May 2012

A.J. Green on Mohamed Sanu: “He’s Going To Be A Special One”

Members of the media were allowed to watch one of the Bengals three practices this week, and I came away very impressed by rookie wide receiver Mohamed Sanu.

But what do I know?

Seeking an expert opinion, I asked A.J. Green for his initial impressions of the third round draft pick out of Rutgers.

“Man, that guy is smooth,” said Green. “He works the middle really well. A lot of people have questioned his speed, but the guy has ‘football speed.’ It’s just like myself. A lot of people say that he didn’t run the fastest, but you see him on the field and he’s fluid in-and-out of his breaks, he catches everything with his hands, and he attacks the ball. He’s going to be a special one.”

I guess my impression was accurate.

In the Bengals first practice of the three-week OTA period, Sanu caught a long touchdown pass from Zac Robinson and several intermediate throws from Andy Dalton.

“I felt good out there,” Sanu told me. “I’m just trying to do my job because that’s what you have to do to be successful in this league. I’m going to learn as much as I can and do my job to the best of my abilities. It’s all about understanding and knowing where you fit in.”

“I’m excited,” said quarterback Andy Dalton. “He’s definitely showing some good things out there, and once he gets a good feel for everything, I think he’s going to be a good player for us. He has a bigger body and he has some shiftiness to him. And he does a good job of coming back to the ball.”

Sanu lined-up in a variety of spots, and appears to have the ability to contribute both wide and in the slot.

“They have me inside and outside, so I’m going to do whatever they want me to do and try to help the team out as much as I can,” said Sanu. “I definitely think that that’s one of my strengths. I think I can use that to my advantage and be productive inside and outside.”

“You can tell that he’s done some of the things that we’re asking him to do before,” said Dalton. “He’s a friendly target out there.”

“I’m asking (Dalton) a lot of questions and making sure that we’re on the same page,” said Sanu. “I’m trying to learn from him because he’s been here for a year, he’s done it, and he knows the offense like the back of his hand.

“Football is football. You have to learn the system and there are differences, but most of the systems are similar. You just have to learn your assignment and figure out where you fit in.”

And the word appears to be spreading that Sanu could be a perfect fit Cincinnati.

“(Sanu) is already off to an impressive start, easily standing out at last weekend’s Bengals rookie minicamp, drawing both praise and a prediction of early contributions from head coach Marvin Lewis,” wrote Don Banks from “Cincinnati has a decent history of rookie impact from receivers, getting that monster debut season from first-rounder A.J. Green last year (65 catches for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns), and a seven-touchdown showing from third-rounder Chris Henry in 2005. Sanu is an ideal complement to Green’s outside speed and vertical game, and he’ll work the inside and underneath routes with both precision and determination, pulling down plenty of catches in a crowd or despite solid coverage. NFL scouts worried about his ability to separate this spring, but come September, Sanu will be putting plenty of distance between himself and most of the league’s other rookie receivers.”

“I’m telling you – a lot of the older guys here compare him to T.J. Houshmandzadeh.,” said Green. “He can stretch the field and I think he’s really going to help us out this year.”

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ESPN Experts Pick Bengals To Return To Playoffs

Last year the AFC North sent three teams to the playoffs – Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati.  ESPN analysts Bill Polian, Herm Edwards, and Marcellus Wiley only expect two of the three to make it this year.

But here’s the catch:  They say that the odd team out is Pittsburgh.

(You can watch the predictions here)

On Tuesday night, ESPN aired a one hour special on the AFC North that ended with the analysts making their predictions for the division standings.  Polian picks the Bengals to finish first, while Wiley and Edwards pick Cincinnati to finish second behind Baltimore.  All three analysts have the Steelers finishing third.

“I believe that the Bengals – because they’ve had such a great off-season – will win the division,” said Polian.  “I think the Ravens will be a close second and be reckoned with in the playoffs.  I think the Steelers had too much change.”

“Baltimore will win the division,” said Wiley.  “We saw that this team was one play away from being in the Super Bowl.  Then the Cincinnati Bengals…9-7 last year and they improved.  They’ll have the same record as the Steelers, but they’ll win the tie-breaker.  I’ll go with that because it sounds like heresy to say that the Steelers are third in their division.”

Host Trey Wingo raised the possibility of the Bengals taking a step backward in 2012 if Andy Dalton and A.J. Green have a sophomore slump, but none of the analysts expect that to happen.

“I don’t expect either one of these players to have a sophomore slump,” said Wiley.

“There won’t be a sophomore slump with Green because he can run past the slump,” said Polian.  “He’s got the speed and no one can cover him.  Speed kills, and he will kill his sophomore slump by catching long passes.”

At this time last year, the Bengals were widely expected to be among the worst teams in the NFL and they made a five-game improvement from 4-12 to 9-7 to make the playoffs.  A big goal this year will be to perform better within the AFC North after going 0-4 vs. the Ravens and Steelers last year.

“If I know Marvin,” said Edwards, “he’s preaching this in this OTA period:  ‘Men, we were 2-4 in our division, first of all.  We didn’t really beat winning teams.  That’s what we have to improve on if we want to be the team to win this division.’  So I think Marvin Lewis is going to say, ‘We did a good job and got into the playoffs at 9-7, but men, here’s the reality of it – let’s not live off of our success.’”

“This is a young team that got an awful lot better in this off-season,” said Polian.  “An awful lot better.  I think they had the best off-season in the National Football League.”

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A Start For Zeitler

When the Bengals ran their first play from scrimmage during the opening practice of OTAs, rookie Kevin Zeitler was the starting right guard.

“I think it’s good that when we went out for the first huddle he was in there,” said quarterback Andy Dalton.  “Up front it’s all about getting a feel for everybody.”

But Zeitler didn’t put much stock into being part of the starting lineup in the first full-squad practice of his NFL career.

“It’s cool to be up there getting some reps, but I have a long way to go,” Zeitler told me.  “If they did put me with the first unit – great.  If they didn’t, I would have just tried to work my way up.  I just try to do my job and try to get better.”

The Bengals drafted the former Wisconsin standout with the 27th overall pick in this year’s draft with the expectation that he would compete for a starting spot as a rookie.  As a result, Zeitler drew plenty of attention from teammates and coaches when practices began on Tuesday.

“He did pretty good for a rookie, but that’s a loaded comment,” said offensive line coach Paul Alexander.  “He obviously is going to be a good player but has a lot to learn.”

“He’s trying to do all the right things.” said Dalton.  “He doesn’t want to mess up right now and once he gets it all down and gets into the groove, I think he’s going to be just fine.”

“This was his first time working with the first unit as a whole and he’s doing a tremendous job,” said right tackle Andre Smith.

“It’s a starting point and I know that I can only get better,” said Zeitler.

The Bengals will hold 10 practices over three weeks during OTAs, giving Zeitler an opportunity to learn the playbook while growing comfortable with the other members of the offensive line.

“Every play that we run here, we basically had the same thing at Wisconsin – the only difference is terminology,” said Zeitler.  “It’s just good to work on communication with the other offensive lineman and work on seeing different looks and different blitzes.  I wish we could have had these in college.  A couple of practices during the summer would have been nice.”

“Every day, me and him are going to get better together,” said Smith.  “There are growing pains because we all do things a certain way and have to adapt to each other.”

And while it’s hard to draw too many conclusions based on one limited-contact practice in helmets and shorts, Zeitler is off to a good start.

“He is as smart a young guy as I’ve ever been around,” said Alexander.  “He scores A-plus in effort and toughness and he’s going to be fine.”

“He’s really powerful and he’s smart too,” said Smith.  “He is going to be a tremendous offensive lineman I think.”

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Aaron Boone On The ’99 Reds…Favorite Teammates…And A Certain Home Run

You already know the highlight of Aaron Boone’s major league career.

Especially if you root for the Yankees or Red Sox.

But when the former Reds third baseman returned to Cincinnati to broadcast Monday’s game against the Braves, I asked him a question that I figured he had never been asked before:  What’s the second-best moment of your big league career?

“The one-game playoff against the New York Mets in 1999,” Boone told me.  “It turned out to be a bad night for us, but I remember very vividly taking the field that night at old Cinergy Field.  It was kind of a cool, damp night, with a little mist in the air, and I remember going out about 10 or 15 minutes before the game to go run my sprints in the outfield and the electricity in the ballpark was something that I’ll never forget.  Unfortunately, we didn’t deliver, but it’s something that has always stuck with me.”

Boone was in his first year as a full-time starter in ‘99 and part of a young Reds team that shocked the National League by winning 96 games.  Boone was 26-years-old at the time and part of a talented kiddie corps nucleus that included Pokey Reese (26), Mike Cameron (26), Dmitri Young (25), Danny Graves (25), Sean Casey (24), and Scott Williamson (23).

“That was the most fun year I ever had in baseball,” said Boone.  “That group of guys…so many of us becoming big leaguers and becoming good players at the big league level for the first time…sprinkled in with awesome veterans like Barry Larkin, Greg Vaughn, Pete Harnisch, and Denny Neagle.  It was just a group that really meshed well and we hung out together.  It was a fun, fun, year and we kicked butt almost every night.”

Did he have an all-time favorite teammate in Cincinnati?

“Barry Larkin really took me under his wing and we were buddies from the day that I got to the big leagues.  Being so close to him on the field between third base and shortstop, we formed a very close relationship early on and still have one.  Sean Casey and I are as tight as can be.  Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns are some of the guys that came up after me, and then I think of great teammates like Pete Harnisch, Scott Sullivan…guys that were fixtures here and an important part of our clubhouse.  But my stock answer on my greatest teammate ever is Mike Cameron.  He was a lot of fun to play with and brought so much to the table every day – not only on the field but off the field.”

Boone spent seven years in Cincinnati before being traded to the New York Yankees on July 31, 2003 for pitchers Branden Claussen and Charlie Manning.  77 days after the trade, Aaron hit one of the most dramatic home runs in baseball history – an 11th inning walk-off blast off of knuckleballer Tim Wakefield in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS to give the Yankees a 6-5 victory over the Boston Red Sox.

“I didn’t know this – someone pointed it out to me a few weeks ago – but I was something like 2-for-16 in my career off of Wakefield (actually 3-for-17 with 1 HR),” said Boone.  “I don’t remember facing many knuckleballers – maybe Steve Sparks or Dennis Springer.  I don’t remember having a lot of success against those guys, and getting to face Wakefield that year…there were many times where I went back to the dugout scratching my head.”

In New England he’s been known as Aaron “Bleeping” Boone ever since his playoff home run off of Wakefield.  Does he find it amusing or annoying?

“I’m amused,” Boone said with a grin.  “I appreciate having a small place in the history of such a special rivalry.  That’s pretty cool.”

I recently introduced Aaron to my wife Peg who is a diehard Red Sox fan.  He quickly won her over by pointing out that his home run in 2003, helped make Boston’s 2004 World Series title even more enjoyable.

“I feel like it made the story better in 2004,” said Boone.  “Obviously, falling behind three games to none to the Yankees the next year in the ALCS and coming back…I feel like the hatred for me up there is not as deep-seeded as it would have been.  They like to razz me more than they hate my guts.”

Aaron’s 12-year MLB career ended after the 2009 season and he immediately went to work for ESPN.  He is typically in the studio for “Baseball Tonight” on Friday and Saturday before broadcasting a game on Monday night with Sean McDonough and Rick Sutcliffe.

“The transition to broadcasting has been very natural for me,” said Boone.  “I didn’t take a year off and that was the right decision for me.  I went in with zero experience and zero training, so I’m learning things all of the time.  It’s been so much fun for me.  I don’t really miss playing all that much.  To get to go to major league parks once a week and get to be in the studio – I still feel very connected to the game.  In the end, I feel really blessed that I’ve found something that I enjoy doing.”

The broadcasting gig has already brought him back to Cincinnati twice this year including Opening Day when he served as the Grand Marshal of the Findlay Market Parade.

“This place means a lot to me,” said Boone.  “Whenever I know that we’re going to do a game in Cincinnati, it puts a smile on my face.  I have a lot of very good relationships here.  This is a place that was great to me and it means the world to me.”

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Scott Hopes For Bigger Role In Bengals Backfield

When Terrell Suggs, the 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, suffered a torn Achilles’ tendon in late April, it was obviously a major blow to the defending AFC North Champion Baltimore Ravens.

But even though the injury could shift the balance of power in their division, Bengals running back Bernard Scott was in no mood to celebrate when he heard the news.

“That sucks,” said Scott.  “You don’t want to see anybody go down like that in the off-season.  That’s the nature of the game, but you don’t want anything bad to happen to anybody even though we go against him twice a year.”

While Suggs vows to be back on the field by November, Scott is simply hoping to be on the field more often.

Last year, Scott typically replaced Cedric Benson on the Bengals’ third offensive possession of each half and Cedric finished the season with 161 more carries than Bernard (273 to 112).  After electing not to re-sign the 29-year-old Benson in the off-season, the Bengals inked 26-year-old BenJarvus Green-Ellis to a reported 3-year, $9 million contract in March.  Green-Ellis shared carries in New England – without complaint – with Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead, and Scott is hoping that the Bengals adopt a similar approach.

“I’ve been hearing that we’re going to use a ‘running back by committee,’ so that’s exciting,” Scott told me.  “That’s going to help us last longer and give other people a chance to touch the ball.  We all have the same goal – just to get the ‘W’ so that’s all that matters.

“Going into my exit meeting (last year), Coach Lewis told me they were going to bring in running backs.  They have to make it a competition so you know that they are always going to bring in somebody.  It makes you work harder to compete for the job.”

The former sixth round draft pick out of Abilene Christian has rushed for exactly 1,000 yards in his first three seasons in the NFL and finished last season with a career-high 380 yards.  Bernard appears confident that he can make a bigger contribution in 2012.

“I feel like my opportunity is going to come,” said Scott.  “If I come into camp in shape and prepared to handle my business, I think that I’m going to get more opportunities.”

Baltimore will begin the season without Suggs.  Pittsburgh released aging stars Hines Ward, James Farrior, and Aaron Smith and is hampered by serious salary cap issues.  Are the youthful Bengals capable of topping the Ravens and Steelers and winning the AFC North for the second time in four years?

“I think we have one of the best quarterbacks and receivers in the game,” Bernard told me.  “We have a lot of young, hungry guys on our team and everybody has a lot that they want to prove.  We’re confident but we’re still hungry because we still have a lot to prove.  I’m looking for big things this year, so we’ll see what happens.”

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Binns Ready To Graduate — On and Off the FIeld

In February, near the end of a long interview with Marvin Lewis during the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, I asked him how Armon Binns progressed last year as a member of the Bengals practice squad.

“I think Armon made great strides,” said Lewis.  “Our offensive coaches at the end of the year wanted me to put him in the game.  They wanted to not only dress him but, ‘Can we start him?’  There’s another player that we identified last year as a good prospect.  We’re not afraid to play young players if the guy can do it.”

It didn’t take long for those words to get passed along to the former UC Bearcat.

“It felt good to know that the coaches had confidence in me – especially the head coach – and that the work that I was putting in at practice was paying off,” said Binns.  “It makes me feel good to know that the coaches here believe in me and think that I can help this team win games.”

He’s about to get his chance to prove them right.

After losing Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell as free agents, the Bengals have an opening for a #2 wide receiver opposite A.J. Green.  Binns will be one of several candidates battling for the spot, including recent third round draft pick Mohamed Sanu out of Rutgers, and fifth rounder Marvin Jones out of Cal.

“There’s an open spot out there and you just have to go out there and compete and go get a job,” Binns told me.  “I’m very eager.  I sat back for a year and got to learn and watch everybody.  It was kind of like a redshirt year for me and I’m just ready to get back out there and play the game again.”

“I got to sit back and watch how the NFL game goes and how to be a pro.  I watched how NFL corners are playing and how defenses are so much more advanced and sophisticated.”

Binns continued to study after the season, but the subject wasn’t just football.  Armon, who majored in criminal justice at UC with a minor in sociology, returned to the classroom in the off-season and will go through graduation ceremonies on June 8th

“It’s huge,” said Binns with a grin.  “I’ve been in Cincinnati for so long and to come away with a degree is going to mean the world to me and my mom.  I was a student-athlete again so it’s all good.”

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Two More Years Not Enough For Kilpatrick

Remember those rumors about Sean Kilpatrick leaving UC early for the NBA?  Well, the All-Big East guard says that he’ll not only be back for his junior and senior seasons – he wishes he could stay even longer.

“As many years as I can stay,” Sean told me.  “I’ve never said that I was going to the draft – it isn’t even in my mind.  The college life that we’re living now is something that is more important than the draft for me.  The NBA is going to be there, but I still have a lot of learning to do.  I still have to learn how to read defenses and on top of that, just to better myself.

“Another huge point is that I love Coach Cronin and I don’t want to leave him.  I want to stay here as long as I can.  That’s why I put it out there on Twitter to let everybody know that I’m not going anywhere.”

Except to the gym.

After leading the Bearcats in scoring as a sophomore at 14.3 points a game, Kilpatrick is dedicating his off-season to improving his ball-handling ability.

“A lot of dribbling drills,” said Kilpatrick.  “Coach told me that I need to work on my left hand a lot more and be able to handle the pressure when someone is guarding me.  He said, ‘Don’t concentrate on your jump shot so much – just worry about your handle.’  That was one of my biggest weaknesses.  This year it will be a lot different and I’ll be able to get to the rim with my left hand.”

During this part of the school year, the players are limited to two hours a week of on-court workouts with the coaching staff, but Sean puts in extra time on his own.

“I’m in here every day in order to get better,” Kilpatrick told me.  “I make it my business to be in here most of the time because this is the actual season for me.  This is where everything starts.

“I come late at night.  I have (graduate assistant) Scott Ratterman come open the gym up around 9 – 9:30.  He just tells me to hit the lights when I’m done.”

Kilpatrick’s dedication is not going unrecognized.  The Sporting News recently ranked Sean as the nation’s 6th-best shooting guard (including number one in the Big East).

“It’s an honor, but it made me a little bit hungrier,” said Kilpatrick.  “I know that I can keep pushing myself to where I can be better than sixth.  I’m never satisfied with being below number one.  It made me more focused on what I need to do.”

And if he needs an additional push, Sean knows he’ll get it from Coach Cronin.

“He knows how to get me going,” said Kilpatrick.  “We both love winning and love the game so much.  If we lose, just know that something is going to get thrown, or somebody is going to curse.  I love him.  Since I was in prep school, he’s never changed with me or with any of the guys.  The loyalty and respect that I have for him is amazing.”

I asked Sean if there’s anything about Coach Cronin that Bearcat fans don’t know.

“Everyone thinks that he’s mean,” Sean said with a laugh.  “That’s because everyone sees Coach Cronin on the court and they don’t know how he is off the court.  He’s the nicest guy you’ll ever meet.  He’s polite, he knows exactly what he’s talking about every time, you can go to him for advice, and you can actually talk to him about anything.  He’s like a father figure to us when our dads aren’t around.  That’s what I love about him the most.”

It sure sounds like Sean plans to stick around.

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Pike Grateful For Bengal Opportunity

All Tony Pike wants is a chance – and he’s about to get one from his hometown team.

On Wednesday, the Bengals announced that Pike is among the unsigned players who will attend the team’s May 11-13 minicamp on a tryout basis.  After spending the 2010 season as a backup with the Carolina Panthers, the 26-year-old quarterback missed all of last year after having elbow surgery.

“I’ve been back in Cincinnati rehabbing for a long time and the Bengals reached out to my agent with some questions about my health and when I was going to get back to 100%,” said Pike.  “After that, it was just a matter of me getting healthy and the timing being right for the mini-camp.  It’s an unbelievable opportunity.  Growing up in Cincinnati and being a Bengals fan, it’s been a life-long dream to be a Bengal.  For them to give me that opportunity to come into mini-camp and see what I can do means a lot.”

After leading the UC Bearcats to a perfect regular season and trip to the Sugar Bowl as a senior, Pike was selected by Carolina in the 6th round of the 2010 draft.  Tony appeared in one regular season game as a rookie, going 6-for-12 for 47 yards in a loss to New Orleans.

But last July, Pike needed surgery to fix a nerve injury in his right elbow.  When the first procedure didn’t correct the problem, the former Bearcat had a more extensive operation eight weeks ago.

“On the second surgery, they cut the muscle in my forearm and they tucked the nerve underneath the muscle,” said Pike.  “Then they sewed the muscle back together to protect that nerve from moving around.  It was a more painful procedure, but with my history at UC, it’s nothing that I haven’t been through before.  The end result was a lot better than the first procedure, so I’m really happy.

“I saw (Cincinnati Reds) Dr. Kremchek here in Cincinnati and he said he does this surgery every year on pitchers here.  He told me it’s something that pitchers come back stronger from and that’s how I feel right now.”

Pike broke his left arm in his junior and senior years at UC, but bounced back quickly to lead the Bearcats to back-to-back Big East Championships.  Tony says that he has completely recovered from his elbow injury and is ready to show the Bengals the powerful arm that tossed 29 touchdown passes and only 6 interceptions in his final college season.

“I feel great,” Pike told me.  “My strength and accuracy are back.  That was the biggest thing with the elbow – the nerve was causing my accuracy to go down a little bit, so with that being back, I feel great about my chance here.

“The frustrating thing about the nerve surgery was that we couldn’t really give teams a timetable for when I would be healthy.  The Bengals rookie mini-camp fell at just about the right time.  I just saw the doctor (Wednesday) to get cleared.  I’ve been throwing a lot and staying in shape.  I’ve actually been going over to Elder a little bit to throw to my brother and some of those receivers.  So, it’s been a long process and a slow process, but it’s all coming together at just the right time.”

Pike might seem like a longshot to make the Bengals roster, but keep in mind that he began the 2008 season as the fifth-string quarterback at UC before leading the team to the Orange Bowl.

All he needed then was a chance.

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