AFC North: Dave Rayner

After expressing very little interest in other teams' free agents this year, the Pittsburgh Steelers have a busy day planned, hosting players on Wednesday, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. Kicker Dave Rayner, pass rusher Matt Roth and linebacker Brandon Johnson are all scheduled to meet with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The one that's surprising is Rayner, even though the Steelers should bring in a veteran to compete with Shaun Suisham. Rayner, 29, converted 10 of 15 field goals (67 percent) in seven games with the Buffalo Bills last year. He's a journeyman -- he's played for eight teams -- who has failed to latch onto a team because of his career 72 percent conversion rate. The Steelers should think about upgrading over Suisham, who made 13 of 21 (62 percent) from beyond 30 yards last season.

Roth and Johnson would be vying for backup jobs. The Steelers didn't address outside linebacker in the draft, which could explain the interest in Roth. He had 3.5 sacks in nine games for the Jaguars last season, which was shortened because of a concussion. Johnson was voted the Bengals' special teams captain last year and can play inside or outside linebacker.

Tight end Leonard Pope (Chiefs) is the only unrestricted free agent signed by the Steelers this year who played for another team in 2011.

Bengals search for a new kicker

November, 15, 2010
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The Cincinnati Bengals lost kicker Mike Nugent for the rest of the season after he suffered a knee injury during an onside kick against the Indianapolis Colts, ESPN's Adam Schefter reports.

Nugent tore his ACL and sprained his MCL in his right knee in the fourth quarter Sunday. He needed to be carried off the field by teammates as the Bengals tried to rally. Nugent beat out Dave Rayner in training camp and made 15-of-19 field goals this season.

Cincinnati (2-7) will search for a new kicker this week in preparation for its next game, against the Buffalo Bills (1-8).

Kicker Mike Nugent gets monthly award

September, 30, 2010
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Cincinnati Bengals kicker Mike Nugent was awarded the AFC Special Teams Player of the Month Thursday. He made all eight field-goal attempts, which included two of 50 yards or longer.

Nugent also made all five extra points for the Bengals (2-1), who will travel to play the Cleveland Browns (0-3) Sunday in the "Battle of Ohio." Nugent beat out Dave Rayner for Cincinnati's kicking job in training camp.

Last year Bengals defensive end Antwan Odom also won the AFC Player of the Month award in September.

Bengals kicker Mike Nugent awarded

September, 22, 2010
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Cincinnati Bengals kicker Mike Nugent was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week by the NFL on Wednesday for his performance against the Baltimore Ravens. Nugent scored all of Cincinnati's 15 points by going 5-for-5 on field goals.

Nugent also did well on kickoffs by reaching the end zone five times, which negated Baltimore's return game. Nugent beat out Dave Rayner this summer to win the kicking job in Cincinnati.

Morning take: Time for Dixon or Batch?

September, 3, 2010
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Here are the most interesting stories Friday in the AFC North:

  • It appears a sprained knee could keep Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Byron Leftwich out for the Sept. 12 opener against the Atlanta Falcons.
Morning take: That would leave Dennis Dixon or Charlie Batch. Based on reps this summer, Dixon would be next in line. But this quarterback derby has been unpredictable from the start.

  • Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Colt McCoy was a perfect 13-for-13 in the preseason finale against the Chicago Bears.
Morning take: This was a much-needed performance from McCoy, who struggled most of the preseason. It was a good ending considering McCoy likely will sit the entire 2010 season.
Morning take: This was a showcase game for Smith. But he didn't help himself, throwing for 237 yards and two interceptions. Smith remains on the Ravens' bubble.
Morning take: Nugent has been hurt most of camp, but when healthy he's produced. The Bengals have a tough decision to make between Nugent and Dave Rayner.
Here are the latest happenings Wednesday in the AFC North:
  • Peter King of Sports Illustrated predicts the Pittsburgh Steelers will win the Super Bowl this year.
  • Jamison Hensley of the Baltimore Sun reports Ravens quarterback Troy Smith will play the entire preseason finale Thursday against the St. Louis Rams.
  • Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer writes about Browns rookie Colt McCoy's chance to impress.
  • Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com looks at Cincinnati's kicking competition between Mike Nugent and Dave Rayner.

Morning take: Brett Favre

August, 19, 2010
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Just kidding, everyone.

Here are the most interesting stories Thursday in the AFC North: Morning take: I really like the added bulk Kruger put on this offseason. We will have plenty more on the Ravens this afternoon (hint, hint).

  • Mike Nugent of the Cincinnati Bengals is falling behind in the kicking competition with Dave Rayner.
Morning take: Nugent's groin injury has limited his opportunities. It also doesn't help his stock now that Rayner made four straight field goals against the Denver Broncos.
Morning take: Injuries and inexperienced sidelined Lewis as a rookie. But this summer provides another chance to carve out a role.
Morning take: Bernard came on strong late last season and has followed that up with a a solid training camp. Plus, you have to love Bernard's nickname of "King Kong."

Five things to watch: Bengals

August, 8, 2010
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The Cincinnati Bengals will play the Dallas Cowboys Sunday at 8 p.m. ET in the first preseason game of 2010. The AFC North blog will be in Canton, Ohio, keeping tabs on the Bengals.

Here are five things I will be looking at:

1. How does WR Terrell Owens fit in the offense?

Skinny: Many football fans will tune in just to watch Owens. There is a lot of excitement surrounding the Bengals after the acquisition of T.O., and many are curious of what his role will be and how he fits within the Bengals' scheme.

2. Will the defense get to the quarterback?

Skinny: Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer wasn't happy with his pass rush last season, which finished No. 16 in the NFL. As a result, Zimmer has been dialing up blitzes all camp, and the team will get to see how effective the packages are in live action.

3. Who will emerge at wide receiver?

Skinny: The Bengals have a lot of depth at wide receiver, but not everyone will make the cut. Andre Caldwell, Matt Jones, Jerome Simpson, Jordan Shipley, Quan Cosby and Dezmon Briscoe are trying to find roles. Their preseason tape is a huge part of the evaluation process.

4. Which young players will stand out?

Skinny: Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said a great thing about having five preseason games is the coaching staff will get an extended look at young players. Don't expect the starters to play beyond the first quarter tonight. But Cincinnati has a lot of rookies and second-year players who need work.

5. Will a kicker step up?

Skinny: The kicking competition in Cincinnati hasn't been very thrilling. Mike Nugent has been injured, and Dave Rayner has failed to run away with the job in Nugent's absence. Exhibition games will go a long way to determine who wins this job, and there's no better time to start kicking well than the preseason opener.
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 11

GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- The Cincinnati Bengals are now the hunted, and they believe they have enough talent to prove last year's AFC North division title was no fluke.

It has been 28 years since the Bengals last posted back-to-back winning seasons. But coming off a playoff appearance and new offseason additions, this is the deepest and most talented group Marvin Lewis has coached in eight seasons.

Cincinnati's six-win improvement was one of the biggest jumps in the NFL last season. On paper, this year's team looks even better, although the Bengals have to prove they can handle a brutal first-place schedule.

"Nobody is really sleeping on you. Everybody knows that you can play," Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers said of the upcoming season. "So we have to make sure we come out swinging, because teams are going to come out swinging against us."

Pro Bowl receiver Chad Ochocinco said it would be a "shame" if Cincinnati doesn't win the Super Bowl. That's one example of how high expectations are for the Bengals, who have to address several key issues this summer if they want to make a playoff run.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeCarson Palmer
Mark Zerof/US PresswireCarson Palmer is excited about the additional weapons at his disposal this season.
1. Can the Bengals improve their passing game? Cincinnati's passing offense was a disappointment last season, particularly late in the year. The Bengals aggressively attacked the problem by adding new weapons such as first-round draft pick Jermaine Gresham and receivers Terrell Owens, Antonio Bryant and Jordan Shipley.

As a result, Cincinnati could have as many as three new receivers in the top four of its rotation to join Ochocinco. And Gresham is projected to start at tight end for the Bengals, surrounding Carson Palmer with enough weapons to make any quarterback happy.

"In the grand scheme of things, we're very explosive," Palmer said.

The chemistry between Palmer and Owens is still a work in progress. The difference between Palmer's comfort level with Owens versus his comfort level with Ochocinco, whom Palmer has worked with for eight years, was noticeable in camp.

The deep ball disappeared from Cincinnati's offense during the second half of last season. But with Owens (Batman?) taking some of the pressure off Ochocinco (Robin?), and added receiver depth, expect more fireworks this year.

"What I want the focal point of this team to be is I want the offense to be our strength again," Ochocinco said this week. "I think the defense has sort of taken over the outlook as the strength of the team. I want our receiving corps and the rest of our offense to be that strength, that backbone of this team."

2. Will the Bengals' defense generate a pass rush? The Bengals were the fourth-best defense in the NFL last season. But one area where they can improve is getting to the quarterback.

Cincinnati had 34 sacks last year, which was middle of the pack at No. 16. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has made it a priority to dial up new and better ways to increase the sack numbers.

The healthy return of starting defensive end Antwan Odom should help. He was the team's top pass-rusher last season until he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury. The Bengals also have young, athletic players who could see playing time in passing situations such as linebacker Michael Johnson and rookie defensive end Carlos Dunlap.

Nugent
Rayner
3. Who’s the kicker? Kickers aren't important until you need them. The Bengals know that all too well after their experience with Shayne Graham, who had a knack for missing field goals in key moments.

This summer there is an interesting competition going between journeyman kickers Dave Rayner and Mike Nugent. The two have played for a combined eight teams in their NFL careers.

Nugent is hurt this week, which may have allowed Rayner to take a slight lead. But Rayner has had his ups and downs as well. Earlier this week he made all six of his field-goal attempts, but on Wednesday Rayner was 5-for-8. He missed two 50-yard attempts that were very wide left.

Expect this competition to be settled during the preseason.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

He is not the biggest player or the fastest, but there is something about Shipley that continues to stand out in camp. He has even caught the attention of Ochocinco, who said early that the rookie has potential.

Shipley seems at home in the slot. He has a knack for getting open and has sure hands and good ball security in traffic once the catch is made. The Bengals are very deep at receiver this year, so it's questionable how big a role Shipley could have. But for now he's making the most of his opportunities.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Former first-round pick Matt Jones seems to be falling behind daily in an effort to earn a roster spot. Once a big athlete with freakish speed, Jones clearly has lost a couple of steps after taking a year away from football.

Jones also suffered a foot injury recently, which hasn't helped his case. Ochocinco, Owens, Bryant, Shipley and Andre Caldwell probably will take up five slots at the receiver position. That leaves only one or two more roster spots for Jones and several other receivers to compete for. Do not be surprised if Jones doesn't make the cut.

[+] EnlargeTerrell Owens
Mark Zerof/US PresswireTerrell Owens is still working on establishing chemistry with Carson Palmer.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • Despite signing just before camp, Owens arrived in very good shape. He still has to learn the offense, but Owens has shown some flashes of what he can do. On Wednesday night, Palmer connected deep with Owens, who beat cornerback Leon Hall, streaking down the sideline for a 55-yard touchdown. The play was one of the highlights of camp thus far.
  • Bryant continues to rehab his knee. He participated in the first day of camp but has missed every practice since. The Bengals signed Bryant to a four-year, $28 million contract but he hasn't looked explosive as he continues to heal from offseason knee surgery. The team is hoping he continues to progress.
  • Watch out for second-year running back Bernard Scott. He is my sleeper pick for the Bengals this season. Scott has a chance to contribute both as Cedric Benson's backup as well as a kick returner. With increased opportunities, Scott should have increased production.
  • Adam Jones should help the Bengals in some capacity this year. His technique as a cornerback still needs improvement, but he is competing hard in practice and his physical abilities are still apparent. Jones also looks natural as a kick returner and could be an early favorite to win punt and/or kickoff return duties.
  • Although none of the injuries is major, the Bengals have been banged up this week. Fullback Fui Vakapuna hurt his shoulder and missed practice time. Dunlap suffered a concussion. Linebacker Rey Maualuga injured his hamstring and cornerback Johnathan Joseph also had a thigh injury.
  • The Bengals don't have a lot of depth at fullback, but the position might not be as important as it once was. Cincinnati's offensive personnel dictates the team will run a lot of three-wide receiver and two-tight end sets. In both instances, the fullback will be taken off the field.
  • I have not been impressed with Cincinnati's pass protection early in camp. You cannot see everything, because players cannot touch the quarterback. But the number of defenders getting in the passing lanes has been noticeable. That will be something to keep an eye on in the preseason.
  • I'll exit with a prediction: I have a sneaky feeling the Bengals will keep only two quarterbacks this season. Cincinnati has waves and waves of players at other positions, and cutting the No. 3 quarterback -- most likely Jordan Palmer -- is one way the Bengals can save a roster spot to retain an extra receiver, defensive back or linebacker. Carson Palmer and J.T. O'Sullivan would be the team's quarterbacks, while the Bengals could always add Jordan Palmer or someone else down the road in the event of an emergency.

Camping with the Bengals

August, 3, 2010
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GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- The AFC North blog has officially reached its second destination of training camp. This week we will spend quality time getting to know the defending AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals.

This is a deep team with some new and interesting parts added to the roster. Here are five things I'll be watching this week:

1. What is Terrell Owens' role in the offense?

Skinny: Figuring out how to use Owens within Cincinnati's scheme will be a work in progress for offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. Quarterback Carson Palmer, who has worked with Owens this offseason, also has to continue developing chemistry with the receiver in camp.

2. Will tight end Jermaine Gresham hit the ground running?

Skinny: Cincinnati's first-round pick is a late arrival after agreeing to a five-year contract Monday. Now Gresham needs to step in and solidify the starting job the Bengals have projected for him. He's expected to play in Cincinnati's first preseason game Sunday.

3. Is cornerback Adam Jones ready?

Skinny: I was impressed with Jones' ability in minicamp. But even Jones admitted he didn't have his football legs under him 100 percent. Now it's time for Jones to round into form in order for him to contribute this year to the secondary.

4. Will the defense generate a pass rush?

Skinny: One of the few things Cincinnati didn't do well defensively last year was get to the quarterback. Look for defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to find ways to turn up the heat.

5. Who is the kicker?

Skinny: Dave Rayner and Mike Nugent are both journeymen kickers. Neither player took a distinct lead in the spring. But the best man in training camp will find a home this season with Cincinnati.

Finally, here is another reminder to also follow our AFC North Twitter, where we will have additional insight and analysis.
CINCINNATI -- The defending AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals wrapped up their mandatory minicamp Thursday.

[+] EnlargeJordan Shipley
AP Photo/Al BehrmanJordan Shipley has displayed very sure hands throughout minicamp.
Here are some final notes and observations:

  • Let’s start with the stars of minicamp. On offense, I thought receiver Jordan Shipley was very impressive. The third-round pick caught everything this week. He's already developing a good rapport with quarterback Carson Palmer, and Shipley has a good knack for finding the open seams of the defense. Defensively, starting cornerback Leon Hall recorded two picks in team drills and nearly made a third after jumping a route Thursday. One of his interceptions was returned for a touchdown.
  • Third-year receiver Jerome Simpson had a very good practice Thursday. He made several spectacular catches, which is what the Bengals were expecting when they drafted him in the second round in 2008. But there were also some drops from Simpson this week. Consistency will be key if he's to make the 53-man roster.
  • On the injury front, Antonio Bryant (veteran's rest) and safety Roy Williams (groin) sat out the final practice. Right tackle Andre Smith (foot), linebacker Rey Maualuga (ankle) and running back Bernard Scott (ankle) missed all of minicamp but are expected to return for training camp.
  • One thing is apparent defensively: Cincinnati wants to get after the quarterback. The Bengals are making more aggressive changes to improve their sack total from a year ago. Cincinnati was ranked No. 16 in the NFL with 34 sacks. The Bengals have very strong cornerbacks with Johnathan Joseph and Hall, which should help with coverage on the back end when bringing extra defenders.
  • Hall, Joseph and Palmer received their Pro Football Writers Association awards for the 2009 season. Both cornerbacks credited one another for helping win team co-MVPs. Palmer also said he was honored to win the Good Guy Award because his locker room had other good candidates.
  • Finally, I kept a close eye on Cincinnati's kicking competition this week but not much was decided. Mike Nugent was 12 for 12 in field goal attempts this week, and Dave Rayner was 11 for 12, missing only a 55-yard attempt. At this rate, don't expect anything to be decided until late in the preseason.

Bengals minicamp observations

June, 16, 2010
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CINCINNATI -- The reigning AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals had their second day of minicamp Wednesday.

[+] EnlargeJermaine Gresham
Frank Victores/US PresswireRookie Jermaine Gresham has been impressive during offseason workouts.
Here are some notes and observations:

  • I've been really impressed with two rookie draft picks: first-round tight end Jermaine Gresham and third-round receiver Jordan Shipley. Both players are producing as advertised in minicamp with a lot of receptions. They also seem to have a knack for finding openings in the defense. It's early, but both rookies could turn out to be key contributors for the Bengals.
  • Pro Bowl receiver Chad Ochocinco admitted that he's not as sharp in his return Tuesday. But he already looks better in his second day of minicamp than he did his first. Ochocinco made a pair of tip-toe sideline catches that were vintage Ochocinco. Both throws came from quarterback Carson Palmer, who threw ropes to Ochocinco through tight coverage.
  • The safety rotation in Cincinnati will be interesting to watch. On Wednesday morning, last year's starters -- Chris Crocker and Chinedum Ndukwe -- were getting reps with the first team. But Gibril Wilson and Roy Williams are also getting important reps. Defensive backs coach Kevin Coyle said this is the deepest and most experienced group of safeties he's ever coached in Cincinnati. Their roles probably will not be decided until late in the preseason.
  • There are also a host of kick and punt returners competing for the Bengals. Those getting kick return reps this week were Shipley, receiver Andre Caldwell and cornerback Adam Jones. Those receiving punt return reps were Shipley, Jones and receiver Quan Cosby. Of the group, I thought Jones looked good and surprisingly natural returning kicks, considering he was out of football in 2009.
  • So far there's not much separation between kickers Dave Rayner and Mike Nugent. Both are kicking well in minicamp. Rayner and Nugent combined to make all eight field goals in Wednesday morning's practice. The kicking job opened in Cincinnati when former longtime Bengals kicker Shayne Graham left in free agency and signed a contract with the Baltimore Ravens.
The Cincinnati Bengals will begin their mandatory minicamp Tuesday. Over the next three days, we should have a good indication of where the reigning AFC North champions stand heading into training camp.

Here are five key questions for Cincinnati:

1. How will the passing game look?

Analysis: When the Bengals were at their best offensively, quarterback Carson Palmer led an explosive unit that was able to throw the football all over the field. Cincinnati won 10 games last year. But the team did it with a run-oriented offense and an inconsistent passing game, particularly late in the year. The Bengals added receiver Antonio Bryant and highly-touted draft picks Jermaine Gresham and Jordan Shipley to help. A consistently explosive passing game would help the Bengals take the next step in 2010.

2. Is Ochocinco focused?

Analysis: This offseason, Pro Bowl receiver Chad Ochocinco has done everything but work on football with the Bengals. He participated in two television shows: "Dancing With The Stars" and a VH1 dating show that will air later this summer. It will be interesting to see how sharp Ochocinco is in his first practices with the team since last season. Palmer recently called Ochocinco out for not being around. But a great minicamp by No. 85 would put most of those concerns to rest.

3. How will the secondary shake out?

Analysis: The Bengals have a lot of competition in the secondary. There are four veteran safeties competing for two starting spots. Chris Crocker, Chinedum Ndukwe, Roy Williams and Gibril Wilson all have different strengths and weaknesses, and the players who perform the best will start in Mike Zimmer's defense in Week 1. The third cornerback spot also is a position to watch for Cincinnati. We will get to that in the next item.

4. What's the progress of Adam Jones and Matt Jones?

Analysis: Cincinnati made two controversial signings this offseason with Adam Jones and Matt Jones. The pair were out of football last season because of issues off the field. Adam Jones, a former first-round pick, is competing for the third cornerback spot. The Bengals struggled defending the slot last year, and they hope Adam Jones can shake off the rust and be a good complementary piece to starters Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall. Matt Jones is battling for a roster spot with a deep group of receivers.

5. Who's the kicker?

Analysis: Longtime Bengals kicker Shayne Graham recently signed a free-agent contract with the Baltimore Ravens. Therefore, Cincinnati no longer has the comfort of knowing its kicker heading into the season. Dave Rayner and Mike Nugent will compete in minicamp and training camp to replace Graham. Both have been journeymen, but only one kicker will find a home in Cincinnati.

Bengals' weakness: Special teams

June, 8, 2010
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AFC North Weaknesses: Ravens (6/7) | Bengals (6/8) | Browns (6/9) | Steelers (6/10)

It was very difficult for me to identify a true glaring weakness for the Bengals.

The safety play is suspect and last year, the passing game was a huge problem. But I think the supporting cast around the safeties will be strong enough to pull that position group through, and Cincinnati did a lot this offseason to address the weaponry in its passing attack. But the Bengals’ special teams have me concerned.

[+] EnlargeMike Nugent
Gene Lower/Getty ImagesMike Nugent will be battling for Bengals' place-kicking duties with Dave Rayner.
Although their punt team is strong, the Bengals were below average with their kickoff coverage and in kicking field goals. Only 10 teams were worse than Cincinnati in kickoff return average. The Bengals were exceptional with their punt returns last year, but managed only one return for a touchdown during the 2009 season.

Shayne Graham is gone, but Mike Nugent and Dave Rayner are slated to battle it out for the place-kicking gig. Graham struggled getting his kickoffs deep enough, but Nugent is no better in that department. Frankly, neither Nugent nor Rayner inspires confidence. Kevin Huber will be the punter once again. At 24, Huber looks to have a bright future after putting together a strong 2009 campaign.

The additions of Jordan Shipley and Adam Jones should bolster the return units as a whole, and the lead kickoff return man, Bernard Scott, should be better in this department in his second season in the NFL. Scott already has shown a niche for kickoff returns.

Overall, the Bengals look strong from top to bottom. They addressed their weaknesses in the passing game and their young core on defense is a year older. And there are certainly teams that are worse off with their special teams. But in a division that stands to be extremely competitive, special-teams deficiencies could be an issue.

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