AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

CINCINNATI -- A quick update on two of the Cincinnati Bengals' more enigmatic injuries.

 Coach Marvin Lewis said after Friday's practice that tight end Tyler Eifert and linebacker Vontaze Burfict are both "progressing" and making strides to return this season.

Burfict appears to have the best chance of playing soon after going through rehab and conditioning work off to the side of Bengals practices this week. If he practices next Wednesday, it seems likely he would return the following Sunday when Cincinnati visits Tampa Bay. If for whatever reason next week doesn't end up working, he should be on schedule to return seven days later when the Bengals host the Steelers.

Burfict underwent arthroscopic knee surgery at the end of last month. It forced him to miss the past three games, and he will be out a fourth Sunday when the Bengals travel to Houston.

As for Eifert, exactly when he will return to the practice fields is a guess. He's been around the team but hasn't worked out since dislocating his right elbow reaching for extra yards at the end of a catch in the season opener at Baltimore. Originally, Eifert was placed on the short-term injured reserve, designated to return nine weeks later. Now 11 weeks have passed, and he still hasn't practiced.

Lewis was asked again Friday if there was a chance Eifert would return this season, and the coach said yes. It was the second time in a week that he acknowledged that Eifert should be back in the fold.

At this rate, though, it could be the within the final three weeks of the regular season before he gets back into the playing rotation. He still has yet to go through the stage of conditioning Burfict was working through this week. And given the amount of time off Eifert has had, he could require more than one week to get back to in enough of playing shape to contribute.
CINCINNATI -- In the past three games that Giovani Bernard has appeared in, the small-in-stature Cincinnati Bengals running back took a series of punishing blows.

The culmination of the hits resulted in him missing the past three weeks as he rested hip and clavicle injuries.

 Of the more painful and vicious tackles he took, none came inside the tackle box. All were on the outer edge, either as he was catching a pass or finishing a run that went out wide.

Still, the perception persists that Bernard's injuries were the result of him being worn down because of the supposed high rate of runs he has had into the middle of the field. The widespread belief is that his recent physical abuse stems from pounding the ball into the middle of his offensive line.

It's false.

But even if that was true, Bernard vowed this week to continue running the football the same way he has before. If he has to run inside, he'll keep going inside. If he has to get hit running outside, so be it.

"I play football," Bernard said. "I know the consequences of playing football, and I love the game. I don't worry about that.

"If you ask a lot of running backs, they don't preferably like to just be able to do one thing. We're built to do whatever the coaches want us to do. One guy may be able to do something better than the other guy, and we just leave that in the coaches' hands."

When you see Bernard lined up in the backfield Sunday at Houston, don't automatically assume he's going to be running a stretch play to the right or left.

"Everybody says, 'Well, just run him on the edge,'" offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said, echoing Bernard. "Well, you can get hit on the edge, too, just as well as you can get hit up the middle. You're going to get hit. That's just the way it goes."

He, too, plans on utilizing Bernard both inside and out. He won't shy away from calling for plays in either direction.

It bears mentioning that Bernard has more overall rushes into the interior of the field this season than he did as a rookie at this point last year. Through seven games (that's all Bernard has played this season), 85 of his 109 total carries this year have gone between the tackles. That means 78 percent of his runs have gone up the middle. Through seven games last season, he only had 53 carries into the middle of the field. With 67 total rushes, that meant 79.1 percent of his runs went up the middle.

Percentage-wise, he rushed inside slightly more last year at this point.

Production-wise, Bernard has fared much better running in the middle of the field this year than he did in 2013. Of his total rushing yards, 80.4 percent this year have come up the middle, as have all five of his rushing touchdowns. After seven games last year, only 41.4 percent of Bernard's yards came from inside carries, and only one of his four rushing touchdowns went that direction, too.

"Every running back has a [set] number of hits in their career. You just have to find ways to limit as many shots as you can take," Bernard said. "Whether that, sometimes, is being smart and running out of bounds or getting down when you know you've got 10 guys on your back. You just have to know when to turn it on."
CINCINNATI -- Among the hoopla surrounding Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, one part of his game that often gets lost is how he plays against the run.

Yes, he's a solid pass-rusher. Yes, he gets his hands up well at the line of scrimmage and can knock down or intercept passes. Yes, he can embarrass offensive tackles with his bull-rush moves. And yes, he can score touchdowns as a tight end, too.

Though most Cincinnati Bengals fans have probably read about -- and watched -- Watt do all of those things, they might not know about how good Watt is against the run.

Jeremy Hill, why don't you tell them about Watt's ability to play the run?

"He's very disruptive," said Hill, the Bengals' rookie running back who has rushed for 361 yards over the past two weeks. "Teams pay a lot of attention to him, and when you do that the other guys make plays. Then when you leave him one-on-one, he'll make the play.

"He does it sometimes without even trying really, because you put so much focus on him it helps other guys get freed up. You have to do a good job of focusing in on him and making sure he's not wreaking havoc on the game."

Though Hill's comments give a level of insight into blocking Watt, they don't tell the full story.

According to Stats & Information, 32 of Watt's 44 tackles this season have come on rushing plays -- 72.7 percent of all his stops. Additionally, of his 636 overall snaps, 255 have been on rushing downs. So percentage-wise, of all the times Watt has been on the field this season, just 40 percent of those plays have been when opposing teams have run the ball. Yet the vast majority of his tackles have been against the run.

To Hill's point about Watt's teammates getting freed up against the run, of the four fumble recoveries the all-world defensive end has, three have been after runs. Watt doesn't have any forced fumbles on running plays this season, meaning he's routinely been there to clean up the turnover when his teammates have caused it.

"He's definitely a game-wrecker," Hill said. "He makes crazy plays each game. Two or three of the plays he can make can really change the outcome of the game, so you have to make sure you get him blocked up."

There will be more on Watt between now and Sunday's game, but consider this about him from Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson:

"He's as good as I've ever seen play the game. He plays with unbelievable energy and tenacity, determination, desire. He makes a lot of football plays. ... What more do you want? So we're playing against a tremendous football player. But that's the beautiful part of the National Football League. What a challenge?"

What a challenge, indeed; one that won't just cause trouble against the pass. But one that could disrupt the run, too.
CINCINNATI -- Good news, fantasy owners: Giovani Bernard appears to be back in the rotation for the Cincinnati Bengals.

The second-year running back practiced for a second straight day Thursday when the Bengals went through another workout inside the University of Cincinnati's indoor practice bubble two miles away from Paul Brown Stadium. After spending Wednesday limited, Bernard was upgraded to full practice participation.

During the open portion of the practice, he went through drills as the No. 1 back, getting reps ahead of rookie Jeremy Hill. The day before, Hill had received RB1 duties as Bernard eased back into the routine of practicing.

He didn't appear restricted. When practice was open, he participated in everything the other backs were asked to do, as well. He worked on pass blocking, ran a few routes and went through other drills that pertained to running the ball. Much like he did Wednesday and before Sunday's game in New Orleans, he looked smooth. His cuts were explosive and precise. Bernard didn't show any signs that the hip injury he suffered nearly a month ago still nagged him.

Rest assured he still feels the injury, but rest and time off his legs has him feeling a little fresher.

"The reason I was sitting out is because I felt like crap," Bernard said of the hip and clavicle issues that sidelined him, both the result of hard hits. "I'm just recovering from some of those hits. My body feels good right now. The injuries are going away. It's just a matter of getting back on the field."

When Bernard gets on the field, he likely will be sharing time with Hill in a way that might limit his carries, at least in the first week or two after the injury. Hill's 361 yards rushing in the three games Bernard missed has allowed him to earn more opportunities, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said.

Regardless, Thursday's developments were promising ones for Bernard and his fantasy owners. He's easing back into the flow of practice. Soon, the Bengals will have a real playing-time dilemma on their hands. It's one Jackson welcomes.

"What I see now is a situation where we have two really fine runners and whoever starts the game, I don't think that will matter," Jackson said. "Everybody wants to play, but who walks out there first, I don't think that will really matter."

Along with Bernard's upgrade, defensive end Wallace Gilberry and cornerback Terence Newman also were upgraded to limited practice participation after missing Wednesday's workout. Right offensive guard Kevin Zeitler also was bumped up to full participation with Bernard.

Here's the full Thursday injury report:

LB Vontaze Burfict (knee)
DE Margus Hunt (ankle)
OL Mike Pollak (knee)
OT Andrew Whitworth (veteran's day off)

DE Wallace Gilberry (back)
CB Terence Newman (knee)
RB Cedric Peerman (hip)

RB Giovani Bernard (hip/clavicle)
OT Andre Smith (ankle)
OG Kevin Zeitler (calf)
CINCINNATI -- Apologies for being a little later than normal getting this injury report posted. It's been a relatively newsy day on the Cincinnati Bengals beat.

Some of Wednesday's most important on-field news as far as the Bengals are concerned revolved around running back Giovani Bernard, who made his return to practice from hip and clavicle injuries for the first time in nearly a month. Working out in a limited capacity inside the University of Cincinnati's indoor practice bubble, Bernard went through many of the same drills as the rest of the running backs. As part of his limited status, he received repetitions behind rookie Jeremy Hill.

The Bengals trained at the college for the first time this year because temperatures and wind didn't allow for favorable practice conditions.

Hill has been the Bengals' workhorse in the backfield lately, getting the bulk of the carries in Bernard's absence the past three games. In two of them -- versus Jacksonville and at New Orleans on Sunday -- Hill rushed for more than 150 yards.

Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said Wednesday that he felt Hill "deserved" more opportunities to be part of the Bengals' game plan in the coming weeks as Bernard returns to the fold.

"Jeremy has done tremendous and he earns the right to play, there's no question about that," Jackson said.

Before Bernard went down, Hill was the No. 2 back. He averaged nine touches (includes both rushes and receptions) for 46.6 total yards in the seven games. In the three games Bernard missed, Hill saw an average of 22 touches, and collected 129.6 yards of offense per game. From a yards standpoint, his production increased nearly three times what it was in the games Bernard played.

So yes, it does stand to reason that Hill earned a few extra chances when the Bengals soon get back to having a pair of healthy backs.

In addition to Bernard's return to practice, offensive tackle Andre Smith also made it back, practicing for the first time since going into a boot last week. He suffered an ankle injury against Jacksonville three weeks ago, and has been replaced the past two games by backup Marshall Newhouse. With the Bengals facing the all-world J.J. Watt in Houston this Sunday, Smith's addition could be a welcomed jolt. Watt is a defensive end who is an offensive line's nightmare.

While Bernard and Smith made it back to practice, linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Terence Newman weren't so lucky. There's still a chance both could return this week, but it seems most likely at this point that Burfict won't be back until next week at the earliest. The two defenders did go through conditioning and rehab work off to the side Wednesday. It was the first time for Burfict, who missed the past two games because of arthroscopic knee surgery. Newman missed Sunday's game because of a knee injury, but he did take it through some light jogging hours before the game.

Here's the Bengals' full Wednesday injury report, one of their smallest of this injury-filled season:

LB Vontaze Burfict (knee)
CB Terence Newman (knee)
DE Wallace Gilberry (back)
DE Margus Hunt (ankle)

RB Giovani Bernard (hip/clavicle)
RB Cedric Peerman (hip)
OG Kevin Zeitler (calf)

OT Andre Smith (ankle)
CINCINNATI -- One minute, a player can find himself the star of his college football team and the best player in the country at his position.

Seemingly the next, he's an NFL fourth-string backup who barely sees the field.

Cincinnati Bengals rookie cornerback Darqueze Dennard is currently in that exact situation. At this time last year, he was arguably the most integral piece of Michigan State's heralded "No Fly Zone" defensive secondary. But these days, the first-round draft pick is down on the Bengals' depth chart, overshadowed by talented veterans and plagued by injuries that have puzzled him all season.

He admitted earlier this week the combination has him frustrated.

"It is kind of frustrating, but at the same time, everything happens for a reason. I'm big on that," Dennard said. "Of course everybody wants to come in and be the Deion Sanders and play a full game and have a number of interceptions, but that's not how it is. Everybody has different learning experiences. I just have to continue to control what I can and put all my faith in the man upstairs."

He needs patience.

Dennard wasn't expected to come right in and be a secondary superstar. He had the likes of Terence Newman, Adam Jones and Leon Hall -- all with eight or more years of league experience -- to overcome in the preseason. He also had to contend for playing time with third-year cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, another first-round pick who has been relegated to the sideline because of the veterans ahead of him.

Like Kirkpatrick, Dennard acknowledges that he can only perform as well as he can in practices and show up when he has opportunities in games.

Sunday at New Orleans, he had those chances.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Dennard played 14 snaps against the Saints. That tied for the second-highest number of defensive snaps he's had this year. Much like the other two games he played on defense, Dennard was filling in for an injured Hall. Soreness to one of Hall's Achilles brought the veteran out of Sunday's game and forced Dennard into the action. The Bengals said Hall could have returned, but it was a coach's decision to keep him out and to give Dennard a little extra time.

It was a wise move. The rookie had a tackle and a pass breakup. He also forced a fumble on special teams, the area he has mostly made a name for himself when he hasn't been dealing with hip and hamstring injuries.

Asked about how well he and Kirkpatrick played in place of Hall and Newman -- a pregame scratch -- Dennard began to smile.

"That's what we're supposed to do," he said. "We kind of get paid to do that. That's the expectations of coming in. We were both high first-round draft picks and had high expectations. We both prepare during the week and basically, when our number is called, we just have to make sure there's no letdown from those guys."

Coach Marvin Lewis agreed.

"Both of those guys came in and had good work," Lewis said. "Obviously Dre played his tail off. Darqueze got good snaps and played well. As we go through the year, we're going to need all these guys to contribute at some point.

"These are all young guys who haven't played much football for us, and they had significant snaps [Sunday], and made game-altering plays, game-impactful plays."

Still, Dennard's good plays have yet to get him on the field more regularly. He knows it might take a while.

That's why, again, he needs patience.

The Film Don't Lie: Bengals

November, 18, 2014
Nov 18
A weekly look at what the Cincinnati Bengals must fix:

For the Bengals to adequately make this week's fix ahead of their game Sunday at Houston, they may need offensive tackle Andre Smith's left ankle to magically heal in time for kickoff.

Backup right tackle Marshall Newhouse had a second straight disappointing game playing in relief of Smith at New Orleans on Sunday. He made considerable improvements, though, opening lead holes on a couple of the Bengals' longest runs of the game, and not allowing quarterback Andy Dalton to get sacked. Still, Newhouse was credited by Pro Football Focus with allowing three quarterback hurries, including one on the Bengals' first offensive play. As the pressure came fast from his right side, Dalton spun, and avoided contact as he scrambled free for an 11-yard, first-down gain. On the very next play, the Bengals started giving Newhouse help on the right edge as he blocked against the likes of Junior Galette and Akiem Hicks the rest of the game.

My film review indicated that on 42.1 percent of the non-penalized plays Newhouse was part of, the Bengals either had an extra tight end, fullback or receiver on the line of scrimmage to assist him in blocking that side of the line, or to at least mask the appearance that he was getting help. On 33 of the 57 plays I watched, Newhouse blocked unassisted. On the other 24, either Jermaine Gresham, Kevin Brock, Mohamed Sanu or a combination of Gresham and H-back Ryan Hewitt began plays on the line of scrimmage next to Newhouse. Sometimes they’d chip and run routes, but for the most part, they were blocking alongside him. Once, the Bengals moved left tackle Andrew Whitworth to the right side to flank Newhouse, but the play was ruled an illegal formation. The Bengals lost 2 yards on the run, anyway.

As Cincinnati travels to the place where it has lost two of its last three playoff games, NRG Stadium, it needs to ensure Dalton will be well protected. If Smith can’t go again, don’t be surprised if Newhouse gets help like he did in the win over the Saints.
CINCINNATI -- You will recall that all last week television screens inside the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room showcased a revolving message designed to motivate the badly beaten bunch.

"Our best success comes after our greatest disappointments."

As much as it was a message intended for the entire team, it very easily could have been meant only for quarterback Andy Dalton.

Certainly no Bengal had a more disappointing game 11 days ago than Dalton. The fourth-year starter had career-lows in completions (10) and passer rating (2.0). No quarterback in the league had a single-game passer rating that low in 31 years.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
AP Photo/Gail BurtonBengals QB Andy Dalton on his ups and downs: "You lose, and everyone wants to run you out. And when you win, everybody's going to like you."
One week after that ugly showing in the Bengals' 24-3 Thursday night loss to the rival Cleveland Browns, Dalton bounced back Sunday afternoon at New Orleans with a 16-for-22, 220-yard, three-touchdown performance in the Bengals' 27-10 win against the Saints. He looked like the old Dalton, the one who had guided the Bengals to three straight wins at the outset of the season. The one who is now 11-3-1 against the NFC. The one who is vastly superior than the version of himself that seems to show up in prime time, when he is 2-6.

On Monday, the message above flashed again on the television screens in the locker room. This time, behind them was a photo from Sunday of Dalton passing against the Saints.

Though Dalton's rebound might have been a pleasant surprise for Bengals fans, and a bit of a shock to his biggest critics, his teammates and coaches were unfazed by it. They knew he would respond favorably to the previous week's debacle.

"He's Andy," close friend and veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "It's the same thing I've said all along: 'He'll bounce back, he'll play well.' We didn't put him in a great position to play well last week. We all had our part in it, and obviously we've got to play better. This week we all did, and he played better, as well."

Receiver A.J. Green, caught six of Dalton's passes for 127 yards, including the 24-yard touchdown that effectively put the game out of the Saints' reach. On the fourth-quarter drive Green had his score, five of the seven plays were passes from Dalton to Green. The tandem hooked up on four of those. Each ball looked prettier than the one that preceded it.

"They were dimes," Green said of the throws. "We have faith in him, he has faith in himself. There was nothing wrong with him this week. He, and we, just kept our heads down and we kept grinding."

Dalton wasn't in the mood Sunday of thumbing his nose and shouting "I told you so!" at those who blasted him on social media all last week with cartoonish memes, and vulgar and profane tweets. Judging from some of the public messages he received, he would have been well within his rights to have done so.

"Like I said: you lose, and everyone wants to run you out. And when you win, everybody's going to like you," Dalton said. "You know, I'm not too worried about that. It was a big win for us, so it's just good to bounce back and get a big win on the road."

It certainly was a timely victory for the Bengals, who are now 6-3-1 and back atop the AFC North standings. They will have a challenging task next Sunday when they visit Houston to play a team that has beaten them five straight times, including the postseason. The Texans last lost to the Bengals in 2005.

The Texans' home, Reliant Stadium, is the site of two of Dalton's three opening-round postseason losses. In the two playoff losses, he has four interceptions and no touchdown passes.
NEW ORLEANS -- With an extra three days between games, A.J. Green had time last week to take a good, hard look at himself.

He wasn't pleased with what he saw.

Forget Andy Dalton's 2.0 passer rating and the rest of his struggles last week against the Cleveland Browns. Green didn't fare much better in the 24-3 loss. He caught three passes for just 23 yards. For a receiver who has made the Pro Bowl each of his first three seasons in the league, numbers like those were concerning.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Green
AP Photo/Rogelio SolisA.J. Green's 24-yard touchdown catch put the game away for the Bengals.
"I didn't play good," Green said Sunday about last week's loss. "You can't put all the blame on the quarterback. We're the receivers. We've got to run better routes. I challenged myself this week to be able to come out there and help my team win."

Once the fourth quarter arrived, he did just that.

With a 24-yard touchdown reception early in the fourth quarter, Green helped answer a New Orleans Saints touchdown drive that had cut the Cincinnati Bengals' lead in half on the previous possession. Once Green's feet came down in bounds with the ball -- just barely -- in the end zone, the game was all but officially over. While Green celebrated his fourth touchdown reception of the season, Saints fans began trickling out of the Superdome.

Green's TD catch was his fourth reception on the seven-play drive that put the game out of reach.

"I was just trying to get back into rhythm," Green said. "The last couple of weeks I didn't really feel like myself. Not because I was injured, but because it was just tough to get back into the flow of things."

After missing three games earlier this season with a toe injury, Green had trouble the past two games getting back to his old form. Although Green has now played in three straight games, he said he didn't feel comfortable in the first two because he didn't practice much those weeks. This week, Green said he practiced fully.

"I took every rep," Green said.

This was the first time he had a chance to do that in about a month and a half.

After catching just six passes for 67 yards and a touchdown through his first two games back from the toe injury, he caught six passes Sunday for a game-high 127 yards and the timely late touchdown.
NEW ORLEANS -- Heads were shaking in the Cincinnati Bengals' huddle.

Chatter got a little more intense. Focus, for six straight plays, stepped up slightly.

As far as the 11 men on the Bengals' defensive side of the ball were concerned, the New Orleans Saints' offense, regardless of how close it got to the goal line, could not cross the plane.

"In our heads, we were just saying, 'They're not going to score. We cannot let them score,'" linebacker Vincent Rey said.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
AP Photo/Bill HaberThe Bengals' defense provided the spark Sunday on a second-quarter stand deep in their own territory.
They didn't.

You could point to any number of scenarios or plays or players who helped lead the Bengals to a 27-10 victory over the Saints on Sunday, but very few had the type of early, momentum-changing impact as Cincinnati's second-quarter goal-line stand. As the Bengals move through their final six games, it would be in their best interest to sustain the mentality that made Sunday's pivotal, stingy series possible.

Up 7-3 near the end of a 17-play Saints drive that began in the first quarter, the Bengals' battered and beleaguered defense was driven deep. Facing one of its toughest challenges of the season, the unit, for six consecutive plays inside its own 10, had to hunker down against an offense that entered the week as the league's second best.

"We just had to play football," linebacker Rey Maualuga said. "We needed a spark."

The first to ignite the unit was cornerback Adam Jones, who chased receiver Brandin Cooks on an end around and ran him out of bounds to the 4-yard line after a 5-yard gain. Then came defensive tackle Domata Peko, who stood up running back Mark Ingram after a 2-yard loss. Officials weren't pleased with Peko's aggressive fling of Ingram, though, and slapped him with an unnecessary roughness penalty that extended the drive with another first down.

After a subsequent incomplete pass broken up cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and two more stops on Ingram by Peko, the Bengals had a crucial fourth down to defend.

Anchored by Maualuga, Cincinnati was prepared for New Orleans' fourth-and-goal, quick-snap screen pass to fullback Erik Lorig. As soon as Lorig touched the ball, Maualuga wrestled him down for a 1-yard loss.

"I don't know if it was just one person that did their job or what," Maualuga said. "We came to play. We showed up. That play gave a spark to our offense. It gave a spark to our whole team."

That's why the defense that came into the game ranked 30th has to continue thinking of itself as the team's trigger. The mentality the Bengals had on those vital goal-line snaps must be replicated everywhere else on the field and throughout the rest of the season.

They showed that the more aggressive and staunch the defense is, the more aggressive and prolific the offense can be, too.

"That gave us the opportunity to say, 'Hey, we're all in this thing today,'" veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said of the goal-line stand. "That's kind of the exact opposite of what we felt last week, where, as a team, we just didn't do anything to help each other on either side of the ball. Starting off that way really got us off on the right foot."

Outplayed in every area, the Bengals lost to the Browns 24-3 on Nov. 6.

Rapid Reaction: Cincinnati Bengals

November, 16, 2014
Nov 16

NEW ORLEANS -- A few thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 27-10 win over the New Orleans Saints at the Superdome:

What it means: Sunday's 17-point win still doesn't tell us much about who the Bengals are. Remember, this is the same team that has confounded its fans the last six weeks by losing games in blowout fashion and eking by teams they ought to have destroyed. The only real conclusion we can draw is this: Inconsistency might very well be the Bengals' identity this season. But even in their inconsistency, the team has showed that it has the talent and overall makeup it takes to be a playoff-caliber club. They just have to have performances like this one a lot more often. For the first time since Week 3, the Bengals got a complete team win. All three phases didn't only perform well, but they dominated their opponents. The defense didn't allow Jimmy Graham to hurt it, the offense rode the running game and the special teams had timely plays as well. All of that, along with zero turnovers, equals a win.

Solid effort vs. rush: At long last, the Bengals finally had a strong performance against the run. Their defense held the Saints to 75 yards. Running back Mark Ingram, who entered with three consecutive 100-yard rushing performances, had just 67 yards on 23 carries. Linebacker Rey Maualuga might have played the biggest role in the Bengals' strong rush defense. A noted run-stopper, he returned this week for the first time since suffering a serious hamstring injury in Week 6. His presence had an impact early. He had only three tackles, but even when he didn't have a stop, Maualuga's presence alone helped redirect rushers to others, such as defensive tackle Domata Peko and linebackers Vincent Rey and Emmanuel Lamur. Peko was one of the biggest factors in the Bengals' run defense, clogging the middle of the line often.

Dalton-to-Gresham in red zone: Among the problems the Bengals had offensively earlier this season was getting the football into their tight ends' hands in red zone situations. With Tyler Eifert out since the season opener with a dislocated elbow, that namely has meant getting the ball into Jermaine Gresham's hands inside the 20. The fifth-year tight end didn't cut off routes near the goal line, as he had at other times this season, and ended up scoring two touchdowns, both from inside the red zone. The first touchdown came after he caught a 12-yard pass and fumbled reaching for the end zone. As the ball got kicked around, he somehow landed on it in the end zone for the fumble recovery for the score. He also had a 1-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter that helped put the game out of reach.

Game ball: Rookie running back Jeremy Hill gets this week's game ball after his 27-carry, 152-yard rushing performance. It's his second 150-yard rushing performance of the season, following his 154-yard day against the Jaguars two weeks ago. In that game, he had a 60-yard touchdown run that put the game out of reach. In this one, he had a 62-yard carry with seconds remaining in the second quarter. He went down with one second left, just in time for the Bengals to make a field goal as time expired for a 13-3 lead.

What's next? The Bengals (6-3-1) are back in action next Sunday when they travel to Houston to play the Texans.

NEW ORLEANS -- First, it was the Joker. Now it's the gold-clad football snatcher.

One week after New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham was "groped up" during a leap into the Superdome's end zone seats by a person wearing a Joker costume, another Saints fan drew the ire of at least two Cincinnati Bengals fans on Sunday.

Midway through the third quarter, Cincinnati tight end Jermaine Gresham caught a 1-yard touchdown pass that put the Bengals up 19-3 when he jogged over to the end zone wall. As he approached, two female Bengals fans -- one dressed in a black A.J. Green jersey and the other in an orange Bengals T-shirt -- had just jogged down the section's steps to the edge of wall. They were excitedly pleading for the ball when Gresham complied.

But what none of them, not Gresham nor the women asking for the ball, had expected was the male Saints fan lurking nearby in the first row.

As the ball left Gresham's hands, the Saints fan, identified by the Cincinnati Enquirer as a man named Tony Williams, leaped in front of the two women. As the one in the Green jersey -- identified by the Enquirer as Versailles, Kentucky, native Christa Barrett -- caught the flip, Williams snatched the ball from her. In the same motion, he sat back down, putting the ball underneath his right arm.

It stayed there the rest of the game.

"He should be ashamed of himself," Gresham told a reporter from The Associated Press. "And you can put that on the record."

That was a telling quote for Gresham, a player who typically shies away from talking to reporters. He's permitted Cincinnati media to talk with him on the record only once this season.

Other Bengals players told they were flabbergasted by the snatch.

"That was dirty!" said offensive tackle Andre Smith, who watched the incident from the sideline.

The woman in the orange shirt, Barrett's friend, Cara Meadows, told the Enquirer how firm Williams was in wanting to keep the football.

"He kept saying, 'No ma'am,'" Meadows said. "'No ma'am.'"

Once the game ended, the Saints gave Barrett another football.

Williams kept his.

"It's very simple," Williams told the Enquirer. "I caught the football.

"I didn't mean to hit that young lady," he said. "I was just reaching for the football."

Cameras from CBS, the network broadcasting the game, caught the snatch.

What they didn't catch, however, was the audible frustration fans in the section had during the post-point-after attempt timeout. As the teams prepared for the ensuing kickoff, fans in the section chanted, "Give her the ball! Give her the ball!" The chants could be heard throughout the building.

The catch was the second scoring play Gresham was part of. He also recovered his own fumble in the end zone in the first quarter after catching a 12-yard pass.
NEW ORLEANS -- Just like the Cincinnati Bengals did last Thursday, the New Orleans Saints used the break between the first and second quarters Sunday to recognize Leah Still and her battle with pediatric cancer.

Leah is the 4-year-old daughter of Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still, whose fight with neuroblastoma has become an international story that extends beyond the field of play. At the end of August, about three months after Leah was diagnosed, her father was released by the Bengals as they made end-of-preseason roster cuts to get to the current 53-man active roster. Two days later, he was re-signed onto the Bengals' practice squad, helping him retain the NFL's insurance so that he can pay the full amount of Leah's medical treatments.

Still was added onto the active roster a week after that, and appeared in every game since, except for Sunday's. He was inactive.

Although he didn't suit up, Still was on the Bengals' sideline for the game. During the game's first between-quarter break, the Superdome's video board displayed a photo of Leah and Devon Still, along with a message about their efforts to raise funds and awareness about pediatric cancer. For a little over a month, the Bengals sold Still's No. 75 jersey through their pro shop as part of their attempt to help Still get his message out.

While Still's jersey was for sale, the Bengals sold nearly 15,000 of them, raising almost $1.3 million. Between the first and second quarters of last Thursday's nationally televised game against the Cleveland Browns, the Bengals gave a check to the Cincinnati Children's Hospital and Medical Center on behalf of Leah.

Earlier this season, Patriots owner Robert Kraft donated $25,000 in her name for pediatric cancer research efforts. The same night that Kraft's donation was announced, New England Patriots cheerleaders brought Still to tears when they took off their team jackets, revealing the orange-and-black No. 75 Still jerseys they had purchased earlier in the week.

The Patriots' gestures came three weeks after Saints coach Sean Payton purchased 100 of Still's $100 jerseys, and donated them to Cincinnati-area Boys and Girls Clubs.

On Sunday, Still waved from the sideline as the stadium's cameras caught him during the public address announcement.

Still has 17 tackles in eight games this season.
CINCINNATI -- Medically, Leon Hall is back. Mentally, he believes he's there, too.

But his play? That's far from where he wants it at this stage.

"Too up and and down for my liking," the Cincinnati Bengals cornerback said. "Even if I don't have a bad game, there's just the film-study part of it where I look at it on my own, and it's not as technically sound as I would like it to be. So that, I'm not happy with."

What is it that has Hall playing so inconsistently? He doesn't know.

If it isn't his age -- he turns 30 next month -- his mind or his physical makeup following a season-ending Achilles tear last year that has long since been surgically repaired and rehabbed, then it's unclear why he seems to routinely be a step or two behind receivers he has covered, or a tick off when trying to either break up a pass or intercept it.

"With a little bump in the road, sometimes you have to go back and look at what you're doing wrong as opposed to wanting to look forward and think about the Saints or whatever team that week may be," Hall said.

This week, his mind has been focused on preparing for Sunday's afternoon road tilt with the Saints. But last weekend, with the Bengals off after their 24-3 loss last Thursday to Cleveland, he was reflecting. As he mentioned, he realized that technically, he has been just a hair off this season. Poor technique has "hurt" him, he said.

"Maybe it's on a good play or maybe it's not on a play, but even on good plays technique is sometimes an issue," Hall said. "It's something I've been trying to work on for weeks now. It's always little things that add up. But it will be corrected. We're a little more than halfway through the season and you'd like to have that tightened up by now."

He wouldn't specify just what was off, but it does seem clear that in eyeballing Hall's play this year, something doesn't look right.

Hall has 39 tackles and an interception in eight games. Despite not being much of a factor in coverage, his tackles are up. The 39 tie his 2010 total, and they are the most he has had in a single season since his 65 in 2010.

Aside from the raw statistics, the Bengals had grown accustomed to seeing him stick to opposing receivers like Velcro both on the outside boundary and in the slot as a nickel corner. Even on the play when he tore his Achilles last season, he was blanketing Detroit's Calvin Johnson on a fade route that quarterback Matthew Stafford had to overthrow because of the tight coverage.

This season, though, it has been common to see Hall trailing the receivers he's charged with covering. Then there was the dropped interception he had at Indianapolis in Week 7. Had he caught the errant first-half pass, he likely would have taken it all the way for a score that would have kept the Bengals well into the game early. Ultimately they lost in blowout fashion, 27-0.

Games like that one haven't only been frustrating for Hall, but they've been alarming for the entire defense. The unit currently ranks 30th, less than a year after it was No. 3.

"It's tough always dealing with ups and downs, but you have to realize it could be worse," Hall said. "We're not dead in the water and we have a bunch of games left to make it right."

Sound advice for a veteran tired of wracking his brain over why his play isn't what it used to be.



Sunday, 11/23
Monday, 11/24