason and I see other guards do so many things so well. I just really want to do it at the top level, and whatever I have to do to reach that, I’m willing to put in the time.

“I love what we do here, but it’s always nice to see little things that other people do. I’ve watched San Fran, Seattle, Dallas – you can pretty much name any O-line and I’ve tried to learn something from each of them. You can always learn something.”

Last season, ProFootballFocus ranked Zeitler as the 9th-best guard in the NFL (#5 among right guards). Baltimore’s Marshal Yanda was ranked first at the position by a wide margin. In fact, PFF ranked Yanda as the fifth-best overall player in the NFL.

“Yanda is definitely one of my favorites to watch,” said Zeitler. “He’s just so smooth, so strong, and he’s always in the right place. That type of consistency is invaluable in the NFL and there’s a reason why he’s an All-Pro.”

So how close is Zeitler to playing at that level?

“We’ll see this year,” said Alexander. “I think he’s made a jump every year. He’s always been good and gotten better, but I think this year may be his biggest jump.”

“He wants to be the best there is,” said Lapham. “He’s so driven and I think he’s very hard on himself. It’s a good attribute to be your own best critic, but I think sometimes he takes it to the point where it can be a little bit harmful. It’s a balancing act and I think he’s doing a better job of finding that line. He’s not beating himself up over something he thought he could have done better. Sometimes you just have to move on. I think that’s where he can probably get better. In every other area he’s a pro’s pro in every sense of the word.”

“I have perfect images in my mind of how I do everything, and my only goal is to work every day to get there,” said Zeitler. “I doubt it will ever happen, but I’m going to be the closest I can get to that every day.”

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Moore Hopes To Fill Piece In Bengals Puzzle

Raise your hand if you expected the Bengals to select a wide receiver in one of the early rounds of last month’s NFL draft.

I’ll admit that my hand is up and while Cincinnati did grab West Virginia speedster Mario Alford with their final pick, it’s worth noting that there’s another new receiver on the roster with the proven ability to stretch the field.

26-year-old Denarius Moore signed a one-year deal with the Bengals as a free agent in early April after spending his first four NFL seasons in Oakland.

“I’m loving it so far,” Moore told me. “I like everything that I’m seeing and it’s a great environment. The people here welcome you with open arms and make sure that you’re comfortable.”

Denarius Moore (440x294)

Moore made several catches on Tuesday when the Bengals opened OTAs – the only practice this week that reporters were allowed to attend.

“I think he did some good things,” said offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. “Obviously he has to continue to learn to play at our pace and adjust to the way we go about doing things. Maybe things are a little bit different than they were in Oakland, but I think he has talent.”

“You see glimpses of it,” said receivers coach James Urban. “He’s not consistent enough yet, and he would be the first person to tell you that, but there are glimpses where you say, ‘That’s the guy.’ We just need to keep trying to get to the point where it’s showing up more and more.”

The Raiders drafted Moore out of Tennessee in the 5th round in 2011 after he averaged 17.9 yards per catch in his college career and was timed at 4.39 in the 40-yard dash at his pro day. Jackson was Oakland’s head coach in Moore’s first season, and was a key reason why he wanted to play in Cincinnati.

“That was huge,” said Moore. “I feel like he understands me and understands what I can do.”

“I know there are things that he does really well, and we’re going to put him in those situations,” said Jackson.”

“Early in his career when we was with Hue it clicked for him,” said Urban. “Hopefully we get the same result. That’s why you take a guy like him who has some experience. You hope that it clicks again.”

Moore had 33 catches for 618 yards (18.7 ypc) and 5 touchdowns playing for Jackson as a rookie in 2011, but posted even better stats under Dennis Allen the next two years when he averaged 48.5 catches for 718 yards (14.8 ypc) and 6 TD. But his numbers plummeted last season when Allen was fired after four games as Denarius finished with 12 catches for 115 yards and 0 TD.

“I’m still trying to figure it out, but at the same time I’m trying to forget about it,” said Moore. “I guess I let it mess with my confidence which I’m trying to get back now.”

“He was a very productive guy for a couple of years and then it sort of got away,” said Urban. “I’m just hoping we can get it back. That’s the goal. You’ve got a veteran guy who knows how to play and it won’t be too big for him. Maybe we can get back whatever what was lost.”

“It starts with making plays,” said Jackson. “That’s the case with any good football player. When you start to make plays, the confidence starts to come and he made some big catches today. It was good to see. But he has to continue to grind and we’ll build this thing over time.”

The Bengals typically keep six wide receivers on the 53-man roster and A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, and Mohamed Sanu are locks for half of those spots if healthy. That puts Moore in the mix for one of the final three openings with (alphabetically) Alford, Cobi Hamilton, Jake Kumerow, Tevin Reese, Brandon Tate, and James Wright.

“Any time before you come in and sign a contract, you look at the depth chart and see who you’re going to be competing with,” said Moore. “I don’t really know where I am on that depth chart right now, I’m just looking to come in and compete.

“I’m looking forward to training camp. With the defense we’re in right now, you really can’t see that much until we put on the pads. That’s the time when I can really showcase my talent.”

“We’ve got on our shorts right now and we’re trying to learn our system and how we do things, but as we get closer to training camp, that’s when guys really have to show what they have,” said Jackson. “I think he has some abilities, so we’ll see how it all unfolds.”

After injuries devastated the wide receiver corps in last year’s playoff loss to the Colts, the Bengals are determined to improve the depth at that position this season.

Can Moore return to the form that he flashed in his first three NFL seasons?

“Yes, but that was in the past,” said Moore. “This is a ‘what have you done for me now’ type of league, so I’m just looking forward to a new start. I worked as hard as I could in the offseason and I’m coming back strong. “

“I think he’s going to be good as soon as he gets comfortable with everything that we’re doing,” said Andy Dalton. “Obviously he’s been in Hue’s system before and he played well in it. The more he gets thrown in, the more we’ll be able to see from him, but I think he’s going to be a good help for us.”

“I’m just looking to be another piece of the puzzle,” Moore told me. “If they’re missing a piece, I’d be more than happy to apply for it.”

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

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