October 2012

Bengals Need To Be Fueled By Green Energy

If you look closely at A.J. Green’s college stats at Georgia, you’ll see that in addition to having 166 receptions and 23 touchdowns, he had one blocked kick.

“I was in charge of the field goal and extra point block team and all I wanted was to use A.J. one time,” said former Georgia assistant coach John Jancek, currently the defensive coordinator at the University of Cincinnati.  “So I battled to get him on the block team and sure enough, he blocked a kick to win a game against Arizona State.  It was the only time he ever tried it and he blocked it clean.  He was one for one.”

“We were down and needed a block and I just went up and blocked it,” Green told me.  “I have a picture of it in my house.”

Clearly, there aren’t many things that A.J. Green can’t do on a football field.  But one thing is impossible:  Catching the ball if the Bengals don’t throw it to him.

In Sunday night’s loss to the Steelers, Green finished with one reception for an 8-yard touchdown.  It marked the third time in his career that A.J. has finished with one catch (they have all been for touchdowns) and his eight receiving yards were a career-low.

“When you go back and look at the stats and see A.J. Green with one catch, it bothers you quite a bit,” said offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.

Pittsburgh deserves most of the credit.  In addition to having cornerback Ike Taylor shadow Green on every play, Dick LeBeau gave Taylor linebacker help on short routes and safety help on deeper routes.

“They were buzzing safeties over the top or buzzing linebackers on some of the underneath stuff,” said Green.  “They did a great job – hats off to them.  Ike Taylor played a hell of a game.  He’s a great player and has been in the league for a long time.”

“They played a little bit more two-man than they have, but they’ve played it (before) so it wasn’t that big of a surprise,” said Gruden.

The extra attention from Pittsburgh’s defense did not have Green seeing red.  Unlike some other receivers in the Bengals recent past, A.J. did not throw a fit on the sideline when the ball was not coming his way.

“I feel like we had some good stuff drawn up, but the defense played well against me,” said Green.

“He can complain if he wants to,” said Gruden.  “I’m trying my hardest.  I want to get him the ball probably more than he wants it.”

The Steelers weren’t the first team to roll their coverage toward Green and they obviously won’t be the last.  The Bengals still have to get their best player the ball.

“There was a lot of concern about A.J. catching only one pass, and we have a concern that we didn’t get the ball to A.J. enough,” said head coach Marvin Lewis.  “We didn’t get the ball down the field and over the top.”

“We had some plays for him,” said Gruden.  “It’s not like he wasn’t part of any play.  Every time we call a pass play we know where A.J. is and what he’s doing and he’s a viable option.

“When it’s all said and done, you have to have some plays that feature him running fast and far and we didn’t have enough.”

The bottom line is that the Bengals have two weeks to figure out ways to get Green’s hands on the ball.  And blocking kicks is not what I have in mind.

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Early Switch Worked Out Well For Cheatham

Cam Cheatham was a running back and slot receiver at Kalamazoo (MI) Central High School and anticipated having a similar role at the University of Cincinnati.

On his first day of training camp in 2008 he found out he was being moved to cornerback.

“I was given a black jersey and I was like, ‘Man, that’s for the defensive players.'” Cheatham told me.  “I thought they might have made a mistake.  I went to the equipment guy and he was like, ‘No, that’s what you play.  You’re with (defensive backs coach) Kerry Coombs.’  I was mad and there were times where I didn’t want to play that position, but God always has a plan and it worked out.  I’ve been a three-year starter and I’ve played a lot of football.”

Cheatham did get to show off his running back skills recently, when he intercepted a pass against Miami’s Zac Dysert and sprinted 68 yards for a touchdown.

“I had flashbacks,” said Cheatham.  “It’s been a long time since I ran into an open end zone like that.”

Cam’s “Pick Six” swung the momentum when it appeared that the RedHawks might jump out to an early two touchdown lead.

“It was a great call by (defensive coordinator) John Jancek and I just made a play,” said Cheatham.  “Everybody else was doing their job and I was able to reap the benefits and make the big play.  That’s all it was.”

“I’m really proud of him,” said head coach Butch Jones.  “He’s really improved his leadership skills and he’s really taken ownership in the back end of our defense.  He’s been extremely consistent, extremely competitive, and it’s a great comfort knowing that you have a corner who can win in man coverage.”

Ironically, Coach Jones unsuccessfully tried to recruit Cheatham when he was the head coach at Central Michigan but wound up getting to coach him for three years at Cincinnati.

“It all worked out and I feel very fortunate,” said Jones.  “I’m very proud of how far he’s come and the improvement that he’s made.  Each year you could see him making dramatic improvement and he’s well-respected on our football team.  Cam’s very polite and quiet and unassuming and then all of a sudden, you put him in some competitive situations and you see another side to him.”

In addition to being handed a defensive practice jersey at his first training camp, Cheatham was originally given the #2.  But he was able to change to #21 in honor of his hero Deion Sanders.

“If you look at it, Deion Sanders is to the cornerback position what Michael Jordan is to basketball,” said Cheatham.  “All great cornerbacks come up wanting to wear #21.  He was Prime Time, he had the shoes, he was bouncing around out there, and he was a lock-down corner.  It’s on my bucket list to meet him.  He’s the best to ever do it.”

Deion returned nine interceptions for touchdowns in the NFL and Cheatham has done that twice at UC.  The decision to move him from running back to cornerback proved to be a wise one.

“It worked out perfectly and I’m happy where I’m at,” Cam told me.  “I don’t know if I would have made it at running back.  We’ve had some great running backs and I don’t know if I could have taken all of those hits.”

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Bill Polian: “One Of My Biggest Regrets Was Not Drafting Dalton”

Prior to last season while the status of Peyton Manning was still uncertain following neck surgery, former Indianapolis Colts vice chairman Bill Polian elected to use Indy’s first round draft pick on offensive lineman Anthony Castonzo.

But if Polian had a do-over, Andy Dalton would not be a Cincinnati Bengal.

“I’ve told this to Marvin and Mike so it’s no state secret – one of my biggest regrets was not taking him in the first round and leaving him for (Cincinnati),” Polian told me this week on ESPN 1530.  “But if anybody got him, I’m glad that my friends at the Bengals did.”

After going 2-14, the Colts wound up selecting Andrew Luck with the number one pick in this year’s draft so things eventually worked out fine for Indy.  But Polian, now working for ESPN after being fired in Indianapolis, says that the Bengals landed a good quarterback too.

“He is a terrific leader, he’s very, very bright, he’s got more than adequate arm strength, and he’s a fighter,” said Polian.  “He looks like an altar boy or a choir boy, but plays with a crowbar in his hands.  He’s got a lot of killer in him which is really great.  That’s what you want in a quarterback.  I’ve heard people compare him to Bernie Kosar, but I think he’s much more athletic than Bernie, and I think that he has a better arm than Bernie.  He’s a tough character and he’s a winner.”

The six-time NFL Executive of the Year was also effusive in his praise of Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins who is tied for third in the NFL with 6 sacks through 5 games.

“The position of inside pass rusher is a key position,” said Polian.  “When you get an athletic defensive lineman who can rush the passer at the tackle position, it makes it so much harder for the offensive line to slide and help people.  If you’re going to ‘chip’ it’s going to be with a back or a tight end.  The line can’t move because you cannot run the risk of the guard whiffing and having that guy go clean to the quarterback.  So Geno Atkins has turned out to be a terrific addition to the Bengals and an inside pass rusher – I think after the quarterback – is the most important guy on the team because if you can rush from the inside, that means usually that you can rush with four and cover with seven and that gives you a heck of a defensive advantage.”

Polian was the architect of the Buffalo teams that went to four straight Super Bowls in the 1990s and built the Colts team that won Super Bowl XLI in 2007.  He obviously knows how to build a contending team and I asked him what area the Bengals still need to address.

“You would like a little more explosion in the offense,” said Polian.  “That’s easier said than done.  You’re not going to go out and trade for Roddy White – that doesn’t happen.  If there was another explosive receiver, if there was an Edgerrin James-type explosive running back who when the line blocks for six (yards), he could get 12 – that would be icing on the cake.  But they’re in pretty good shape right now.  I really believe that.  It’s a terrific young nucleus led, of course, by the quarterback and one of the elite wide receivers in the National Football League.  When you’ve got that, you’ve got a chance.

“I said on ESPN that I have the Bengals going to the playoffs and everybody laughed at me, but I believe that’s the case.”

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Bengals Hope That Less Is More For Maualuga

What’s good for Ray should be good for Rey.

13-time Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis reportedly dropped 25 pounds in the offseason, going from 260 to 235.

The Bengals have decided to have Rey Maualuga – listed on the roster at 265 lbs. – follow Lewis’s lead.

“They want me to be down to 250 by the bye week,” said Maualuga.  “I’m 254 so in two weeks that will be no problem.  My reporting weight was 260 and they feel like losing 10 pounds will be a better number to play at.  Hey, if they want me to be 250, I’ll be 250.  If they want me to be 245, I’ll be 245.”

The weight loss goal is not a knock on Maualuga’s fitness level – it’s a reaction to the current offensive trends in the NFL.

“What I’ve told Rey is that the NFL is a different game now,” said linebackers coach Paul Guenther.  “It’s more spaced-out and it’s more of a passing game.  There aren’t many teams that are going to come and just pound the ball at you where you have to be a 260 pound linebacker.”

“Coach Guenther told me that the game of football has changed and that there are no big linebackers,” said Maualuga.  “Most teams don’t come out in regular personnel and run the ball a lot – it’s all about opening things up and throwing the ball these days.  Getting lighter will boost my stamina and allow me to be out there every single play.  That’s what we’ve been trying to do the past two weeks and it’s been working.  I’m obviously losing weight and I’m seeing improvement.  I’m just trying to be coachable and do what I’m asked to do.”

At the age of 37, Ray Lewis slimmed down in order to be quicker and the 25-year-old Bengal hopes for the same result.

“You can see the difference from how (Lewis) looked last year to how he looks this year,” Maualuga told me.  “Hopefully it will have a positive impact on how quickly I play and how fast that I run.”

“He feels the difference and I went back and showed him some clips from when he was a rookie and you can see the difference in his foot speed and some of the things that he was doing,” said Guenther.  “I think that Rey knows exactly what to do.  I think when he gets fatigued, that’s when he misses tackles.  He knows what to do and he wants to do it as well as anybody on our team.”

Maualuga missed nearly all of the preseason after suffering a knee injury in the exhibition opener and was the target of media and fan criticism when he did not perform up to his capabilities in the first few weeks of the regular season.

“I really believe that Rey is the most scrutinized player on the Bengals and he knows that he has to play good for us,” said Guenther.  “I think that each week he has been getting better.  He only had four snaps in the preseason and he’s coming off of ankle surgery and I think that he has been getting better each and every week.”

“I got hurt, but that’s no excuse for how I came back,” said Maualuga.  “This is my fourth year in the league and I should be able to play how I’m supposed to play.”

Maualuga has no issue with the scrutiny that he has received from Bengals fans.

“I love the fans,” Rey told me.  “If you play good they support you.  If you lose, you hope that they will still support you.  They want to see improvement.  They want to see the linebacker that the Bengals drafted.  I’m coming to work every day giving it everything that I’ve got.”

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Marty First…President Ono Next?

Santo Ono wants to be like Marty Brennaman.

No, the University of Cincinnati’s Interim President isn’t looking to work baseball play-by-play into his busy schedule, but like the Reds’ Hall of Fame broadcaster, Dr. Ono is willing to have his head shaved if the Bearcats win 10 consecutive games.

“That is for both football and basketball,” Ono told me at halftime of the UC/Virginia Tech game.  “I hope that I lose my hair.  You look pretty good, and if they win 10 games, I’ll do it at midfield or in front of the student section.  I’ll do whatever I can to encourage the team and the coaches to play at their utmost abilities.  It’s not a big deal for me to lose my hair – I think the students love it, and I love the students.  Whatever gets them excited I’m happy to do.”

(Click here to see Dr. Ono pledge to shave his head in the locker room after the dramatic victory over Virginia Tech)

If you’re among the thousands of people that follow Dr. Ono on Twitter (@PrezOno), you are well aware of his passion for Bearcat athletics.  In our halftime interview last Saturday, I asked UC’s Interim President for his view on the role that athletics play in the mission of the university.

“I think it’s incredibly important,” said Ono.  “I went to college at the University of Chicago and most recently I was at a D-III school – Emory University – and they’re fantastic universities just as the University of Cincinnati is.  But there’s nothing like D-I sports to bring a whole community together.  We have 14 outstanding colleges at UC and they have a lot of different identities, but what galvanizes the community and links us to the 250,000 alumni around the globe is Bearcat sports.  I’m slightly enthusiastic about it.  I’m a big fan and I think I’ve tweeted about 11,000 times and have about 19,000 followers on Twitter and Facebook and I think that’s really, really important.  It’s one of my primary jobs:  To connect to the community and show how enthusiastic I am about what’s going on at the University.  Not only sports, but the tremendous research that’s going on and the art, architecture, and music that are all part of Representing the C.”

Earlier this year, Dr. Ono took part in a practice of sorts with the football team and caught some passes from Munchie Legaux (click here to watch).  Last Saturday, I asked him to share some thoughts on his relationship with head coach Butch Jones and the job that he is doing.

“Butch Jones, I think, is one of the best football coaches in America,” said Ono.  “We really are privileged in athletics right now at UC to have a great athletic director, a great team of coaches, and great head coaches across all of the different sports, but Butch Jones and Mick Cronin, I think, are anchors to our program.  They are people with integrity and they are people that are really committed to Cincinnati.  I love them and I view them as brothers and partners in Bearcat Nation.  We have something really special here.  (Coach Jones) is really important to the University and he and I really cheerlead and back each other.  I was in the locker room before the Bearcats came out and he said to the team, ‘Do you have my back?’  I think that everybody knows that I have his back.”

He has his coach’s back, but if the Bearcats win their next seven games (the three wins to end last season don’t count), Dr. Ono won’t have his hair.

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A Dream Finish For Legaux and Bearcats

The clock read 1:43, the end zone was 85 yards away, and the Bearcats trailed Virginia Tech 24-20.  Not an ideal set of circumstances unless you’re a quarterback with something to prove.

“You can’t ask for a better situation than that,” Munchie Legaux told me after the game.  “Down by four, no timeouts – that’s what you dream of as a little boy playing in the backyard.  Five, four, three…”

“That’s what quarterbacks dream of,” said Walter Stewart.  “Being down on the road with two minutes left and you’ve got to make a play.”

The first play of the drive was a 15-yard completion to tight end Travis Kelce taking roughly 10 seconds off the clock.

“Munchie was very calm and very relaxed,” said Damon Julien.  “Coach puts us in adverse situations in practice, so we were ready to come out and execute.”

After back to back incompletions, a 13-yard scramble by Legaux gave the Bearcats a first down at their 43 yard line with 1:14 to go and the clock running.

“I though he was exceptionally poised all game,” said head coach Butch Jones.  “He just had that look in his eye. He had that moxie – that alpha male that we talk about that we want out of our quarterback.”

A 4-yard run by Legaux was followed by a 14-yard strike to Anthony McClung, putting the ball at the Virginia Tech 39 yard line with :38 left.

“This is what we do,” said Ralph David Abernathy IV.  “Every day Coach Jones and the staff prepare us for this.  We learn how to deal with adversity every day at practice and today I think we showed people that we can do anything when we put our minds to it.”

An incomplete pass for Kenbrell Thompkins left :26 to go.  An overthrow for Anthony McClung reduced the time to :20 remaining.

It was third-and-10 at the Hokies 39 yard line.

“I was talking to Munchie before the game and I said, ‘This is your time man.  This is your stage.'” said Stewart.  “He stepped up when he needed to.”

After taking a shotgun snap, Legaux dropped back to the 47 yard line and released the ball a split second before being drilled by Hokies defensive end James Gayle.  The pass was intended for Damon Julien who had dropped a possible touchdown pass earlier in the fourth quarter.

“I was a little upset,” said Julien.  “The defensive back tipped it and then I tipped it and dropped it.  I hoped that Munchie would come to me again and that’s what he did.”

“He trusts his wide receivers.” said Thompkins.  “Even when we make a bad play, he’ll come up to us on the sideline and say, ‘I’m coming back to you.'”

(Watch the video of Julien’s game-winning catch here)

In this case, Julien took advantage of his second chance by making a lunging, fingertip catch while sliding across the goal line for the game-winning touchdown with :13 remaining (you can hear the radio call here).

“I had a couple of big plays in junior college, but this is by far the biggest for me and on the biggest stage,” said Julien.  “I’m very grateful for this opportunity.”

“Damon Julien man,” said Thompkins.  “Great guy, great athlete, and tremendously strong hands.”

Consider it a belated birthday present for Munchie Legaux who turned 21 on Thursday.

“My teammates came up to me and told me that they would have my back no matter what,” said Legaux.  “Mistakes, great balls, bad balls – they have my back.  They trust me and I trust those guys.”

“Our kids have great belief in our program and each other and I think that showed,” said Coach Jones.

“Munchie keeps showing people what kind of player that he is,” said Abernathy.  “Every Saturday he steps up and makes plays.  That’s our quarterback.  I’m proud of him.”

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Bengals Keeping Foes Guessing

Is the Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons or David Copperfield?

In each of their last two games, the Bengals have tried some trickery on special teams:  A fake field goal that didn’t work in Washington, and a fake punt that resulted in a momentum-changing 48-yard run in Jacksonville.

“We’ve had opportunities to make plays two weeks in a row now, and we look at those things every week,” said Simmons.  “If we execute the play in Washington and block like we’re supposed to block, it’s a touchdown.  It should be an easy one if we get the lines of communication squared away.  We’ll continue to do it.  It does keep the other teams on their heels a little bit, and can provide a spark for our team as well.  It’s a high risk/high reward thing, and fortunately for us, this time it worked.”

But it wasn’t a matter of good fortune.

Three minutes into the second quarter, the Bengals punted on 4th-and-1 from their own 29 and saw that Jacksonville rushed hard from Cincinnati’s right side – potentially allowing the Bengals to run a fake in that direction.  So roughly three minutes later on 4th-and-1 from their own 34, the Bengals had Clark Harris snap the ball to the punt protector Cedric Peerman and watched him sprint to the Jacksonville 18 (watch the play here).  Five plays later, the Bengals scored their first touchdown and took the lead for good.

“The snap was perfect and Cedric was around the corner before the guy even knew that he had the ball,” said Simmons.  “It was executed perfectly by Clark and Cedric.”

“Once I heard the call, I looked up and saw we had the exact look that we needed,” said punter Kevin Huber.  “I knew it was there if we were able to protect it right.  It worked out and I got to run in the other direction.”

“That was huge,” said Brian Leonard.  “It puts the morale of the other team down and it gets ours up when you make a play like that in special teams.”

On Monday, I asked Marvin Lewis if the fakes were simply a matter of getting favorable looks from the opponent or if the Bengals were looking to be more aggressive in special teams.

“We have not done anything different in 10 seasons now,” said Coach Lewis.

Admittedly, two fakes in two weeks do not indicate a trend, but the willingness to take risks is welcomed in the Bengals locker room.

“One thing that you notice every year in the NFL about the better teams is that when they see an opportunity they take it,” said kicker Mike Nugent.  “That’s one thing that I’ve always noticed about very good teams – it doesn’t necessarily have to be a fake or anything like that, but when they get a tiny little opportunity they pounce on it.  Hopefully we’ll keep doing that as well.”

Between trick plays on special teams and Mohamed Sanu’s game-opening TD pass out of the “Wildcat” formation, the Bengals are creating uncertainty for the opposition.  As a result, future opponents are going to have to expect the unexpected while the Bengals look forward to seeing what the coaching staff conjures up next.

“If you’re on the sideline and you know what’s happening, it’s pretty exciting to watch,” said Nugent.

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

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