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Safeties Save Day In Pittsburgh

In the Bengals’ 48-year history, they have never used their first pick in the draft on a safety.

Never.

That suggests that the Bengals don’t consider it a top priority in building the roster. But their safeties saved the day on Sunday in Pittsburgh.

Cincinnati’s offense struggled. Twice, the Bengals drove into the red zone and failed to score. On another occasion, an interception by Reggie Nelson gave the Bengals the ball at the Steelers’ 33-yard-line and the offense lost 17 yards before having to punt.

“Playing a great defense like these guys at their place, we knew that it was going to be a little ugly here and there,” said Andrew Whitworth.

After Andy Dalton threw interceptions on back-to-back drives in the fourth quarter, the Bengals trailed 10-6 with 6:27 remaining.

“Andy said, ‘The next time we get the ball we’re going to score,’” said Whitworth. “He believed that and I think we all felt that. We really felt like, ‘Hey, if the defense makes another stop, we’ll drive back down there and try it again.’”

“That’s what the defense is supposed to do,” said Nelson. “Get the ball back to Andy and let him go to work.”

Two plays after Dalton’s second INT, Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to pass, escaped a near-sack by Pat Sims, rolled to his left, pointed down field, and finally – after holding the ball for 9.65 seconds – fired a pass in the direction of fullback Will Johnson. Third year safety Shawn Williams leaped in front of Johnson and made his first career interception at the Pittsburgh 45 yard line.

Williams INT

“There was an opportunity to make a play and that’s what I did to put our team in the best position to win the game,” said Williams.

“That was an unbelievable play,” said Clint Boling. “To see it on the replay screen – I really don’t know how he did it.”

“I’m not sure if he’ll ever have an interception that was tougher,” said my broadcast partner Dave Lapham. “A full dive where he caught the back half of the football and stayed in bounds as he went to the ground. Any of the great Pro Bowl receivers would take that catch.”

“I’m just happy for him because I know how I felt when I got my first career interception,” said fellow safety George Iloka. “It’s like a weight off of your shoulder. It’s like, ‘Man. If I end my career tomorrow, at least I can tell my kids about that.’”

Williams’ INT led to the Bengals only touchdown – a nine yard strike from Andy Dalton to A.J. Green that gave Cincinnati its first lead of the game with 2:57 remaining.

“Shawn made an unbelievable play to turn the game for us and you have to look at what a true team is,” said Whitworth. “When you collect wins, it really isn’t about your best players playing great every week; there’s always that guy who plays a role and steps up and makes a huge play and turns the tide for you.”

“He made the biggest play of his career at the most significant time to make it,” said Lapham.

Nelson INT

But the Bengals safeties weren’t finished. On the Steelers next offensive play, Reggie Nelson came up with his second interception of the game to set up a Mike Nugent field goal with 1:47 remaining. That gave the Bengals a 16-10 lead and meant that the Steelers could not force overtime by driving for a field goal on their last possession.

“Shawn’s pick was more important than my picks,” said Nelson. “He gave us momentum near the end and that’s what we needed.”

The Steelers had a shot at a game-winning touchdown with 4 seconds left from the Bengals 16 yard line, but Nelson did a good job in zone coverage of defending Antonio Brown and Roethlisberger’s final pass sailed through the back of the end zone.

“It feels great man,” said Nelson. “Defense wins games. We always preach that.”

“You just have to continue to play until the whistle blows and all of the time runs off the clock,” said Williams. “That’s what we did.”

The Bengals started three safeties on Sunday. Nelson, Iloka, and Williams combined for 10 tackles, four passes defensed, and three interceptions.

“The safeties came through today and that’s good,” said Nelson.

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

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Green Without Envy

Keyshawn Johnson’s biography, written after his rookie year, was named “Just Give Me the Damn Ball.”

Before facing the Bengals last week, Buffalo’s Sammy Watkins griped that a lack of passes thrown in his direction was making him look bad.

Green taking field

It got me thinking…has A.J. Green ever complained about not getting the ball enough?

“No, because my numbers are going to come,” said Green. “All we are about is winning here and whatever I can do to help the team win is what I’m going to do.”

“We’ve discussed why the ball went somewhere else, but that’s just normal coaching,” said receivers coach James Urban,” “But no, he’s never complained.”

“Everybody understands that we have a certain chemistry here,” said Marvin Lewis. “Hopefully we continue to check egos when they walk into this building. It’s not about them, it’s about winning and our guys understand that.”

It helps that the most talented guy on the roster might be the most humble.

“Obviously I’ve watched him as a fan before I got here and I’ve known how big of a freak he is on the field,” said linebacker A.J. Hawk. “And then to get here and see how much of a professional he is and how he carries himself – I think we all know that’s not always the case. Especially when it comes to receivers. That’s a position where a lot of times if guys feel like they’re not getting enough balls or are not involved enough, they can sometimes be a problem to the team. I’ve never heard him complain or say anything bad about anybody. I just watch him work day in and day out. When a guy like A.J. Green who is one of the premier receivers in the league carries himself like that, it trickles throughout the whole room and throughout the whole team.”

“I’ve always said this about A.J.: When the alpha dog does and says things the right way, then everybody else does it that way,” said Urban. “He shows up on time, he works hard, and he does all the things you’re supposed to do as a pro.”

Green game winning TD at Baltimore 2015

This year during training camp, former San Diego Chargers head coach Al Saunders worked with the Bengals as an additional offensive assistant and spent most of his time with the receivers. In his 30-plus years in the NFL, Saunders has worked with numerous Pro Bowlers including Charlie Joiner, Wes Chandler, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, and Anquan Boldin and says that Green is as good as anyone he’s ever coached.

“A.J. Green is a special, special player,” said Saunders. “The thing that separates the great players from the good players in this league are the intangibles. I had not been around A.J. other than evaluating him coming out of Georgia and watching him from afar as a competitor, but being around him in training camp, he’s able to take coaching extremely well from the classroom to the field. He’s an extremely dedicated player, it’s important to him, and he’s tremendous in the receiver meeting room. James Urban does a terrific job with those guys and A.J. is so receptive to what James says. A lot of times you get guys that have been to two or three Pro Bowls and they think they know a little bit more than the coach sometimes, but A.J. is not like that. A.J. does everything that James tells him to do and works hard at doing it. He spends time before and after practice on the field and spends extra time in the meeting rooms studying the game. He’s got character beyond reproach and he’s become one of my favorite players.”

Since Green never complains, I asked him if he cringes when he hears other receivers around the league moan and groan about not getting the ball enough.

“Everybody is different,” A.J. told me. “In our situation we’re winning and nothing beats winning. You can’t look at other guys. I can control what I can do here. And that’s to go ahead and make plays whenever my number is called.

“I view myself as one of the leaders and you can’t show emotion if you’re not getting the ball and the team is up by 21 points. That’s just not being a good teammate and I pride myself in being a good teammate and just making the most of my opportunities.”

“Everything is we, us, and our,” said Urban. “That’s all we care about. How did we do? What did we do as a receiver group to contribute? That’s all we ever talk about.”

AJ Green diving catch (440x309)

Green is currently on a pace to finish with 93 receptions this season. If he can increase that slightly and finish the year with 98 or more, he’ll have the most receptions ever by a player in his first five NFL seasons.

“I don’t care what my numbers are,” said Green. “As long as we keep winning, that’s all that matters.”

“He has no ego, but he has a great deal of pride in his ability to perform,” said Saunders. “He is an exceptional professional and I really can say nothing but superlatives about him and what his career is going to be like there in Cincinnati. And it’s fortunate for the fans to have a guy like A.J. to watch every week. What a great thrill that is.”

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

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Another Step Up The Mountain

Three times in 48 years.

Bernard smile

That’s how rare 6-0 starts have been in Cincinnati Bengals history, but after equaling the franchise record for best start with a 34-21 win in Buffalo, the players and coaches were not exactly thumping their chests.

“A miniscule part of history,” said Marvin Lewis. “We’ve got bigger things to do.”

“Obviously 6-0 is a cool little accomplishment, but I don’t want this to be the highlight of my season,” said George Iloka.

“It’s just another step along the way,” said Andrew Whitworth. “You’re proud of the step, but there’s another step right in front of you that you have to go up.”

Sunday’s game did not start well for Cincinnati. When the Bills marched down the field to score a touchdown on their opening possession, it marked the first time all season that the Bengals trailed in the first quarter.

“It was like the first round of a boxing match and we got caught off guard,” said Iloka. “They came out swinging and they hit us in the mouth, but we licked out wounds and came back and responded. That’s what it’s all about.”

Hill TD at Buffalo

The response featured nearly everybody on the active roster. Eight players carried or caught the ball on offense and four of them scored touchdowns. Twenty were involved in tackles. The offensive line did not surrender a sack and the defensive line hit EJ Manuel seven times and sacked him twice.

“It was truly a team effort and took everyone today,” said Jeremy Hill. “Everyone made plays and it really started with our offensive line. They played their butts off against that defensive line. They probably won’t get the credit that they deserve but they really played their butts off.”

The offensive line gave Andy Dalton abundant time to throw, and the Red(hot) Rifle was outstanding for the sixth consecutive game. His passer rating for the season is 116.1. Only Tom Brady is better at 118.4.

“If there’s a play in the playbook that exists, I don’t know if we don’t have it,” said Whitworth. “The coolest thing about Andy is that nothing is out of the realm of him being able to do at any point at the line of scrimmage. The guy is so cerebral and so intelligent. He can handle all of that stuff and put people in the right spots and make the checks and do all that. It’s one of those things that if you’ve got the talent around him and they play well, he’s going to put you in a good position.”

“Andy Dalton and the Bengals offense has an answer to everything that these defensive coordinators are trying to do,” said my broadcast partner Dave Lapham.

Since the NFL adopted its current playoff format in 1990, there were 31 teams entering this year that had opened a season 6-0. Fifteen of those 31 teams – or 48% – advanced to the Super Bowl.

That’s where this team is trying to get to. And a 6-0 start is only a small step on the road toward Santa Clara.

“We haven’t clinched our division, we’ve haven’t earned a first round bye, we haven’t really done anything,” said Hill. “So we have a lot of work to do, but it’s definitely a good start.”

“We set out with the intent of doing something special and until we have that, none of this really means that much,” said Whitworth. “Football is a mountain climb and every step will be a harder step to take. The next team we play will fight that much harder to not let us say that we’re a 7-0 team. So we’re coming out and continuing to play well, but it’s where can we get better? Where can we continue to grow? If we can keep that as our focus, we have the talent to do something really special.”

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

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Bits From The Booth: Buffalo

I grew up a Buffalo Bills fan in Lakewood, NY. My childhood bedroom was a shrine to O.J. Simpson and my loving mother even went to the trouble of hand-painting Bills uniforms on the tiny plastic players in my vibrating electric football game (remember those?) since the only version available at the local store featured the Jets vs. Rams.

I vividly remember the thrill of attending a game at Rich Stadium for the first time (now Ralph Wilson Stadium), and broadcasting a game in Buffalo is always a reminder of how incredibly fortunate I am to do what I do for a living. I never take it for granted.

Van Miller

It will be a bittersweet return to Orchard Park this Sunday because I will not get to visit with my broadcasting hero Van Miller, the legendary Voice of the Bills who passed away in July. (I wrote about him here). For those of you that never heard Van broadcast a game, let’s just say he was as great as the Bengals fourth quarter comeback against Seattle last week.

Now let’s get to this week’s Bits From The Booth.

Classic Comeback

On Christmas Eve 1994, the Bengals rallied from a 17-point deficit to beat the Eagles 33-30 by kicking two field goals in the last three seconds.

That’s right, two field goals in three seconds!

Here’s how: Doug Pelfey tied the game with a 22-yarder, the Bengals recovered a squib kick, and Pelfrey hit a 54-yarder at the gun for the win.

That is the craziest comeback in team history.

But was last week’s 17-point fourth quarter rally against Seattle, the greatest comeback in team history?

I put that question to my partner Dave Lapham who has been with the Bengals as a player or broadcaster for 40 of the franchise’s 48-year history.

“I think it was,” Lapham said. “When you think of what was on the line – to remain undefeated – and when you consider the excellence of the opponent and how they did it. Seattle had allowed less than 16 points per game over a three year span and were third in the NFL in points allowed going into this game. To score 17 points on them in less than 14 minutes and then three more in overtime was phenomenal. It really was a remarkable performance and for all of those reasons, I consider it the greatest comeback story in franchise history.”

Hue On Boos

Last week, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King wrote an interesting story about Andy Dalton that quoted Hue Jackson saying that being booed at a celebrity softball game during MLB All-Star Weekend was a turning point in Dalton’s career.

It’s the first time that I had ever heard that suggested, so I followed up with Jackson this week and asked him why he felt that way.

“I talked to Andy after it happened and I know that it disappointed him,” said Jackson. “In our conversation it turned into some of the things that had been said about him, and I could tell that he was disappointed about it and it hurt him a little bit. I said, ‘We don’t want that to happen again. How can we stop this slide from going that way? There’s only one way. You’ve got to win and you’ve got to play good.’ So it just reinforced what we were trying to do. We set out this season to have him become the best quarterback he’s ever been. The conversation was, ‘How much more can you do? How much more are you willing to do? How much more of a price are you willing to pay so that these things don’t happen to you anymore?’ That’s where I think that it really started to turn for him.”

Dalton high five

Don’t Forget Zampese

While Jackson and Dalton has been receiving well-deserved praise during the team’s 5-0 start, don’t forget about the impact of quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese.

He’s the only QB coach that Dalton has had in the NFL and he’s put in countless hours in helping Andy refine his mechanics, read defenses, and handle the demands of the position.

Zampese says that Dalton is working harder than ever and that’s translated to his play on the field.

“Andy came in in 2011 without a spring (training camp) and spoke the language immediately which said that we were absolutely correct on his level of accountability and how much it means to him,” said Zampese. “Then after four years, it was a matter of realizing that we needed to do something different if we wanted to have different results. Those are huge character plusses in his favor because there had been a certain level of success and it would be easy to just say, ‘Well I won this many games and did this or that.’ But it’s not about that. It’s about winning everything and therein lies the challenge of doing something different to change the results.

“I’m happy for him because it’s a gauntlet. It’s a meat-grinder and people try to find ways to tear you down when you start for a football team early on – or at any age. It’s fun to see him come out the other end because I’ve lived the struggles with him. His success is my success and anything that doesn’t happen right is on my ledger as well. So I live it right along with him just like Coach Jackson and the rest of us. We’re a team coaching Andy – we’re Team Andy.”

The Tape of the Tape With Greg Cosell

One of our favorite guests on “Bengals Game Plan” heard every Wednesday night on ESPN 1530 is Greg Cosell from NFL Films. For my money, nobody covering football does a better job at breaking down game tape.

Here are a few snippets of the Q and A when Cosell joined us on this week’s show.

When you watch tape of Andy Dalton, what stands out?

“Timing, rhythm, anticipation, and accuracy and I always felt that those were the traits that he needed to show to be a higher-level NFL quarterback and through five games he’s exhibited those traits – probably for as long a stretch as any point in his career. He’s playing very, very well right now.”

Is Tyler Eifert the missing piece to the Bengals offensive puzzle?

“He’s the match-up piece because he lines up anywhere. He often lines up at what we call ‘X-Iso’ where he’s the single receiver on the short side of the field and they have three wide receivers on the other side. When you do that, you get match-ups that normally favor you. If the other team plays man-to-man, who covers Eifert? A safety? A linebacker? Rarely in that situation with three wide receivers on the other side would a team put a corner on Eifert. But in the red zone, he twice beat corners. He beat (Oakland’s) Brandon Flowers and Keith McGill for touchdowns. So Eifert is really the match-up weapon to this offense.”

How are the Bengals playing on defense?

“I think they’re playing really well and I think it’s a different defense than it was previously under Paul (Guenther). I think they’ve gone much more to being a coverage team instead of a blitz team. They selectively blitz depending on down and distance and field location, but they’re not a high percentage blitz team. In fact, they’re one of the lower percentage blitz teams in the league. They’re relying on a front four that’s playing very well, and I think they’re playing to what they perceive to be their strengths.

“The guy who always both exhilarates and frustrates me is Carlos Dunlap. There are times where he plays like he’s the best defensive end in the game and you wonder why he can’t play that way on a week-to-week basis because he’s so gifted.”

Dunlap has certainly delivered on a consistent basis this year. He’s tied for the NFL lead in sacks with 5 and profootballfocus.com has him graded as the 5th-best defensive end (4-3 defenses) in the NFL through five weeks.

The Rex Effect

Despite not having made the playoffs in the last 15 years, the Buffalo Bills set a franchise record by selling more than 57,500 season tickets this season.

New head coach Rex Ryan helped to generate that excitement according to Bills radio voice John Murphy.

“He infuses the whole area with energy, enthusiasm, and a positive outlook that is in stark contrast to his predecessor,” said Murphy. “You know how head coaches have to be careful with what they say, well he always tries to tell the truth – I’ll put it that way. He doesn’t want to mislead anybody and he doesn’t want to play a lot of games. He’s just a good guy and a brilliant defensive mind – one of the best in the NFL probably over the past couple of decades.

“The community loves him. There’s a drive-through coffee shop around the corner from Ralph Wilson Stadium and I’ve had the misfortune of being behind him in line. People jump out of their cars and take cell phone pictures – he says that he hasn’t paid for a cup of coffee in weeks because people are buying his coffee. He’s a bona fide celebrity coach and I’ll tell you this; I’ve never met anyone in any walk of life that is more comfortable in his own skin than Rex Ryan.”

The S.I. Reverse Jinx?

In its NFL preview edition, Sports Illustrated tackled the impossible challenge of trying to predict the outcome of every NFL game before the season began. Here’s what they expected out of the Bengals in the first five weeks:

SI picks

Wallace Gilberry doubts that many people expected the Bengals to have a perfect record at this point.

“If you had told me that we would be 5-0 right now, I would believe it, but would you have believed it?” said Gilberry. “Looking at our schedule, every week we’ve played playoff-caliber teams and no one expected the Bengals to be sitting here 5-0. They can say they did, but they’re not telling the truth. All we can do is to keep doing what we’re doing. If our record was 0-5, we would still feel the same way. We have to go out here and do the little things to get the job done.”

Fun Facts With Chad

On Sunday’s pregame show, this week’s “Fun Facts” interview is with Chad Johnson who attended last week’s game against Seattle.

Chad and AJ Green

The first thing that Chad tweeted to his 3.5 million followers after arriving in Cincinnati last Saturday was that it was “good to be home.”

In my interview with the six-time Pro Bowler, I asked him if he still considers Cincinnati to be home.

“I always have,” Chad said. “They welcomed me with open arms and Cincinnati is all I know other than my birthplace so I consider it home.

“It’s been love man. Everywhere I went it’s been love – like literally. They’re still wearing the jersey! That’s dope.”

You can hear the entire interview at approximately 12:30 this Sunday on the Bengals radio network.

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

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Is There A Limit On Awarding Game Balls?

Since the NFL adopted its current playoff format in 1990, roughly 40% of the teams that started the season 5-0 advanced to the Super Bowl.

Yeah, yeah, I know…let’s see the Bengals win one playoff game before we start talking about getting to Santa Clara in February. But if you’re 5-0 and able to rally from 17 points down in the fourth quarter against the “Legion of Boom”, you are capable of making a Super Bowl run.

What stood out to me after Sunday’s remarkable come-from-behind win over Seattle was the sheer number of players that were worthy of receiving game balls. Such as…

Eifert Seattle

Tyler Eifert

With a legendary #85 in attendance – Chad Johnson – the current Bengals player in that uniform number had 8 catches for 90 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Additionally, his diving fingertip catch with 1:20 left in regulation to help set up Mike Nugent’s game-tying field goal was simply sensational.

“I call him a ‘Gronk,’” said A.J. Green. “He’s Gronk material. He’s a top three tight end in this league man and we’re just happy to have him back.”

Green’s comment brings to mind a recent conversation with long-time NFL coach Al Saunders who worked with the Bengals as an offensive assistant coach during training camp.

“I’ve had the great pleasure of being around probably some of the best tight ends to ever play the game,” said Saunders. “My first job in the NFL was with the San Diego Chargers and we had a guy by the name of Kellen Winslow Sr. who was a pretty good player at that position. Then I had Tony Gonzalez for 10 years and Todd Heap in Baltimore and Chris Cooley in Washington. That’s four Pro Bowl guys and two of them are arguably the best to ever play the position.

“(Eifert) has all of the characteristics to be the type of tight end that gives you a significant advantage as a match-up because he can run, he can catch the football, and he can catch it down the field. He has a great knack of tracking the football and he can block sufficiently. I think as he matures and grows, I think you’ll find that if he’s not one of the three best tight ends in the National Football League, he’ll be a premier player and a perennial Pro Bowl player. He gives you the ability to attack the middle of the field and to attack it vertically against safeties and linebackers which is a tremendous advantage for the passing game.”

Adam Jones seattle

Adam Jones

The 32-year-old was limited at practice during the week due to a groin injury and was not expected to return punts. But after the Bengals fell behind 24-7 in the third quarter, Jones informed the coaching staff that he felt good enough to give it a try.

His 33-yard return helped ignite the comeback in the fourth quarter, and a 19-yard return put the Bengals in good field position to start the game-winning drive in overtime.

After the game, Hue Jackson gave Jones a bear hug and told him that he was the toughest player pound-for-pound in the NFL.

“As the game kept going, my groin warmed up and I felt pretty comfortable,” said Jones. “It worked out today man. Coach Lewis did a good job of telling me when I can go in and when I can’t, and we’re literally over there fighting every time the ball is kicked.

“I just love the game and I play with passion. I was kind of ticked off out there when it was 24-7 and I called everybody up and said, ‘Look. No matter what happens, just keep playing.’ It worked out for us.”

Nugent Seattle

Mike Nugent

The veteran kicker missed a PAT or a field goal in three of the first four games, but Nugent made all five of his kicks on Sunday including his eighth career game-winning field goal from 42 yards out in overtime – albeit off the left upright.

“It was one of those ones where I kept my head down forever,” said Nugent. “Just keep your head down and the crowd will tell you if it goes in. I happened to peek up right when it hit the upright.

“I’ve had very patient teammates and coaches the last couple of weeks, so I’m very lucky to be able to have that opportunity.”

But there was nothing lucky about the field goal that forced overtime.

With 17 seconds on the clock and no time outs remaining, Andy Dalton was tackled from behind at Seattle’s 13 yard line. It took just 13 seconds for the Bengals to run a field goal “fire drill” and get lined up in time for Nugent to drill a 31-yard kick.

“We have never done that in our six years together here, but we work on it a good amount in training camp and practice so it was almost second nature,” Nugent told me. “Everybody did a great job because it’s tough to get the lineman aligned and get everybody out there. I’ve got to give some credit to the refs. They spotted the ball right away so I actually had a decent amount of time to take my steps.”

Dunlap Seattle

Carlos Dunlap

The sixth year defensive end finished with six quarterback hits and 1 ½ sacks including a shared sack with Emmanuel Lamur on Seattle’s final offensive play in overtime.

After Seattle took a 17-point lead with 6:41 left in the third quarter, the Bengals defense forced the Seahawks to punt on their final six possessions.

“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but you just have to control what you can,” said Dunlap. “Just win the next series. That’s all (the defense) can do. I can’t go out there and catch the ball. I mean, I could, but I’m not on that side. So I’m going to control what I can on my side and that’s sacks, hits, and pressures on Russell Wilson.”

Dunlap has five sacks after five games and the Bengals have 15 as a team. They need just five to equal their total from last season.

Dalton Seattle

Andy Dalton

In the fourth quarter this year, Dalton is 22-for-29 for 347 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions. That’s a passer rating of 154.7. A perfect score is 158.3.

And the comeback that he engineered on Sunday was against the NFL’s stingiest defense. In the last three years, Seattle has led the league in points allowed by surrendering 15.3, 14.4, and 15.9 points a game. The Bengals turned the Seahawks into the “Legion of Gloom” by scoring 17 in the fourth quarter.

“That’s the most talented group of rushers and defense that we’ve ever faced,” said Andrew Whitworth. “They’ve got guys everywhere that are good.

“Being able to overcome what we did against that kind of talent is a heck of a message.”

Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, who called the game for Fox-TV on Sunday, told us on the “Bengals Pep Rally” show this week that he’s been highly impressed with Dalton this season.

“It takes a few years before you are really able to settle in and that’s what I see in Andy,” said Aikman. “Now that he’s in his fifth season, he’s been hardened a little bit, he’s been knocked around some, he’s had some really fine games, and he’s had some disappointments.

“The Bengals probably take more shots down the field than any team we’ve seen this year. You see a lot of horizontal passing teams, but they’ve been able to take advantage of some of the skill position players that they have and Andy has put the ball on the money when he’s had opportunities. I’ve been really impressed with the way he’s played.”

I suspect Aikman’s opinion of Dalton is even more favorable after what he witnessed first-hand on Sunday.

So now it’s on to Buffalo and a chance to equal the best start in franchise history as the Bengals started 6-0 in 1975 and 1988.

“We’re worked really hard to be where we’re at and for us, we’re trying to get to 6-0,” said Dalton. “Each week’s important and we’ve put ourselves in a really good position to start this week off.”

“No matter where we are right now, if we don’t finish, the start won’t be remembered,” said Dunlap. “We’ll be remembered for how we finish.”

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

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What’s Different With Dalton?

What’s different about Andy Dalton?

Dalton high five

The Bengals quarterback gets that question every week. So do his teammates and coaches. So do those of us that cover the team (when we’re not the ones asking about it).

There isn’t one correct answer. Instead, there are a series of factors – some beyond his control — that help explain Dalton’s sensational start.

Comfortability

Now in his fifth NFL season and second with Hue Jackson as offensive coordinator, Dalton clearly has a total understanding of the Bengals offense. Additionally, between practices and games he’s thrown thousands of passes to the same group of receivers to develop exquisite timing.

“He’s doing a good job of distributing the ball,” said Marvin Lewis. “It’s always helpful when guys get to the right spots.”

“He’s seeing the field, he’s making all of the right checks, and it seems like every time he checks to something it turns out to be very productive,” said my broadcast partner Dave Lapham. “I think that shows his comfort level and understanding of every intricacy of that offense. He has got it down cold and is playing at a super high level.”

Confidence

Consider last week’s come-from-behind win at Baltimore. When Dalton’s fourth quarter fumble was returned for a touchdown by C.J. Mosley, the Bengals found themselves trailing for the first time all season.

Dalton remained confident and his coaches and teammates took notice.

“When that happened I wanted to see how he was going to respond,” said Jackson. “He came over and said, ‘Coach. That’s on me. I get it and we’re going to go win this game. We don’t need to rush. Let’s just stick to our plan. But if you want to chuck one down there, we can do that too.’ He said it with a big smile on his face, and to me, the calmness that he had gave the rest of the offensive unit calmness. I saw him really emerge right then and there. That’s what leadership is all about.”

Pick Your Poison

The Bengals have had a different player lead the team in combined rushing/receiving yards in each of the first four games: Tyler Eifert (Oakland – 104), Giovani Bernard (San Diego – 139), A.J. Green (Baltimore – 227), and Mohamed Sanu (Kansas City – 84).

Add Jeremy Hill, Marvin Jones, Rex Burkhead, and Brandon Tate (whose 55-yard TD catch vs. the Chiefs came on his first offensive snap all season), and Dalton has the ability to attack the weakness of the opponent’s defense instead of forcing the ball to a particular target.

“Every week it’s going to be different guys making plays,” said Dalton. “That’s the good thing about this team – we have a lot of different guys that can make them.”

“We have so many playmakers that you never know when your time is going to come,” said Sanu.

Balance

So far this season, the Bengals have run the ball 124 times and thrown it 116 times. Bernard and Hill have combined to rush for 460 yards which projects to 1,840 yards in a 16-game season. That forces the defense to defend the run and gives Dalton more openings to exploit in the secondary.

“I don’t think you can just drop back and keep throwing it play after play after play,” said Jackson. “You have to have a semblance of a running game to be good in the National Football League and you’ve got to have balance. We’re built that way. We have a bunch of players that can do a lot of different things and that’s how you can cause the most headaches for defenses.”

In Sunday’s win, the Bengals ran for four touchdowns in the red zone against a team that had not given up a rushing touchdown all season.

“A lot of those plays were pass plays and Andy did a good job of getting us into the right play,” said Hill.

Protection

The Kansas City Chiefs have two of the NFL’s most potent pass rushers in Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. Their Pro Bowl nose tackle Dontari Poe added six sacks last season. On Sunday, that trio did not have a single quarterback hit, much less a sack.

“Hue puts dots on guys every week,” said Andre Smith. “He put the dots on those three guys and we had to take care of them. They make the big plays for that defense and we knew that if we could control those guys we would have a great chance of winning.”

After four games the Bengals have only allowed two sacks – tied for the fewest in the NFL with the New York Jets.

“The offensive line is playing extremely well,” said Hill. “They’re protecting Andy and getting push in the running game. They’re just doing their thing. Paul Alexander is doing a great job of coaching them up.”

“We take pride in keeping Andy clean,” said Smith. “If he’s upright, he can make our offense go as fast as we want to go. If he’s on the ground we’re going to have issues, so we decided to keep him clean.”

Dalton scramble

Improvisation

On Tate’s 55-yard TD catch, Dalton was flushed out of the pocket, scrambled to his right, and floated a long ball after the wide receiver saw what was happening and went deep.

“He did a great job,” said Dalton. “He saw me get out of the pocket and went off of his route and made a huge play.”

“Tate did a great job of doing what he’s coached to do,” said Lewis.

Jackson has had the Bengals regularly practicing scramble drills and has tweaked the receivers’ responsibilities when Dalton vacates the pocket. In Oakland, it resulted in a 24-yard pass to Rex Burkhead. In Baltimore, the game-winning touchdown drive began when Dalton escaped pressure and found Bernard for a 23-yard gain.

Leadership

Dalton is not Boomer Esiason. Being the vocal leader of 53 guys isn’t wired into his DNA. But at the age of 27 with four playoff trips behind him, Andy is clearly more comfortable is that role.

“It’s been a process for him obviously, but I think he’s Andy Dalton,” said Jackson. “He understands that there’s more to it than just playing quarterback. You are the leader and you’re the face of the franchise. You need to get the defense going, and you need to get the special teams going as well as the offense. I think he’s taken that on his shoulder and I think to a man in the locker room, I think everybody is pulling on the same rope with him.”

“It’s just Andy being Andy,” said Sanu. “He’s very smart, very accurate, and he’s taking advantage of what’s around him. We look up to him and know that he’s our leader so we’re going to go as he leads us.”

OK. I have written 1,133 words about Andy Dalton and I know what many of you are thinking: “Yeah, yeah. We’ve seen this before in the regular season. Let’s see him do it in a playoff game.”

“I don’t agree with that,” said Jackson. “I don’t think he has done it like this before.

“And we’re looking forward to squashing some of the things that are said about him. He’s playing good and he has to continue to play good in order for us to win.”

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

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Deja Vu In Baltimore

Five days after the passing of Yogi Berra it was déjà vu all over again.

Last year in Baltimore, the Bengals blew a 15-0 halftime lead and fell behind in the fourth quarter before winning on a 77-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green with 4:58 remaining.

This year, the Bengals blew a 14-0 halftime lead and fell behind twice in the fourth quarter before Green answered both times. His 80-yard touchdown grab came 12 seconds after Baltimore took the lead for the first time, and his 7-yard game-winning TD happened 1 minute and 46 seconds after Cincinnati trailed for the second and final time.

Green game winning TD at Baltimore 2015

“It was fun man,” said Green. “We know that every time we come up here that it’s going to be a fight. We stayed the course and just ran our offense and it worked out.”

“What is there to say?” said Marvin Jones. “He’s a great talent obviously. He made the big play that gave us some juice and we feed off of him.”

Green’s biggest play was the 80-yard stadium silencer that came on the first play from scrimmage after C.J. Mosley recovered an Andy Dalton fumble and raced 41 yards for a touchdown to give Baltimore a 17-14 lead with 6:49 on the clock.

“That was the first time we were down all year,” said Domata Peko. “We just had to keep our composure and we did.”

“I was next to (Director of Player Relations) Eric Ball on the sidelines because we only had two receivers out there,” said Mohamed Sanu. “He told me what the play was and said, ‘Watch. In about two minutes it’s about to get real quiet.’ It sure did. A.J. made a phenomenal play. (Eric) came running over and said, ‘I told you! I told you!’ It was pretty cool.”

But the home crowd wasn’t silent for very long as Steve Smith hauled in a 16-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to give Baltimore a 24-21 lead with 3:56 remaining. Smith finished with 13 catches for 186 yards and two touchdowns.

“His competitiveness is breathtaking,” said my broadcast partner Dave Lapham. “In my mind he is Corey Dillon at wide receiver. They couldn’t tackle him because he refused to be tackled. He was just better than they were when they were one-on-one in space.”

For the second straight year in the last five minutes of the Ravens home opener, it was up to the Bengals offense to deliver a game-winning drive.

“If you would have looked into our huddle, our faces all said, ‘We’re going to get this,’” said Jones.

“Of course we were upset, but we knew what we had to do,” said Sanu. “You can’t drop your head. We knew there was time on the clock and that we had to go make plays.”

Jones vs Ravens

On the Bengals final drive it wasn’t strictly the A.J. Green show. Dalton completed four straight passes to four different targets: Giovani Bernard for 23 yards, Sanu for 19, Jones for 31, and Green for the 7-yard touchdown to win the game 28-24.

“Marv made a big play to get us down there,” said Green. “Mo made a 5-yard route into like a 15-yard play. Andy made a play with his legs where he got the ball to Gio and he picked up 23 yards. It’s not just me. We’ve got playmakers all over this field.”

“That’s what we say in the receiver room: ‘Pick your poison,’” said Jones. “We’re all going to do what we have to do to catch the ball and make big plays when we need them. It didn’t come as a surprise. Andy did a great job of getting us the ball and we just did the fun part.”

The end result is a 3-0 record and five wins over the Ravens in their last six meetings.

“We still have things to fix, but at the same time, we have resolve,” said Jones. “They came back and turned it up a little bit, but we did too.”

“To show the fiber that they showed is something that I think will carry over,” said Lapham. “To fall behind twice and answer quickly – I think that’s going to play well during the course of the season.”

“It’s not our first rodeo,” said Green. “We were here last year in the same situation and came out with the ‘W.’ We didn’t flinch.”

“It was kind of like déjà vu,” said Peko.

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

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Bits From The Booth: Baltimore

This Thursday, the UC Bearcats played the first of three straight nationally televised weeknight games when they faced Memphis. Next Thursday, the Bearcats host the University of Miami, and 15 days later they travel to Utah for a Friday night game at BYU.

The non-Saturday games are probably not ideal for many Bearcats fans, but they are helpful to a certain broadcaster trying to get from one assignment to the next.

The BYU game is on the same weekend that the Bengals are in Buffalo. I haven’t checked, but I’m guessing that there aren’t a lot of “red-eye” flights from Provo to Buffalo.

So thank you ESPN for making my travel itinerary a little easier.

Now time for this week’s Bits From The Booth.

Dalton Defender

When Memphis beat Cincinnati 53-46 on Thursday, it gave the Tigers an 11-game winning streak.

Justin Fuente

Memphis is coached by Justin Fuente who was the quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator at TCU when Andy Dalton played for the Horned Frogs. Prior to Thursday’s game against the Bearcats, I asked Fuente about his former quarterback.

“He drove through Memphis not too long ago and we sat down and ate lunch and he seems to be handling everything in stride,” Fuente told me. “That league is so tough. I know that the people of Cincinnati are hungry for playoff success and I certainly understand that, and I know that Andy is too. I just hope that they can get to that point with a healthy roster and can really put their best foot forward because I think they have had some things working against them over the last couple of years. But he seems to be handling it well and I know he really loves living there and being a part of the Bengals organization.”

Does it hurt you when you hear or read people taking shots at him?

“Of course it does. Obviously I’m not his dad, but I’m close to him and I know what kind of person he is. It’s the same way I feel about our current players. But it’s part of the business. Right or wrong, that’s the way it goes – especially when you play that position. A lot of people say that you get paid good money not for the hits that you take on the field but for the hits you take off the field. That part if probably true, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t stick up for him because I certainly will.”

Every Play Rey

If you had to guess which Bengals defensive player has not missed a snap so far this season would your answer be Vinny Rey?

The fifth year linebacker has been on the field for all 127 defensive snaps in the first two games and clinched last week’s win over San Diego with a spectacular juggling interception.

“I’m thankful because there was a time where I would never get snaps on defense,” Rey told me. “I love being out there. I know that I need to continue to play better and I know that I can.”

“He’s tremendously valuable,” said defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. “He’s the brains of the operation out there and understands what we’re trying to get done. He’s a guy that can play all three linebacker positions and when Vontaze got hurt last year he stepped in and did a nice job for us. He’s carrying that over to this year so we’re glad to have him out there.”

Rey has gone from being an undrafted free agent…to a practice squad player…to a special teams standout…to an indispensable member of the defense.

I asked the former Duke captain to explain the key to his hard-earned NFL success.

“There are a lot of things that happened in my favor and were out of my control, but listening to the coaches and the authority figures has really helped me,” Vinny said. “They’ve been coaching and have been around the game for a long time, and listening to them and doing what they say over and over and over really helps.”

Takeo’s Takes

Former Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes, now covering the league for Sirius NFL Radio, was among our guests on Friday on the “Bengals Pep Rally” show (3-6 on ESPN 1530).

Takeo Spikes

Takeo spent a day at Bengals training camp in early August and came away raving about Geno Atkins. On Friday I asked Spikes how he could tell from watching one practice that Atkins was back to his pre-injury dominance.

“This was the first indication,” said Spikes. “It was 9-on-7 and they ran a power play with Jeremy Hill running to the right side. Geno was on the back side so the center blocks back on the three technique (Atkins). Geno literally ran through the center and made the play in the backfield for a tackle for a loss. I never had an ACL injury, but I’ve talked to plenty of guys that have and the hardest thing to do is to not only generate power, but to be able to redirect and get upfield. He did all of that on one play. Then another time on 11-on-11, they did a play-action pass where Geno kind of paused a little bit while he looked at the running back and diagnosed the play. Then he immediately got on his saddle, got back upfield and did a pass rush move where he spun his hips and cleared the offensive guard and put all his weight on the surgically-repaired ACL. I knew at that time that he was back.”

The Bengals are obviously hoping for a similar recovery by linebacker Vontaze Burfict when he returns from microfracture knee surgery. Burfict will be eligible to come off of the PUP list in time for the November 1 game at Pittsburgh.

“I love the fact that he plays the game with reckless abandon,” said Spikes. “He doesn’t even care about his body, so you know darn well that he doesn’t care about the person that he’s getting ready to hit. I love that about him. That may be the reason why he’s out right now. But he’s a relentless guy. He’s a tone-setter, and I love the way that he plays the game. When I watch him play he can probably come off as being a little selfish, but he wants to make every play and there’s nothing wrong with that. As an inside backer you have to feel that way. You have to feel like you’re the last line of defense. If they get past you, then chances are it’s going to be a score. I think that mentality is what makes him such a good football player. I wish he could stay healthy, because if he does, he would definitely be one of the better linebackers in the league.”

Several years ago when Bengals fans voted on a 40th Anniversary Team, Spikes received the second-most votes at linebacker behind Reggie Williams.

Willing To Share

In 2013, Giovani Bernard was the first running back selected in the NFL draft. The following year, Jeremy Hill was the second running back picked.

Last week’s win over the Chargers provided a reminder that both are among the best running backs in the NFL.

Hill was the league’s leading rusher over the final nine weeks of the 2014 season, but when he fumbled two times in 10 carries last Sunday, Bernard stayed on the field for nearly every snap and carried 20 times for 123 yards.

After the game, Hill didn’t complain saying that he deserved to be benched and that he was happy for Bernard. Gio deflected praise and said that Hill would bounce back quickly.

This week I asked Marvin Lewis if their willingness to share the load without complaint was unusual in this day and age.

“I think their humility and their ability to be good pros is exceptional,” Lewis told me. “That’s the key element for them to continue to be successful in the league – not only this year but in future years. It’s going to come to that for those guys. That’s where everything is headed. There’s too much pounding for one back to take and you have to feel like you’re a starter even if you’re not the first guy that runs out there because maybe the next time you are. So you’ve got to prepare that way each and every week.”

Quoth The (Former) Raven

Brad Jackson has a unique perspective on a Bengals/Ravens match-up.

Brad Jackson

The former UC linebacker spent his first three NFL seasons in Baltimore and was a member of Marvin Lewis’s record-setting defense on the Ravens’ 2000 Super Bowl winning team. Last year, Jackson worked with Coach Lewis as a coaching intern during training camp for the Bengals.

Jackson currently covers the Ravens for CSN Mid-Atlantic and described the mood in Baltimore after the team’s 0-2 start.

“Right now they don’t have their hand on the panic button but it is close by,” said Jackson. “There’s a lot of concern here.

“Right now there’s no identity. It week one they couldn’t do anything against the Broncos defense. In week two, the offense got it together and the defense didn’t even leave the hotel. Right now they’re counting on the home crowd here in Baltimore and they’re trying to find a way to get a win. Next Wednesday they have to get on a plane and go to Pittsburgh in a short week, so they could go from 0-2 to 0-4 very quickly, or they could have a chance to be 2-2. Iit all starts with trying to figure out that Cincinnati Bengals offense and defense come Sunday at 1 o’clock.”

It should be a great game. Andrew Whitworth is the subject of this week’s “Fun Facts” interview on the Bengals radio network pregame show. It should run at approximately 12:30.

Talk to you from the booth at Paul Brown Stadium. Hope you’ll be listening.

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

If you’re on Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard

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Dalton Quiets Critics…For Now

It was Cincinnati vs. San Diego and Bengals fans turned on their starting quarterback.

His name was Ken Anderson.

Anderson vs Chargers

I’m referring to a 31-14 home loss to the Chargers in 1980. Here’s how it was described in the UPI’s account of the game:

“When Anderson trotted onto the field to start each new offensive series, some of the fans booed. Late in the third quarter when Anderson went down with an injury to an already gimpy knee, cheers erupted from several sections of the stadium”

So if anybody can identify with the harsh treatment that the current #14 often receives, it’s the quarterback who wore that number in Cincinnati for 16 seasons.

“It goes with the territory,” said Anderson. “If you want to play quarterback in the NFL, that’s all part of it. They love you when you’re playing good, and when you’re not playing good, the most popular guy in town is the backup. You’ve got to have thick skin. (Andy Dalton’s) had so much success already in his career. For crying out loud – the numbers of games that he’s won, going to the playoffs in his first four years – it’s been remarkable.”

Dalton fist pump

Remarkable is a good word to describe Dalton’s play in the first two games of the season. He’s completed 68% of his passes with 5 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and has a passer rating of 120.3.

“He hasn’t made any mistakes and he’s not a game-manager either,” said tight end Tyler Eifert. “We’re making big plays and we’re taking care of the football.”

Eifert has been on the receiving end of three of Dalton’s five touchdown passes in the first two games, including what proved to be the game-winner on Sunday. With a 17-13 lead in the fourth quarter, the Bengals faced third-and-goal from the Chargers’ 9-yard-line. The 25-year-old tight end lined up as the lone receiver to the right and faked an outside move before getting inside position on San Diego cornerback Brandon Flowers. As soon as Tyler got separation, Dalton hit him in the back of the end zone.

“It was a perfect ball because it went right by his fingertips,” said Eifert. “I kind of took a while at the line, but Andy stuck with it.”

Dalton also made a pretty throw to A.J. Green to beat Flowers for the Bengals’ first touchdown. Green had a seven inch height advantage in that match-up, and the Bengals quarterback tossed it high enough where Flowers was defenseless.

“We do that every day in practice,” said Green. “Just give me a chance and I’ll go try to make a play. It’s as simple as that.”

“He put the ball up in their eyes where we want it,” said head coach Marvin Lewis.

The stats through two games speak for themselves, but earlier this week, I asked offensive coordinator Hue Jackson to take us behind the scenes into the locker room and the meeting rooms and tell us what he sees out of Dalton.

“I see a different quarterback,” Jackson told me. “I see a quarterback that’s functioning at a high level on-and-off the field with his teammates. I think there is a confidence there and I think there is a comfortability between him and myself, and I think he knows that there’s nothing that we can’t talk about. There might be something that he sees differently than me and we can have that conversation. There might be something that he feels very strongly about and wants to do and my door is always open. To me, that’s the quarterback’s deal. This is your offensive football team. We’re going to go as you go. And you should never go into the game feeling uncomfortable about anything. You should feel very comfortable about what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Dalton obviously won’t have a triple digit passer rating every week and won’t silence his critics until he achieves postseason success.

But first he has to lead the team back to the playoffs, and he’s guided the Bengals to a 2-0 start.

“Andy is a great quarterback,” said Green. “He gets us in great position to score. He’s not going to make any big mistakes and he’s playing great. And if we keep making plays when our number is called he’s going to play even better.”

“He’s done so much work this offseason,” said Jackson. “I cannot commend him enough and hopefully we can stay consistent and he can continue to play like that for the rest of the year.”

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

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Bits From The Booth: San Diego

If Sunday’s game was in San Diego, the Bengals would be a lock.

San Diego broadcasting (440x330)

I’ve had the pleasure of calling eight sporting events in San Diego and Cincinnati has won all of them.

2001: Bearcats beat BYU and Kent State in NCAA Tourney to advance to Sweet 16.

2005: Reds sweep a 3-game series vs. the Padres (subbed for George Grande).

2007: UC football team beats San Diego State 52-23.

2012: Bengals beat Chargers 20-13.

2013: Bengals beat Chargers 17-10.

I interviewed to be one of the Padres’ radio announcers once and did not get the job. They missed out on the opportunity to go 81-0 at home.

Enough about me…time for this week’s Bits From The Booth.

Eagle Eye:

Ian Eagle, who will call Sunday’s game on CBS-TV with Dan Fouts, joined Dave Lapham and me on Wednesday night’s “Bengals Game Plan” show. Ian typically broadcasts a few Bengals games every season and told us that he’s impressed by Cincinnati’s ability to draft and develop players.

“The Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers get a lot of credit for homegrown talent and developing talent,” Eagle told us. “When I was going through my prep and my spotting boards and looking through my stuff from last year, it just blows my mind how good the Bengals have been in the draft. And not just hitting home runs occasionally which you have to do – we know that – but a lot of doubles and triples. They’re so efficient year after year. Fourth round picks that play for them, sixth round picks that stick around for a length of time. That’s saying something. It’s saying something about Mike Brown, it’s saying something about Marvin Lewis and this staff and their ability to dissect talent at the collegiate level and translate it to the professional level. Now you know better than me that at the end of the year they’re going to have a lot of decisions to make. There are a bunch of unrestricted free agents on this team, so if this is the last go-round for this particular group as it’s currently constituted, I’m sure they want to change the way there are perceived around this league. The only way to do that is by going out in the postseason and winning a game or two.”

Howdy Neighbor:

UC head coach Tommy Tuberville has a vacation home in Destin, FL. Believe it or not, his next-door neighbor is Chargers’ quarterback Philip Rivers.

“I’ve known Philip for a long time,” said Tuberville. “I’ve actually known his dad a lot longer – his dad is a football coach from Athens, Alabama and when I was at Auburn we actually recruited Philip. Now this is how good of a recruiter I am – I told him that he couldn’t play quarterback; he was probably going to have to play tight end. He was coming to Auburn, and then North Carolina State came in at the last minute and offered him a scholarship to play quarterback. I said, ‘Hey, if you want to play quarterback you probably need to go there because it’s going to be tough to beat out Jason Campbell.’ That’s who we had coming in. We’ve become good friends ever since and recently, in the last eight or nine months, he bought a house next to me in Destin and we kind of renewed our friendship during a week of vacation. He’s got seven kids with an eighth on the way and I tell you, he just loves football. He and Peyton Manning are nearly identical in that they are hard workers, love football, and really understand it. Philip was really excited about his next few years in the NFL.”

With his large – and growing – family, Rivers has to be the only quarterback in the NFL that drives a 12-passenger van.

What’s My Line?

San Diego enters Sunday’s game with some issues on its offensive line. Projected starter Johnnie Trautman suffered a broken arm in the Chargers’ first preseason game and right guard D.J. Fluker was taken off the field on a cart with an ankle injury last week vs. Detroit. Fluker is listed as doubtful for this week’s game.

The likely starter at right guard is converted tackle Chris Hairston who would frequently be matched up against Geno Atkins. Not a fun way to make your first NFL start at guard.

The Chargers are accustomed to having to make changes on the offensive line. Last year they became the first team since the NFL/AFL merger in 1970 to use five starting centers in a season: Nick Hardwick, Rich Ohrnberger, Doug Legursky, Chris Watt, and (former Bengal) Trevor Robinson. That was one of the big reasons why San Diego missed the playoffs last season after a 5-1 start.

Philip Rivers face

Read My Lips:

Last week, the Chargers fell behind Detroit 21-3 before rallying to beat the Lions 33-28. Rivers threw a pick-six in the second quarter and a terrible red zone interception just before halftime before going 21-for-23 in the second half with a team-record 20 straight completions to end the game.

Chargers radio voice Josh Lewin jokingly told us on the “Bengals Pep Rally” show on Friday that you could tell that Rivers was going to turn it around by his language.

“He looks like he’s just a complete maniac on the field, but he doesn’t swear,” said Lewin. “He’s a real goody-goody – he doesn’t drink and he doesn’t swear. You could actually read his lips when he underthrew Malcom Floyd at the end of the second quarter. He let out this huge, ‘Dad-gummit!’ You kind of knew at that point, ‘Ok, now it’s on.’ Once you hear ‘dad-gummit,’ things are about to turn and they did.”

After one week, Rivers leads the NFL in passing yards (404), completion percentage (83.3) and dad-gummits (1).

He Who Shall Not Be Named:

Every Wednesday on “Bengals Game Plan,” we do a deep dive with one of the Bengals assistant coaches and this week it was tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes. Here’s what he had to say about the players he’s currently working with: Tyler Eifert, Ryan Hewitt, Tyler Kroft, C.J. Uzomah, and practice squad member Matt Lengel.

“They’re very willing young men and it’s fun when you have a bunch of guys that come to work every day to get better,” said Hayes. “That’s all you ask for as a coach. As a player, I sat in their seats and I wanted to be the same way. You don’t want to be the guy that’s always misstepping. You want to be the guy that’s helping to bring the room up and I think they all do in their own way. It’s good to see and it’s fun to be around. I’m really enjoying coaching these guys.”

Coach Hayes did not specifically mention Jermaine Gresham but you can’t help but wonder if the former first round pick did not fit the above description. In case you missed it, Gresham had 1 catch for 4 yards in Arizona’s season opener.

Mariota debut

Mr. Perfect:

Marcus Mariota began his NFL career by posting a perfect passer rating (158.3) against Tampa Bay. Former Oregon teammate Jake Fisher claims that he was not surprised.

“I told everybody that he’s going to be one of the best that’s ever played this game,” said Fisher.

Fisher helped to protect Mariota’s blind side last year and I asked Jake what it meant to him when his teammate won the Heisman Trophy.

“I guess I can say that I helped a little bit,” Fisher told me. “I was a leader in my group, but that guy works so hard and does such a great job at what he does. He puts his whole lifestyle into it. And off the field he’s a high-character guy that’s probably the best person that I’ve ever met. So for me, nothing personal came from that but I was so happy for him to get that award. He should have had it two years in a row in my opinion. I was extremely happy for him and excited about everything that he’s accomplished.”

Jake Fisher is the subject of this week’s “Fun Facts” interview on the Bengals radio network pregame show. It should run at approximately 12:30.

Among other things, we’ll discuss this.

Talk to you from the booth at Paul Brown Stadium. Hope you’ll be listening.

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

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