AFC North: AFC North

CINCINNATI -- Leah Still was just waking up after seven hours under anesthesia when her father and other family members tried to help her sit up in her bed at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

The 4-year-old who had spent much of last Thursday under doctors' supervision following a near six-hour surgery to remove a tumor from inside her body, was defiant.

She didn't want any help sitting up in her bed. She wanted to do it on her own. She did. Not just once, but twice.

[+] EnlargeDevon Still
Aaron Doster/USA TODAY SportsDevon Still said his daughter, Leah, is in good spirits after she had a cancerous tumor removed from her body last week.
That's when the long-held suspicions of her dad, Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still, began ringing true. It was at that moment that he realized she was going to beat the stage 4 cancer that had been ravaging her body since June.

"She's going to bounce back from this fast because she's a trooper," Devon Still said in front of his Bengals locker Monday as he reflected upon what he saw from his daughter up close last week. "She's going to fight her way through this."

Still was back in the Bengals' locker room after spending the bulk of last week's bye in and around Philadelphia in order to watch his daughter as she underwent this latest round of treatments to eliminate the cancer that's called neuroblastoma.

A trip to a movie theater was the highlight of the week for Leah, who spent time the night before her surgery with friends and family in a packed viewing area while the movie "Dolphin Tale 2" played on the big screen. The same night as the movie viewing, Still began psyching Leah up for what she was about to endure.

He said he spoke to her about what surgery was. He tried to ease her uncertainty and answer any questions she had. To help illustrate his responses, Still asked her to look at his ankle, knee and back. In each of those places, the 25-year-old lineman has scars from his own series of surgeries.

The ploy helped, but she still was scared of what loomed the next morning.

So, in an effort to make his little girl smile, Still recorded a video that went viral the instant he uploaded it to Instagram.

"On the way to the hospital she was looking sad," Still said Monday. "You see in the beginning of the video that I said, 'I'm going to say it again.' The first time I asked her she was really down. She didn't really say anything. That's when I asked her again and that's when she started getting happy. So it was just to try to put a smile on her face and not to make her so nervous."

Still and the Bengals -- who originally cut him at the end of the preseason before adding him to their practice squad in part to help him retain health insurance to pay for Leah's treatments -- have put smiles on countless faces across the globe the past few weeks. On Sunday, the team announced it had sold close to 10,000 of the reserve lineman's jerseys, and that it was picking up the cost ($500,000 total) of making each one. That meant that full proceeds from the sales of Still's $100 jersey were going to the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center for pediatric cancer research efforts.

By Sunday, the Bengals reported they had raised more than $1 million in nearly three weeks.

Jerseys have been purchased by people in every state, as well as Canada, Australia, England and Finland. Rapper Nelly is among those who have reached out to Still since his story was made public.

"We thought it was vital to get out the [story of] everyday life of a family who is going through life with a child that has cancer," Still said, "just to let everybody know how much support families need financially and just emotionally."

Still was hopeful Leah would be leaving the hospital and going home Monday to Wilmington, Delaware, where her mother and other members of Still's family take care of her while he's in Cincinnati. After some weeks, she'll get back to chemotherapy and radiation therapy and will undergo stem-cell treatments to regenerate her bone marrow.

"For them to be able to remove all the tumor," Still said, "just puts a smile on her face and it gives us something to hope for."
CINCINNATI -- With their Sunday night game at New England looming, the Cincinnati Bengals returned to practice Monday afternoon and did so at near-full capacity.

Only three players not on injury lists -- linebacker Vontaze Burfict, defensive tackle Brandon Thompson and offensive guard Kevin Zeitler -- did not practice. Everyone else participated in the workout in some capacity. It's unclear who was limited and who participated fully since the team wasn't required to submit an official injury report.

The Bengals normally stay off the practice field Monday and use the day for film review, but last week's bye gave them an opportunity to go outside a little earlier in the week than normal. The NFL still won't require them to submit an injury report until Wednesday.

Burfict, Thompson and Zeitler each missed the Bengals' Week 3 game against the Titans. The week before, Burfict had suffered his second concussion in two games. Thompson had been run from the Bengals' Week 2 win against the Falcons with a knee injury, and Zeitler picked up a calf injury in the same game.

Those three weren't at practice during the 30 minutes media were permitted to watch, but receiver Marvin Jones and defensive end Margus Hunt were among those who were. Jones was working out for only the second time since breaking his foot in the preseason. He practiced last Tuesday in the lone workout of the week. Hunt was banged up in the Week 3 game, but appears likely to participate in Week 5.

Along with those two, running back Rex Burkhead and linebacker Sean Porter also practiced for only the second time since the preseason. Burkhead said Monday that he wasn't sure what his exact role would be in the running back rotation as a reserve behind Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill.

"Whatever role the coaches want me to have and whatever they want to use me for, I'm up for that," Burkhead said. "Whatever way I can get out on the field."
BEREA, Ohio -- Head coach Mike Pettine told the Cleveland Browns to make “good choices” as they head out of town for the team’s bye week.

“You hate dwelling on the negative, but we’ve very aware of the scrutiny that NFL players are under,” Pettine said. “We’re more under -- coaches and players -- more under a microscope than most.

“They represent not just themselves, but their families and the Cleveland Browns -- their teammates -- when they’re out of the building. I just kept stressing it to them. ‘Surround yourself with good people. Make good choices.’”

Most players left in a hurry. Johnny Manziel was one of the first ones out of the locker room and did not address the media. Joe Thomas was gone in less than 15 minutes.

Quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains said he thought Manziel would attend the Arkansas-Texas A&M game in Dallas on Saturday, and Loggains addressed the quarterbacks as a group.

Obviously, the Browns are aware that a photo of Manziel could appear on the internet at any time, but Pettine said he had no special message for Manziel other than the one he gave the team.

“We’ll check in with our guys over the time,” Pettine said. “But we didn’t treat him any different.”
CINCINNATI -- Herm Edwards has been connected to the NFL in some form or fashion for parts of five decades.

So when he shares his wisdom on the league, I pay attention.

On Thursday morning, the former player and coach, now an ESPN NFL analyst, wrote a piece for ESPN Insider outlining why he believed the Cincinnati Bengals are the best team in football. I won't divulge too much of his Insider post, but at the heart of his argument is the same thing myself and others have been saying: The Bengals have the most complete three victories of any team in the league so far this year.

That's the No. 1 reason why, to me at least, the Bengals deserve to be No. 1 in any power rankings that come out this week. That's the case I attempted to make after learning the Bengals were ranked one spot short at No. 2 this week.

When we talk about the Bengals' offense, we have to begin with quarterback Andy Dalton. As was noted in this post earlier in the day, he's clearly improved against the blitz, and his offensive line is doing a beyond admirable job protecting for him. His receivers have run timely routes, and the measure of creativity offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has brought to the entire offense has kicked it into a gear beyond what many could have foreseen in the offseason.

About the only real issues the Bengals have on that side of the ball are their difficulty scoring touchdowns from the red zone and the problems they have had in consistently picking up big gains on the ground. If they can solve those two problems at New England next Sunday, when they return after this week's bye, they could become even more dangerous.

Defensively, the Bengals have forced enough pressure to stymie a couple good quarterbacks and have come away with timely turnovers. The unit, largely unchanged from last year -- excluding the change at coordinator -- handled the Patriots well at home last October. Tom Brady's streak of 52 consecutive games with a touchdown pass ended in the Bengals' 13-6 victory that was aided by a sudden late-game rain shower that made it difficult for Brady to pass and his receivers to see during a hopeful comeback drive.

Third-down play continues to be important for Cincinnati's defense, which got off the field 10 times out of 12 last Sunday against the Tennessee Titans. After giving up two third-down conversions on the game's opening drive, the Bengals held firm on the final 10 third-down plays they encountered.

Combine that defensive effort with the offense's improvements and punter Kevin Huber's consistent inside-the-20 accuracy, and you get a good team.

A team that Edwards, among others, considers the best.
CINCINNATI -- A case could be made that through three ballgames the Cincinnati Bengals have the best offensive line in the NFL.

The sole basis of that case?

It's the fact the Bengals' line still has yet to let quarterback Andy Dalton get sacked. No other team in the league can make that claim about their quarterback.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsCincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton has not been sacked a single time through three games this season.
In order to understand how good the Bengals' offensive line has been, though, you have to also know how good Dalton and his pass catchers and route runners have been early this season, too.

Strangely enough, as good as the Bengals have been at preventing sacks, they actually aren't the best in the league at completely controlling the line of scrimmage.

That honor goes to the San Diego Chargers.

Using statistics from ESPN Stats & Information, the Bengals actually rank ninth in the league in pass-protection percentage, with a 52.1 percent protection rate. In addition to trailing the stat-leading Chargers, they're behind the Ravens and Titans, two teams the Bengals' own defense got to for a combined five sacks in games earlier this season.

How does one explain that phenomenon? How is it possible for teams that have allowed multiple sacks to have a better pass-protection percentage than a team that hasn't allowed a sack? Because this particular statistic takes into account the percentage of plays the offense controls the line of scrimmage on pass plays, scrambles included. How do you measure how a unit controls the line of scrimmage? You factor in hurries, pressures, hits and blitzes.

When you consider how often the Bengals have been under pressure in these three games, you realize they can't be perfect controlling the line of scrimmage. Blitzes will get through.

Even if they are, the beauty of them as far as Dalton is concerned is that they aren't having an effect. He's performing better against the blitz through three games this year than he did at this point last season.

Per Stats & Information, Dalton was blitzed on 43 dropbacks through three games last year as opposed to 28 so far this season. Sure, the pressure is less overall, but he's also passing fewer times on average than he did last year as the Bengals emphasize the run more this season.

Under that pressure at the start of last season, Dalton was 28-for-40 passing with 286 yards, two touchdowns, an interception and a 73.2 QBR. He also was sacked three times. So far this season against the blitz, Dalton is 18-for-28 passing with 330 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and an 87.4 QBR. He also, of course, hasn't been sacked.

We highlight those numbers to show that for as well as the line has blocked, Dalton has been helping himself by making better decisions under pressure and getting the ball quickly to his receivers, who are catching it in space for big gains. Dalton's 76-yard touchdown pass to Mohamed Sanu in Week 2 came with a blitz. He also was pressured by a strong front-line rush on the 77-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green in Week 1.

While the Bengals may rank ninth in pass-protection percentage, they are first in the opponent coverage sack statistic and the opponent coverage pressure statistic. The first stat tracks the average number of sacks that can be credited to tight downfield coverage. The second stat tracks the average number of pressures that can be credited to tight downfield coverage.

Cincinnati, of course, has a 0.0 average in the coverage sack stat. But it has allowed an average of 1.2 pressures per game that can be attributed to receivers not being able to get open. That's the lowest average in the league.

So again, when you think about the Bengals' ability to keep Dalton sack-free, credit the offensive line for good play. But also remember Dalton and his receivers have a hand in that, too.
CINCINNATI -- After a six-week absence, Marvin Jones' time on the Cincinnati Bengals' proverbial shelf has come to an end.

The third-year wide receiver rejoined the team at practice Tuesday -- the team's only one this week -- working out with teammates for the first time since breaking a bone at the top of his left foot during a preseason practice last month.

Jones is still on target to return to game action next week when the Bengals come off this week's bye with their all-important Week 5 Sunday night game at New England. Receivers coach James Urban said Tuesday that the receiver is "way ahead of schedule."

Whenever Jones does get back into the game-day rotation, he could give the Bengals a meaningful jolt in one of the few areas in which they have struggled so far this season. As a valued playmaker in the red zone last season, his services inside the 20 have been desperately needed so far this year.

"Obviously that's one area where, through all our great self-scout that we do this week and through the bye week, it's what we've got to get better at," Urban said about the lack of red-zone scoring. "We have to score touchdowns. We can't just keep settling for field goals. At some point quickly that becomes critical, and obviously the natural inclination with Marv scoring 10 touchdowns last year is that hopefully that helps."

In 10 trips to the red zone through the first three weeks of this season, six have resulted in touchdowns. All but one of those touchdowns have come on the ground, with running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill routinely pounding in goal-line scores.

The Bengals' lone passing red-zone touchdown came Sunday when quarterback Andy Dalton ran out wide to catch a cross-field pass from receiver Mohamed Sanu on a trick play. After the grab, Dalton eluded a defensive back before diving into the pylon for the 18-yard score. It was the first time in Bengals history that a quarterback caught a touchdown pass.

Last season, the yards inside the 20 were where Jones' game kicked into another gear. Nine of his career-high 10 touchdown receptions last season came inside the 20. Of his 71 overall catches, 12 came in that same area on just 14 targets. When it came to making plays in the red zone, Jones dropped just one pass.

The game when Jones made a name for himself was the late-October blowout win over the Jets last fall. That afternoon, he caught a franchise-record four touchdown passes in the 49-9 win. All four of those scores came in the red zone.

On Thursday, we'll explore another way the Bengals can address their red-zone issue.
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers got a measure of good news on the injury front when they learned that rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier sprained his right knee but avoided a more serious injury after teammate Lawrence Timmons rolled onto his lower leg in a 37-19 win over the Carolina Panthers.

 Shazier won’t play Sunday against the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, and cornerback Ike Taylor is out indefinitely after undergoing surgery on his broken right forearm.

With Taylor sidelined, William Gay will play right cornerback in the Steelers’ base defense and move to the slot, where the eighth-year veteran normally plays in the nickel package.

Tomlin said Antwon Blake, Brice McCain and B.W. Webb will compete this week for the job of right cornerback in the Steelers’ nickel defense.

"We’ll let those guys sort themselves out on the practice field,” Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference.

Sean Spence will get the first opportunity to replace Shazier at left inside linebacker, but Tomlin did not discount Vince Williams also competing for the starting job while Shazier is sidelined.

Williams started 11 games at left inside linebacker last season, but he has been playing behind Timmons at right inside linebacker.
“We’re not going to close the door on any developments in terms of division of labor,” Tomlin said.

Tomlin is hopeful that the Steelers will get a couple of injured players back for their 1 p.m. ET game Sunday against the Buccaneers.

Rookie running back Dri Archer (ankle) and starting left guard Ramon Foster (ankle) are expected to do more in practice this week, Tomlin said.

Archer hasn’t played since spraining his ankle in the Steelers’ season opener.

Foster didn’t play in the Steelers’ win over the Panthers after spraining his ankle last week in practice.

“Ramon’s got to show that he’s capable of above the line movement with that ankle injury,” Tomlin said.

Undefeated Bengals notice empty seats

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
CINCINNATI -- When ESPN's NFL Power Rankings come out later Tuesday afternoon, there's a strong chance the Cincinnati Bengals will be among the top two teams.

They opened Week 3 of the 2006 season at No. 2, but that's as high as they have ever been ranked. And even if the Bengals fail to claim the top spot, there is no disputing the fact they are among the strongest teams in the NFL right now.

[+] EnlargeReggie Nelson
Aaron Doster/USA TODAY SportsNumerous open seats can be spotted during the Bengals' Week 3 home game against the Titans at Paul Brown Stadium.
But as good as the Bengals have been so far, on the surface, they don't seem to be getting the respect locally that they're starting to receive nationally. Empty seats have filled the upper reaches of Paul Brown Stadium the past two weeks, leaving the Bengals some 10,000 patrons shy of having sold out each of those games. The 65,500-seat stadium has had attendance figures of 58,574 and 56,743.

For a team that has gotten off to the start the Bengals have, the sight has been disheartening.

"We definitely notice it," receiver Marvin Jones said. "We're doing stuff right now to change that. That's on them. We're doing our job on our end."

Not only are the Bengals winning games, but they are doing so in convincing fashion. Cincinnati is scoring 26.7 points per game this season while its opponents are averaging just 11.0. The Falcons and Ravens, the first two teams the Bengals beat, have collected rather impressive wins in the wake of their respective losses to the Bengals. Atlanta last Thursday pounded Tampa Bay, 56-14.

The Bengals beat the Falcons 24-10, and could have had a more lopsided victory had kicker Mike Nugent's made his three missed field goals.

Optimism nationwide is high for the Bengals. In an poll after Sunday's 33-7 win against Tennessee, nearly 150,000 weighed in with their opinions about whether the Bengals are a legit Super Bowl contender. While just 48 percent said "yes," that's a higher number than most would anticipate. Remember, this also is a franchise that has come off three straight seasons of teasing its fans with a first-round playoff exit.

Closer examination of the poll showed -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- that the most optimism comes from Ohio and the states that border it. West Virginians and Kentuckians share the opinions of Buckeye Staters. Indianans are split 50-50, and football fans in Georgia apparently thought the Week 2 win against Atlanta showed how good the Bengals are. They, too, see the Bengals as a legit Super Bowl team.

So why doesn't it seem the local online optimism is manifesting itself in the stands on game day?

"You hear so much in the media about how the owners and the stadiums are really having to compete with DirecTV and everybody sitting at home watching TV," Bengals kicker Mike Nugent said. "It's easier to go to the restroom, it's easier to get a drink out of the fridge [at home]."

Those have been among the chief concerns Bengals fans have had in recent seasons. To address them, the club this offseason came up with a fan-experience strategy that was headlined by improvements to in-stadium wireless. The hope is to allow fans better bandwith to stream video and chat on social media, so they can have a home experience at the game.

Ticket prices also are concerning for fans. But Bengals tickets remain among the cheapest in the league.

According to secondary ticket site SeatGeek, the Bengals have the seventh-cheapest ticket, averaging $83 this season. That's $40 lower than the league average.

ESPN The Magazine also recently ranked the franchise as having the 15th-best bang for fans' buck in all of professional sports. The team was ranked fifth in that same survey among NFL franchises. The "bang for the buck" metric weighed wins during the past three seasons per revenue generated from fans.

While Bengals players have noticed the empty seats, they're growing weary of discussing the issue.

"Honestly, any other year I'd probably sit here and complain about it or whine about it, but this football team is so focused on winning," veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said last week, amid threats of a blackout. "We set out at the beginning of the year with the goal of trying to win the Super Bowl, and that's the only thing we really care about. I can honestly say that about this team. We don't care. We want to play and we want the people that want to be here to watch us play."

The Film Don't Lie: Browns

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
A weekly look at what the Cleveland Browns must fix:

The number, as they say, does not lie. The Browns' run defense is giving up 157.3 yards per game. No team in the league can win that way, and it's especially galling to coach Mike Pettine, who has seen this defensive system work in Buffalo, New York and Baltimore. "Disappointing," was Pettine's understatement for the run defense. The Browns have given up 11 runs of 10 yards or more, six of more than 20 and two of more than 30, which is a trend they'll have to stop when they go to Tennessee after the bye week.

Pettine said he breaks down the run defense on each play in three ways: technique, scheme or talent. If it's scheme, it's on the coaches to fix the calls or even take it out of the playbook. If it's technique, it must be addressed in practice. If it's talent, the coaches have to make a change, either in personnel or alignment to ensure the player is not asked to do something he can't. With the Browns, though, all three are issues.

"We need to get better in our defense across the board," Pettine said.

One way he will address this issue in the bye week is to have the offensive coaches break down and scout the team's defense as if it were playing a game against that unit. That will give a fresh set of eyes to the run defense, which might point to ways to improve it. Whatever happens, the run defense will be a major focus as the coaches spend their time working during the bye weekend.

The Film Don't Lie: Bengals

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
CINCINNATI -- A weekly look at what the Cincinnati Bengals must fix:

For the second straight week, I'm scratching my head a little as I try to figure out what exactly it is that the undefeated Bengals need to fix. But ahead of their Week 5, post-bye Sunday night game at New England, here's what I've come up with: The Bengals need to give their running backs' yards per carry a boost.

Through three games, Cincinnati is averaging 3.6 yards per carry. Their running backs, specifically, are averaging 3.8 yards per carry.

Those averages are remarkably lower than the 4.5-yards-per-carry benchmark the Bengals have set as their standard. At the end of each game, that's the number they want to see when they look down at the stat sheet. If not, in the words of offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, "There's something wrong."

What has the issue been? Is it blocking? Is it poor execution on the part of the backs?

Quite honestly, on tape, it's tough to tell. The backs are trying to hit their holes, they're running through tackles and eluding others, and the holes are -- for the most part -- present. Perhaps the scheme really is just a shade off. In that case, it's on Jackson to make the necessary tweaks to alleviate this comparatively minor issue for this red-hot team.
CINCINNATI -- Hours before Sunday's game, Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict let Vincent Rey in on his secret to success: get to the ball on the first play.

"It'll settle you down," Rey said, relaying the injured Pro Bowler's message to him.


With Burfict spending the afternoon under concussion protocol after suffering his second head injury in as many games the previous Sunday against Atlanta, the Bengals were forced to send Rey out to replace him.

He filled in quite nicely.

Rey finished with four tackles, including one on the first play of the game from scrimmage. As the Titans tried to execute a first-down run, Rey flowed right into the spot where running back Shonn Greene was trying to go and stopped him for no gain.

"I just happened to be there," Rey said. "The running back kind of fell, and I got on him. That did settle me down."

While Rey isn't as vociferous on the field as Burfict and isn't as intimidating as the starting weakside linebacker, he still packs a more-than-adequate punch as a backup. The former undrafted player out of Duke began making a name for himself in Bengals stripes on special teams, where he thrived through his first three seasons. Then last season, in Year 4, he earned the respect of Bengals fans after starting three straight games in the middle of the season, replacing middle linebacker Rey Maualuga.

Rey had 30 tackles, three sacks and an interception in those three games.

As one of the Bengals' smartest defenders, Rey is given the most opportunities to play all three linebacker positions. He knows each of the spots and has performed well in those positions throughout his career. He is viewed as a sort of a utility player at the position. When one starter goes down, regardless of what spot he plays, in comes Rey. And if he's on the field when Burfict and Emmanuel Lamur aren't, then Rey makes the calls in the huddle and presnap adjustments at the line.

Rey was credited with one of the four positive grades Pro Football Focus gave Bengals defenders after Sunday's 33-7 win over Tennessee. He had a plus-1.2 overall grade and a plus-1.3 grade against the run, according to PFF. The website also rewarded him with two quarterback hurries on the 49 snaps he played.

While it's clear Rey played well individually, he was quick to credit his teammates for performing well in Burfict's absence.

"When a guy like Vontaze is out, we all have to pick up the slack for him, not just one guy," Rey said. "We all raise our game."

Despite how well Rey played Sunday, Cincinnati hopes its defense will be at full capacity in 12 days when it travels to New England for a Sunday night game that comes after this week's bye. There is an expectation that the bye will give Burfict additional time to work through the symptoms of the concussion and eventually clear the protocol ahead of arguably the biggest game of the first half of the Bengals' season.
CINCINNATI -- Are the Cincinnati Bengals a legitimate Super Bowl contender?

Fifteen years ago, you probably would have snickered reading that. Heck, 10 years ago you would have believed anyone who suggested it was crazy.

But now? In 2014? It's not so far-fetched a question.

As the only undefeated team in the AFC through the first three weeks of the season, the Bengals are looking down on the rest of the conference. They have good reason to stick out their chests and beat them if they wanted to. But they don't.

To hear Bengals coaches and players tell it, all they have done so far is accomplish exactly what they set out to do when the season began: win the first three games. Next on the to-do list is to extend that string of victories with a Week 5 victory against the Patriots in New England in 14 days. The Bengals have their bye next Sunday, which gives them time to rest, reflect on the way the year has begun and look forward to what's on the horizon.


Are the Bengals (3-0) legitimate Super Bowl contenders?


Discuss (Total votes: 163,823)

What's on the horizon after next week are 13 more regular-season games to prove they are for real. And then, if they're lucky, the Bengals will have multiple weeks this postseason to prove they do belong in the Super Bowl conversation. In each of the past three postseasons, the Bengals' Super Bowl dreams were squashed in the first week of the playoffs.

If we are to truly answer the question in the headline in the affirmative, we first must see the Bengals do what has eluded them for a generation: win a playoff game. For that reason, it's far too early to legitimately ask this question. Still, after three weeks in which they completely dominated their opponents and have built up momentum, it makes sense to wonder if this is finally the Bengals' year.

It makes sense for Bengals fans, with their heavily guarded but still excited early optimism, to not only dream about 2014 being synonymous with 1981 and 1988, but also dream about this year standing apart from those monumental campaigns. Those are, of course, the only two seasons the Bengals have competed for the Lombardi Trophy to this point.

With championship aspirations floating around their fan base, the Bengals are just trying to remain grounded, remain humbled ... and remain perfect.

"We're hunting excellence," linebacker Vincent Rey said. "Right now, we just have to keep the pedal to the metal. When January comes, we'll see where we're at."
CINCINNATI -- And now, the Cincinnati Bengals breathe.

After a month of training camp and the preseason and three weeks of the regular season, the Bengals get to collect their thoughts these next 14 days as they go through their bye week.

More important than that, these next two weeks will give them a chance to heal aching bones and joints, and to rest the muscle strains and pulls that have caused them to be shorthanded through the start of the season. As much as the Bengals might normally hate having an off week that falls just four weeks into the start of a season, they are currently thanking the schedule makers for this unexpected, unintended early rest period.

As a result of the bye, the Bengals expect to be dramatically closer to full strength by Oct. 5, the day they are next in action.

Coach Marvin Lewis said after Sunday's 33-7 victory against the Tennessee Titans that linebacker Sean Porter (hamstring), receiver Marvin Jones (foot) and running back Rex Burkhead (knee) should be healthy enough to return after the bye. He also sounded optimistic about linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who spent all week on concussion protocol after suffering his second head injury in two games last Sunday.

Offensive guard Kevin Zeitler, who is reportedly expected to miss the next two games, also progressed from a calf injury this week, Lewis said. Depending upon how the next two weeks go for Zeitler, perhaps his return could come quicker than originally anticipated. That doesn't mean Zeitler will play at New England on Oct. 5, but it means he may not be out as long as once believed.

"I didn't like [the placement of the bye] to begin with," Lewis said, "but where we are injury-wise, it'll give us an extra week to get everybody back. We didn't lose anyone [Sunday] with anything serious, so we'll be as close to a full-strength, 53-man roster as we've been."

Defensive end Margus Hunt and linebacker Emmanuel Lamur were the only two players who left the game with injuries. Both occurred late in the fourth quarter of the blowout. Hunt had what appeared to be a shoulder injury after he dove for a sack attempt along the Titans sideline. Lamur left after being hit in the head.
CINCINNATI -- When the ball left Mohamed Sanu's right hand, two words immediately popped into his head.

"Oh, s---."

After trying to sell the play of the Cincinnati Bengals' 33-7 win Sunday over the Tennessee Titans by pretending he was about to run the ball to his right, Sanu threw back across the field to a seemingly wide open Andy Dalton. The quarterback had just pitched Sanu the ball and was curling out wide for a screen pass on the left side of the field.

What Sanu didn't see when he prepared to release the ball was the 6-foot-1, 200-pound cornerback cheating up and lining Dalton in his sights. It was only after the ball left his hand that Sanu realized Titans corner Blidi Wreh-Wilson had the perfect opportunity to wreck his quarterback.

The Titans knew what was coming. They practiced defending the trick play all week. Like many of the other teams that will face the Bengals the rest of the year, they understood how complex Cincinnati's offense is under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. They knew they had to do everything they could to prevent a potential gadget play such as this one from burning them. So when Wreh-Wilson dropped out of coverage and started sprinting toward the line of scrimmage, it seemed someone had finally solved Jackson's scheme.

Sanu wanted to look away.

"I was thinking he was going to knock Andy out," Sanu said. "Then Andy just went up in front of him and made the play."

Wreh-Wilson slowed his sprint, pulled up and bizarrely avoided contact with Dalton. Surprised, the quarterback-turned-pass-catcher adjusted his body to avoid a collision, caught the pass and took off toward the corner of the end zone. With a dive into the pylon, he scored an 18-yard touchdown that put the Bengals up 10-0 early. The play completely pushed the momentum in their favor. From there, offensively and defensively, there was no looking back.

The rout was beginning.

"He's so creative in getting his playmakers involved," Sanu said of Jackson, who called a non-traditional play for the third straight game.

In the season opener, Jackson had his two offensive tackles flanked off the line and in the slot. The rare formation didn't yield much in the form of yards on what was a short Giovani Bernard run, but it gave defenses something to think about. Last week, Jackson had Sanu roll out and attempt a bomb to fellow receiver Brandon Tate, who caught the well-thrown pass 50 yards downfield despite drawing double coverage along the sideline by the end of the route. Then there was this week's play.

There's no telling what all exists inside Jackson's playbook, but there certainly is a lot more. When defenses play the Bengals the rest of the year, they won't only have to defend against the standard run and pass, they'll also have to pay attention to who is running the ball, who is passing it and where it's being passed to.

"It's tough when you have gadget plays and the defense starts second-guessing," running back Jeremy Hill said. "They start thinking. Defenses pride themselves on running to the football and not thinking and playing fast. When you've got gadget plays going on, it makes them sit back on their heels and run back."

They do something else for Bengals players, too -- give them reasons to curse joyously.

"Once Andy actually caught the pass, I was like, 'Oh, s---!'" Sanu said. "But this time, in a more exciting way."