AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

CINCINNATI -- It's so easy to pin a team's failures squarely on the shoulders of the man who has the football in his hands more often than anyone else.

If he's the highest-paid player on his team, the finger-pointing seems even more fitting.

Combine that with a quarterback who has been as inconsistent as Andy Dalton is, and it becomes that much easier to target such a signal-caller for complaints about the Bengals' recently poor postseason play.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Green
Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports"He's not a one-man team," A.J. Green said of teammate Andy Dalton. "... He can't beat the team by himself."
But the truth is, as two prominent members of the team pointed out this week, the Bengals' problems go much deeper than Dalton. This is a teamwide issue; one that won't be ameliorated until each player at Paul Brown Stadium looks in the mirror and comes to such a realization.

It appears some already have.

"We really know that we have to all get to the next level. We have to do better," coach Marvin Lewis said Thursday during an appearance on ESPN's "NFL Insiders." "That includes our quarterback, Andy Dalton. He's got to continue to raise the level around him, and he's got to raise his own level to bring everybody to his level all the time."

To get Dalton to step his game up, Lewis wants the quarterback's receivers, running backs, offensive linemen and defensive and special-teams teammates to do the same.

Apparently A.J. Green has been listening.

Like Lewis, Green spent the week in Arizona participating in Super Bowl week interviews. Green spoke with NFL Network's Michael Irvin about the Bengals' playoff troubles. Cincinnati has been to four-straight postseasons, but lost in the opening round in each. The franchise hasn't won a playoff game since January 1991, most recently losing at Indianapolis 26-10 in a wild-card round game earlier this month.

Green, who was drafted four years ago with Dalton, explained how bothered he gets when the bulk of blame settles onto his quarterback.

"He's not a one-man team," Green said. "When you look at those games ... we don't play well as a whole. We don't protect him well, we're not running the ball good and we're not playing defense. He can't beat the team by himself.

"We're all the supporting cast of our team and we have to step up our game to help him."

Green was unavailable in this year's playoff game after suffering a concussion in the regular-season finale. Regardless, he hasn't been very good in the postseason, catching only 13 passes for 162 yards and no touchdowns off 32 targets in three games.

Dalton, who had one of his worst regular seasons statistically, actually had one of his better playoff performances against the Colts. He only threw for 155 yards, but had his second-highest passer rating of the four playoff games, and he didn't throw an interception. Through the first three playoff games, he threw six.

Consistency and stability are among the reasons Lewis believes the Bengals will eventually clear this postseason hurdle.

"The thing we need to do is we've got to keep putting physical people out there, and people who understand that each play is so critical to our success," Lewis said. "We've got to raise our level. We've been at this spot for four seasons now and it's not good enough.

"What I've told our coaches is that we've got to start again. We've got to start from scratch."
Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis made the media rounds in Arizona on Thursday as he fulfilled various Super Bowl Week appearances.

It was during a seven-minute appearance on ESPN's "NFL Insiders" in the afternoon that Lewis spoke publicly for the second time about the standoff the Bengals and Broncos had this month over assistant coach Vance Joseph.

Joseph
Last week during the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, Lewis told Bengals.com and the Cincinnati Enquirer that the decision to block Joseph, one of the Bengals' co-defensive backs coaches, from leaving for Denver was "a hard one."

It was so hard because team president Mike Brown recognizes Joseph's value, Lewis said on the television show Thursday.

"My boss and owner sees him as a star," Lewis said, "and a guy that, as I told Vance, he could be sitting in my chair very quickly."

Lewis then added, laughing: "It could be next year."

Viewed in several NFL circles as an up-and-comer in the coaching ranks, the 42-year-old Joseph had been granted permission by the Bengals to interview for the Broncos' head-coaching vacancy that came open when John Fox was fired following Denver's divisional-round playoff loss to Indianapolis. Four days after Joseph's interview, former Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was announced as Fox's replacement.

Not long after, word leaked that Kubiak and his new bosses favored bringing Joseph on board as they tried to fill their empty defensive coordinator position. Before joining the Bengals last offseason, Joseph had served as Kubiak's defensive backs coach for three years when Kubiak was the head coach of the Houston Texans.

Once they discovered the Broncos' intentions, the Bengals blocked Joseph from voiding his contract in order to leave for the coordinator position. Had he instead been offered the head-coaching job, perhaps their stance would have been different.

Denver on Wednesday hired longtime coach Wade Phillips to run the defense.

"Vance understands how things work. All coaches do," Lewis said Thursday. "Anytime you're in that situation as a coach, the very first thing should be if I can be released from my contract. As we know, as you look across the league, some are and some aren't, and that's part of the process.

"As Mike reminds me, his No. 1 devotion is to the Cincinnati Bengals. That's what he's in charge of is his club and our club, and what's best for us."

Though Lewis might have been joking about it, the Bengals do seem to have the makings of a succession plan in place in the event 2015 is his final season. For now, Lewis is set to coach next season on the final year of a contract. The team hasn't given any indication if it plans to sign him to an extension sometime this offseason.

Along with Joseph, the Bengals also already have another former head coach on their staff in Hue Jackson, the offensive coordinator who interviewed for the Buffalo Bills' opening this month.
One was an absolute wrecking ball on defense, consistently finding his way to the football. The other was eased into his team's offense before ultimately taking it over the second half of the season, and helping it earn a postseason berth.

But only one would be named the AFC North's Rookie of the Year.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Mosley
Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesIn his rookie season, Ravens LB C.J. Mosley registered five or more tackles in every game.
That honor went to Baltimore Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley, who barely edged out Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill. From the five-person voting panel, Mosley received 12 overall points to Hill's 11. Mosley also had three first-place votes to the two that went to Hill.

Out of the pair, Hill is the only one up for the NFL's Rookie of the Year award that will be announced this weekend in Arizona. He's the only AFC North representative, contending with a group made up of all offensive players. Receiver Odell Beckham Jr., quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, receiver Mike Evans and receiver Sammy Watkins also are up for the honor. No defensive player has earned the award since 2010, when Ndamukong Suh received it.

Mosley was seemingly everywhere for the Ravens this season. He had 129 tackles, the eighth-highest total for any defender in the league. He also was part of a defense that ranked eighth in the league.

In addition to the 129 tackles, Mosley also had three sacks, two interceptions and forced and recovered a fumble. The Alabama product also had 19 tackles in the Ravens' two playoff games, including 10 in the divisional-round loss to the Patriots. In a Week 5 loss at Indianapolis, he had a season-high 14 stops.

Hill became a threat for the Bengals starting in Week 9 when he rushed for a season-high 154 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-23 win against the Jaguars. It was his 60-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that helped ice the win, and firmly put him in his fan base's consciousness. That week, and for the two after it, Hill started in place of Giovani Bernard. The third-year running back was resting after experiencing a series of injuries following hard hits in previous games.

Also during Bernard's absence, Hill rushed for 152 yards in a homecoming game at New Orleans. The Baton Rouge, Louisiana, native and LSU product went on to become the Bengals' top option at running back after Bernard returned. Across the final nine weeks of the season, Hill rushed for 929 yards, more than any other back in that stretch.

In addition to their Rookie of the Year award, ESPN.com's AFC North reporters voted on four other honors for the division (Coach of the Year, Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player). We've been handing out the awards daily since Monday.

Mosley finished third in the division Defensive Player of the Year voting, and Hill finished third in Offensive Player of the Year voting.

AFC North Rookie of the Year: Mosley, 12 points; Hill, 11; Joel Bitonio, 8, Cleveland; Martavis Bryant, 1, Pittsburgh.

Panel of voters: Scott Brown, Jeremy Fowler, Coley Harvey, Jamison Hensley and Pat McManamon.
CINCINNATI -- To the Cincinnati Bengals fan who may have already begun envisioning a future without tight end Jermaine Gresham, hold off.

At least, that's the underlying message behind comments made earlier this week by offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.

Asked if there was still a place on the Bengals' roster for the embattled soon-to-be-free-agent Gresham, Jackson answered in the affirmative.

"There's a place for him," Jackson said to ESPN.com. "But again, he's free, so that's going to work itself out for him however it works itself out."

Gresham
Gresham's five-year rookie contract will come to an end in March when he becomes one of 13 Bengals to become eligible for unrestricted free agency. He and his representatives are free at that point to talk to whichever interested teams they would like. Reading into Jackson's comment it seems possible the Bengals could be one of those teams.

"We have a way that we do things, and how we want to accomplish things," Jackson said. "Within what we asked him to do this year, he did some good things. There are some things he knows he needs to do to be better, and he will work at them to be better."

It should be noted there was some concern among some around the team right after the season about Gresham's apparent inability to play in two meaningful late-season games because of injuries. After testing out respective ailments ahead of the Week 15 game at Cleveland and the wild-card round playoff game at Indianapolis, Gresham decided he couldn't play in either game. The decisions came despite cutting, running and jumping as he went through pregame evaluations from trainers and coaches.

Gresham was asked multiple times after the playoff loss to comment about what made him hesitant to play in the game. He declined each request.

Without the veteran tight end, the Bengals were forced into tweaking a game plan that already took a hit the day before when receiver A.J. Green wasn't cleared of the concussion protocol. Forced to shelve two of their top pass-catchers, the Bengals turned to backup running back Rex Burkhead as an alternate receiver, and mixed up protection fronts to account for Gresham's absence in run-blocking sequences. The Bengals already were without fellow tight end Tyler Eifert and receiver Marvin Jones; two of their leading 2013 pass-catchers who practically missed all of 2014.

"A doctor says he can't go, and I don't get to control that," Jackson said about Gresham's playoff absence. "When they said, 'Hue, here's the offensive football team you get,' you have to go out and coach. Were we at full strength? No. But we were the best we could be that day from an injury standpoint and it wasn't good enough."

The Bengals lost 26-10. Despite repeated trips to the postseason, they haven't won a playoff game since January 1991.

Gresham caught 62 passes for 460 yards this season and a division-high five touchdowns. He also fumbled three times.
CINCINNATI -- Paul Guenther made major waves at the start of the Cincinnati Bengals' offseason four weeks ago when he told reporters covering the team that defensive tackle Geno Atkins was "just a guy out there" at times this past season.

Hours before making the proclamation, the defensive coordinator shared a similar message in a closed-door meeting with his lineman, imploring him to take it with him into the rest of the offseason.

Atkins
Asked earlier this week if he believed Atkins could make his disappointing 2014 season a distant memory, Guenther told ESPN.com he expected the lineman to do exactly that.

"I'm confident that he'll come back next year and be the guy that we all know," Guenther said. "After going through the year of working through his injury, I feel confident he's going to come back with a vengeance."

Atkins missed the second half of the 2013 season after tearing his ACL and undergoing surgery to fix it. All last offseason, he rehabbed the injury and had hardly any time to build up the rest of his body for the grind of a full regular season. As a result, it appeared his explosion and lauded first-step pass-rush technique suffered. In turn, his production took a sharp dip.

Despite having just 34 tackles and three sacks, numbers that were among the lowest for a regular season in his career, Atkins still made this year's Pro Bowl. After playing in all of Cincinnati's games this year, he appeared in Sunday's game for winning Team Irvin, coached by Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin. He didn't record a statistic.

Two years ago, the last full season Atkins played, he recorded 12.5 sacks. He also led the NFL that year with a 12.7 pressure-percentage rating, a metric tracked by Pro Football Focus. According to PFF, he either hurried, hit or sacked quarterbacks on 12.7 percent of the snaps he was part of in 2012. This season, he did the same on 6.7 percent of his snaps, a figure that was mediocre this season, at best.

After Sunday's Pro Bowl, Atkins told Bengals.com in Arizona that he felt strong this season. He also said he hadn't given much thought yet to how his offseason conditioning will go this year. For now, there's only one item on the offseason to-do list: to relax.

"I'm looking forward to having an offseason and chill," the typically uncommunicative Atkins said. "Football season is over. It's a long season."

Still, the goal Guenther, other coaches and trainers have for Atkins these next six months involves training for football specifically.

That's the same process cornerback Leon Hall endured as he recovered from a second Achilles surgery in three years. It's the same process linebacker Vontaze Burfict will go through this spring and summer as he tries to get his left knee healthy again following microfracture surgery earlier this month. The Bengals hope he'll be ready by training camp.

"They're two of our marquee players," Guenther said of Atkins and Burfict. "They're a key fit and part of what we do here. As for Geno, we just have to get him back to full strength where he once had it. That would be huge."

For a pass rush that was arguably the league's worst in 2014, it certainly would be.
CINCINNATI -- Marvin Lewis received a pair of firm endorsements from his top two assistant coaches who told ESPN.com on Tuesday they believed Lewis pulled off one of his best head-coaching jobs in 2014.

"Outstanding," Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said.

"It was the best coaching job Marvin had outside of Andy Dalton's and A.J. Green's rookie year," defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said, referring to the lockout-affected 2011 season. That also was the year that began a playoff streak that reached four seasons earlier this month. Like all their playoff appearances since 2005, the Bengals have failed to get out of the wild-card round in each of the last four years.

[+] EnlargeMarvin Lewis
John Grieshop/Getty Images"It was the best coaching job Marvin had outside of Andy Dalton's and A.J. Green's rookie year," defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said.
In the immediate wake of the latest postseason defeat, a 26-10 loss at Indianapolis, calls sounded for Lewis' firing. Inside the offices at One Paul Brown Stadium, they fell on deaf ears.

Team president Mike Brown had no plans of making a swap at the top of his coaching staff. Like others around the organization, he continues to believe Lewis gives the organization its best chance for finally clearing the playoff hurdle.

"What's happened here, which is great, is that it's expected that you're going to be in the playoffs," Jackson said. "The expectation's changed. At one time, that wasn't even the expectation. Now, that's the expectation, and this is a good, young team. He did an outstanding job. One, of coaching his coaches. Two, of coaching the football team, motivating the football team and leading the team and the staff and putting us in position."

Jackson wants those still irked by the string of first-round exits to blame the players and the coaching staff.

"We have to reward him for a job well done," Jackson said. "He helped get us to the dance, and now we have to go dance."

The Bengals went 10-5-1 and were potentially a lost fumble away from winning the AFC North.

The assistants lauded Lewis specifically for the way he managed, with two first-year coordinators and two new position coaches, the flood of injuries that hit the team at various times of the season. One of the newest position coaches, linebackers coach Matt Burke, was hit by the injury bug harder than most others. Pro Bowler Vontaze Burfict only finished two games after dealing with head, neck and knee injuries. Fellow starters Rey Maualuga and Emmanuel Lamur missed multiple games due to hamstring issues.

There also were injuries to tight end Tyler Eifert, who missed all but one quarter of the season opener; receiver Marvin Jones, who was hampered by injuries since early last offseason and never made it on the field for a game; and tight end Jermaine Gresham, receiver A.J. Green and offensive tackle Andre Smith. Veterans Geno Atkins and Leon Hall played all year, but spent all last spring and summer rehabbing serious injuries instead of spending their time actually training for optimal play during the long season.

"If you want to know the truth, it's amazing," Guenther said.

Neither assistant wanted to call the season a success. Both were quick to point out the many flaws their sides of the ball had in 2014, and how they are working with Lewis to resolve them and to finally win that playoff game.

"I would hope everybody feels it in the pit of their stomach like our coaches do, like I do," Jackson said. "You've got to have that fire that burns in order to get over to the other side. We've got to take it and work our tails off to get there."
Andy Dalton still hasn't won a game in January.

With 3:10 remaining in Sunday night's Pro Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback had a chance to lead a dramatic comeback drive that would have given his team the win and an additional $27,000 in his and his teammates' pockets.

None of that would happen, though.

After generating momentum and getting his offense into the red zone, Dalton effectively ended Team Carter's (coached by Hall of Fame receiver and ESPN analyst Cris Carter) hopes at winning 13 plays later when he delivered a poorly-thrown pass that fell several yards away from the two pass-catchers that were in its vicinity. Rushed by four defensive linemen, including his Bengals teammate Geno Atkins, Dalton delivered the throw off his back foot while trying to avoid the rush.

The incomplete pass, thrown with 53 seconds left in the game, sealed the 32-28 win for Team Irvin (coached by Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin).

Only once on the drive did Dalton target his Bengals teammate, A.J. Green. It was one of three passing attempts Green drew from Team Carter's quarterbacks. He didn't catch a single one of them. Defended by Miami Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes on all three plays, Green had a tough time generating enough space to make a catch. The lone target he had from Dalton landed well short of his feet as Dalton felt Grimes stepping up for an interception, and decided to throw short so the corner couldn't complete the pick-off.

Dalton completed four of his first five throws on the final drive -- all screens or other short routes to running backs Alfred Morris or Justin Forsett. After Forsett's 13-yard reception put Team Carter at Team Irvin's 19, Dalton missed on four-straight passing attempts, including the one to Green. Officially, Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen was credited with being targeted on Dalton's last incompletion, but the fourth-down throw was headed toward both he and Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown.

Dalton, voted the seventh alternate by fans in December, was added to the Pro Bowl roster last week after the Super Bowl quarterbacks were forced into missing the game, and also after Baltimore's Joe Flacco bowed out because of the birth of his child. The Bengals' signal-caller who signed a six-year contract extension in August went 9-for-20 for 69 yards Sunday. He was sacked once, had a 54.0 passer rating and averaged 3.5 yards per completion.

Like Green, Atkins didn't have any statistical contributions. The Bengals' other Pro Bowl selection, punter Kevin Huber, had one 56-yard punt that traveled to the opposing 6 before the return team tried to bring it back with a lateral. The return only went for eight yards.

Dalton still hasn't won a game in January. He entered the Pro Bowl 0-5 in regular-season and playoff games in the month. His latest January loss was his 26-10 loss at Indianapolis on Jan. 4.
CINCINNATI -- It's hard to pinpoint the exact reason, but in certain circles, Cincinnati Bengals president Mike Brown has earned the reputation of being an owner who abhors winning.

That couldn't be further from the truth.

Maybe it was all those years of abject mediocrity and abysmal play his team showcased for so long after he took command following the death of his father, NFL legend Paul Brown, in 1991. Or perhaps it was the Bengals' apparent penchant during most of the 1990s for missing out on draft picks and picking more duds than future stars.

Maybe it was a combination of both.

[+] EnlargeMike Brown
AP Photo/Al BehrmanBengals president Mike Brown is "pushing people to identify players that will make us a better football team in free agency," according to coach Marvin Lewis.
Whatever earned Mike Brown such a reputation, it's long past time for the myth to be put to rest. Coach Marvin Lewis' comments this week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, indicated as much. If you go by what Lewis said, Brown is as adamant as anyone around the Bengals about clearing this four-year, first-round playoff hurdle and getting them one step closer to their goal of getting back to the Super Bowl.

Lewis made it clear in a conversation with the Cincinnati Enquirer and Bengals.com that with respect to the Bengals' free-agency plans this year, don't expect the team to sit back and let the rest of the league wheel and deal around them. Look for them to be a little more aggressive. You can thank Brown for that.

"He doesn't want to hear, 'We will be better when we get these guys back,' " Lewis said in the Enquirer. "No, we need to get better. He knows we need to get better. He's pushing people to identify players that will make us a better football team in free agency."

Yes, pushing is the job of an owner or team president. And yes, the members of the Brown family who run the team have made similar charges to coaches and scouts in years past. In this instance, though, management is angered the team keeps hitting a wall.

Some reading this will question why the Bengals -- if they recognize the need for change -- didn't fire Lewis after a fourth straight early playoff exit?

Because for now, the organization values something else over making such rash moves: stability.

There is a belief around Paul Brown Stadium that the Bengals have a solid foundation for success right now. They believe that foundation is the reason they have won at least 10 games in each of the past three seasons. It's also the reason they aren't in favor of letting go of coaches or even demoting slightly underperforming quarterbacks. Between coaching, talent, development, and potential, the Bengals believe their window for making a third Super Bowl trip still is wide open, thanks to the base they have established the past four years.

Brown's insistence on more free-agency aggression seems a sign he's putting this latest wild-card loss on himself. If another early exit happens next season -- particularly after a second-straight season with a fully intact staff, and a year after making these philosophical changes to free agency -- then perhaps the foundation gets rocked as the blame can more easily be shifted to others -- like the head coach.

The pressure to build a 2015 contender is on.

"It's a different feel than where we have been," Lewis said. "It's not a status quo. There has not been a status quo conversation or, 'Oh, we'll be OK, we'll just get these guys back.' No, no, no, that's bull. We got to be better."
CINCINNATI -- First, let's give credit where it's due.

Kudos to the Cincinnati Enquirer's Paul Dehner and Bengals.com's Geoff Hobson for the news they gathered out of a nearly 40-minute sit-down interview with Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, on Wednesday. Yours truly did not make the trip down.

Among several news nuggets Lewis provided Dehner and Hobson was a comment that the Bengals are content with Andy Dalton as their starting quarterback. Lewis made it clear the team has no plans to look for a quarterback via the draft or free agency to compete with Dalton this year.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
AP Photo/Michael ConroyThe Bengals haven't shown a willingness to upset the applecart at quarterback.
None of this is a surprise.

"We have no problem with Andy Dalton as our quarterback. We don't have time to waste time with another quarterback," Lewis said, according to Bengals.com. "To not continue to press forward and get Andy better and to get whoever the backup quarterbacks are better. The quarterback competition: Where has it worked? It doesn't get you wins."

Lewis' comments also seem like an indication the team will be welcoming back Jason Campbell, the backup who is slated to hit free agency when the new league year opens in March. If he does return, it means the Bengals will go into the year with three quarterbacks. That's because he and Dalton will be joined again by AJ McCarron, who could in theory at least compete this summer with Campbell for the top backup job.

It be jarring to see Lewis make these assertions on the heels of one of Dalton's worst seasons, statistically speaking. But the Bengals have been steadfast in their commitment to the starting quarterback throughout his four-year tenure in which they have reached the playoffs four times, albeit all with first-round exits. Right or wrong, it's a decision they have firmly stood by. It's one they backed up in August when Dalton signed that massive contract extension that covers the next six seasons and pays him up to $115 million.

We have discussed at length here how the structure of Dalton's contract permits the Bengals to move on from him after the 2015 season, without a cap hit, if he isn't playing to their standards. So even if Lewis supports Dalton now, the quarterback still is entering a pivotal fifth year. The hope is that with a second season under offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, Dalton will thrive.

To thrive, Dalton has to make reducing turnovers his primary focus this offseason. He had 17 interceptions in 2014, one year after a career-high 20. Many of them came at inopportune times and turned momentum away from the Bengals. If he cuts down on the picks and manages the run game as well as he did late this season, the Bengals' offense should be dramatically better than this season's No. 15 ranking.

As we've also mentioned, the Bengals believe they have a firm foundation all the way around right now. If they were to shake it up with a quarterback controversy or a coaching change (whether it's at head coach or defensive backs coach), it could create a harmful ripple effect. While certain personnel changes will come to improve the defense, they believe it's best to keep key positions intact.

Dalton may not be great, but the security of knowing they won't be going through a transition at quarterback has the Bengals completely at ease.
It only took a matter of minutes for A.J. Green to come off the board during Wednesday night's Pro Bowl draft.

Taken with the third overall pick, the Cincinnati Bengals receiver was drafted by the Pro Bowl team that will be coached by former Minnesota Vikings Hall of Fame receiver and current ESPN analyst Cris Carter. Green was the first non-quarterback taken, and the second player selected by Irvin and player-captains, Antonio Brown and J.J. Watt. Brown and Watt were named captains of the team Tuesday.

Green was the only Bengals player actually picked in the draft, as the other four Pro Bowl selections were assigned to their teams as part of this second year of the "unconferenced" format. Before Wednesday's draft, players either were voted or named as alternates to one single Pro Bowl team that was subsequently separated into two teams with the draft.

To help keep Sunday night's all-star game in Arizona fair, certain players were assigned to each team.

In the Bengals' case, quarterback Andy Dalton was assigned to Carter's team with Green, while punter Kevin Huber and defensive tackle Geno Atkins were assigned to the other team coached by Hall of Famer Michael Irvin. It means if Atkins and Dalton are on the field at the same time, the lineman actually could sack his quarterback.

Atkins only had three sacks this season after coming off an ACL tear last year. By all accounts, physically, he was fully healthy all year. He had 12.5 sacks in the last complete season he played before this year, 2012.

Dalton threw for 3,398 yards and 19 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in 2014. Green, who was voted to the Pro Bowl with Huber, caught 69 passes and set career-lows with 1,041 yards and six touchdowns. Hurt off and on, Green missed parts of five games. Huber ranked fourth this season in net punting, but he led the league in percentage of punts inside both the 10- and 5-yard lines.

This is Green's fourth Pro Bowl, Atkins' third, Dalton's second and Huber's first.
The Cincinnati Bengals have blocked co-defensive backs coach Vance Joseph from leaving for a job with the Denver Broncos, according to a report from Fox Sports.

Joseph
Fox Sports' Alex Marvez, who is in Mobile, Alabama, for the Senior Bowl, reported late Tuesday night that the Bengals will not allow Joseph out of his contract in order to become the Broncos' new defensive coordinator.

ESPN Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold reported Wednesday that Denver had been informed the Bengals would not let Joseph out of his contract.

It had been reported earlier Tuesday that Bengals president Mike Brown wanted to meet with Joseph before deciding whether he would let the assistant coach leave. Brown and Joseph are both in Mobile, assisting other members of the Bengals' coaching staff and front office in scouting potential draft targets.

What set all of this in motion were the events of last Friday, when Joseph interviewed with the Broncos for their still open head-coaching vacancy. Ultimately, the job went to former Texans head coach Gary Kubiak, who was introduced as the team's 15th head coach Tuesday.

From 2011-13, Joseph served under Kubiak as a Texans assistant. Once Houston transitioned last offseason from Kubiak's staff to current head coach Bill O'Brien's, Joseph was among those out of work. He wasn't out of a job long, though. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis quickly hired him as a secondary coach paired with Mark Carrier. It was a move that had many in NFL circles envious of the Bengals because Joseph, 42, has long been tabbed a coaching prospect on the rise.

It's clear the Broncos flew Joseph out to see how he might fit as a defensive coordinator. By all indications, they liked what they heard from the former Colorado Buffaloes backup quarterback, and had plans of making a move to bring him into the fold. That was until Brown and the Bengals reportedly stepped in between.

This isn't the first time Cincinnati has blocked an assistant coach from leaving. In 2011, then-defensive backs coach Kevin Coyle was blocked from interviewing with the Eagles. A year later, the Dolphins hired him as their defensive coordinator.

Regardless what Joseph's future looks like, the Bengals know they are on borrowed time with him. The way his career is trending, it is only a matter of time before he becomes a defensive coordinator and/or a head coach.

When he was first hired last offseason, Joseph harped on how technique and teaching proper fundamentals were his greatest assets as a coach. It clearly paid off this season with Dre Kirkpatrick, a third-year backup cornerback who had the best season of his career in 2014. Kirkpatrick was seldom beat and was routinely in position, even on the throws that did get by him. He also had three interceptions, including the two pickoffs he had in the final three minutes of the Bengals' Monday night win against Peyton Manning and the Broncos last month.

With Joseph reportedly staying, the Bengals will have in place a defensive staff that will move into its second season with Paul Guenther as its coordinator.
CINCINNATI -- The NFL's coaching carousel has claimed another Cincinnati Bengals assistant coach for an interview, according to multiple reports, including one from ESPN's Josina Anderson.

Bengals co-defensive backs coach Vance Joseph is traveling to Denver on Friday to meet with Broncos officials regarding their head-coaching vacancy that came open earlier this week when John Fox was fired after leading the team to a 12-4 regular-season record and a home divisional-round playoff loss to Indianapolis.

[+] EnlargeDre Kirkpatrick
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesDre Kirkpatrick and the rest of the secondary have improved under Vance Joseph.
"I'm excited for Vance to have this opportunity to possibly become a head coach," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis told Anderson. "He is a talented and well-versed football coach."

Joseph came to Cincinnati last offseason after a three-year stint coaching the Houston Texans' defensive backs. He also served as an assistant in San Francisco for six seasons and played and coached at the University of Colorado.

He's the second Bengals coach to be courted for another coaching job after offensive coordinator Hue Jackson interviewed for the Buffalo Bills' opening that went to Rex Ryan earlier this week.

Viewed in many NFL circles as a coach on the rise, Joseph's addition last spring followed a shakeup in the wake of the Texans implementing a new coaching staff. Coaches with many other teams told the Bengals often they felt the landing of Joseph was a relative coup, considering how high his potential for success appeared. If he isn't a head coach next year or the year after, it's possible the 42-year-old could be a defensive coordinator somewhere.

When he came to Cincinnati last year, Joseph lauded his ability to teach technique.

"I consider myself a very positive coach in the way I work with players, and I put a lot of stress on great technique," Joseph said. "I believe I can get those technique points across very well."

It translated to a secondary that was among the best at preventing deep touchdown passes. The Bengals were one of five teams to allow three or fewer touchdown passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air. The 25.4 completion percentage they allowed on throws that distance also was the third-lowest in the league.

No player saw the effect of Joseph's coaching more than cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who had three interceptions -- including two in the final three minutes of a win over Peyton Manning -- in a reserve role. At the end of the season, the third-year cornerback lauded Joseph for helping make him better this season.

Joseph reportedly will be competing for the Denver head-coaching position with Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who served as the Texans' head coach the seasons Joseph was in Houston.
CINCINNATI -- One week after his defensive coordinator blasted him for being "just a guy out there" this season, Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins was named Friday as an alternate to the Pro Bowl.

Atkins
 Now a three-time Pro Bowl selection, the fifth-year lineman takes the place of Detroit's Ndamukong Suh, who won't be able to play in the all-star game due to injury.

Atkins joins Bengals receiver A.J. Green and punter Kevin Huber who were voted onto the Pro Bowl teams late last month.

It's a bit of a bizarre honor for Atkins, considering how poorly Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther felt he played this season. In a 30-minute, on-the-record conversation with reporters the day after the Bengals' season ended with a wild-card round playoff loss at Indianapolis, Guenther was quite direct and honest when asked his assessment on Atkins' season.

"This year, he was just three-technique No. 20, in my mind," Guenther said. "He was just a guy out there."

Atkins had 34 tackles this past season, the lowest single-season total he's had in a year he completed since becoming a starter in 2011. He also had three sacks. Last season, in about half the number of games, Atkins had six sacks in a season that was shortened after Week 9 because of an ACL tear. By all accounts, Atkins was fully recovered from the injury, although the Bengals took it slowly with him throughout training camp.

The last season Atkins played all 16 games like he did in 2014 was in 2012 when he had 12.5 sacks. According to Pro Football Focus, his pressure percentage (a special metric tracked by the analytics site) that year led the league at 12.7. It meant that he was either getting a sack, a hurry or a quarterback hit on 12.7 percent of the snaps he was part of during the season. This year, he was middle-of-the-road, garnering a 6.7 pressure percentage.

"He didn't have the explosion he had in the past," Guenther said. "When you start seeing that, you've got to make a decision as a coordinator. Can you [rush] with four guys or do you have to [get pressure] somewhere else?"

Pro Football Focus also rated the Bengals as having the worst pass rush in the league this regular season.

"We need to get him back to where he was, being that game-wrecker there inside," Guenther said of Atkins. "Otherwise, we need to go find a new inside rusher."

Atkins becomes the first Bengals defensive lineman to be a three-time Pro Bowl selection.

"Unconferenced" for a second straight year, the Pro Bowl teams will be decided by Hall of Fame captains Michael Irvin and Cris Carter next Wednesday. The game itself will be played Jan. 25 in Arizona, one week before the Super Bowl is played there.
CINCINNATI -- Now that the Cincinnati Bengals' season is over, we turn our attention to the offseason.

There are many questions the Bengals must answer. Let's take a look at five of them:

1. How does the pass rush improve?

One of the biggest problems the Bengals had this season, particularly in the playoff loss at Indianapolis, was getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. While coaches and players are quick to point out the complexities of the pass rush -- for instance, it's more important how the unit manages the rush on third downs, some have said -- the fact is the defense wasn't as good getting to quarterbacks as it has been in the past. The Bengals finished the regular season with 20 sacks, the second-fewest since Marvin Lewis became head coach. They also allowed 243 passing yards per game, 36 more than they did in 2013. Defensive tackle Domata Peko was one of the players who said earlier this week that change would be coming to the defensive line next season as the Bengals seek to get a better rush.

2. Where to turn in the NFL draft?

So what change could be coming to the defensive line? Different players and line combinations is one possibility. When the Bengals begin whittling down their draft board in the coming weeks, there probably will be several defensive ends and tackles on them. It's possible that Cincinnati will address its line woes in free agency, but it's more likely that ultimately gets done in the draft. The last three seasons, in particular, they have turned to the draft to tighten up the line, selecting Devon Still, Margus Hunt, Brandon Thompson and Will Clarke. Other position areas to watch when the draft comes around: offensive tackle, linebacker, tight end and receiver.

[+] EnlargeBengals
AP Photo/Michael ConroyIt seems unlikely that Jermaine Gresham will be one of Andy Dalton's targets next season.
3. Is Jermaine Gresham coming back?

For now, it seems the answer to that question is "no." Gresham disappointed some around the team when he didn't play in Sunday's playoff game and in the game at Cleveland four weeks before that after testing out respective injuries during pregame warm-ups. He also has fallen out of favor with fans and appears content with having done so. The free-agent tight end has had better years, but he didn't have an abysmal season, catching 62 passes. Used as one of Andy Dalton's top targets following injuries to A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones, he was a key option in this year's passing game. With Eifert expected to be healthy before training camp and Ryan Hewitt coming off a strong rookie season, the Bengals -- again, for now -- seem content moving along from Gresham and going a different direction.

4. What can Dalton do to take the next step?

This was a big question last offseason, particularly with Dalton getting close to signing a massive new deal. It's safe to say that overall, Dalton this season didn't live up to the six-year contract extension he signed in August that could pay him up to $115 million. He had issues with interceptions (he threw 17) and lost a fourth straight playoff game. He also witnessed a steady decline in his passing numbers at the end of the season, around the same time the Bengals' rushing game became a prominent piece of their offense. Dalton said earlier this week that he expects to go to Southern California to work with throwing coach Tom House again. Dalton's time with House seemed to pay off early this season, as his throws looked vastly better than they did in previous seasons.

5. Will the Bengals need a new offensive coordinator?

While Dalton continues to figure out what he can do to harness some of what he had at the beginning of this season, he could end up with a new offensive coordinator as well. Hue Jackson reportedly met with the Buffalo Bills on Wednesday about their head coach vacancy. Other opportunities could come as well, meaning he could soon be on his way out after spending one year with Dalton. If that happens, the Bengals will need a coordinator who can push Dalton much the way Jackson did this season. This question could be the first to get answered this offseason.

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