AFC North: Mohamed Sanu

Titans vs. Bengals preview

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
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The Tennessee Titans had trouble stopping the run last week when Dallas running back DeMarco Murray rushed for 167 yards in the Cowboys' 26-10 win over the Titans at LP Field.

The Cincinnati Bengals, paced by the tandem of Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, improved to 2-0 last week in part because of the ground game. The running back duo sparked the win over the Falcons when it picked up all but six of the Bengals' 170 rushing yards and contributed in the receiving game.

All that suggests the Bengals have a slight advantage entering Sunday's Week 3 showdown in Cincinnati. Will Bernard and Hill continue feeding off each other and have another strong rushing performance against a poor rushing defense? Or will the Titans buckle up this week and make the necessary changes to prevent the Bengals from pulling a Murray on them?

ESPN Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey are here to discuss that and more:

Kuharsky: We'll start with you, Coley. Andy Dalton has gotten spectacular protection. The Titans have eight sacks and have rushed well, with a lot of blitzes from the secondary last week. What has keyed the Bengals in this department, and are they perhaps susceptible to anything they haven’t seen yet?

Harvey: It starts with solid offensive line play. The players on the Bengals' front have done a great job holding their blocks in the first two games. Then you have to credit the Bengals' play calling. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has called plays that get Dalton to throw quickly, delivering the ball to receivers in the type of short and intermediate routes that he mostly excelled with last year. You also have to credit the receivers for running precise routes and getting quicker separation than they did at times last year. That was their key focus during the preseason. Plus, you have to acknowledge the running backs. Bernard leads the team in targets this season, and on at least three occasions he has bailed Dalton out of possible sacks by remaining close to the line of scrimmage after blocks. On each of those broken plays, Dalton yelled out Bernard's name -- "Gio!" -- before dumping off a quick screen that gained big yards.

Along those lines, Dalton deserves an enormous amount of credit for being savvy to do that and for throwing the ball away when he hasn't had adequate passing lanes this year. He is susceptible to getting sacked this week, but playing all 3-4 defenses in the preseason helped prepare the Bengals for this week's challenge.

Paul, Jake Locker and Dalton hail from the famed 2011 quarterback draft class. Locker was picked eighth overall by Tennessee, Dalton 35th by Cincinnati. And the rest has been history. It certainly appears the Dalton experiment has fared better. So what is it about Locker that continues to convince Titans brass that he’s the man for the job?

Kuharsky: Well, GM Ruston Webster wasn’t the primary decision-maker then, but he was on board with the Locker selection and obviously remains so. As he sold Ken Whisenhunt on the job, Webster also sold him on Locker having a chance to be an answer at quarterback under the tutelage of the new coach. Locker works his butt off, says all the right things and has the respect of his coaches and peers. He is capable of a game like he played in Kansas City, where he was poised even under pressure, threw a couple TD passes, distributed the ball well and led a strong effort. He’s capable, too, of a dud of a first half like he posted against the Cowboys, when he couldn’t do a thing right.

The Titans have invested a ton in the offensive line over the past two seasons, and Locker has perhaps the best stable of targets the franchise has assembled since it relocated.

They back him, but he’s not under contract beyond this year. Locker has to stay healthy and win over Whisenhunt with a good body of work or the Titans can turn toward sixth-rounder Zach Mettenberger and someone else next year.

Count me among those who figured the Bengals would drop off at least a bit defensively with Mike Zimmer moving on to Minnesota. How have they dealt with his loss? And mandatory Pacman Jones question: What’s his role, how is he playing, and is he staying out of trouble?

Harvey: Let's get to the Jones question first. When he arrived in 2010 after his time in Tennessee and Dallas, part of the way he tried to reinvent himself was to drop his nickname in favor of his given name, Adam. Teammates still refer to him as Pacman at times, but people around the team have respected his desire to mostly go by Adam. In turn, he has respected them by mostly staying on the right side of the law. He had one verbal run-in last fall with a police officer that resulted in a citation. Also last fall, a judge found Jones not guilty of assaulting a woman at a Cincinnati nightclub in June 2013. The judge didn't think either party acted appropriately but noted that surveillance video showed where Jones had first been assaulted by the stranger with a beer bottle. Since then, Jones has gotten married and doubled his efforts to put his past behind him and not receive the type of notoriety that defined his days in Nashville.

As far as his role, that relates to the reason there hasn't been much drop-off following Zimmer's departure. The Bengals may have lost the beloved coordinator, but they lost only one regular starter from last year's defense in the offseason -- defensive end Michael Johnson. They remain chock-full of veteran talent with players, such as the 30-year-old Jones, who are playing the best in their careers. Cornerbacks Terence Newman and Leon Hall are playing at high levels in a defense that has the same scheme and foundation as before. It also helps that new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther was already on the staff and was in charge of calling many of the blitzes that made Zimmer's scheme hum.

Although last week’s loss to Dallas was certainly deflating to a Titans defense that stopped the run well in Week 1, what was it that made Tennessee’s pass defense so effective last week against Tony Romo? How will Tennessee try to make Dalton's life as tough as Romo’s was last week?

Kuharsky: Don’t let the numbers fool you. They were "good" in pass defense against Dallas only because they were so busy getting run on that the Cowboys didn’t need to throw the ball. Dez Bryant had his way with them on the crucial drive that re-established who the better team was after the Titans closed to 16-10 in the third quarter. With top cornerback Jason McCourty out in the second half with a groin injury, Romo made the throws he needed to against Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Coty Sensabaugh and the rest of the secondary.

The Titans have rushed well, so Alex Smith and Romo didn’t have a lot of time to pick them apart. But Smith lacked weapons, and Romo lacked necessity. The Titans have limited big plays, which is a huge theme under defensive coordinator Ray Horton. If they can keep that up, the Bengals might have to earn their yards in smaller chunks.

What are the biggest differences between Jay Gruden’s offense and the one Jackson is using in his first year as coordinator with Gruden at the helm in Washington? If the Bengals are without A.J. Green, how dangerous can they still be?

Harvey: All you need to know is this: Dalton averaged 39.9 dropbacks in 2013. Through two games, he has averaged just 31.5 dropbacks. In short, the Bengals are passing less and running more. That was Jackson's charge this offseason when he said he wanted to instill a more physical, aggressive brand of offense from what the team had before. When the Bengals rushed 45 times last week with all but 10 of their carries coming inside the tackles, you could see exactly what Jackson was referring to. He wants to bruise defenses up front to open up the pass downfield.

Being without Green, as it appears they will be, will be a big loss. But considering the fact that Green was lost just six plays into Sunday's game and the Bengals still held up offensively, they should be fine passing to Mohamed Sanu, tight end Jermaine Gresham and the running backs. If it plays like it did last week, the Bengals offense can still be dangerous sans Green.

How fast is Delanie Walker, Paul? Outside of the AFC South we just see a physical, stodgy bowling ball of a tight end. But can he really be as dangerous in space as he seems to think?

Kuharsky: He was a terror last week. On his 61-yard touchdown catch, he bounced off a corner and galloped a long way, outrunning four Cowboys. Walker is a tough, smart player who was a good find. And Whisenhunt, a former NFL tight end, is finding ways to use him just as Mike Munchak and his staff did in 2013. Walker can be a big matchup problem, depending on how a defense chooses to defend receivers Kendall Wright, Nate Washington, Justin Hunter and backs Dexter McCluster and Bishop Sankey. Tennessee has another tight end who can do some damage as a receiver. Taylor Thompson was a defensive end in college, but he finally has caught on to what it takes to be effective on offense in the NFL at the position he started at.

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On deck for Bengals: Week 3 vs. Titans

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
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CINCINNATI -- It's about that time of week when we start turning the corner from the Cincinnati Bengals game just played and toward the one that is on the horizon.

The Falcons are now in the rearview.

On deck: The Tennessee Titans.

Record
1-1

How they got there
Two 26-10 results. The first was a win at Kansas City to start the season, and the second was a loss at home against the Cowboys last weekend. Tennessee's defense couldn't stop the Cowboys from moving the ball. Dallas racked up 26 first downs, mostly on the ground. Paced by DeMarco Murray's 167 yards rushing, the Cowboys ran for 220 yards.

Key players
QB Jake Locker. The eighth overall pick in the 2011 draft, Locker was claimed 27 spots ahead of the Bengals' Andy Dalton. So far this season, Locker has thrown two interceptions and been sacked six times. He also has 500 yards passing through the two games.
TE Delaine Walker. One of the many good tight ends the Bengals will face this season, Walker could give outside linebacker Emmanuel Lamur a good test. Walker was targeted a team-high 14 times for a team-high 10 catches and 142 yards last week. He had 50 yards after one catch in that game that resulted in a 61-yard total pickup.
S Bernard Pollard. A former Baltimore Raven, Pollard is quite familiar playing in Cincinnati. In three career games at Paul Brown Stadium he has 17 tackles, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. So far this season, he has 16 tackles and a sack.

Titans' base defensive scheme
3-4

Series history
Titans lead 39-32-1 overall, counting the franchise's days as the Houston Oilers. Since moving to Tennessee in 1997, they have an 11-5 record over the Bengals. Cincinnati has won three of the past four meetings, though, dating back to 2005.

Bengals' regular-season home streak
Cincinnati is hoping to set a new regular-season home winning streak record. Dating back to 2012, the Bengals have won 10 consecutive games at Paul Brown Stadium, including last week's over the Falcons. They would surpass a mark set in 1988-89 if they beat the Titans to get their 11th straight.

Uni watch
The Bengals will return to their dark-colored home uniforms this week as they are scheduled to wear black jerseys and white pants. It will be the second time they have worn that combination this season. They beat Baltimore in it on the road two weeks ago. Since the last major uniform renovation in 2004, the Bengals are 25-25 in that combination.

Week 3 stat to consider
Be on the lookout for the matchup between the Bengals' passing game and the Titans' passing defense. Dalton -- and receiver Mohamed Sanu, with his 50-yard pass last week -- has paced the Bengals to the third-ranked passing offense in the league. They average 301.5 yards per game in the air. Tennessee, meanwhile, has the league's best current pass defense, holding opposing quarterbacks to an average 163.0 yards in the first two games. Dallas' Tony Romo had just 148 yards passing last week.

Who to follow
You'll want to be sure to follow my ESPN.com colleague Paul Kuharsky on the Titans blog and also on Twitter @PaulKuharskyNFL for all things Titans this week. You'll learn much more from Paul later this week in our doubly covered game preview. Another good follow includes The Tennessean's Jim Wyatt (@jwyattsports).
CINCINNATI -- As Andy Dalton approached the line of scrimmage his eyes panned the field.

Left, right, middle. Short, intermediate, deep. The Cincinnati Bengals quarterback scanned the zones where he wanted to send his receivers, wondering if there was a soft spot for them run into, and if there was a place he could pass to in order to convert a crucial third down.

It was in his pre-snap read of the third-and-6 defense when he saw a safety creep up and the linebackers get even closer. At that moment, it was evident: The Falcons were going to bring an all-out blitz, forsaking the deep portions of the field. If a receiver could get past the safety, he might not only get a first down.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsAndy Dalton ran his record against NFC teams to 10-3.
He could get a touchdown, too.

That was Dalton's hope when he saw the defensive formation called a "Cover Zero." That particular formation is one in which only a safety sits downfield in zone coverage, while the cornerbacks line up in man coverage and the rest of the defense goes in all-out pursuit of the quarterback. Once Dalton recognized what was coming, he made a few tweaks at the line of scrimmage, barking out protection changes and additional blitz pickups.

His adjustments paid off.

Perhaps the most crucial line change was getting running back Giovani Bernard to pick up a blitzing defender. When he did, the block gave Dalton just a split-second long enough to get off his pass without a hand being directly in his face.

"I saw exactly what he saw," receiver Mohamed Sanu said.

When the ball was snapped, Sanu's objective was simple. He needed to run a slant and quickly get enough separation from his cornerback that Dalton could lead him to a spot where only he could get hands on the ball.

That's precisely what happened, and 76 yards and one missed tackle later Sanu was in the end zone with a key touchdown that began the Bengals' separation. The touchdown made it 17-3, and came just before an interception and subsequent score pushed the lead even further barely five minutes later.

"We had a good check on and Mo ran a really good route," Dalton said. "When you're playing Cover Zero and you make one guy miss, there's nobody else in the back end. When [cornerback Robert Alford] fell off on the route, Mo had a pretty good jog into the end zone."

Sanu's touchdown reception showed just how in sync the pair was. With Pro Bowl wideout A.J. Green dealing with a toe injury that could keep him out next week against Tennessee, the Bengals will desperately need this pairing to continue to be on the same page.

"When guys go down like that, that's the mentality that you have to have as a team, regardless of the position," said Dalton, referencing the five Bengals who were lost to injury Sunday, including Green. "Everybody here knows what Mo can do and obviously he had a really good chance to showcase his ability."
CINCINNATI -- Mohamed Sanu had just changed direction on his route and started running at an angle toward the goal posts when his quarterback, Andy Dalton, let go of the pass.

As Sanu sprinted past the cornerback defending him and tried to maintain separation from the closing safety, he looked to the sky.

Dalton
Dalton
 What the Cincinnati Bengals receiver saw made his eyes get big.

"I was just like, 'Gosh, what a ball,'" Sanu said, adding a giddy, school-girl laugh.

A catch, two steps and a touchdown dance later, Sanu helped preserve Dalton's perfect passing line at the start of Saturday's 25-17 loss to the Jets. By the time his night was over, Dalton added another Sanu pass and six more to Bengals receivers to finish 8-for-8 with 144 yards, one touchdown and a 158.3 passer rating. Those statistics, combined with his numbers from the preseason opener at Kansas City the week before, make him 11-for-13 with 215 passing yards and a 144.4 passer rating in limited action through the two games.

It's all evidence that Dalton really is playing better and more efficiently than he has at any other point in his career.

"I see it every year, but especially this camp," Sanu said. "I haven't seen him throw the ball so accurate, so efficient. Every time you turn around the ball is just there and you're like, 'Wow."

Dalton contends that nothing has changed from last season. In his eyes, he's still playing the same as he did before and is practicing the same. He may have made a few tweaks and modifications to better his mechanics, but he says everything else is the same. He's still having fun, too.

"When you have a game like I did [Saturday], and you have teammates like I have, it's a lot of fun," Dalton said. "It's not like it just started being fun. It's been fun since I've been here."

It's tough to argue that. From the outside looking in, it certainly seems as if he is more calm and more at ease than he's been at any other point in his career. He seems to trust his receivers more than before and has a better understanding of their routes. And he knows when he delivers the ball a particular way, he expects them to be right there to run underneath it.

Coach Marvin Lewis, bothered by the way players at the back of his depth chart allowed the Jets to overcome a 17-3 deficit to win, didn't have as much to say about Dalton's performance as he probably could have. That had nothing to do with the quarterback. Instead, he was ticked because the back-end play, in his words, tainted his starting signal-caller's strong evening.

"He's on top of his game. He's throwing the football and understands what we want," Lewis said. "Guys are doing a good job with him. He continues to play the way we think he should play all the time. It doesn't surprise me because that's the way he practices all the time. He doesn't have to be flashy, he just needs to be accurate and handle the offense. He does his thing very well."

Next Sunday night, Dalton will be challenged by an Arizona Cardinals defense that ranked sixth last season, allowing a QBR of 39.4. By comparison, the Bengals' defense ranked one spot better at fourth, allowing a QBR of just 39.0 last season.

The nationally-televised game in Glendale, Arizona, also pits Dalton against the man he replaced: former Bengal Carson Palmer. On the biggest stage he'll see this preseason, it'll be interesting to see if Dalton continues to grow.
CINCINNATI -- It was a simple message.

"Let's go."

When Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson met with receiver Mohamed Sanu in the days after the team first learned it would be without Marvin Jones, those were the only two words he said to the young player.

Sanu, once the No. 3 receiver on the roster, knew exactly what they meant. With Jones injured until October and out of the receiving rotation, Sanu's time had come to attempt to be the best pass-catcher on the team.

The best? Yes.

"I get surprised where people reacted after I made the statement I wanted Marvin to surpass A.J. [Green] a while ago, but it's because they all need to compete," Jackson said. "I wanted Sanu to surpass Marvin, too."

Jackson's philosophy: Keep the pressure high on his top skill players and they'll compete better than they did before. He doesn't just say "no one's job is safe." He actually believes it.

Apparently, the philosophy has been working. Sanu has taken advantage of Jones' absence this preseason, working almost exclusively as the No. 2 receiver in practice alongside Green, the player who continues to get his usual No. 1 receiver reps and looks. In addition to catching, Sanu has been impressive passing and running both on reverses off the edge and out of the backfield as a Wildcat quarterback. Cincinnati won't be looking for him to solely run gadget plays this season, but the Bengals are hopeful he'll continue turning heads when they do.

"He's been all over the place -- outside, inside, moving around -- and he's really done a good job for us," quarterback Andy Dalton said.

Sanu told Jackson when the offseason began that he wanted to come back a different player. In Jackson's eyes, "he's done that."

"It's just the consistency of production in the way he plays," Jackson said. "He plays like a true starter. Not that he didn't a year ago. I just know what I expect our guys to do, and see just what he's done. He blocks, he catches, he runs, he can do it all. We'll try to use some of his vast skills and let him showcase his talents and abilities this year."

The Bengals will get another chance to see those talents and abilities in a live game scenario when they take on the Jets on Saturday night at Paul Brown Stadium.

"I'm going to step up that much more to fill Marvin's shows," Sanu said. "That's to just keep doing what I'm doing. Keep playing and keep being consistent. That's pretty much it. I can't see what's going on in the future, but I know what I can handle and I know what I can control, and that's putting my effort in and doing whatever I can to make this team better."

He won't be alone, he adds.

As the Bengals have been saying all week, with Jones now sidelined through the first three regular-season games because of foot surgery, it's time receivers like Brandon Tate, Dane Sanzenbacher and James Wright fill the void left by the player who was the second-leading receiver last year.

"It's a 'next man up' mentality," receivers coach James Urban said. "That's what we've always had. ... You push them out there and see if we can get the best guys out there that can help us win football games."

You do all that, Jackson said, and then add, "Let's go."
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.

Bengals Camp Report: Day 6

July, 30, 2014
Jul 30
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CINCINNATI -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Cincinnati Bengals training camp:
  • There's only one place to begin Wednesday's practice report: with the fireworks. Twice, members of the offense and defense had to be pulled apart as emotions and tensions ran high outwardly for the first time. First, linebacker Emmanuel Lamur and offensive guard Clint Boling came to blows at the end of a goal-line drill. Lamur was seen grabbing Boling's face mask as pushing and shoving ensued around them. A.J. Green then came in, appearing to help calm and subdue Lamur in the back of the end zone. The linebacker misinterpreted the Pro Bowl wideout's actions and swung a punch at him. Fans who saw the blows started shouting, "No! Not on A.J.!" Later, linebacker Marquis Flowers and center T.J. Johnson exchanged words briefly, but that scuffle was stopped quickly before it became anything bigger.
  • After practice, Lamur walked up to a grinning Hue Jackson and gave the offensive coordinator a hug. Lamur also exchanged a jovial fist-bump with Boling as he walked off the practice fields. When Lamur was asked to comment on the near-brawl, he simply said: "It's over." Defensive end Wallace Gilberry said it's just a sign the Bengals are ready to get to their first preseason game next week at Kansas City. "We're ready to hit somebody else, but at the end of the day, we're a team first and foremost," Gilberry said. "Coach [Marvin Lewis] hates it, but it gets us fired up."
  • Flowers, a noted trash-talker, told me he doesn't want to rein in his on-field actions too significantly, but he added that he wants to monitor what he says and does a little better. In addition to all the smack he was talking to his offensive counterparts, the rookie began practice with a pop when he gave receiver Cobi Hamilton an unexpected forearm shiver as Hamilton ran out of the backfield in a low-speed drill. The hit was so hard, it sent Hamilton to the turf instantly, caused fans nearby to gasp and made noted hard hitter Vontaze Burfict holler his support. "I've got to watch it," Flowers said. "I thought the run was coming at me, but obviously I didn't want to do that. I just wanted to tag off. We don't want nobody on the ground, but at the same time, I was just trying to protect myself."
  • Flowers said that after his interview, he was headed straight to Hamilton's locker to apologize. Flowers' actions probably are best chalked up to first-day excitement. After beginning camp on the active physically unable to perform list, he was medically cleared along with defensive tackle Geno Atkins earlier in the day. While Flowers had a chance to mix into some of the team drills, Atkins was noticeably absent. The bulk of his work came just before practice, when the team walked through position-specific drills. For now, the Bengals plan on taking things slowly with Atkins.
  • Mohamed Sanu was the clear MVP of Monday's practice, passing the football, catching it and running with it out of the backfield. He didn't do all of that Wednesday, but he still began the workout in a unique way, taking the ball on a pitch from Green on a double reverse. The Bengals also tossed in a flea-flicker during their opening drills. Plays like that are all to show those watching that Jackson's offense has the potential to showcase several bells and whistles this season.
Dalton
Dalton
A look at a few Cincinnati Bengals offensive players who have made strong impressions through the first five practices of training camp:

QUARTERBACKS
Andy Dalton: The team's top signal-caller was praised by offensive coordinator Hue Jackson on Monday for beginning to make strides with his decision-making. He's seemed to have better velocity and accuracy on some of his deeper passes, too.

RUNNING BACKS
lastname
Bernard
Giovani Bernard: So far, he's picked up where he left off last season, serving as the dynamic playmaker in the Bengals' offense. Cincinnati plans to use him in a greater variety of ways this season. Look for him to run a bit more and catch passes both from the backfield and after having been split-out wide or placed into the slot.

Jeremy Hill: Pass-blocking was among Hill's greatest traits as a college back at LSU. When the Bengals first incorporated those drills Sunday, he performed well, holding off linebacker Vincent Rey in blitz pickup. The rookie still appears in line to play the role of No. 2 back behind Bernard.

RECEIVERS
A.J. Green: He's been to the Pro Bowl every year of his career. Aside from a very rare drop in goal-line work Monday, he's looked well on his way to receiving a fourth selection to the all-star game.

Mohamed Sanu: With Marvin Jones out through the first five practices, Sanu has had more opportunities to prove himself as one of the "three amigos," the group he referenced Monday that includes him, Green and Jones. Sanu wasn't happy with his production last season and hopes to use his versatility as a receiver, passer and rusher to help ignite the Bengals' offense.

Brandon Tate: While much of the chatter surrounding Tate's apparent spot on the roster bubble has revolved around his lack of receptions with the Bengals (he has 14 in his three seasons in Cincinnati), he has tried during camp to prove he's more than just a kick returner. Once on Monday, he drew rookie Victor Hampton into the middle of the end zone before breaking off and peeling in the opposite direction, where he easily caught a touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone. Veteran moves like that will help him keep his spot on the roster as a receiver.

James Wright: Another player whose receiving numbers were down last year, the rookie has been among the biggest head-turners in camp. The seventh-round draft pick is fighting for a roster spot, and has so far done well in that regard. The ball has very seldom hit the ground when thrown in his direction. Cobi Hamilton also had a strong Monday, adding some intrigue to this battle for one of the final receiver spots.

TIGHT ENDS
Tyler Eifert: Much like Sanu who has taken advantage of Jones' absence, Eifert has benefited from Jermaine Gresham's training camp injury. As the current No. 1 pass-catching tight end, Eifert has been among Dalton's top targets so far.

OFFENSIVE TACKLE
Marshall Newhouse: It's not so much that Newhouse has played incredibly well or anything, but he's worth highlighting since he is getting a number of snaps in place of injured left tackle Andrew Whitworth. The increased reps in Cincinnati's offense will only be a positive for the veteran swing tackle who was added in free agency this offseason.

OFFENSIVE GUARD
Trey Hopkins: The undrafted free agent has had his share of reps, as well, giving reason to believe he has the best chance of making the team of all the undrafted free-agent linemen the Bengals signed.

CENTER
Russell Bodine: The rookie continues getting practice time just as he did in the spring. He still needs to hone his snapping ability after a miscue earlier this week.

Bengals Camp Report: Day 5

July, 28, 2014
Jul 28
6:30
PM ET
CINCINNATI -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Cincinnati Bengals training camp:


  • The Bengals had barely finished stretching at the start of Monday's practice before Mohamed Sanu made his presence known. The receiver went in motion on one of the first plays of an 11-on-11 drill before he was handed the football. Right after taking it from quarterback Andy Dalton, Sanu stopped, pulled up and threw a pass -- one of the few he has even attempted, in practice or otherwise, since college -- to fellow receiver A.J. Green. The throw fell easily into Green's hands well down field and set the tone for what ended up being a strong day overall for Sanu. "Coach had me doing a little bit of everything," Sanu said about offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.
  • In addition to throwing that pass, Sanu ran the ball once and, naturally, caught a few passes of his own from Dalton and other quarterbacks. While Sanu nor Jackson nor head coach Marvin Lewis will dare provide specifics about how they are using the receiver, they are all glad to have such a versatile playmaker on the roster. With Sanu a threat to do almost anything on the field, the Bengals know how big a challenge covering him, while also having to account for Giovani Bernard and Green, among others, can be.
  • Much of the Bengals' second fully-padded practice of training camp was spent working on short-yardage and goal-line situations. Running backs had to plow ahead on each play while defenders were charged with stopping them. It seemed like regularly during the third-and-short and fourth-and-short plays, the running backs were able to slither free for the first-down gain. On the goal line, however, the defense had its share of wins, breaking through and knocking down passing attempts, stopping running backs at the line of scrimmage or flushing quarterbacks out of the pocket and into forced throws. The units seemed split on the amount of time they respectively won battles in the trenches.
  • While the overall contact stepped up a notch Monday, the physical play that occurred Sunday may have been just a bit too much for several defenders. Linebackers J.K. Schaffer and Sean Porter got a little dinged after the first fully padded practice of the camp. That caused them both to stay in the training room Monday, while defensive end Robert Geathers and cornerback Adam Jones may have been receiving veterans' days off after the intense Day 4 workout. Neither was dressed Monday, but both were out on the practice fields. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick also was at practice but not participating after apparently tweaking a hamstring on Saturday.
  • The Bengals did lose one player to injury Monday. Offensive tackle Andre Smith ran into the locker room in the middle of the practice for an unspecified injury. Jackson said after practice he wasn't positive what the injury was but felt comfortable in affirming that the lineman shouldn't miss too much time. An off day couldn't have come at a better time for the Bengals. They won't practice Tuesday and will be back in action Wednesday.
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.

Rapid Reaction: Cincinnati Bengals

December, 22, 2013
12/22/13
3:59
PM ET

CINCINNATI -- A few thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 42-14 victory against the Minnesota Vikings.

What it means: Sunday's victory means the Bengals have -- for one week, at least -- done exactly what they've been preaching since last Sunday's loss at Pittsburgh. They have controlled what they can control. The only way they can be assured that their postseason fate is playing out precisely the way they want is to simply win and win some more. Now that they have done that for one week, they have to do it one more when they play the Ravens in their final AFC North game of the season. At the time Sunday's early-afternoon game ended, the Bengals appeared headed toward clinching a third straight playoff bid. They had to wait to see if the Miami Dolphins would end up losing to the Buffalo Bills. A Miami loss would clinch that playoff for the Bengals. The late-afternoon New England Patriots-Baltimore Ravens game also had implications on the division race and the AFC's No. 2 seeding. After Cincinnati's victory, a Ravens win in that game would be enough to give the Bengals the conference's No. 2 playoff seed. A Patriots win would give Cincinnati the division title.

Stock watch: Andy Dalton: rising. As embattled as he has been all season, the Cincinnati quarterback has actually put together a solid month so far. With a game left in the season, he has played some of his best football of the year of late. It was tough to see that last week at Pittsburgh because of how far the Bengals fell behind in that game, but he kept them in the ballgame with a 230-yard, two-touchdown showing. Against a Vikings secondary that had several injuries, Dalton posted a career-best 136.5 passer rating in Sunday's win. He also completed 71 percent of his passes (27-for-38), throwing for 366 yards. It was the fifth time Dalton went over the 300-yard passing mark this year.

Catching Andy: Dalton's passing numbers were supported by a strong outing by his pass-catchers. A.J. Green paced the group with seven catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns. Mohamed Sanu and tight end Jermaine Gresham also had touchdowns. Fellow receiver Marvin Jones had six receptions for 85 yards, including a diving grab along the Bengals' sideline. It was one of several head-turning plays the Bengals had, including Andrew Hawkins' awkward leaping grab in the red zone that set up Gresham's score.

What's next? Cincinnati looks to close out the regular season on a high next Sunday when it hosts Baltimore in the Week 17 finale. The Bengals lost the teams' previous meeting this year, falling in overtime, 20-17. Green sent the game to the extra period when he caught a 51-yard touchdown pass on a Hail Mary from Dalton as time expired in regulation. The Bengals also will be putting their undefeated home record (7-0) on the line next week.
CINCINNATI -- When receiver Marvin Jones set a Cincinnati Bengals franchise record with his four touchdown receptions against the New York Jets five Sundays ago, his name was expected to start coming up more often in the defensive meeting rooms of opposing teams.

After all, prior to that game, he had been a mere piece of the Bengals' offense. Few outside Paul Brown Stadium had reason to believe back then that any Bengals receiver not named A.J. Green could have an impressive single-game performance.

When it came to its receivers, Cincinnati had, for the past two seasons at least, appeared committed to getting the ball first and foremost into the hands of its top playmaker and 2011 first-round draft pick. Any catches by other receivers were just bonuses. That particular Sunday, though, the diversity and versatility of the Bengals' offense showed itself in earnest. Jones was quarterback Andy Dalton's leading target, playing a major role in a big midseason victory.

Since then, he has been comparatively forgotten.

"I did a good job of taking advantage of opportunities [before]," Jones said. "The last two games were what they were."

Following his breakout eight-catch, four-touchdown performance against the Jets four games ago, Jones has just six receptions and hasn't been in the end zone. Against Baltimore and Cleveland, he was held to just two catches for 11 yards despite being targeted seven times total. His performances in those contests are what have him looking to be a bigger piece of the offense again.

[+] EnlargeMarvin Jones
John Grieshop/Getty ImagesMarvin Jones has been relatively quiet since his four-touchdown game last month against the Jets.
"I'm ready to start it off again," Jones said, adding that he's put his past two games well behind him.

Cincinnati travels to San Diego this weekend for a key AFC clash against the 5-6 Chargers. Last Sunday, the Chargers knocked off nine-win Kansas City, thanks to their own prolific passing attack. In this pseudo-homecoming, Jones, a Southern California native from the Los Angeles suburb Fontana, wants to make sure that he gets his hands on a pass early in order to keep catching others.

"I'm the type that wants to get into it early. Get the ball in my hands as early as possible," he said. "We have a lot of playmakers, so if it's their day, so be it. That's the beauty of our team and offense. If someone takes away a certain part, there's always someone that is going to produce. But it's good to get all of us in a rhythm early."

Two weeks ago, it was running back Giovani Bernard and tight end Jermaine Gresham who became the top passing options in the 41-20 win over the Browns. Windy and rainy conditions, along with a big halftime lead, forced the Bengals to mostly scrap their deep passing game. The combination meant Jones wasn't expecting a productive day.

Shorter passes and one gadget play were among the 14 completed passes the Bengals had. Bernard caught four for 41 yards and Gresham caught two for 27 yards and a touchdown. Bernard's biggest gain, a 25-yard snag along the Browns' sideline, came from receiver Mohamed Sanu, who had the ball as the result of a lateral from Dalton. The 93-yard passing performance Dalton had, combined with Sanu's 25 yards meant Cincinnati was held to less than 120 yards passing for the first time since Week 15 last season.

One week before the defense- and special-teams-inspired win over the Browns, Green was the receiving star in Cincinnati's 20-17 overtime loss at Baltimore. He had eight catches for 151 yards and a touchdown, marking the fifth straight game he had more than 100 yards receiving. Green followed up that performance with two catches for just 7 yards against Cleveland.

"I like the diversity. I like keeping people fresh," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said of his multi-playmaker system. "If you have a number of guys that can help you, then we should never have a guy say he's tired. So we can sub guys in and out and guys can be fresh and playing fast."

When it specifically comes to Jones, Gruden said nothing has changed about the receiver's play the past three games. Because of the multiplicity of the offense, the ball just hasn't been going his way.

"He's had great practices up to the games," Gruden said. "Just sometimes, in the course of the game, some people will get shut out, so to speak, not because of their lack of playing good. It's just maybe the ball's not getting there. We like where Marvin's at. He's a solid No. 2 for us right now; him and Mo both.

"We're happy with where Marv's progress is and we think he's going to have a huge last five games of the year."

Asked if teams are playing him a little differently since his emergence, Jones admitted that the coverage may be a little tighter and a little better overall, but those changes aren't very drastic. Gruden agreed.

"The good thing is if they have a marquee corner like [Cleveland's] Joe Haden, [Jones] is usually going to get the second one," Gruden said. "So he should have a matchup that we feel good about every week. … We really feel like Marvin can go up against anybody and have a good day."

Maybe that day will be Sunday. If not, the Bengals are sure they can snap out of their recent offensive funk by turning to any one of their other playmakers.

 

Upon Further Review: Bengals Week 11

November, 18, 2013
11/18/13
9:00
AM ET
CINCINNATI -- An examination of four hot issues from the Cincinnati Bengals' 41-20 win over the Browns:

Rey shines again: While linebackers James Harrison and Vontaze Burfict dominated the postgame headlines because of their key turnovers, the third starting member of their unit shouldn't be forgotten. Vincent Rey, appearing in his third game in relief of Rey Maualuga, quietly had 12 total tackles. Only Burfict (15) had more. It marked the second straight game that Rey had double-digit stops, following his 13-tackle performance at Baltimore last week. He now has 30 tackles, three sacks and an interception in the three games he has started since Maualuga was shelved due to a knee injury. Sunday's game likely was Rey's last start for a while, as Maualuga makes his return to the lineup. Before the game, Maualuga was going through agility and ladder drills.

Royster
Sanu
Newman
Newman
Tone setting: Another unsung defensive hero was safety Reggie Nelson. He finished with nine total tackles and had a timely second-half interception that helped signal the end for the Browns' offense. All throughout the third quarter, the Bengals' defense set a tone that it wasn't going to allow a late-game comeback to take place. Against the Bills earlier this season, they did allow a comeback that ended with the game in overtime. Mike Nugent's 43-yard field goal in the overtime period won that game, though. One of the better tone setters of the second half was cornerback Terence Newman. Although he was beaten on the very first play from scrimmage after halftime -- a 24-yard pass to Josh Gordon -- Newman had two key deflections on that drive, even one on fourth down when Gordon had raced by him.

Sanu sighting -- finally: It took 11 games, but at long last, Mohamed Sanu has scored for the Bengals. After scoring four touchdowns last season, each coming in a three-game stretch, Sanu picked up his first score this year when he caught a 6-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Andy Dalton in the Bengals' record-setting 31-point second quarter. Three plays before, he got involved in the offense in a slightly different manner when he fielded a lateral from Dalton before chucking the ball downfield for a 25-yard completion to running back Giovani Bernard. The trick play was called at the perfect time. It came on the Bengals' first drive after their first score. Following Sanu's touchdown reception, Cincinnati took a lead it wouldn't relinquish.

Beat the blockers: There was no magic trick, no secret formula to the one blocked punt, one tipped punt and one near-block the Bengals had on their return unit, special teams coach Darrin Simmons said. According to him, and the key players involved, they just "beat the blocker." It was all about speed, quickness and sprinting through the right hole at the right time, they said. Whether you believe that to be the case or not, it is clear the Bengals got into a great rhythm of sprinting past Cleveland's line virtually unabated in an effort to get their hands on Spencer Lanning's punts. After the game, Lanning said he wasn't operating too slowly. He felt the snap and approaches on his kicks were executed well.
CINCINNATI -- Twice when he looked back at film from last Thursday's overtime loss at Miami, Cincinnati Bengals receiver A.J. Green twinged.

He was briefly reliving the disappointment he first felt last week when on two occasions he committed a receiver's greatest sin by dropping passes. The first of them was perhaps the most unforgivable, coming when there wasn't a defender within five yards of him. It was the most open he would be all night.

"I hate it," Green said. "It's tough to watch, but that's something I've got to work on."

[+] EnlargeCincinnati's A.J. Green
Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsA.J. Green had two drops against the Dolphins but did finish with 11 catches for 128 yards.
He isn't alone. All this week, the message in the receivers' meeting rooms has gone as follows: see the ball, catch the ball, then run with the ball.

Against the Dolphins last week, the Bengals had their most drops of the Andy Dalton quarterbacking era when they combined to watch five balls slip out their hands and hit the turf. In addition to Green's two, tight end Jermaine Gresham lost one, and receivers Andrew Hawkins and Mohamed Sanu couldn't hold on to another two. Three of the Bengals' drops came on consecutive plays that covered a pair of drives.

"Drops happen," Green said, "but we got to continue to get better and we can't let that happen in key moments of the game."

His first drop ended one second-quarter series that began near midfield on the Bengals' side of the 50-yard line. Had he caught it, Green would have converted a first down. At the very least, perhaps that drive could have ended in a field goal instead of a punt.

Green's second dropped ball came at the start of the next Bengals series when he tried to corral a short in route. With Miami cornerback Brent Grimes draped on him, the receiver had a difficult time cleanly fielding the pass. On the very next play, Gresham bobbled a Dalton pass while linebacker Dannell Ellerbe hounded him from behind.

Sanu's fourth-quarter drop resulted in an Ellerbe interception, and came when the receiver was sprinting deep down the middle of the field for a reception that had the potential to lead to a big touchdown had he been more open. Instead, as the ball hit Sanu's hands and started rattling inside them, he was hit by the defender in what appeared to be a helmet-to-helmet collision. No flag was thrown for the hit as the ball bounced into Ellerbe's hands.

"It was helmet-to-helmet or whatever it was, but if he would have caught it the first time he would have taken the hit and gotten the first down," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. "Those are going to happen, but hopefully with our receivers they don't happen very often."

Hawkins' drop came on the first play of the next drive. As Dalton tried to set up a screen pass left, Hawkins, playing in his first game of the season after missing the first half of the year with an ankle injury, bobbled and eventually dropped the ball.

The five drops were the most for the Bengals in a game since 2007.

"You've got to take care of the advantages," receiver Marvin Jones said. "When everything comes our way, we catch it. That's what we're supposed to do; that's our job. If we don't do that, then you see what happens. We have to keep taking care of the football and catching the football and making the plays we know we can make."

Each of the drops clouded what was otherwise an OK night for the Bengals' passing game. Aside from his three interceptions, Dalton still threw for 338 yards. In Gruden's eyes, he actually looked quite strong overall, and had a better outing than some might want to give him credit for having. With respect to the balls the Bengals did catch, Green walked away with 11 receptions on 128 yards. Sanu, fighting through injury, had six catches. Jones and running back Giovani Bernard had four. Gresham and fellow tight end Tyler Eifert had three each, and Hawkins had one.

Green felt his problem was the problem the others had. He was too eager to make a play.

"Coming into this year, the whole thing I was thinking about was getting more yards after the catch," he said. "I've got to concentrate more when I'm wide open. It's easy to make the hard catch look easy. The easy ones are the ones I just try to take my head out and run [before] I catch it. I can't do that."

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