AFC North: Mohamed Sanu

INDIANAPOLIS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 26-10 loss to the Indianapolis Colts:

Lamenting injury losses: All season, the Bengals have harped on how they hated using injuries as excuses. But the fact is, had it not been for ailments to certain players at critical times of the season, perhaps the year would have ended differently. In addition to playing another game without Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict, the Bengals learned Saturday they would be without Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green. Hours before Sunday's game, they found out Pro Bowl tight end Jermaine Gresham would be missing, too. Asked about how hard Green and Gresham's absences made things for the offense, receiver Mohamed Sanu said, "Extremely hard. When they [the Colts] have their best players playing and we have some of our best players missing, you can't do what we want to do."

Health a key to 2015? Sticking with the injury theme, rookie running back Jeremy Hill said the biggest change the Bengals needed to undergo in the offseason was simply getting healthy. In addition to the trio above, the Bengals also were without Marvin Jones -- their second-leading receiver in 2013 -- and tight end Tyler Eifert, among others, this year.

'Look at the Panthers': Like most Bengals, safety George Iloka was disappointed with the outcome of Sunday's game. He knows this loss will "resonate with longtime fans" who haven't seen a postseason win since January 1991. "It's also going to resonate with us," Iloka added. "Like they say, you're only as good as your last game." He added that it didn't necessarily matter how a team got to the postseason. It only mattered what the team did once it got there. "You've got to find a way to come out with the win," Iloka said. "Look at the Panthers. They're under .500 and they found a way to win." Carolina beat Arizona in Saturday's NFC wild-card round game after finishing the regular season 7-8-1.
CINCINNATI -- Since Monday, an image has flashed on the television screens in the Cincinnati Bengals locker room featuring a message the team hopes will be apropos by the end of the week.

In orange, at the bottom of a photo of receiver Mohamed Sanu reaching for a pass, are eight words: "One's best success comes after their greatest disappointment."

Quarterback Andy Dalton certainly hopes that will be the case Sunday afternoon when he and the Bengals face the New Orleans Saints in their first game since last Thursday's nightmarish 24-3 defeat to the Cleveland Browns. From the moment he walked into his locker room after the blowout, Dalton's focus was on proving that he and his team were much better than what the nation saw in prime time.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsAndy Dalton can't help but improve from a disastrous Thursday night game against the Browns.
"That's not the kind of player I am, not the kind of offense we are, not the kind of team we are," Dalton said.

As disappointments go, no game in Dalton's career went quite like last Thursday's. He scuffled to a career-low 2.0 passer rating and had the second-lowest QBR of his career, coming away with a 4.3. His passing yards (86) were down, as were his touchdowns (zero). Meanwhile, his interceptions (three) were up. He set a poor tone on the first drive when he threw an interception on a pass that tight end Jermaine Gresham appeared one step shy of possibly breaking up.

Dalton could have responded positively after that turnover. He didn't. Instead, he kept forcing the issue and putting the ball in the Browns' hands.

"You don't turn the ball over, it gives our team a better chance," Dalton said. "They score 14 points off turnovers. There's so many things that we could have done differently and I could have done differently. But like I said, it was one game, so we can't let it hurt us for the remainder of the season."

How will he try to accomplish that? By maintaining focus and trust, Dalton said.

"You can't lose any confidence," Dalton said. "You can't all of a sudden panic or anything. There's been a lot of good things that have gone on for this team. So hold on to that kind of stuff because you've still got to have a lot of confidence. I mean, that's the best thing you do do out on the field, because that's contagious."

Apparently, Dalton has been listening to his offensive coordinator.

Hue Jackson said the same thing Friday when giving his day-after take on the loss. As he put it, amid all the questions about what his offense didn't and couldn't do last week, "the elephant in the room" was that the Bengals had been good offensively at times this year. They needed to get some of that back.

Through the first three games, Dalton had thrown just one interception and hadn't been sacked. The Bengals had a 3-0 record and looked like an elite team. But then their bye week came around, a blowout loss at New England happened, and a seemingly unending stream of injuries took place, as did a stream of interceptions and sacks. Now they sit at 5-3-1 and are in need of a jolt.

"It all starts with the way you're preparing, the way you practice," Dalton said. "So when you get these looks in practice, you've got to hit them. You've got to show everybody that there's going to be big plays out there."

If you're a quarterback like Dalton, you also simply have to play better, and believe the words on that television screen.

Browns vs. Bengals preview

November, 6, 2014

This rivalry is starting to get more significant.

Credit both the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals for better talent evaluation practices in recent seasons that are beginning to turn their organizations into real power players in the NFL.

The Bengals are the furthest along that path, having made three straight playoff appearances and winning division titles in two of the past five seasons. Last year, the Browns showed flashes of success before a team-wide reorganization this offseason put them in what appears to be a much better position for tangling with the best of the AFC North. At 5-3, the Browns are one win from their highest win total in seven seasons. The Lake Erie tide has begun to turn.

Here to break down the matchup is ESPN Browns reporter Pat McManamon and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey:

McManamon: Coley, Cincinnati seems to just keep on keeping on. Two new coordinators, and the team is winning. How have Hue Jackson and Paul Guenther helped or changed anything?

Harvey: It is amazing to think the Bengals are 5-2-1 when you put it that way, Pat. But in all honestly, many Bengals fans aren't sure either coordinator has done much to help his side of the ball. There is greater optimism for what Jackson is building on offense, though, considering how well the unit has operated without the services of A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard. Mohamed Sanu filled in wonderfully for Green in the parts of four games the Pro Bowler missed, and rookie Jeremy Hill went off last week in place of Bernard, who is expected to be out again Thursday. Cincinnati's offense has laid one egg -- a 27-0 loss at Indianapolis -- but has otherwise featured creative looks and a renewed interest in running the ball. Guenther's defense hasn't been as good primarily because Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict, the leader of the unit, has finished only two games this year because of head, neck and knee issues. He's out Thursday after getting a knee scoped last week. Injuries have made it too soon to say how much Guenther's addition has helped the defense. But the potential is there.

Pat, I know you've been asking the Brian Hoyer doubters to take a seat all season. What has been the one thing you can point to about his play that has made him get the team to 5-3?

McManamon: Hoyer doubters should take a seat, Coley. There are still good seats available for them. As to his play, on the stat sheet, I'd point to the interceptions. Hoyer has thrown four all season, and his interception percentage of 1.6 percent ranks sixth in the league. He has been avoiding crucial mistakes and taking care of the ball. Off the stat sheet, I'd have to credit his preparation. Hoyer studies like he is taking his third bar exam. He pores over details, prepares for situations and plays and tries making sure he understands what he's seeing and what will work. Combine that with his steadiness and it's not hard to see why he's won three games with fourth-quarter comebacks. Hoyer's poise, steadiness and care with the ball have been huge for the Browns.

From afar, it seems that one guy who has really stepped up this season has been Sanu. The Browns have had trouble with big receivers this season. What has he done that has made him so effective?

Harvey: Simply put, he's played. Last year, Sanu turned into the No. 3 receiving option behind a healthy Green and surprising newcomer Marvin Jones. When preseason injuries sidelined Jones and eventually landed him on injured reserve and toe problems caused Green to miss three weeks, Sanu had no choice but to be the next man up. It all goes back to the offseason. Hoyer's study habits are a lot like Sanu's workout habits. He's always had great hands, but he focused this preseason on making difficult catches in practice look easy. Several rookies I've talked to mentioned how awestruck they were when they first saw Sanu pull in a jaw-dropping one-handed catch or have an over-the-shoulder grab that would make Willie Mays envious. That play has translated into games. Now that Green is back, the Browns and other defenses have two big targets -- former Brown Greg Little makes three -- to defend.

People in Cincinnati are still curious about Andrew Hawkins. Had he been able to re-sign here, he likely would be the No. 3 receiver right now. How important has Hawkins been to Cleveland's offense both on the field and in the locker room?

McManamon: Hawkins has been vital -- to the point I named him the team's midseason MVP this week. I wouldn't go as far as to say he's a leader because there are several veterans on the offense who lead, such as Hoyer and Joe Thomas. But Hawkins has been a find, and he's been key to the 5-3 start. He was signed to do what the Bengals planned to do with him: be the third wideout. But Josh Gordon's suspension put Hawkins in the starting lineup. Despite the fact he's never started before this season, he has responded by playing every game and leading the receivers in snaps while leading the Browns in receptions and receiving yards. He's also shown a toughness and a work ethic to admire. Without Hawkins, the Browns would not be 5-3.

A year ago, Coley, the Browns talked big about a meaningful game in Cincinnati then were embarrassed as the Bengals scored 31 points in a quarter. Do the Bengals take this one seriously, or do they figure eventually the same old Browns will appear?

Harvey: The Bengals believe the Browns are legitimate. Veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, the Bengals' version of Thomas, said it best earlier this week when he compared the AFC North to the SEC. "We've seen every year even the worst team in the division and the best have a tough time beating each other no matter what their records are," the former LSU Tiger said. Trust me, the Bengals are taking this game seriously. Little, as you well know, definitely is. The former Brown who was signed by Cincinnati last month said "somebody has to pay" for him being cut by the Browns in May -- even after it became apparent Gordon would be facing a multigame suspension. Combine all of that with the appearance of Leah Still, the 4-year-old cancer-fighting daughter of defensive tackle Devon Still, and you will have an emotional night at Paul Brown Stadium. For the Browns, this could be one of the more hostile "Battle of Ohio" crowds in Cincinnati in recent years.

Since 2011, this rivalry has hinged, in part, on one key matchup: Green vs. Joe Haden. Green will play Thursday despite a toe injury. Hobbled or not, what has it meant to Haden to consistently lock down a receiver the likes of Green?

McManamon: A tremendous amount, though I would say Green has won his fair share of this competition. Haden likes Green, and more important, he respects him. He continually talks about what a good guy Green is and how well he plays. There is tremendous respect between the two, and given that they both are among the best at their positions, it's one of the most interesting and entertaining rivalries in the sport. Haden values every opportunity he has to play Green, which means he greatly values being able to limit the damage Green can do.

Midseason report: Cincinnati Bengals

November, 5, 2014

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One word sums up the first half of the Cincinnati Bengals' season unlike any other: injuries.

From the very first game this season, the Bengals' bumps and bruises have completely taken them out of their preseason game plan and altered the rhythm they were seeking offensively and defensively.

Key players such as Tyler Eifert, Marvin Jones, Vontaze Burfict, Rey Maualuga, Giovani Bernard and A.J. Green have been among the injured at some point this season -- some injured and reinjured. The syncopated manner in which the defense has been hit at linebacker caused defensive coordinator Paul Guenther last week to call this a "hell of a first year" on the job.

Midseason MVP: No player is more deserving of this than receiver Mohamed Sanu. Not only has he been a more than adequate fill-in for Green, who has missed parts of four games with a toe injury, he also has been the most versatile player on the offense. Before Green's return Sunday, Sanu accounted for 31.3 percent of the Bengals' offense in games the Pro Bowler missed. He had 460 yards of total offense in those games by catching, running and throwing the ball. He still has a perfect career passer rating after completing 50-yard and 18-yard passes. The latter throw was a touchdown pass completed to quarterback Andy Dalton. Sanu leads all Bengals pass-catchers with 39 catches for 628 yards and four touchdowns.

Biggest disappointment: Aside from juggling their roster to account for the injuries, the Bengals' biggest disappointment has been veteran right offensive tackle Andre Smith. Lately, penalties have defined the sixth-year lineman's play. He's had holds and false starts in four of the past five games, including three holding calls that negated a pair of big first-down gains and a potential game-winning touchdown run in an overtime tie with the Panthers. The Bengals have learned from the league that at least one of those calls was incorrectly applied, but still, Smith hasn't had his best start. Pro Football Focus has him at a minus-4.6 grade through eight games, currently the second-worst grade of his career.

Best moment: The most memorable moment of the Bengals' first half was Sanu's 18-yard touchdown pass across the field to Dalton in a 33-7 Week 3 win against the Titans. It was a head-turning play that embodied the creativity coordinator Hue Jackson's offense possesses. But this isn't really about the most memorable moment. This is about the best. Rookie running back Jeremy Hill's 60-yard touchdown run with eight minutes left in Sunday's win against the Jaguars fits. The play featured a rookie in the most significant moment of his career, sprinting for a gain that extended the Bengals' lead and iced a crucial win. A case could also be made for Green's 77-yard touchdown catch late in the season-opening win at Baltimore.

Worst moment: For kicker Mike Nugent, no moment was as bad this season as his missed field goal as time expired in the overtime game against the Panthers. Had he made the 36-yard field goal, he wouldn't have fielded many of the threatening tweets that he retweeted after the game, and the Bengals would be 6-2. For the entire team, however, the worst moment was the 60 minutes it was playing inside Lucas Oil Stadium. During the 27-0 loss at Indianapolis, nothing went right for the Bengals. Their offense was timid and slammed around by the Colts' aggressive defense. Their own battered defense kept missing tackles and was exhausted because the offense couldn't stay on the field.

Key to the second half: Defense will be the difference-maker down the stretch. The offense will be fine. Smith will come around. The presence of Green, Bernard and, eventually, Eifert will help. Once the Bengals get their weapons back, the offense will hum. On the other side of the ball, the Bengals need to remain aggressive and get good pressure. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins must play a key role in that. After a slow start, he's finally starting to get back to his old self following last year's ACL surgery. He'd have been the biggest first-half disappointment had he continued without pass disruptions and sacks. Three straight road games, a game against the Broncos and three of the last four against division foes make the second half a challenge.
CINCINNATI -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 33-23 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars:
  • Hill holds court: Jeremy Hill was a popular interview subject Sunday afternoon. For nearly 45 minutes, the rookie running back chatted with various reporters about his career day. He rushed 24 times for 154 yards and two touchdowns in relief of Giovani Bernard, who sat because of a pair of injuries. Hill was still dressed, shoulder pads and all, nearly the whole time. It was just before a radio interview that he finally took off his pads and jersey. Most of the time, Hill stood directly in front of Bernard's locker (which is next to his). Bernard tried to wait him out to give his congratulations in person but eventually took off. (He'll see him Monday, anyway.) While Hill chatted with reporters, some players shouted their support as they walked behind cameras or leaned between the mass of bodies to offer up fist bumps. Cornerback Adam Jones was one of those who butted in for a bump.
  • Sanu on Hill's dance: Receiver Mohamed Sanu has been known to bust a move or two when he scores. In the preseason, he unveiled his version of the "Shmoney" dance, one made popular by rapper Bobby Shmurda. After Hill scored the first of his two touchdowns, he did his version of that dance. So what did Sanu think about Hill's rendition? "Have you seen it?" Sanu asked, smiling. "It's pretty awesome." Hill, who earlier this season did Ickey Woods' "Ickey Shuffle," also pulled off the "Dougie" dance after he scored his second touchdown.
  • Special-teams mentality: Nico Johnson was signed as a free agent Oct. 15, days before the Bengals were down two linebackers in their starting rotation. Still, he didn't think he'd see the field as a starter for a long while. He had to digest the Bengals' playbook first. The Bengals thought he was ready and started him Sunday. "My mindset was special teams, special teams, special teams," Johnson said. "That was my mindset that I would come in and make my effect on special teams and make the best out of a great opportunity." He had one tackle in place of Rey Maualuga.
  • Jags a 'good team': Veteran Bengals defensive end Wallace Gilberry thinks the 1-8 Jaguars are on the cusp of greatness. "That's a good team," he said. "I don't care what nobody says. They're young, and when they find out how to win, people are going to have to deal with them. Mark my words."

CINCINNATI -- Just before leaving Paul Brown Stadium late Sunday afternoon, Hue Jackson walked past a pair of reporters in a brightly lit stadium hallway.

"Sometimes, they aren't going to be pretty, are they?" the offensive coordinator asked rhetorically, referencing the Cincinnati Bengals' 27-24 victory over AFC North foe Baltimore.

The same could be said about his quarterback's day.

Andy Dalton didn't have the cleanest performance of his career Sunday. With a 21-for-28, 266-yard, two-rushing-touchdown performance, he was significantly better than he was in last Sunday's shutout at Indianapolis. But he still wasn't as sharp overall as he has been at other times this year. He took two sacks and was part of two turnovers when he forced the ball, making questionable decisions.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
AP Photo/Michael ConroyAndy Dalton made the right reads down the stretch against the Ravens.
When the game clock read 3:59 to go in the fourth quarter, though, none of that was important. At that time, he was in need of having a season-changing moment. The hour for Dalton to help justify his $115 million worth had arrived.

Down 24-20, he needed to take his offense 80 yards downfield for a touchdown.

As the Bengals readied for what appeared their final drive of the game, they needed him to simply manage the offense. The goal was to have a drive that ate the right amount of clock, but one that didn't drag rhythmically. With the Bengals having nearly the length of the field to travel, everyone in the stadium knew Dalton had to throw the ball.

After two incomplete passes started the drive, Dalton had given his doubters ammunition.

That's when Dalton turned to Mohamed Sanu.

On third-and-10, Dalton threw deep toward Sanu, who adjusted his route to confound safety Terrence Brooks. Instead of sprinting past Brooks on a go route, Sanu instead cut back inside as the ball came down a little short. Awkwardly jumping for it, Sanu caught the pass and collected a few more yards before getting wrestled down 53 yards downfield.

"I knew Andy would look my way, and I knew I had to make a big play," said Sanu, filling in for a third straight game for Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green.

What started as an ugly drive suddenly looked promising. When Greg Little three plays later caught a first-down pass that put the Bengals on Baltimore's 6-yard line, hope reached its zenith. Cincinnati's game and season was not lost yet.

With a clear understanding of the crossroads he and the Bengals encountered on the drive, Dalton four plays later put the offense on his shoulders. As the Bengals faced fourth-and-goal at the 1, he changed orders at the line. Doing so put the Ravens in "exactly the look we wanted to get," Dalton said.

At the snap, he dove for the end zone.

And made it.

His third successful sneak of the game might have turned the Bengals' season around. Had he been denied, the Bengals would have lost and fell to 3-3-1, denied a win a fourth straight game.

He was charged to not let that happen. He was charged to convert key third downs and to check to plays that would get the Bengals a score.

It wasn't Dalton's prettiest drive, nor his prettiest day, but this finish showed why the Bengals signed him to a massive extension this preseason.

They believe in him.

Rapid Reaction: Cincinnati Bengals

October, 26, 2014

CINCINNATI -- A few thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 27-24 win over the Baltimore Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium:

What it means: More than anything, the Bengals' win shows that Andy Dalton may be a better quarterback than many want to give him credit for. With the fourth-year signal-caller leading a winning, 80-yard drive in the final three minutes, the Bengals walked away with a meaningful win after arguably their longest and most trying week this season. Dalton was the hero with his 1-yard touchdown dive with 57 seconds remaining, but he also was the hero for completing a pair of clutch third-down passes on the drive to receivers Mohamed Sanu and Greg Little. The big drive came after Dalton had thrown an interception and fumbled on the two previous series. With the win, the Bengals put their three consecutive winless weeks behind them. They're now 4-2-1.

Stock watch: One week after getting shut out, Cincinnati's offense was significantly better against the Ravens. Dalton was sharp Sunday, completing 21 passes for 266 yards on 28 attempts. He also converted his share of short-yardage plays, including a third down on a QB sneak on the third play of the game. That first-down pickup was the first of eight on third down.

Atkins is finally back: Geno Atkins looked like the player he was before tearing his ACL a year ago this coming Friday. In pass-rush situations, he was all over the Ravens' offensive line. He was aggressive, pushing past blocks and applying intense pressure on quarterback Joe Flacco. Some of Atkins' best pressures this season came in this game. He had a sack of Flacco to go along with his four tackles, two of which were for loss.

Game ball: There are two logical options to go with here, Dalton and Sanu. One could make a case for Sanu, considering how, without his 53-yard reception on a third-and-10, the Bengals wouldn't have even been in position for Dalton to score the winning touchdown just inside the final minute. We're going with Dalton here because he had the two touchdown runs and an efficient day from a passing standpoint.

What's next? The Bengals are back in action next Sunday when they host the Jaguars in the second game of this three-game home stretch. It'll be the first time Jacksonville has visited Cincinnati since 2008, when the Bengals won 21-19. The Jaguars lead the all-time season series 11-8, but the Bengals have won the past three meetings.

Bengals' third-down woes start on first

October, 24, 2014
CINCINNATI -- In their two losses this season, the Cincinnati Bengals converted just five percent of third-down chances they have had.

Yes, five ... percent.

Only one of the 20 third-down conversion opportunities have gone favorably for them in the two games that have been lost by a combined score of 70-17.

When an offense isn't able to turn third-down opportunities into first downs, it stays on the field for a shorter amount of time, and it greatly diminishes its scoring capability. That offense also is susceptible to allowing its short, quick possessions to turn into long ones for its defense.

Case in point: last Sunday's game at Indianapolis.

That afternoon, the Bengals were 1-for-13 on third down. They simply couldn't get anything done offensively, and ended up losing, 27-0. Beyond that, they also lost the time of possession battle by nearly 20 minutes, as the Colts' offense was on the field for 39 minutes and 43 seconds, wearing down Cincinnati's defenders in the process.

Why were the Bengals so awful on third down in both losses? To find the answer, we have to look all the way back to first and second down. When a team doesn't execute on first or second down, third-and-long scenarios become far more common than necessary. When an offense is in third-and-long, it's chances of getting a first down greatly diminish.

"It's kind of tough when you don't get positive yards on first down," receiver Mohamed Sanu said. "We can't start that way. You've got to get positive yards to stay within our game plan to be able to execute it."

This season, teams have a nearly 26 percent better chance of converting a first down from third-and-4 or shorter than they do of converting a third-and-5 or longer. According to ESPN Stats & Information, NFL offenses are averaging a 58.3 percent conversion rating on third-and-4 or shorter, and a 32.4 percent conversion rating on third-and-5 or longer.

It might be simplistic in nature, but it is a football truism: The best way a team can avoid third-and-longs is if it gains meaningful yards on first and second down.

"First downs are important," Bengals Pro Bowl offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "It doesn't matter if we are throwing it or running it. [It's about] getting something positive there. Something to put yourself in a positive down and distance for second and third down."

Against the Colts last week, the Bengals had six drives that began with them either losing yards or not gaining any on their first-down plays. They had 14 drives total.

Such problems were exacerbated by the fact the Bengals had trouble running the ball when they did. Despite trailing only 10-0 in the first half, they barely ran. At halftime, the running backs had eight rushes. Of those, Bengals ball carriers were first contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage on six of them. It was a clear sign that even if the Bengals could run on first down, the Colts' suffocating defense wasn't trying to let them.

Combine that with short or incomplete passes on first down, and you got a series of long third downs. Nine of the Bengals' 13 third downs last week came from third-and-7 or further. The others came with them needing four or fewer yards. The lone conversion of the day came on a third-and-4.

"In the NFL, stats will show you third-and-long means you are not going to have a very good day," Whitworth said. "If that's what you are going to have all day long, it is going to be a rough day."

Of the teams with the 11-lowest conversion ratings on third-and-5 or longer, the Bengals, at 3-2-1, are the only one with a winning record.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton dropped back 42 times Sunday afternoon against the Indianapolis Colts' aggressive, feisty and relentless pressure-focused defense.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
AP Photo/AJ MastAndy Dalton and the Bengals only notched one of 13 third downs against Indianapolis.
On those 42 dropbacks, he attempted 38 passes.

Of those attempts, nine of the balls that left Dalton's right hand were either batted down at the line of scrimmage or broken up downfield by a member of the Colts' secondary.

More than half those deflected passes came on third downs, scenarios Cincinnati successfully converted just once out of 13 tries. Far too often those failed third downs left Dalton and the Bengals with the same empty feeling. Far too often Dalton, the Bengals' newly paid multimillion-dollar quarterback, walked back to the sideline with a puzzled look on his face.

It was a look that suggested confusion and bewilderment; two emotions that had seldom been evident this season from any player in offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's scheme.

"We got beat in every part of it offensively," Dalton said. "We were terrible on third down and so you put that together and you get a game like we had [Sunday].

"We felt like we had a good plan coming in, but at the end of the day, you have to execute it."

The Bengals had trouble executing for myriad reasons, chief among them: the constant attack the offensive line received. The unit was unable to prevent a barrage of pressures from a Colts' defense that has thrived with that style of play. Entering Sunday's game, Indianapolis had sent five or more pass-rushers on 86 plays this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That's 20 plays more than the league average of 66 in which defenses have sent five or more players to rush quarterbacks.

Along with the Colts' pressure, Cincinnati's receivers weren't able to get open quickly enough for Dalton to try to find them without forcing passes. When his passes weren't getting deflected, they often were shorter screens, still thrown with an Indianapolis defender lurking nearby. How short were Dalton's passes? Per passing attempt, the Bengals averaged 3.3 yards.

"They played man-to-man and they were able to disrupt us in our routes and disrupt the timing of everything," Mohamed Sanu said. "They weren't very handsy or anything. They just played really well in coverage."

The five pass break-ups the Colts had on third down were a strong indication of just how tight of coverage they were playing. When it mattered most, they weren't allowing the Bengals to get anything.

By converting only one of 13 third downs, the Bengals put their defense in a bind, too. Unable to sustain drives, Cincinnati's offense contributed to its defense being on the field for almost 40 minutes of the 60-minute game. Again, the team wasn't in sync.

Sanu believed the Bengals' third-down woes actually started before the offense even got in those situations. Difficulty generating yards on first and second down put the Bengals in too many third-and-long situations, he said. On 10 of Cincinnati's 13 third downs, the Bengals needed more than six yards to get a first down.

"It's kind of tough when you don't get positive yards on first down. We can't start that way," Sanu said. "You've got to get positive yards to stay within our game plan and be able to execute it."

CINCINNATI -- It was easy to assume after taking a quick look at the Cincinnati Bengals' offensive stat line Sunday that A.J. Green probably could have had a near-career day, or that Tyler Eifert might have hauled in a series of deep downfield catches, or that Kevin Zeitler had continued what began as a Pro Bowl-type of year as a pass protector.

 But if you assumed any of that, you were grossly mistaken.

None of those players took a single snap in the Bengals' 37-37 tie with the Panthers, one that saw the Bengals generate 513 yards of total offense, their most since 2007 when they had 531 against the Browns. (Yes, it bears mentioning that 103 of Sunday's yards came in overtime.)

How, then, did offensive coordinator Hue Jackson explain his unit being able to do all of that without the likes of former first-rounders Green, Eifert and Zeitler and red-zone savvy receiver Marvin Jones? By acknowledging that the rest of his players simply did their jobs.

"We are supposed to [do that]," Jackson said. "We have good players here. I am not going to tip my hat because we had 513 yards."

While he didn't take off his cap for the entire offense, he was quick to credit individual players like tight end Jermaine Gresham, quarterback Andy Dalton, receiver Mohamed Sanu and running back Giovani Bernard for playing the way he expected them to.

Each contributed significantly in the draw.

Gresham, who was told all week by Jackson and Dalton that their faith in him never wavered even after a couple head-scratching miscues the week before, had his most productive game since Week 2 of last year. He caught six passes for 68 yards. He also had a pair of drive-stalling penalties, but when the ball came his way, he caught it.

Dalton continued his strong start to the season, despite his two interceptions Sunday. One of the turnovers came after his throwing elbow was hit from his blind side on his follow through, causing the ball to float into the hands of a Panthers defensive back. Otherwise, he had a 76.7 percent completion rating, finding Sanu 10 times for 120 yards and a touchdown.

Bernard had 137 yards on 18 carries, powered primarily by his second-quarter 89-yard touchdown run.

While Bernard and Dalton certainly can be classified as Bengals stars, Sanu wasn't before the season began, and Gresham believes fans and media view him as a team villain.

"Again, the process we put our players through every week of how we go about installing, how we go about practice, how we go about openers for games, how we go about adjustments that are made," Jackson began, "it's the right process."

In Zeitler's place, veteran backup Mike Pollak was solid at right guard. The running game may not have gotten the push it needed overall, but Bernard's long run was a sign that the improved blocking and execution is coming. When it came to pass protection, only one sack got through, and Pro Football Focus credited it to a rush that got by right offensive tackle Andre Smith.

Although Jackson said "there's no silver lining" in having a tie, he did acknowledge that he liked the diversity his offense was able to show.

Six players had at least four catches. Four different pass-catchers converted third downs on the Bengals' opening drive. Both running backs, Bernard and rookie Jeremy Hill, had double-digit touches.

"That's the way it should be," Jackson said. "We are a multiple-formation team. So there's a lot of different guys [who] can touch the ball. That keeps us with the ability to not have the offense come to a screeching halt."

That just goes to show, the Bengals are confident in their offense, even when their best players get hurt.

W2W4: Panthers vs. Bengals

October, 11, 2014
CINCINNATI -- Three storylines to watch Sunday when the Cincinnati Bengals host the Carolina Panthers at Paul Brown Stadium:

Replacing Green: It has been the biggest issue involving the Bengals this week, and with good reason. Once A.J. Green left the practice field early Wednesday because of an aggravation of an old toe injury, it became clear he probably would be absent Sunday. His teammates are now charged with trying to account for him not being on the field. Who will be the one who rises up and becomes big playmaking star? The Bengals spent the offseason lauding themselves for the high volume of playmakers in their system. But with Green joining tight end Tyler Eifert and receiver Marvin Jones on the shelf, the number of key skill players has been greatly diminished. Watch for running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill and receiver Mohamed Sanu to be the biggest difference-makers.

Defending the run: The Bengals' rushing defense last week could best be summed with the following word: "atrocious." Indeed, there have been better days for the unit. New England rushed for 220 yards, including 112 of those yards on six plays. The other 108 came on another 40 carries. While the Bengals were mostly good against the run, they had some glaring missed tackles and a few misfits as they slipped into incorrect gaps for run support. It was primarily on those six plays in which the missed tackles and poor gap support and gap angles were the most costly.

Part of the issue stemmed from "Will" linebacker Vontaze Burfict being out with a concussion. In his place, Emmanuel Lamur was charged with calling plays for only the second time in his career. With the Patriots quick-snapping Lamur and the rest of the defense, the Bengals barely had time to get plays set before the Patriots were running. With Burfict back this week, the Bengals ought to get their calls in more efficiently and smoother this week, even if the Panthers quick-snap them. Burfict knows the defense a little better and can anticipate plays slightly better than Lamur. If the rush defense improves, you can thank Burfict for some of that.

Keep an eye on punts: In the event Sunday's game is close, it could be decided by special-teams play. So keep an eye on two of the Bengals' special-teams units in particular. When it comes to punt coverage, Cincinnati has been one of the best, routinely pinning opposing return teams deep. According to ESPN Stats & Information, punter Kevin Huber leads the NFL in percentage of punts inside the 10 and inside the 5. A whopping 25 percent of his punts (that's four of his 16 total) have been stopped inside the 5-yard line. At one point across the second and third games of the year, he had three consecutive punts that were downed on the opposing 4, 1 and 2. While you have to credit Huber for some of that, also tip a cap to his coverage team, including gunners Darqueze Dennard and Dre Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick in particular has consistently stopped returners as soon as they touch the ball.

With respect to the Bengals' punt return unit, chew on this stat: Returner Adam Jones hasn't had a fair catch since Nov. 2006, when he was at Tennessee. He's returned 82 straight punts without waving for a fair catch, meaning he'll be looking to take one back Sunday.

As A.J. Green sits, think Mohamed Sanu

October, 10, 2014
CINCINNATI -- Quick, name the most targeted receiver on the Cincinnati Bengals roster.

Was A.J. Green your guess? If so, that guess would be wrong.

The most targeted pass-catcher for the Bengals entering their Week 6 meeting against Carolina is Mohamed Sanu, the third-year wideout from Rutgers who has suddenly shot up the ranks from little-used understudy to the top receiver spot on the team.

[+] EnlargeBengals-Jets
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsMohamed Sanu is the top wide receiver option for the Bengals with A.J. Green out.
With 26 targets, Sanu leads all Bengals pass-catchers in balls thrown his way. Green is next, with 24.

Those numbers will go up for Sanu this weekend when he gets Green's WR1 duties after sources confirmed to ESPN's Bob Holtzman that the Pro Bowler won't be playing. Green aggravated an injury to his right big toe on Wednesday during the stretching and plyometrics portion of practice. On Thursday after he saw an area foot specialist for further evaluation of a foot injury that coach Marvin Lewis called "a little more than" turf toe.

Friday morning, Green was seen at the Bengals' walkthrough wearing a black walking boot.

The loss of Green will be a big blow to a receiving corps that already was reeling from injuries to Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert. Jones has been out since the preseason with multiple leg ailments, and his exact return isn't yet clear. Eifert was lost Week 1 at Baltimore with a dislocated elbow that forced him onto the short-term injured reserve list. He won't come off until Nov. 6 when the Bengals host the Browns.

With all of those key weapons out, the Bengals must once again employ the "next man up" philosophy often brought up by coaches and players.

"It's football, man," Sanu said earlier this week. "When one guy falls down, you've got to step up and fill the void."

This week, and for possibly others to come, Sanu will be the one charged with filling the void left by Green.

But he won't be going it alone. Other playmakers such as Brandon Tate, Dane Sanzenbacher, James Wright, Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill and Ryan Hewitt will become even bigger options in the passing game now, too.

"They're huge voids, but we've got guys that can play," Sanu said. "We're going to need everybody. We're going to need Brandon, we're going to need Gio, we're going to need Dane and James Wright.

"We have total confidence in our [offensive] room."

There are reasons to believe Sanu will be able to fill in for Green. In addition to having more targets than Green, Sanu also has the same number of receptions (17) as him, an the same number of touchdowns (2). When Green left the Bengals' Week 2 win over the Falcons after just six plays, Sanu contributed by catching three passes for 84 yards, including a 76-yard touchdown reception that came when he and quarterback Andy Dalton smartly beat Cover Zero on a well-timed slant route.

In that game and others, Sanu also showcased a measure of versatility that could make him a threat to run or pass, too.

He has completed two passes this season, including an 18-yard touchdown pass to Dalton. Since the Bengals trailed all of last week's game at New England, they didn't have much of a chance to get into their trick-play offense. It's possible that portion of their playbook will show up this weekend if they command the game early.

Much like Bernard, Sanu should get his share of playmaking opportunities this week. With Green sitting, keep Sanu in mind.

PFF reviews the Bengals' Week 5 loss

October, 6, 2014
CINCINNATI -- The New England Patriots, for better or worse, are now in the Cincinnati Bengals' rearview mirror. But before we completely move on from Sunday night's game, let's take a quick peek at some of the ways our friends at Pro Football Focus analyzed and examined Cincinnati's Week 5 game.

As always, take the grades and notes you see below with a certain grain of salt because they can end up being amended. Bad grades also can sometimes simply be the product of particular schemes, coverages or formations a team happens to employ in a respective week based upon the opponent.

Here are a few Bengals grades and notes following Sunday's 43-17 loss:

  • It seemed like just about anything that could go wrong for the Bengals on Sunday did. But to its credit, the Bengals' offensive line held up much better than what may have been originally perceived, according to PFF. In pass protection, the group held its own with veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth leading the way with a plus-1.4 pass-blocking grade. Whitworth also had a plus grade in run blocking, collecting a 1.2 grade there. He was the only offensive lineman with a positive run-blocking grade.
  • As well as Whitworth played on the left side of the line, the right side struggled, according to PFF's evaluation. Right tackle Andre Smith, right guard Mike Pollak and center Russell Bodine all had run-block grades below minus-2.0.
  • Behind A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu, who both played more than 50 snaps, James Wright received the most at receiver, totaling 22 snaps.
  • The running back snap breakdown went as follows: Giovani Bernard (44), Jeremy Hill (12). It was tough to get the balance the Bengals wanted in the running game because they were down by so much so early. The Bengals were down immediately 14-0 before starting to come back, briefly.
  • Quarterback Andy Dalton was barely pressured. He received pressure on just seven of his 27 dropbacks.
  • With Darrelle Revis covering him, Green was targeted five times. On those passes, Green caught three for 64 yards, helping bolster his claim that he didn't think Revis shut him down.
  • The Bengals threw seven passes that traveled 20 yards or more downfield, the most they have attempted in a single game all season. Entering Sunday's game, 63 percent of Dalton's passing attempts had traveled 15 yards or less in the air, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
  • New England targeted Cincinnati's linebackers all night, attempting 15 passes in their areas of coverage. Vincent Rey allowed six catches on six targets and Emmanuel Lamur allowed three on six targets.
  • Lamur also was credited with just one missed tackle by PFF (although from my personal recollection, I can remember him missing at least three) and received his lowest overall grade of the season: minus-5.0. He now has a minus-4.2 overall grade this season. Only Robert Geathers and Domata Peko have worse overall grades from PFF.
  • Cornerback Leon Hall also had his struggles. He allowed five catches on eight targets and missed three tackles.
  • Defensive end Wallace Gilberry recorded the Bengals' highest grades in overall play, play against the pass and play against the run. He had a plus-3.8 overall grade.
  • Defensive tackle Geno Atkins played 51 snaps, recording two tackles and a quarterback hurry.
CINCINNATI -- Each week, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson charges his Cincinnati Bengals ball carriers to pick up enough yards on the ground that they will match or exceed his target of 4.5 yards per carry.

Through three games, the Bengals aren't gaining enough yards to suit Jackson's liking, averaging 3.6 yards per carry. It's a low average mostly brought down by second-year back Giovani Bernard, who is averaging 3.4 yards per attempt. On 55 carries, he has gained just 185 yards.

His sidekick, rookie Jeremy Hill, is averaging 5.1 yards on about half the rushes. But that number isn't good enough for Hill. Mainly because he is desperate to start breaking loose on bigger gains. To this point, his longest rush is 13 yards.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Hill
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriJeremy Hill, averaging 5.1 yards per carry, is determined to break more big runs.
"Yeah, I got to bust one," Hill said. "I got to hit one on the second level. That's what Coach Hue has been saying will help the running backs' average."

Among other factors, better blocking downfield could provide a spark in getting backs like Hill and Bernard to the next level of the defense.

"It's a key. It's an emphasis," Jackson said ahead of Sunday night's game at New England. "It's something we have to continue to harp on to do better, because that's where the big runs are. You have 11 guys playing as hard as they can play, and that's what uplifts your team and gets them to play even better.

"We've talked about it. It's been brought to their attention, but at the end of the day, it's an attitude and a mindset. You've got to want to do it [block downfield], and I think our guys do."

Downfield blocking specifically refers to what receivers like A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu are doing eight, 10, 15 yards from the line of scrimmage. It also refers to what takes place when guards pull off the line and tackles get going upfield by pushing into a defense's secondary.

Last season, the Bengals' downfield blocking was among their best attributes. One of the more memorable plays that showcased it was Green's 54-yard reception at Buffalo off a screen at the line of scrimmage. Just as Green turned to run following his catch, he sprinted through holes supplied by left tackle Andrew Whitworth and Sanu. After opening the alley, Whitworth wasn't done. He sprinted ahead of Green and pushed back another defensive back about 25 yards downfield, giving Green additional space to wiggle free for the big first-down gain.

When it comes to the ground attack, blocking isn't the only issue for Jackson. He would like to see his backs plow through defenders even better than they have.

"The finish part of blocks and runs and attitude, you've just got to come out the other side sometimes. Sometimes you have to just make those plays and make them happen," Jackson said. "The runners understand that, and they've watched the tape. The linemen watch the tape, so collectively we understand what we need to do to create that kind of opportunity for our backs, and sometimes they have to create it for themselves."

If you ask New England coach Bill Belichick, both running backs can do just that.

"The yardage they get, they get on their own," Belichick said. "They're able to create extra yards on their own by breaking tackles or running through arm tackles or using vision and patience to set up blocks, get a block from a slot receiver or tight end, somebody on the second level. Their receivers do block well. They're aggressive and big. They do a good job of helping the running game with their blocking, which sets up opportunities for them on play-action passes.

"You have to deal with all of that. So it's all those things [that the backs do well]."