AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- In stark contrast to Ray Rice's awkward news conference in May, the Baltimore Ravens running back showed Thursday that he finally understood the weight of his actions from the alleged altercation with his then-fiancée in February.

He delivered the correct message, one the NFL failed to do last week with the two-game suspension, by not only apologizing to his wife, Janay Palmer, but also expressing a desire to become an advocate for domestic-violence causes.

Rice was compelling in his contrition, calling it the biggest mistake of his life. He stood in front of the microphone alone, without his wife standing by his side, and took full responsibility for the incident. Perhaps more importantly, Rice actually said the words "domestic violence," which weren't heard in his statement two months ago.

"My actions were inexcusable," Rice said. "That's something I have to live with the rest of my life."

Before anyone pats Rice on the back, this is what he should have said the first time when he broke his silence in May. Instead, Rice nervously fumbled through notes on his phone and apologized to team officials and his sponsors. That debacle of a news conference came across as damage control to his image.

His 17-minute news conference Thursday hit the right tones. He apologized to all women affected by domestic violence. He accepted the blame for losing the respect of fans. Rice came across as genuinely sorry.

"I let my wife down, I let my daughter down, I let my wife's parents down, I let the whole Baltimore community down," Rice said.

Rice's biggest misstep was not talking about what happened in the elevator. He was asked twice about it and declined to answer both times. His stance against domestic violence would have resonated stronger if he had explained his transgressions.

"I'll be honest: Like I said, I own my actions," Rice said. "I just don't want to keep reliving the incident. It doesn't bring any good to me. I'm just trying to move forward from it. I don't condone it. I take full responsibility for my actions. What happened that night is something that I'm going to pay for the rest of my life."

The only way Rice can move forward from this incident and show he's truly sincere is through his actions. It's not by his words. It's not by a hefty donation, which is merely a gesture. It's by proving this will remain a "one-time incident" and by supporting domestic-violence causes.

Thursday represented a small step forward for Rice. But it was an important one.
CINCINNATI -- Andrew Whitworth believes he's in the best shape of his professional career.

But he has yet to show it at this training camp.

Britt
Whitworth
A late addition to the Cincinnati Bengals' physically unable to perform list, the veteran offensive tackle has spent the first eight practices on the team's rehab island; a corner of a practice field that's separated from the other two fields the Bengals regularly use. He's been nursing a bad calf, one that got strained during conditioning drills one day before camp opened.

Speaking for the first time since camp opened, Whitworth said he's "extremely" ready to get back to practice.

"I also have to realize that I have to be smart," he said. "I'm in fantastic shape; the best I've ever been in. I feel great. I just have to make sure it's OK and it's 100 percent before I get going."

On the point about his shape, Whitworth added that he spent more time working out this offseason than he had in any other year of his career.

In practice, the Pro Bowl left tackle has been replaced by swing tackle Marshall Newhouse, the veteran who was acquired in free agency after having last played in Green Bay.

While he hasn't had a chance to train with the team yet this preseason, Whitworth knows that being able to do the rehab work he's gotten in so far is light years beyond any activity he was able to do last preseason.

"No question," he said.

Last preseason, Whitworth was working through a knee injury that had been re-aggravated at the start of camp. He couldn't do anything for a few weeks, and even missed the Bengals' regular-season opener at Chicago because he was still getting healthy.

As for this injury, Whitworth still is taking his full recovery slowly because he doesn't want to run the risk of re-injuring himself once the season begins.

"It's no different than pulling a hamstring," Whitworth said. "It's something where if you rush it, it could be a six-month injury, and if you take your time, you can be fine. Just trying to take my time and be healthy and ready to go when it's time."

Bengals Camp Report: Day 8

August, 1, 2014
Aug 1
9:00
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CINCINNATI -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Cincinnati Bengals training camp:
  • In their shortest practice of camp, the Bengals went through 65 minutes of short-yardage, third-down, special teams and goal-line drills. The rare early evening workout was light overall on contact, although the offense and defense did do sharp thudding during the goal-line segment that closed practice. Those six goal-line plays brought out the most contact the Bengals have had since late last week, although coach Marvin Lewis contended the drill wasn't "live." Twice on the six plays, the Bengals' first- and second-team offense scored. Cedric Peerman plowed through for a 1-yard score on third-and-goal, and Giovani Bernard pushed through a 1-yard score on second-and-goal. Bernard may have scored on the first-down play had it not been for tight end Tyler Eifert. After slipping past several unabated defenders, Bernard was bouncing to the right edge toward the end zone when Eifert lost his footing and fell on him. Bernard still tried to churn his legs for the end zone, but the 250-pound tight end was just a little too heavy.
  • Asked about Bernard's first-down run, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson gleefully pointed out Bernard's effort as an example he wants to see replicated by all his backs. "He was trying to get there," Jackson said. "That's what you've got to have. That's the nature of this game." Bernard had a few other head-turning runs, including a third-and-short conversion in which he sprinted through a hole untouched during a lower-speed, lighter-contact exercise. Had it been a real game, he likely would have turned that run into a massive gain.
  • Rookie back Jeremy Hill didn't have one of his best practices. After fumbling early in the workout following a hand-off from Jason Campbell, he was denied on his only goal-line try from one yard out. When it came to Hill's disappointing day, Jackson was adamant about using it as a lesson for the entire team. "That's football. Football, that's the way it goes," Jackson said. "It ain't going to blow you away all the time. You've got to make it go your way." About having down days as a team during training camp, Jackson added: "These are good days -- contrary to what people think -- these are great days, and there will be better days. There will be days when we've got to pull through, and these are the times that make you learn how to pull through. When it doesn't got as well and you've got to push longer, harder, tougher to get it done. ... It gives me an opportunity to coach longer, harder. So guys don't believe all the things that are written, they keep understanding that there's a lot of work to be done and that they go out and do it."
  • A quick follow-up to that last thought: Jackson said he was glad to have a day like Friday where Hill struggled and Campbell had issues throwing an interception directly to a defender, because he wanted to pair a day like that up against a day like Thursday. On Thursday, Bengals quarterbacks and receivers hit most of their passes. Eifert and Dalton hooked up well in the seams.
  • On the injury front, the Bengals were without linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who told a reporter he was "banged up." Left guard Mike Pollak also didn't participate, but Clint Boling did. After not suiting up Thursday, defensive tackle Geno Atkins was in full pads, but he didn't go through any of the team drills.
  • Up next: The Bengals wrap up another string of practices with a 1:30 p.m. workout inside Paul Brown Stadium on Saturday. It's "Family Day," meaning following the free and open practice, players will be available for autographs. On Sunday, they take their second off day of camp.
CINCINNATI -- Thanks to Marvin Lewis, a generation has passed since the Cincinnati Bengals were a joke. Kids today have never heard of the "Bungles" or David Klingler or Ki-Jana Carter or Akili Smith. They couldn't fathom an NFL team missing the playoffs in 20 of 22 seasons, as the Bengals did from 1983 through 2004.

These days, the Bengals are, well, a professional football franchise. They draft good players, employ skilled coaches to develop them and are a perennial playoff contender. In January, the league stamped them with an exclusive badge: Both coordinators were hired as head coaches elsewhere. Two other teams wanted some of that Bengals magic.

"The cup now overflows with confidence here," said retired linebacker Takeo Spikes, who fled Cincinnati in 2003 but now marvels at the subsequent transformation.

[+] EnlargeMarvin Lewis
Aaron Doster/USA TODAY SportsMarvin Lewis has led Cincinnati to the postseason five times in 11 seasons, but the Bengals are 0-5 in playoff games under Lewis.
This is where Marvin Lewis has brought the Bengals, through 11 painstaking years of modernization and gently tugging owner Mike Brown away from football operations. And now, in 2014, the Bengals have reached perhaps the most complex crossroads in franchise history: Just how ambitious are they? Will they reach a point when a first-round playoff loss has consequences for the man who led them into their golden age? Or would they be too scared to risk their successful perch in search of the next level?

These issues coursed through training camp during a visit to Cincinnati this week. Under Lewis, the Bengals have reached the playoffs five times, accounting for nearly half of the franchise's 12 postseason trips. They have lost in the first round on all five occasions, however, giving Lewis the unique distinction of coaching more games (176) without a playoff victory than anyone in NFL history.

So what happens now? By all accounts, the Bengals are a talented group that, despite the coordinator transition, should vie for its fourth consecutive playoff berth. Is this the year Lewis leads them deep into the postseason? And if not, will Brown react any differently than he has in the past? Should he?

Lewis is signed through the 2015 season, courtesy of a one-year extension completed this spring. Speaking to reporters last week, Brown gave no indication of impatience. Instead, he sounded an appreciative tone for Lewis' accomplishments where so many others had failed.

"Marvin's a solid coach and a good guy," Brown said. "I've gotten to know him through thick and thin. He's brought us to a good level. We're a winning team. And when you have that coach that can do that for you, I think you'd be foolish to be unsatisfied with him."

After decades of debacles, I understand why Brown is happy to not be unsatisfied. It beats an alternative he is quite familiar with. But the next step is to raise expectations for what constitutes satisfaction in Cincinnati, and now is as good of a time as any. The only NFL coach in his job longer than Lewis is Bill Belichick, who has taken the New England Patriots to five Super Bowls in 14 years and won three.

Lewis' best work in Cincinnati has taken place on a different plane. During a visit to camp Thursday, Spikes recalled his desperation to escape the Bungles. Lewis had just been hired, but Spikes didn't think he could move Brown away from day-to-day operations.

"I give Marvin a lot of credit for that," Spikes said. "He came in and built that trust factor up with Mike, and ... starting back in [the early years], he gave a little control, more, more, and then more. When I look at the roster, the roster is built not with what Mel Kiper says, not with what Mike Mayock says. It's built with football players that I've seen on tape. That's what I like about this roster. It's a bunch of players [that show up] on the tape."

According to Spikes, Lewis also raised expectations for a coaching staff that wasn't always NFL-grade.

"It used to be that you would have a head coach here or one coach [on the staff] that would have credibility," he said. "Now it's damn near the entire staff that has credibility. Proven winners. Proven teachers. That's what I see."

Lewis has charmed the Brown family, which includes Mike's daughter and heir apparent Katie Blackburn, in a way his predecessors did not.

"They have let him mold his team to his image and his vision of it," said defensive line coach Jay Hayes, who arrived with Lewis in 2003 and is a lifelong friend. "He's worked well with them and they've worked well with him."

Is that enough? Does Marvin Lewis need to start winning playoff games? Eventually, it's fair to expect it. That's how professional teams operate. Lewis has pulled the Bengals to that level. Are they satisfied simply by their transformation? We'll soon find out.
CINCINNATI -- The world was much different when Takeo Spikes played inside linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals.

On average, gas nationwide was less than $1.40 per gallon. Three generations of Boston Red Sox fans still hadn't seen a World Series win. Bengals fans were going through a different type of misery. Their team was far from what it is now.

Plain and simple, the Bengals were awful, pitiful, and any other adjective you can think of that describes the abysmal play that defined their existence in the decade prior to that point. By the end of the 2002 season they hadn't been to the playoffs in a dozen years. The organization was so bad in the five years Spikes played for it that he saw only 19 wins.

He also was part of 61 losses.

These days, brown paper bags aren't the game day accessory of choice for Who Dey Nation. Instead, rose-colored glasses -- ones with orange-and-black striped frames, naturally -- are what Bengals fans are looking out of. The regular-season wins are coming. The postseason appearances are steady. The only real similarity to those Spikes-led teams that never saw the playoffs is that this most recent Bengals manifestation simply can't get past the opening 60 minutes of the postseason.

Spikes thinks that will soon change.

"I've only been in here for like three hours," Spikes said to reporters from inside a Paul Brown Stadium hallway Thursday afternoon, "[but] the sense I get is that a lot of the guys are pissed at the way last year ended.

"They're out to prove a point."

A self-proclaimed "Bengal for life," Spikes likes the thought of that.

"Talking with the guys, seeing how the guys walk, the culture has changed," Spikes said. "Expectations are different."

The former 1998 first-round draft pick was in Cincinnati to help with Sirius XM Radio's coverage of training camp from the Bengals' practices. He's had a number of other opportunities as a radio and television analyst since his career ended after the 2012 season.

Spikes played with the Bengals until 2002, leaving as a free agent the same offseason Marvin Lewis took over as head coach. The two met often in the weeks before Spikes bolted for Buffalo, but never got to fully know one another until they had long moved on in their respective careers.

In 2012, just before the Bengals were playing Spikes' last team, the Chargers, Lewis mentioned how much he hated letting Spikes leave so easily. Lewis' goal at that time was to establish a new identity and culture around the organization. The beloved linebacker was an unintended casualty of the philosophical change that was occurring.

"I wish I could've got it done better," Lewis said two years ago of Spikes' free-agency negotiations. "It's one that got away."

Even though Spikes only spent a portion of his career with the Bengals, and none of it with Lewis' reclamation projects, he still pays attention to what the organization does. He believes the changes to offensive identity will make the team build upon its disappointing first-round playoff exit to San Diego.

"They felt like they left it on the table last year," Spikes said. "For them to put up season highs over a three-year period of time on the offensive side of the ball and the defense to make a lot of noise and to still go down to San Diego, it just felt like it was unfinished business."

Much of what Spikes sensed from players is what daily beat reporters have felt from the team since the organized team activity and minicamp portion of the offseason: That the offense under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is going to pace any changes the Bengals go through.

"On the offensive side of the ball, you will see the mentality switch," Spikes said. "It will damn near look like the defensive side of the ball. I'm excited."

Current Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, a player who has been compared to Spikes, said the defense has had a role in helping the offense flip that mental switch.

"They feed off of us," Burfict said. "We bring a little bit of feistyness, and I can tell they're bringing it, as well. That's just good competition. If I compete at certain levels, the guy in front of me is going to do the same, as well. That's my focus: come out full speed every day and make my offense better."

Whether that edge comes from Burfict or Jackson or anyone else, Spikes knows one thing -- that he likes it.

Bengals Camp Report: Day 7

July, 31, 2014
Jul 31
6:30
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CINCINNATI -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Cincinnati Bengals training camp:
  • As compelling, edge-of-your seat excitement goes, Thursday's practice, from an observer's standpoint, ranked somewhere around a 3 on a 0-to-10 scale. I'm sure it's possible for coaches and players to view it much differently. During what was a special teams-heavy workout, there were very few 11-on-11 drills that featured as much worth noting as there had been in days past. When the Bengals did get into offense vs. defense action, they did so at a rather conservative pace. There was no hitting (players were in shorts and shoulder pads for the second straight day), and plays were run at a significantly slower speed than how they'll be executed in games. We ought to point out that while the players might not have been running at the same speed they soon will be, they still got into a bit of a hurry-up pace as coaches had them go through a few two-minute-drill plays.
  • To be sure, a day like Thursday had probably long been on the schedule as the Bengals try to mix in light, low-speed days with their hit-filled afternoons. It couldn't have come at a better time, too. Cincinnati is dealing with a couple of camp injuries, including four players sidelined with head issues. Linebackers J.K. Schaffer and Jayson DiManche, offensive tackle Andre Smith and tight end Kevin Brock remained on concussion protocol.
  • One day after receiving medical clearance to practice again, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins was back on the sidelines. He didn't participate in any of Wednesday's team drills, only really taking part in the position-specific exercises that came before practice. Coach Marvin Lewis said Wednesday that Atkins wouldn't be rushed back into the line rotation. Coaches and trainers want to ease him back into the mix. When I asked defensive coordinator Paul Guenther after practice about Atkins, he indicated there wasn't anything to worry about. The day off was part of the slow process of getting Atkins back onto the field fully, he said.
  • To close out the day's injury report, it's worth noting that both Mike Pollak and Clint Boling took a day off. They had been trading off days at left guard until this point. In their place, undrafted free agent Trey Hopkins got repetitions at the position. Hopkins is beginning to look like the undrafted free agent who stands the best chance at making the 53-man roster. While Pollak and Boling didn't even dress, defensive tackle Domata Peko and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick did. Both participated fully in the practice after not working out Wednesday. Kirkpatrick hadn't practiced since Saturday.
  • As mentioned before, Day 7 was all about special teams. In particular, the Bengals were working on their kickoff coverage and kickoff returns. Routine deep kicks, squib kicks and onside kicks were part of what they practiced. After the bulk of the kickoff activities, in an 11-on-11, quarterback Andy Dalton was nearly perfect, going 9-for-10. His lone incompletion came when defensive end Robert Geathers broke up a pass at the line of scrimmage. Dalton might have had another incompletion had safety George Iloka been able to sprint at game speed. Iloka had closed on tight end Tyler Eifert, who barely caught a pass in the seam before Iloka pulled up. Later in that drill, on the very last play, came the highlight of the day. Seventh-round receiver James Wright, who didn't catch a pass last season at LSU, caught a key first-down pass on a third-and-5 play. A.J. Green gave him a high-five after the reception.
  • Up next: The Bengals won't practice until 6 p.m. Friday, in a workout that's open to the public.
CINCINNATI -- Batman, the mythical superhero of DC comic book lore, lurks in the shadows, silently protecting the citizens from the bad guys of Gotham.

Wallace Gilberry, one of the Cincinnati Bengals defensive ends who will help fill Michael Johnson's shoes, thinks of himself much the same way.

He doesn't get the fanfare his colleagues Carlos Dunlap and Margus Hunt receive. He doesn't really seek it, either. He just goes about his job, quietly helping clean up the messes the rest of his defensive line teammates cause with their havoc-wreaking play. His clean up last season included sacks -- and a lot of them. In limited action, he tied Dunlap for the team lead with 7.5 sacks.

[+] EnlargeWallace Gilberry
Marc Lebryk/USA TODAY SportsWallace Gilberry tied for the team lead with 7.5 sacks last season.
Since Gilberry isn't a primary starter like Johnson was and Dunlap is, and since he doesn't have the sexy, foreign-born-track-and-field-thrower-turned-NFL-prodigy story that Hunt has, it has been hard to remember during his three seasons in Cincinnati that he's been part of an ends group that has recently been regarded among the league's best. For that alone, it has been easy to doubt him. It has been easy for some to assume he shouldn't be part of said group.

Gilberry has a message for those critics: doubt away.

"I'm used to it, man," Gilberry said, smiling. "The 'Dark Knight' is what they call me. So I'm cool with that. I'm going to come in, I'm going to do my job, I'm going to make the plays I'm supposed to make. If you get recognition for that, you get it. If not, well, you know, that doesn't pay my bills."

A former undrafted free agent, Gilberry has felt his entire career that others didn't think he belonged.

"I've always been the darkhorse, so to speak, so I just took the darkhorse and turned it into the 'Dark Knight' because I'm a Batman fan," Gilberry said.

Like he pointed out, even his cars are black. They are but an example of the dark and humbling yet still foreboding persona the lineman is going for.

Gilberry has never been a regular starter, but he has been a contributor throughout his time in the league playing in various sub-packages and situations. He saw the most action of his career last season, receiving 12 snaps more than he had any other season. It's still not like he hadn't been used at all. Through his six previous seasons, he averaged 325 plays. That's just less than half the defensive snaps in a game.

Either way, it's evident he has made the most of those chances.

Along with his 7.5 sacks on 493 snaps last season, Gilberry had 6.0 sacks on 300 plays in 2012. Two seasons prior, while playing in Kansas City, he had 7.0 sacks on 481 snaps.

He hopes his sack numbers go even higher this season, but he'll have a unique set of challenges that might hinder him getting on the field. In addition to rotating with Hunt and trying to stave off other ends, his opportunities could also be limited with Geno Atkins' return. When the Pro Bowl defensive tackle went down in the middle of last season with an ACL injury, Gilberry shifted to the line's interior to provide a more adequate pass rush in Nickel and third-down situations. The extra experience paid off and should help in the event he's forced into backing up again this season.

"All it did was it gave me more opportunities to make plays," Gilberry said about his 2013 fill-in role. "Geno takes up a lot of those opportunities. He is Geno, he's proven. He's the lead dog in this defense. With that being said, I played my role. With him being out, it was a free-for-all and guys got in where they fit in and that's what you saw. Everybody wanted to make plays and everybody's capable of doing that."

Gilberry contends he's also capable of continuing to play at a high level whether he gets the attention Dunlap and Hunt receive or not.

"I don't expect to get no more or no less," he said to reporters. "The chip on my shoulder ain't going no where if you guys pat me on my back or not. It is what it is."

If you choose to continue doubting Gilberry, he wants you to know that you do so at your own risk.

"You can forget [the Dark Knight]," he said, smiling. "That's fine."

So far, the doubt him has paid off for him.

Bengals Camp Report: Day 6

July, 30, 2014
Jul 30
7:15
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CINCINNATI -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Cincinnati Bengals training camp:
  • There's only one place to begin Wednesday's practice report: with the fireworks. Twice, members of the offense and defense had to be pulled apart as emotions and tensions ran high outwardly for the first time. First, linebacker Emmanuel Lamur and offensive guard Clint Boling came to blows at the end of a goal-line drill. Lamur was seen grabbing Boling's face mask as pushing and shoving ensued around them. A.J. Green then came in, appearing to help calm and subdue Lamur in the back of the end zone. The linebacker misinterpreted the Pro Bowl wideout's actions and swung a punch at him. Fans who saw the blows started shouting, "No! Not on A.J.!" Later, linebacker Marquis Flowers and center T.J. Johnson exchanged words briefly, but that scuffle was stopped quickly before it became anything bigger.
  • After practice, Lamur walked up to a grinning Hue Jackson and gave the offensive coordinator a hug. Lamur also exchanged a jovial fist-bump with Boling as he walked off the practice fields. When Lamur was asked to comment on the near-brawl, he simply said: "It's over." Defensive end Wallace Gilberry said it's just a sign the Bengals are ready to get to their first preseason game next week at Kansas City. "We're ready to hit somebody else, but at the end of the day, we're a team first and foremost," Gilberry said. "Coach [Marvin Lewis] hates it, but it gets us fired up."
  • Flowers, a noted trash-talker, told me he doesn't want to rein in his on-field actions too significantly, but he added that he wants to monitor what he says and does a little better. In addition to all the smack he was talking to his offensive counterparts, the rookie began practice with a pop when he gave receiver Cobi Hamilton an unexpected forearm shiver as Hamilton ran out of the backfield in a low-speed drill. The hit was so hard, it sent Hamilton to the turf instantly, caused fans nearby to gasp and made noted hard hitter Vontaze Burfict holler his support. "I've got to watch it," Flowers said. "I thought the run was coming at me, but obviously I didn't want to do that. I just wanted to tag off. We don't want nobody on the ground, but at the same time, I was just trying to protect myself."
  • Flowers said that after his interview, he was headed straight to Hamilton's locker to apologize. Flowers' actions probably are best chalked up to first-day excitement. After beginning camp on the active physically unable to perform list, he was medically cleared along with defensive tackle Geno Atkins earlier in the day. While Flowers had a chance to mix into some of the team drills, Atkins was noticeably absent. The bulk of his work came just before practice, when the team walked through position-specific drills. For now, the Bengals plan on taking things slowly with Atkins.
  • Mohamed Sanu was the clear MVP of Monday's practice, passing the football, catching it and running with it out of the backfield. He didn't do all of that Wednesday, but he still began the workout in a unique way, taking the ball on a pitch from Green on a double reverse. The Bengals also tossed in a flea-flicker during their opening drills. Plays like that are all to show those watching that Jackson's offense has the potential to showcase several bells and whistles this season.
CINCINNATI -- At one point in the middle of the Cincinnati Bengals' walkthrough Wednesday morning, defensive line coach Jay Hayes decided to stir up the defensive huddle.

Given the OK from the Bengals' training staff, he told Geno Atkins, his long-injured Pro Bowl defensive tackle, to jog out and line up for a drill the unit was working through. It was the lineman's first time participating in a football activity with his teammates in a day shy of nine months.

Initially, Atkins' appearance caught them a little off guard. But the surprise didn't last long.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsGeno Atkins' participation in practice had the Bengals pumped on Wednesday.
"Everybody had big smiles on their faces because they knew then that the big 9-7 [No. 97] was back to work," fellow defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "We are excited around here. Probably the whole city will be, too, once they hear that Geno is back."

When it comes to the city and its Bengals fans, the word "excited" might not be enough. Try "thrilled," "energized," "electrified" ... "relieved." Or, as one tweeter put it in a rapid reply to my initial social media message about Atkins' return: "Hallelujah!!!"

Yes, with good reason, the vibes in Cincinnati are good now that Atkins' 273 days of torture are over. But what about elsewhere? How might the nice people in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore feel now that the Bengals' All-Pro is back? More specifically, how might the offensive linemen now set to face Atkins again feel about his return?

I'll let Hayes describe what they all are most certainly now thinking.

"If you can get him in one-on-one situations, people are going to have a long day," Hayes said. "Whoever that guy is [who has to block Atkins], he's going to have a bad day."

Double-teams or not, Atkins was having his share of good days last season before he tore his ACL on Halloween night at Miami. He had 20 tackles and six sacks to that point. While the tackle numbers were a little low and may have had many concerned, the sacks were right in line with where he was the season before. He was on pace to possibly reach the 12.5 sacks he had in 2012.

Already an offensive line coach's nightmare from a game-planning standpoint, Atkins' return shouldn't only positively impact him. His teammates ought to benefit from having him back around, too. The double-teams Peko had to fight through after Atkins' injury ought to dissipate. The amount of single-man matchups likely will increase for defensive ends Carlos Dunlap, Wallace Gilberry and Margus Hunt, too.

"It makes things a lot easier when a quarterback can't step up in the pocket or is worried about somebody else in the D-line getting sacks," Dunlap said.

Following Atkins' injury, Dunlap and the Bengals' other starting defensive end, Michael Johnson, noticed quarterbacks stepping up in the pocket a little more as they tried to escape the Bengals' pass rush, which was more externally focused at that time. Before, when Atkins still was able to help clog the middle and put pressure on quarterbacks, the passers would be more apt to rolling to the edges and running into lanes the ends were occupying.

Another unintended byproduct of Atkins' injury was the fact that it got young linemen like Brandon Thompson and Devon Still (before his own injury issues) opportunities to see regular playing time. Gilberry and Hunt were among those who were forced into expanding their roles to include rushing from the inside, thereby increasing the versatility they can provide the defense.

"The injury wasn't a blessing, but it just goes to the adage of next man up," Hayes said. "They all know that. They all know now that at the drop of a hat, 'I have to be ready. I just can't be pigeon-holed as the backup.' If you're a backup, you have to be able to play all the positions to some extent. ... You have to have that position versatility because we just don't have enough people to have a backup for each guy."

As well as his backups may have played in relief last season, neither of them was striking the type of fear in offensive linemen that Atkins will again.

Here's how Clint Boling, the Bengals' left guard who will be facing Atkins often in practice again, described the defender's return: "I'm probably the only guy in the building that's disappointed he's coming back."

Don't worry, Clint. Outside the stadium, you certainly aren't alone.
A look at a few Cincinnati Bengals offensive players who have made strong impressions through the first five practices of training camp:

Dunlap
DEFENSIVE ENDS
Carlos Dunlap: Expectations are high for the fifth-year lineman this season. They're so high that defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has already told him he better be a Pro Bowl selection.

Margus Hunt: The second-year player told reporters in Cincinnati on Monday that he felt more comfortable at his position compared to last season, and that work going against offensive tackles Anthony Collins and Andre Smith as a scout-team rookie helped give him a better idea of how to attack opponents.

Wallace Gilberry: It's easy to forget Gilberry because of the attention paid to Hunt, the native Estonian who had a basic understanding of his position previous to the coaching he received this past year. Gilberry plays with a veteran's savvy and can be used at different spots depending upon the situation.

DEFENSIVE TACKLES
Brandon Thompson: With Geno Atkins still rehabbing from an ACL tear, and Devon Still slowly returning from a back injury, Thompson has had his share of repetitions on the line's interior so far in training camp. Larry Black and Ross LaKendrick have mixed in at times with him. Thompson's name has been called often during camp, and typically for positive reasons.

Burfict
LINEBACKERS
Vontaze Burfict: He's still Vontaze Burfict. There's not much else to add, other than the fact he's already in midseason form with his trash-talking and physical style of practice play.

Jayson DiManche: He's been similarly vocal and energetic as he tries hard to earn a roster spot. Like his rookie training camp, DiManche has quite the fight on his hands this year, having to fend off a number of linebackers.

Emmanuel Lamur: It seems clear the Bengals will benefit from having Lamur healthy this year. Primarily a coverage linebacker, he will regularly line up against tight ends and some receivers. With the high number of good tight ends the Bengals will face his year, his return comes at a good time.

CORNERBACKS
The 'Older' Corners: There are too many of them to list individually, so we're going to group the Bengals' veterans together here. Terence Newman and Adam Jones have been particularly impressive, breaking up a number of difficult passes through the first few days. Along with Burfict, they've been the biggest defensive playmakers of the camp. Leon Hall hasn't done much from a gameplay standpoint so far, but he is noteworthy because of his slow and steady return after his Achilles tear last year.

Darqueze Dennard: Cincinnati's first-round draft pick has filled in admirably for whichever of the older corners takes days off while he practices. Since the Bengals have tried taking things slow with Newman, Jones and Hall, Dennard has found himself playing a number of cornerback positions to account for their absences. His best play defensively has come the past two days as the Bengals' schedule has afforded him more chances to showcase his patented lockdown man-press ability. He's looked more comfortable in that regard, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. Dennard also has been part of a variety of special teams units, using his speed on kickoff coverage and his cover skills to hold gunners in check on punt returns.

SAFETIES
Reggie Nelson:
The veteran safety hasn't been too flashy this camp, but he's had a solid enough work on the back end.
Dalton
Dalton
A look at a few Cincinnati Bengals offensive players who have made strong impressions through the first five practices of training camp:

QUARTERBACKS
Andy Dalton: The team's top signal-caller was praised by offensive coordinator Hue Jackson on Monday for beginning to make strides with his decision-making. He's seemed to have better velocity and accuracy on some of his deeper passes, too.

RUNNING BACKS
lastname
Bernard
Giovani Bernard: So far, he's picked up where he left off last season, serving as the dynamic playmaker in the Bengals' offense. Cincinnati plans to use him in a greater variety of ways this season. Look for him to run a bit more and catch passes both from the backfield and after having been split-out wide or placed into the slot.

Jeremy Hill: Pass-blocking was among Hill's greatest traits as a college back at LSU. When the Bengals first incorporated those drills Sunday, he performed well, holding off linebacker Vincent Rey in blitz pickup. The rookie still appears in line to play the role of No. 2 back behind Bernard.

RECEIVERS
A.J. Green: He's been to the Pro Bowl every year of his career. Aside from a very rare drop in goal-line work Monday, he's looked well on his way to receiving a fourth selection to the all-star game.

Mohamed Sanu: With Marvin Jones out through the first five practices, Sanu has had more opportunities to prove himself as one of the "three amigos," the group he referenced Monday that includes him, Green and Jones. Sanu wasn't happy with his production last season and hopes to use his versatility as a receiver, passer and rusher to help ignite the Bengals' offense.

Brandon Tate: While much of the chatter surrounding Tate's apparent spot on the roster bubble has revolved around his lack of receptions with the Bengals (he has 14 in his three seasons in Cincinnati), he has tried during camp to prove he's more than just a kick returner. Once on Monday, he drew rookie Victor Hampton into the middle of the end zone before breaking off and peeling in the opposite direction, where he easily caught a touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone. Veteran moves like that will help him keep his spot on the roster as a receiver.

James Wright: Another player whose receiving numbers were down last year, the rookie has been among the biggest head-turners in camp. The seventh-round draft pick is fighting for a roster spot, and has so far done well in that regard. The ball has very seldom hit the ground when thrown in his direction. Cobi Hamilton also had a strong Monday, adding some intrigue to this battle for one of the final receiver spots.

TIGHT ENDS
Tyler Eifert: Much like Sanu who has taken advantage of Jones' absence, Eifert has benefited from Jermaine Gresham's training camp injury. As the current No. 1 pass-catching tight end, Eifert has been among Dalton's top targets so far.

OFFENSIVE TACKLE
Marshall Newhouse: It's not so much that Newhouse has played incredibly well or anything, but he's worth highlighting since he is getting a number of snaps in place of injured left tackle Andrew Whitworth. The increased reps in Cincinnati's offense will only be a positive for the veteran swing tackle who was added in free agency this offseason.

OFFENSIVE GUARD
Trey Hopkins: The undrafted free agent has had his share of reps, as well, giving reason to believe he has the best chance of making the team of all the undrafted free-agent linemen the Bengals signed.

CENTER
Russell Bodine: The rookie continues getting practice time just as he did in the spring. He still needs to hone his snapping ability after a miscue earlier this week.
Welcome to the Cincinnati Bengals' first off day of training camp.

[+] EnlargeDanieal Manning
Al Behrman/AP PhotoDanieal Manning, a free-agent pickup by the Bengals this offseason, says he hopes to contribute on special teams.
We begin with ith only one morning take, and we'll have our regular multiple "takes" again Wednesday. This lone take has to do with Danieal Manning, the veteran safety who came to Cincinnati via free agency.

While Manning's addition ought to aid the Bengals' establishment of secondary depth, he was brought on board for at least one more reason. A noted kick returner from his time in Chicago and Houston, his special teams versatility was a plus, too. He's quick to point out that he's not out to take any other player's job, but he's hopeful he can help this area of the Bengals' game.

"The guys we've got back there working are a set of explosive players that are definitely returners already or some that are hidden talents," Manning said. "You've got a lot of options on this team to put guys in who are comfortable enough to make the play. What I bring is just more experience."

Brandon Tate is another veteran with kick-return experience. He came into camp as Cincinnati's primary returner following his impressive season in 2013. Unlike what Manning is trying to do as a defensive back/returner, Tate wasn't used as regularly at his offensive position in 2013. Special teams was his forte. On offense, he caught just one pass. If the Bengals elect to use him more offensively this season, Tate says he'll be happy. But he'll also be just fine if his primary job is to return kicks again. He just wants to make the team.

Tate's comparable lack of versatility has made him a potential roster bubble candidate.

Manning, who has practiced as a returner, along with Tate, Cedric Peerman, and others, approaches kick-returning as a science. He broke down for me last week ways he focused on bursting past wedges and through seams in the past, and compared them with tweaks he might make if he has difficulty enacting those old ways. Like many things in football can be, kick-returning is about adjustments and improvisation, he said. It's also about figuring out whether you're a returner who uses his speed to set up the play, or one who shows off some physicality.

"That's the thing about it, you have to know your skill," Manning said. "I'm a fast guy, and I'm a physical runner. Some guys are fast and very elusive."

The nine-year veteran was one of the NFL's best physical returners before injuries started creeping in the past two years. He contends that injuries aside, his ability is still there. It's sometimes easy to forget how solid a returner Manning was when he played for the Bears between 2006-10, simply because of the punt returner who stole all the special teams headlines, Devin Hester.

Manning had 28 or more kick returns for the Bears each season between 2008-10, as the Bears paired him with Hester and Johnny Knox. Manning's best kick-returning season came in 2008 when he returned 36 kicks for an average 29.7 yards. Granted, that was seven seasons ago.

When it comes to setting up strong field position as a kick returner, Manning has given his teams slightly better starting field position than Hester and Tate. Offenses have an average 68.8 yards to travel following one of Manning's returns since he's been in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Hester's career returns on average set up field position that started drives 72.1 yards away from the end zone. Tate's returns have set up an average 75.0 yards for his offenses to travel. With respect to Hester, it's also worth mentioning that he has five career kick-return touchdowns while Tate and Manning only have one each.

As much as his defensive talents are currently a reason he's on the Bengals' roster, Manning's special teams background gives the Bengals a noted measure of experience that could at the very least make him a valuable meeting-room resource, if not a regular returning talent himself.
CINCINNATI -- Late in Monday afternoon's practice, on one goal-line exercise, quarterback Andy Dalton stepped up in the pocket, then stepped back, rolled to his right away from more pressure, and threw the ball to an empty space well beyond the back corner of the end zone.

The play resulted in an incompletion. And his offensive coordinator couldn't have been happier.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
AP PhotoAndy Dalton has worked on becoming a smarter quarterback during the offseason.
"Good, Andy. Good job," Hue Jackson shouted as Dalton jogged back to the huddle.

Indeed, it was good recognition by the Cincinnati Bengals' long-embattled quarterback who has struggled in the past with deciding in similar scenarios of good defensive coverage and pressure whether he wants to tuck the ball and run, take a sack, throw it away or still try to complete the pass.

More often than not, his instinct in the past was to make the play work anyway. The end result of those decisions? Typically wobbly passes that fluttered into the hands of a defensive back who greedily picked off the pass that shouldn't have been attempted. A number of Dalton's 20 interceptions last season came when he tried to force a pass.

So for much of the offseason, Jackson made sure Dalton understood his decision-making had to improve.

"It was a huge emphasis," Jackson said. "First, one, it's what I believe in. It's what our staff believes in. But two, it's truly what the essence of playing quarterback is about: making sure you don't have negative plays for your team. You've got to do a great job of carrying everybody under your hand. When you've got the ball in your hand, it's just about making a good decision. He's worked his tail off at doing that."

One of the more telling comments Jackson made during a post-practice huddle with reporters was that he wanted Dalton to realize that his decision-making doesn't only impact the offense. It can impact the entire team.

"You've got to protect the offensive football team and our entire football team with the ball," Jackson said. "He's starting to understand that. The guy had 33 touchdowns last year. But if we can get him to where when those opportunities come that are not there, to get him to be good with the ball, then great things can happen with this football team."

On the first day of training camp Dalton accepted responsibility for what he felt was his role in the Bengals' 27-10 loss to the Chargers in January's wild-card playoff loss. He was right to do that, just as he was at other times the past seven months. He had three costly turnovers in the game. All in the second half, he lost a fumble and threw a pair of interceptions. The Bengals' four-point halftime deficit ballooned after the turnovers, and eventually the game was out of hand.

It's film of that game that has Jackson wanting to see more of the heady Dalton who threw that pass away Monday.

"That was outstanding," Jackson said. "That's what I'm looking for. My goal, my thing with him, is to get us to the next down with the ball. It's not always about throwing a touchdown pass.

"Sometimes we're going to play good defenses and they're going to do things that stop us. And when they do, we have to be a smart football unit to make sure we're making proper decisions. Which sometimes, you've just got to say, 'Uncle,' and throw it away. It might mean taking a sack. It might mean whatever those things are. But just get us to the next down with the ball and we'll have a chance."

Bengals Camp Report: Day 5

July, 28, 2014
Jul 28
6:30
PM ET
CINCINNATI -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Cincinnati Bengals training camp:


  • The Bengals had barely finished stretching at the start of Monday's practice before Mohamed Sanu made his presence known. The receiver went in motion on one of the first plays of an 11-on-11 drill before he was handed the football. Right after taking it from quarterback Andy Dalton, Sanu stopped, pulled up and threw a pass -- one of the few he has even attempted, in practice or otherwise, since college -- to fellow receiver A.J. Green. The throw fell easily into Green's hands well down field and set the tone for what ended up being a strong day overall for Sanu. "Coach had me doing a little bit of everything," Sanu said about offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.
  • In addition to throwing that pass, Sanu ran the ball once and, naturally, caught a few passes of his own from Dalton and other quarterbacks. While Sanu nor Jackson nor head coach Marvin Lewis will dare provide specifics about how they are using the receiver, they are all glad to have such a versatile playmaker on the roster. With Sanu a threat to do almost anything on the field, the Bengals know how big a challenge covering him, while also having to account for Giovani Bernard and Green, among others, can be.
  • Much of the Bengals' second fully-padded practice of training camp was spent working on short-yardage and goal-line situations. Running backs had to plow ahead on each play while defenders were charged with stopping them. It seemed like regularly during the third-and-short and fourth-and-short plays, the running backs were able to slither free for the first-down gain. On the goal line, however, the defense had its share of wins, breaking through and knocking down passing attempts, stopping running backs at the line of scrimmage or flushing quarterbacks out of the pocket and into forced throws. The units seemed split on the amount of time they respectively won battles in the trenches.
  • While the overall contact stepped up a notch Monday, the physical play that occurred Sunday may have been just a bit too much for several defenders. Linebackers J.K. Schaffer and Sean Porter got a little dinged after the first fully padded practice of the camp. That caused them both to stay in the training room Monday, while defensive end Robert Geathers and cornerback Adam Jones may have been receiving veterans' days off after the intense Day 4 workout. Neither was dressed Monday, but both were out on the practice fields. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick also was at practice but not participating after apparently tweaking a hamstring on Saturday.
  • The Bengals did lose one player to injury Monday. Offensive tackle Andre Smith ran into the locker room in the middle of the practice for an unspecified injury. Jackson said after practice he wasn't positive what the injury was but felt comfortable in affirming that the lineman shouldn't miss too much time. An off day couldn't have come at a better time for the Bengals. They won't practice Tuesday and will be back in action Wednesday.

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