AFC North: George Iloka

videoCINCINNATI -- Yes, the Cincinnati Bengals are now 4-2-1 and have a measure of momentum thanks in large part to quarterback Andy Dalton's 1-yard sneak into the end zone entering the game's final minute.

But they very easily could be 3-3-1 had it not been for a penalty that at least one Bengal considered "a great call."

With 32 seconds left on the game clock -- 25 seconds after Dalton fell forward for what would be the game-winning score -- Ravens receiver Steve Smith and Bengals safety George Iloka made contact near Cincinnati's sideline as a long pass from Joe Flacco closed in on Smith's hands.

After getting separation from Iloka, Smith jumped and caught the pass before sprinting away from desperate Bengals tackle attempts, and into the end zone. In lightning-quick fashion, he had just answered the Bengals' touchdown with one of his own. He propelled Baltimore forward with a go-ahead score that snatched the air out of Paul Brown Stadium. A mix of shock, fear, awe and anger started to fill the stands as fans let loose a chorus of boos.

They were interrupted.

There, sitting on the ground not far from Iloka was a late-thrown flag from the official closest to the play. He had seen why Smith was able to go up for the ball uncontested, even though Iloka was right there on him after dropping down from Cover 2 on Smith's vertical route.

"He had two hands on my chest. He knocked me off," Iloka said. "You can't do that. I was getting ready for a jump ball. I'm 6-3, about 220 [pounds]. I was like, 'There ain't no way he's going to out-jump me for the ball.' He knocked me off."

That's apparently what the referee saw as the smaller-in-stature Smith got free for the reception.

"Ultimately, you hope you don't allow plays like that to dictate the determination of a win or loss," Smith said. "So, it happens. I'm not disappointed, not upset, not frustrated, just exhausted and looking forward to the opportunity to play next week."

The Ravens go to Pittsburgh on Sunday night.

If Iloka were grading officials, it's safe to say he would be giving the one who threw the flag in question bonus points.

"You know how they do their grading sheets and grade the refs, they better give him a double-plus on that one," Iloka said. "That was a great call. It takes guts to make that call.

"You've got to jump straight up, is what we were told in the offseason. I can't prohibit the receiver from jumping for it and he can't prohibit me. That's what I felt, and that's what the ref felt, and he called it."

After the penalty, the Ravens were backed up to their own 10 on third-and-20. In four-down territory, they were unable to convert a first down on the next two plays and turned the ball over to the Bengals who had one kneel-down to preserve the 27-24 win.
CINCINNATI -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 27-24 win over the Baltimore Ravens:
  • Jackson
    Jackson
    Putting pressure on the line: After an abysmal offensive performance last week at Indianapolis (12 rushes for 32 yards), Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson wanted to ensure his unit would be more physical Sunday against the Ravens. In the days leading up to the game, he raised the pressure on his offensive line. "Hue called us out all week and said this was going to be up to us," Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth told ESPN.com after the game. "He said we were going to win or lose the game based off of how physical we could be up front." The Bengals rushed for 111 yards on 34 carries and plowed behind the line on Andy Dalton's game-winning 1-yard quarterback sneak.
  • End drives with kicks: Head coach Marvin Lewis was notably more relieved during Sunday's postgame than he had been at any point all week. During his news conference, he shared the discussion he had with Dalton coming out of halftime. It was the same message he would have shared going into the Bengals' final drive had he spoken to Dalton: "[Former Ohio State coach] Jim Tressel told me this a long time ago: If each possession ends in your kick, you'll be in good shape. That's your job as a quarterback -- make your possession end in a kick."
  • Iloka defends penalty: As reporters huddled around him in the locker room after the win, safety George Iloka defended the offensive pass interference call that negated a potential Ravens touchdown on Baltimore's final drive of the game. "Why would I fall this way?" Iloka asked rhetorically as he stepped backward into his locker. "I was just getting ready for a jump ball, and I wasn't allowed to jump with whatever [receiver Steve Smith] did. It knocked me off." Before the flag was thrown, Smith got separation before catching the ball and finishing off an 80-yard touchdown reception with 32 seconds left. The flag pushed the Ravens back to their 10, two plays before a turnover on downs.
  • "No excuses": According to linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who spoke very briefly at his locker after the game, the motto of the day for the Bengals' defense was: "No excuses." "We played all together," he said. "There was no finger-pointing. Everybody was accountable." During the Bengals' three-game winless streak, some defenders had literally been seen pointing fingers at others who didn't fulfill certain responsibilities after key plays.
CINCINNATI -- As we start putting the proverbial bow on the Cincinnati Bengals' fourth ballgame of the year, here is a by-the-numbers look at their 43-17 loss to the New England Patriots:

9: Number of scoring plays the Bengals allowed Sunday. They permitted five field goals, two passing touchdowns, one rushing touchdown and a special teams touchdown off a fumble recovery.

0: Percentage of third downs the Bengals converted on offense. They went 0-for-7 on third down. This was the second time since 2001 that the Bengals hadn't converted a third down in a single game. The last time it happened, in 2007, they also played the Patriots.

38: Percentage of third downs the Bengals' defense allowed the Patriots to convert. New England went 6-for-16 on third down. The Patriots also converted one fourth down.

505: Number of yards the Bengals' defense allowed the Patriots to collect.

6.7: Number of yards per play the Bengals averaged, 0.5 yards more than the Patriots' 6.2 average.

4.4: Number of yards per carry the Bengals averaged on the ground, just 0.1 yards shy of the offense's 4.5 yards per carry average.

12: Number of penalties the Patriots had. They collected 114 yards in penalties.

2: Number of carries for Bengals running back Jeremy Hill. He had seven the game before against Tennessee, and 15 the week before that against Atlanta.

117.4: Passer rating for Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton.

110.7: Passer rating for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

22.6: Dalton's QBR rating in prime-time games throughout his career (he's now 2-5 in such games).

3: Number of passes Dalton completed for 30 or more yards.

47: Number of yards on Adam Jones' third-quarter punt return that set up a 37-yard touchdown pass from Dalton to Mohamed Sanu.

11: Number of passes the Patriots completed to tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Tim Wright. New England completed 12 passes to six other players.

3: Number of fumbles the Bengals lost.

9: Number of tackles Bengals safety George Iloka and linebacker Rey Maualuga had, leading all tacklers in the game.

21:30: Number of minutes the Patriots had the football in the second half. They won the time of possession battle in every quarter.

8:30: Number of minutes the Bengals had the football in the second half.

6: Consecutive losses for the Bengals in Sunday night games.

156: Number of yards the Patriots' ballcarriers had before contact. They rushed for 220 yards overall.

Information from ESPN Stats & Information was used in this report.
CINCINNATI -- If you have already jumped off the Cincinnati Bengals' once-growing bandwagon, two players have a message for you.

Stay off.

Britt
Whitworth
Iloka
Safety George Iloka and veteran Pro Bowl offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth weren't very happy Monday afternoon when asked to discuss concerns related to fans who had already given up on the team after Sunday night's disappointing 43-17 loss at New England.

Comments on social media during yet another Bengals loss in a prime-time, nationally televised game had many of the team's most loyal supporters questioning their faith in this year's group, even after the promising 3-0 start that made Cincinnati one of two unbeatens left standing.

"Let them jump off," Iloka said. "I'm not worried about the people who jump off. We don't want them as fans anyway."

Sunday's loss made the Bengals 2-5 in prime-time games since 2011 and dropped their franchise record to 3-13 in Sunday night games. They still haven't won a Sunday night game since 2004.

Much like the Bengals, the Patriots had their own experience with a blowout loss just last week. In the days that immediately followed last Monday night's 41-14 loss at Kansas City, the Patriots heard from fans who were starting to give up on them and their future Hall of Fame quarterback who led them to three Super Bowl victories. A pall settled over New England, and many questioned if the Patriots could even show up against the Bengals.

Less than 15 minutes into Sunday's game, the Patriots made it clear that they not only would survive the Bengals, but that they would pummel them. The Patriots of old were back, and their fearless leader, Tom Brady, was in the good graces of his fan base once again. At times during his 292-yard, two-touchdown passing performance at Gillette Stadium, Brady's exploits caused fans to loudly chant his name. It was a completely different reaction from earlier in the week.

"We look to the Patriots, how they came out and lost on Monday night in prime time and saw all their fair-weather fans jump off the bandwagon," Iloka said. "They're probably back on after they beat us. So we look to them and see how they came out, and we hope to do the same things on Sunday and beat the Panthers."

Cincinnati hosts Carolina at 1 p.m. Sunday.

Initially, Whitworth didn't want to address a question about his response to Bengals fans abandoning the team.

"They didn't come to the games when we were 3-0, so I don't know what to say to them," he began, citing the Bengals' lack of home sellouts in Week 2 and 3.

"That stuff's just garbage," Whitworth continued. "I'm not worried about the fans or the media or any of that crap. We need to go play well and win. The same people thought Tom Brady should quit football and retire from the NFL a week ago, so I bet they don't think that now. There's a lot of people [who] are reaping what they sowed in their comments last week about the New England Patriots, and now the team that was what everyone considered the hottest team [the Bengals], they beat the snot out of. So what does everybody have to say now?

"That's football. Every week you have to show up and play your best, and if you don't, you're going to get beat. That's NFL football, and that's why even with the best team in the league and the worst team in the league, there's not much difference as people would like to think."

And there's nothing a win wouldn't solve for Whitworth, Iloka and all their fans, die-hard and fair-weather alike.
CINCINNATI -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 33-7 win over the Tennessee Titans:

Dalton
Dalton
Dalton's TD catch his first: When reporters were allowed in the Bengals' locker room after Sunday's win, they flocked to receiver Mohamed Sanu's locker. The third-year wideout, who tossed an 18-yard touchdown pass to quarterback Andy Dalton early in the game, occupies the locker next to Dalton's. As Sanu offered his insights on the play, I chatted with Dalton, who told me it was the first touchdown catch he's had at any stage of his football-playing career. He added that he wasn't sure what happened with cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson, who had a chance to blow out the catch or intercept it for an easy pick-six.

Iloka's half-pick lobby: There is no such thing as a half-interception in football, but safety George Iloka wouldn't mind creating one. He joked with me after the game that he's going to lobby someone for crediting him with half an interception after contributing to Robert Geathers' second-quarter pick. On the play, Titans quarterback Jake Locker was trying to complete a pass to Delanie Walker when Iloka delivered a hard hit on Walker as soon as he touched the ball and turned around. The hit was so hard, the ball violently bounced several yards into the air, where Geathers grabbed it.

Shutout bid denied: The Bengals came within six minutes of their first shutout in seven seasons and their first home shutout in 33 years. The shutout bid was denied when Shonn Greene scored on a drive aided by Bengals penalties. Defensive end Wallace Gilberry said he and his teammates wanted the shutout. "We tried to pull it off, but it is what it is," he said. "At the same time, those guys are being paid, too. That's not a bad team we just played. They're going to beat a lot of people this year."

Staying humble: With the Week 5 game at New England on the horizon after next week's bye, coach Marvin Lewis isn't worried about keeping his team humble after the 3-0 start. Here's what linebacker Vincent Rey said when I asked him about that: "We're hunting excellence. We really want to be perfect in everything we want to do."
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It has been seven months and 20 days since the Cincinnati Bengals' first-team defense has given up a touchdown in a game of any kind.

Yes, the offseason occupied a good chunk of that time, but the broader point is this: In roughly four and a half quarters of play this preseason, the Bengals' starters on defense have yet to allow an offensive player to cross a goal line.

Vontaze Burfict
Matt York/Associated PressVontaze Burfict and the Cincinnati defense has been nearly inpenetrable in the preseason.
"I didn't realize that until you told me, honestly," safety George Iloka said to a reporter from inside the Bengals' locker room at University of Phoenix Stadium late Sunday night.

Iloka and the rest of Cincinnati's defensive starters had just wrapped up another touchdown-less performance that aided in the Bengals' 19-13 win over the Cardinals in their third preseason game. The lone touchdown Arizona scored came in the third quarter, long after Cincinnati's first-teamers had left the field at halftime.

As Iloka adjusted the buttons on his white-trimmed navy Ralph Lauren suit jacket, he flatly added that he and the rest of the Bengals' starters can't read too far into the relative success the unit has had to this point in the very early season.

"We know the real test comes in the season," Iloka said. "That's when it counts. It's good and it's good for your morale, but the Baltimore Ravens are a whole other animal."

To be clear, he wasn't insinuating that the Cardinals' offense can't compete with the Ravens'. He was referring to the Bengals' season opener at division-rival Baltimore on Sept. 7.

Cornerback Terence Newman was one of the defensive players who played well at just the right moment Sunday.

After getting burned twice by receivers who sprinted by him only to get overthrown by Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer, Newman had the play of the night for the Bengals when he picked off a pass and returned it 54 yards for a mid-first-quarter touchdown. There appeared to be confusion between Palmer and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who proceeded to run a Go route while Palmer thought he was going to cut it off and finish the route underneath.

Newman, who guessed wrong once on one of the previous overthrows, stopped on this particular pass, guessing that Palmer was going to dump it short. When Palmer did, he threw the ball right into Newman's hands.

"It wasn't like I did anything," Newman said. "Just an errant throw on his part."

When Newman saw linebacker Rey Maualuga and defensive end Robert Geathers dart in front of him to block, he said he knew he would get into the end zone. He did so, untouched.

The 54-yard return was the only touchdown the Bengals had in the game. It, and four field goals, were just enough to hold on for the win.

Only two plays really bugged the Bengals' first-team defenders after the game. Cardinals running back Andre Ellington broke one run for 24 yards early in the second quarter, and Fitzgerald exploded for 44 on a slant that was thrown into a soft spot in the Bengals' coverage. Other than those two plays, the Bengals felt good about their overall performance. When Fitzgerald had the big pickup, Iloka said he and his teammates were stunned.

"We were telling ourselves, 'Really?'" Iloka said.

Remove those two plays and the Cardinals would have netted negative yards in the first half. Without those 68 yards, they would have been at minus-10 through the first two quarters.

"It's the preseason," Newman said, giving a reminder not to think too deeply about these numbers. "We need to keep that up when it gets super serious. When we have actual wins and losses on the table."
One of the toughest balancing acts for a coaching staff at an NFL training camp is determining how much contact will be allowed in practices -- and how hard the contact can be.

As the Cincinnati Bengals wind down their training camp portion of the preseason Thursday, we can safely say the team had as good a mix of hitting and non-live activity as you're probably going to find in the league these days.

 They never did formally tackle live in practices, but some defenders made just enough contact with various offensive skill players -- primarily rookies and young free agents -- that it caught some attention. It was common for linebacker Vontaze Burfict to give rookie running back James Wilder Jr. a firm thud on a screen across the middle of the field. Burfict did the same thing to the since-released Jeremy Johnson when he'd catch passes in his area.

On Wednesday, safety George Iloka got in on the popping action, delivering a couple of hard forearms to first-year receiver Colin Lockett. Like some of Burfict's hits, those came in a practice that saw the Bengals wearing only shoulder pads and helmets. One of the forearms to Lockett's back came after players all took their pads off in favor of finishing the practice in only their jerseys and helmets.

"We're not playing against the Bengals, they're not on our schedule, but some things happen in practice," defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. "You can't tell a dog not to eat red meat."

Still, Bengals coaches hope their defensive dogs know that for now, they only want them nibbling on the offensive prey that are in their way. When they suit up Saturday and the following Sunday and the Thursday after that, then they can deliver whatever hard blows they want to deal.

"We've just got to take care of our guys and continue to be aggressive," Guenther added.

So considering how bad some of the collisions were, should Guenther and his assistants rein in their players?

No.

Again, the group wasn't out to maliciously hurt anyone during this camp. They were primarily out to test the toughness of some of the newest members of the team. If Burfict could hit Wilder or one of the young receivers like Lockett hard enough and they could bounce right up, a message was sent to the locker room that the struck player could match the toughness the rest of the team believed it had.

Not to mention, sometimes, the hitters were just following orders.

"Sometimes I'll tell a guy that if I don't think practice is going the way we want it, to get some stuff going," Guenther said. "It gets everybody into the practice a little bit."

That means there will be no reining in of defenders going on in practices any time soon. Besides, before too long they'll be into the regular-season mode of practicing, meaning their in-practice contact will soon decrease dramatically.

Wilson will play: Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said during his news conference Wednesday that backup quarterback Tyler Wilson will end up playing at some point Saturday against the Jets, despite having less than a week of practices.

Wilson was signed last Saturday after brief stints with Oakland and Tennessee. He's excited for this opportunity, and hopes that by the end of camp he can prove he belongs on an NFL roster.

It's tough right now seeing him on the Bengals' roster in three weeks. He's currently the No. 4 quarterback on a team that signed him in response to No. 2 quarterback Jason Campbell's elbow injury that occurred a week ago Thursday. The former Arkansas standout has at least one familiar face in the Bengals' locker room: Cobi Hamilton was his go-to receiver in college.

"When you've been sitting on the street, you learn fast," Lewis said of Wilson.

The coach didn't say how much he might use Wilson this weekend. But with backup Matt Scott working through a sore shoulder and starter Andy Dalton likely limited to 15-25 early snaps, Wilson could see his fair share of action.

"He's been able to learn things to go out and operate," Lewis said. "He handled the verbiage and the terminology well and the adjustments he needed to make. He did a good job."
CINCINNATI -- It was quite telling when, during the Cincinnati Bengals' kickoff luncheon two days before the start of training camp, recently promoted defensive coordinator Paul Guenther railed against those who considered the Bengals' No. 3 overall defensive ranking the past season a true success.

"We've got to understand how to define success around here," Guenther said.

His point: No. 3 defensive rankings don't matter. Neither do No. top-10 total offense rankings, nor high special-teams rankings. The only ranking he believes the Bengals ought to be concerned about is the one that gets decided in Arizona on the final Sunday of this season's football calendar. Winning a Super Bowl is success. Statistical rankings are not.

So far in camp, that belief seems to have spread among the players. It's started with the coaches.

Head coach Marvin Lewis sat his assistants down during the offseason and implored them to get more urgency from their players. To this point in camp, it seems they have worked. Quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese has been among those who has noted a different intensity in the practices, specifically in the types of routes receivers are running for his quarterbacks.

"When there's the amount of detail that they put in and the consistency that they're striving for right now, you can throw with anticipation and you throw better balls," Zampese said.

Better throws have meant better play for Andy Dalton. Better play has helped calm him, and spiked his confidence and helped him be a better leader. When the Bengals signed Dalton to a massive contract extension Monday, they sent a message that said they believe in the quarterback and think he gives them a strong chance to finally get the organization back to the Super Bowl.

[+] EnlargeCincinnati's Andy Dalton
AP Photo/Al BehrmanAndy Dalton will be leading a Bengals offense that is looking to be more physical than in recent seasons.
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. Cincinnati's offense has been a source of angst the past three postseasons. Dalton, who has started all three of those playoff losses, has completed just one touchdown pass in the playoffs, compared to six interceptions. He and the rest of the offense haven't shown much past Week 17. One reason: A now extinct emphasis on passing instead of running. While we haven't seen a complete offensive overhaul to this point in training camp, we are seeing where newly promoted offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's push for a more aggressive and physical offense is taking shape. Tight end Tyler Eifert has gotten involved in the offense, catching more passes from Dalton. It appears the Bengals are going to try to get him and Jermaine Gresham more involved this year. Jackson also promised the offense would be faster and more rhythmic than in years past. Through the first two weeks, the Bengals have incorporated more no-huddle and are playing at a slightly quicker pace than they did under former coordinator Jay Gruden.

2. The Bengals incorporated a two-back scheme last season, when Giovani Bernard was the lightning to BenJarvus Green-Ellis' thunder. While rookie Jeremy Hill appears poised to take Green-Ellis' place in that rotation this year, we haven't seen much from him in that regard. Early in training camp Bernard has regularly been part of one-back sets with the first-team unit. Hill, like Green-Ellis and the other backup running backs, has played more with the second-team. The hope will be that Hill eventually grows into being a regular contributor, but for now, he's just trying to make it through camp. Fumbles have been problems for the first-year player who didn't lose a single ball while in college.

3. While many teams endured near-complete defensive overhauls this offseason, the Bengals have been in the advantageous position of bringing back virtually all of their defensive starters. Defensive end Michael Johnson was the biggest loss, but the Bengals had already prepared for his possible departure when they drafted Margus Hunt in 2013. After spending a year as sort of "redshirt," Hunt appears poised to be a regular contributor in the end rotation this season. He and Wallace Gilberry have traded time at the left defensive end spot all throughout camp. Coaches have remarked, as has Hunt, about how much better he seems to grasp the defense this year. The concepts make much more sense to him now a year into the league.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Rookie center Russell Bodine has struggled in camp with several snaps flying over Dalton's head. Considering how much Dalton struggles when facing pressure, the exchange between center and quarterback can't be faulty. "It's going to get eliminated," Dalton said. "We can't have that. That's the easiest thing you do on the football field is get the snap." With some injuries on the offensive line, Bodine's quick development will be important.

2. Guenther wasn't happy with the communication process and how quickly plays were being called during the scrimmage. There were good things the defense did, such as filling running lanes, but getting plays in and making pre-snap checks are still works in progress. Even his radio communicator went out during the scrimmage. "That's part of why we do these things, these mock games so to speak," he said. "It's so that we can get the stuff ironed out and that we get it right."

3. Another reason for pessimism? The tight-end gauntlet the Bengals have to go through this year. Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Jordan Cameron and Dennis Pitta are just a few of the big-bodied pass-catchers they'll have to defend. Although linebacker Emmanuel Lamur's return from a serious shoulder injury will help the Bengals defend such athletic players, they have struggled in camp matching up with similarly-built players. Eifert has been one of the best players in camp for his ability to get open both from his tight end position flanked off the offensive line, or from a split-out receiver position.

[+] EnlargeMohamed Sanu
Aaron Doster/USA TODAY SportsThe versatility of receiver Mohamed Sanu could be key for the Bengals in 2014.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • Like we mentioned earlier, Dalton just signed a six-year contract extension that will pay him more than $90 million more than he earned on the first three years of his rookie deal. The deal leaves some room for the Bengals to start figuring out ways to retain receiver A.J. Green, who said earlier this camp he's not worried about his next contract. He believes his "body of work speaks for itself." So far that body of work has looked quite strong. He set the tone for a strong camp when he caught a 50-yard bomb from Dalton near the end of the first day.
  • Marvin Jones might have emerged as the No. 2 receiver behind Green last season, but be on the lookout for the Mohamed Sanu renaissance. With Jones having nursed an ankle injury the first nine practices of camp, Sanu has been used in a variety of roles alongside Green early in camp. Sanu has passed, caught passes, ran and worked as a Wildcat quarterback in the offense. Jackson believes he's playing with a lot of confidence right now. It will be interesting to see how that changes after Jones' return Monday.
  • Linebacker Vontaze Burfict might have been the league's leader in tackles the past season, but he's been leading in a different way, according to coaches. Guenther has used him often this camp to teach his defense to teammates who have called Burfict the smartest player on the unit.
  • The Bengals didn't make many free-agency additions this offseason, but they were smart about who they added. Safety Danieal Manning gives them depth in the secondary and an additional weapon at kick returner. He also provides a measure of knowledge and experience that reminds some of free-agent Chris Crocker, who signed with the Vikings on Monday. Manning told me he likes the gesture but isn't a fan of being compared to anybody. His versatility has paid off so far. In addition to lining up at safety, he also has returned kicks and been a voice of reason for younger teammates willing to listen.
CINCINNATI -- The Lombardi Trophy has taken up residence in the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room during this training camp.

OK, let's rephrase that.

Printed on the fronts of T-shirts and plastered into an image that occasionally flashes on the television screens mounted atop the wall posts inside the Bengals' locker room, representations of the Lombardi Trophy have been visible. The actual trophy has never seen Paul Brown Stadium, although the Bengals hope to change that this year.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Iloka
AP Photo/Tom UhlmanGeorge Iloka, No. 43, said the Bengals' defense wants to stay aggressive but cut down on penalties.
In their quest to win the franchise's first Super Bowl this year, the theme for the Bengals' camp this summer is comprised of two words: "smart" and "fast." Printed on the T-shirts and emblazoned on the same image of the trophy that flashes on the TV screens are those words, along with a series of claw marks. When it comes to making Cincinnati's team this year, coaches want to stress the words "smart" and "fast."

On defense, they want to stress another one -- "bullies."

When I asked third-year safety George Iloka what the defense wanted to be known as this season, he brought up a statement defensive coordinator Paul Guenther made during a meeting at the start of training camp. Clearly, Iloka was paying attention.

"We want to be smart bullies," he said.

That philosophy fits with the overall theme of the camp, but what exactly is a smart bully?

"Our mentality is to go out there and play aggressive and physical, but we've got to be smart," Iloka said. "We've got to know when to take chances. We've got to know if it's third-and-1, we've got to know if it's fourth-and-1, we've got to know if we're backed up that they're going to try to give you a hard count. Little things like that. You don't want to be too aggressive where you're hurting yourself."

It's an important fact to stress because at times last season the Bengals did let their aggression get the best of them.

They ranked 11th in the league in defensive penalties last season, incurring 41 infractions. While that number might not be astronomically high, the yards they were penalized for in all three phases were. Flagged for 1,000 total yards, the Bengals ranked fifth in overall penalty yards in 2013. When it came specifically to the defense, the most egregious violations seemed to come at inopportune moments (is there really a good time to draw a penalty, though?).

Linebacker Rey Maualuga's body slam of a Bears offensive lineman just after a third-down stop late in the fourth quarter of the season opener was costly. Had Maualuga kept his wits and not thrown down the lineman, the Bengals' third-down stop would have led to a punt. Out of timeouts and with a little more than a minute left in a game in which they trailed by a field goal, the Bengals had just enough time to get a good return and set up a possible comeback that could have ended in a Week 1 win.

Instead, after Maualuga's 15-yard penalty, the Bears went through a series of kneeldowns the Bengals were helpless to prevent because they didn't have any timeouts. Cincinnati lost 24-21.

"You want to cut down on penalties. You want to cut down on mistakes. But it's not even those things," Iloka said. "Let's say it's third-and-4 and all week we've practiced that this team in this formation is going to run a seam route. Why are you going to be overaggressive and jump the out route? Just be a smart bully. You're smart, and when the time comes to make the hit ... you bully them and you make the play."

While Guenther didn't use the term "smart bullies" at a kickoff luncheon earlier this week in Cincinnati, he made it clear that he was looking for that kind of play as he begins his first year as a coordinator.

"I like how passionate they are, how smart they are and how flexible they can be," Guenther said. "I'm really hammering home being a smart football team."

Will being smart and fast bullies be enough for the Bengals to finally obtain their goal? Iloka thinks so; as long as he and his teammates avoid the complacency that can come with having a top-3 defense like they did last year.

"Until we're No. 1, there's always room for improvement," he said. "Since I've been here the defense has been one of the strong points of this team. We really emphasize it. We just want to go up. Obviously [ranking third] wasn't good enough because we didn't win the Super Bowl. The defense has room for improvement. Turnovers, third downs, you name it. We can always get better."
CINCINNATI -- Terence Newman knows he's what we'll simply call "advanced in age."

He doesn't need you nor I to remind him of the 11 seasons he's seen in the NFL. He doesn't need either of us to bring up the fact he's the only player on the Cincinnati Bengals' roster who was born in the 1970s. He also doesn't need to be told that "Father Time" has yet to lose in his grand battle with professional football players; a day will soon come when he'll be forced to halt his playing days and move on to other endeavors.

[+] EnlargeTerence Newman
Al Behrman/AP PhotoCornerback Terence Newman is entering his 12th season in the NFL, and he's picked up on some valuable tips over the years.
The main reason he doesn't need any of those hints about his age -- 35 -- is because Newman is comfortable he has time left before the dreaded "R-word," (retirement) becomes his reality. Besides, he understands the great advantage the Bengals, or any team for that matter, have in simply having him around.

As he enters his 12th season in the league, Newman continues embracing his role as Bengals sage.

"I've seen everything that kind of can see as far as offenses," the veteran cornerback said, holding a golf wedge as he sized up a chip shot in the Bengals' locker room after a minicamp practice earlier this week. "It's fun for me because I can kind of give my input on things that I've seen in the league, and just try to pass that on to [younger players]. All the young guys, I just try to help them any way I can. That's from Day 1. Since the time they got here they say, 'What are you? A player or a coach?'

"That's just me passing along what I got when I first got in the league."

He passes along golf advice, too. During the interview, he kept pointing out to third-year safety George Iloka a few reasons his whiffle-ball chip shots weren't landing in the laundry bins across the locker room. Ever the adviser Newman is. It seems he already has a hobby for when the dreaded "R-word" rolls around.

When Newman, who was drafted by the Cowboys with the fifth overall pick, entered the league from Kansas State in 2003 the NFL landscape was much different.

For starters, the Bengals weren't the annual division threat they now are. Back then, their old "Bungles" nickname certainly applied. Before head coach Marvin Lewis was hired that offseason the Bengals hadn't had even a .500 record since 1996. They hadn't had a winning tally further back than that -- 1990.

Schematically, the league looked different, too. Mobile quarterbacks were all the rage with the elusive Michael Vick and Donovan McNabb dominating headlines.

While running quarterbacks are still a little en vogue, teams are more apt to spread the field with multiple playmakers. Bigger tight ends, bigger receivers and shiftier running backs have become the NFL norm. As Newman keeps adapting to the subtle changes that come into the league each passing year, he's trying to make sure his young teammates understand how to properly counter them.

"We all watch film differently and see some things differently," Newman said, comparing himself to the first- and third-year players the Bengals have at corner. "I might see something. Say a receiver puts his opposite foot up. I saw that [Thursday] and started yelling, 'Run, run, run.' I knew that it was a run. That's just different little things people might not see."

After explaining that anecdote, Newman told another involving a series of routes Bengals receivers had run while rookie Darqueze Dennard covered one of them. From the sideline, Newman could tell Dennard didn't see all of the routes the way he should have.

"When you bring it up, they're like, 'Oh yeah, that's right. I did notice that,'" Newman said.

Dennard, the team's first-round pick who signed his rookie deal Thursday, has credited Newman's guidance, as well as that of Adam Jones and Leon Hall, to reasons why the game is beginning to slow down and his playbook is beginning to make more sense.

"We've got a lot of great players out here," Dennard said. "Looking especially in the secondary, there's a lot of players that have done a lot of good things in their careers. I'm just out here to learn from them and do the best I can to help the team."

Newman knows that inevitably Dennard or some other young cornerback will eventually take his spot. But he's determined they don't do that this year.

"I'm fighting for a roster spot, too, like everybody else, in my mind," Newman said. "Honestly, I think that all nine of us could be on rosters and contribute this year. That's how good the talent at cornerback is. But as it is, you only get a certain number of guys that actually play."

Cuts at the position will be made.

During one of last week's practices, Lewis praised Newman for the way he's so far attacked this round of offseason workouts. The veteran easily could slack off and coast into training camp, but he hasn't.

"That's why he's been such a great pro for so long," Lewis said. "He's got incredible, incredible athleticism and intelligence. He's a kid at heart. He's just been a marvel and a great asset to this football team both on the field and off the field and intrinsically within the room with what he does, always mentoring players, whether it's at his position or other guys about the NFL in general."
CINCINNATI -- Now that the Cincinnati Bengals have signed former Houston Texan Danieal Manning to a one-year deal, let's take a look at how his career numbers compare to the other safeties already on Cincinnati's roster.

Manning, an eight-year veteran who also spent five years with the Bears, joins a defensive backfield that includes safeties Reggie Nelson, George Iloka, Taylor Mays and Shawn Williams. Unrestricted free agent Chris Crocker is still technically in the mix at the position, too, even though Manning's signing seems a clear indicator that Crocker won't be re-signed before free agency ends. It was doubtful he'd want to make a comeback next season anyway after entering retirement the past two years. Still, we included Crocker's numbers to give an idea of how Manning compares.

One area where Manning will be a help, particularly at the strong safety position he and Iloka could conceivably battle for, is in forcing turnovers. The numbers show that, like Nelson, he has a knack for doing that.

As you can see, he stacks up quite favorably in other areas, too:

CINCINNATI -- While he waits on a bigger pay day in the near future, Vontaze Burfict picked up big additional bucks this season, according to the NFL's annual report on performance-based pay.

The league released the report's findings Monday, showing the Cincinnati Bengals linebacker as one of 11 players who earned an extra $250,000 or more in compensation for the 2013 season. The report said Burfict earned $315,847.69 in performance-based pay for his second season. Only Bears offensive tackle Jordan Mills had more performance-based pay last year, bringing in $318,243.96.

Burfict had a similarly strong earning year as a rookie, too, leading the league with about $299,000 in performance-based pay that year.

The secondary compensation system is designed for players whose playing time ended up being much higher than what their salary would have originally paid. Late-round draft picks and undrafted free agents who became starters tend to earn the most in performance-based pay because their base salaries are usually very low.

Burfict, an undrafted free agent from Arizona State, had a base salary of $390,000 in 2012. He had a base salary of $480,000 in 2013. Injuries forced Burfict into the starting rotation his rookie season, when he went on to lead the team with 127 tackles. Not only did he lead the team in tackles during his Pro Bowl 2013 season, but he led the league and set a franchise record with 171.

Cincinnati's next-highest earning player on last season's performance-based pay scale was safety George Iloka, who received more than $281,000. Receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones received an additional $159,000 and $156,000, respectively.

The extra cash Burfict made could be a precursor of what's to come in the coming months or year. The linebacker will become a restricted free agent at the end of next season. It's quite clear the Bengals would like to make him part of their free agency plans this year, either re-signing him this offseason or at some point early in the 2014 regular season. The timing of Burfict's next contract could be impacted by the timing of quarterback Andy Dalton's second deal. Owner and president Mike Brown has already made it clear that Dalton is the piece the team is looking to shore up first and foremost. He, too, will be a free agent after next year.

Bengals' George Iloka leaves game hurt

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
3:40
PM ET
CINCINNATI -- A hit to the head forced Cincinnati Bengals safety George Iloka into the locker room during the third quarter of Sunday's game against the Indianapolis Colts.

The second-year player left the game when he took a hard hit during a play that resulted in one of two third-quarter Colts touchdowns.

Indianapolis scored for a second time in the quarter with 6:30 remaining when quarterback Andrew Luck completed a 19-yard touchdown pass to receiver LaVon Brazill. It was Brazill who did most of the heavy lifting on the play, catching the short pass and dodging six attempted Bengals tacklers in order to score. While swept into attempting his own tackle, Iloka suffered an apparent head injury.

Iloka's return was immediately deemed questionable by the Bengals' training staff.

Following the scoring play, several Bengals, including Iloka, remained on the field for a few moments as they collected themselves. They looked like orange and black bowling pins that had just been felled by the power-running bowling ball that was Brazill.

When Iloka left, he was replaced on the next Bengals' defensive series by defensive back Chris Crocker. Crocker was among those who missed a tackle on the touchdown reception.
CINCINNATI -- The tropical temperatures that lingered around this city all day Wednesday made it hard to even fathom that before the week was over, ice-box chills and snow-globe scenes would descend upon it once again.

Indeed, a biting breeze is coming. And Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is embracing its arrival with open arms.

Welcome to December in the Ohio Valley. Or what Lewis calls "Bengal weather."

This is the time of year when winds can be treacherous, clouds ominous and precipitation perilous. It's the time of year in these parts when Mother Nature can be her own 12th man of sorts. Footballs don't move through the air with the same ease as they may have earlier in the year.

The Bengals like knowing that, and hope their opponents underestimate it.

"That's part of us. That's part of our toughness," Lewis said about playing in such cold weather. "It's just the way we're put together."

It's weather like the below-30s temperatures and freezing rain/sleet/snow wintry mix that's headed to Cincinnati before Sunday's clash with the Indianapolis Colts that helps give the AFC North its rugged, smashmouth character. Teams that play in the division have long been known for having solid run-stopping defenses and ground games that like to plow right through the middle of them. The offensive flair and finesse that some West Coast and Southern teams have is foreign to those who call the AFC North their home. Just ask the San Diego Chargers.

Three days after practicing through an early afternoon snow shower, the Bengals found themselves in 70-degree Southern California last Sunday. When they took the field, they ran at the Chargers much like they expect to do the rest of the season. Of the Bengals' 61 plays, 38 came on the ground. Those 38 carries resulted in 164 yards, paced by BenJarvus Green-Ellis' 92 yards and a touchdown.

Since it can be difficult passing in the harsh conditions that are expected the rest of the year in Southwest Ohio, the Bengals now realize they will have to keep the ball in the hands of their running backs. Consider last week's game in comparative paradise an anomaly. Lewis' "Bengal weather" is here for the remainder of Cincinnati's season.

"We figured the last four games, we have an opportunity for four bad-weather games," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. "So establishing some kind of running game is going to be important to keep the clock moving, keep our defense off the field and try to get something."

Safety George Iloka, a Houston native, said he and his teammates are ready for the climate change that's on the horizon.

"We're used to it, and I played in Boise, so I'm used to cold games," the Boise State product said. "I don't know how other teams that play indoors or in warmer weather like San Diego [deal with it]. It might get to be too much for them. But for us, it's not really a big deal."

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