AFC North: Rey Maualuga

CINCINNATI -- Now that Terence Newman and Taylor Mays have signed with the Minnesota Vikings, the Cincinnati Bengals have lost three players to free agency this year. Since it's been a while, let's take a quick look at where things stand with the Bengals at this stage in free agency.

It's also worthwhile to check out ESPN's Free Agent Tracker in order to see what the Bengals and other teams have done throughout this busy month.

Signed
*DE Michael Johnson (added after being cut by Tampa Bay)
LB A.J. Hawk (added after being cut by Green Bay)
*CB Brandon Ghee
*DT Pat Sims

Re-signed
OG Clint Boling
MLB Rey Maualuga
K Mike Nugent
OT Eric Winston
DT Devon Still
TE Kevin Brock (as exclusive-rights free agent)
CB Chris Lewis-Harris (as exclusive-rights free agent)

Tendered
OLB Emmanuel Lamur (second-round tender offered)

Lost to free agency
OT Marshall Newhouse (signed with the New York Giants as an unrestricted free agent)
CB Terence Newman (signed with the Minnesota Vikings as an unrestricted free agent)
S Taylor Mays (signed with the Minnesota Vikings as an unrestricted free agent)

Released
OL Mike Pollak
DE Robert Geathers
WR Greg Little

Remaining unsigned Bengals unrestricted free agents
TE Jermaine Gresham
QB Jason Campbell
RB Cedric Peerman
WR Dane Sanzenbacher
WR Brandon Tate
TE Alex Smith

*-Denotes a former Bengal who was signed for a second stint with the team.

Free-agency review: Bengals

March, 17, 2015
Mar 17
10:00
AM ET

Most significant signing: After vowing in January that the Cincinnati Bengals would have a free-agency period that went against the franchise's "status quo," coach Marvin Lewis' words appear to be coming to fruition. It had long been the Bengals' habit in free agency to focus on building up their roster from within by attempting to sign their own unrestricted free agents, and then bidding adieu to the ones who were too expensive to bring back. This year, Cincinnati has signed all of its key targets and has even added players at important positions from the outside. The most significant signing was Sunday's four-year, $20 million deal that brought defensive end Michael Johnson back from Tampa Bay. It made sense because the organization still knows Johnson well, and expects him to be a solid locker room fit and instant contributor to the defense.

[+] EnlargeRey Maualuga
AP Photo/G. Newman LowranceThe biggest surprise of the Bengals' free-agency period thus far is the three-year contract Cincinnati gave to middle linebacker Rey Maualuga.

Most significant loss: Last year, the Bengals were reeling a bit during free agency after losing both Johnson and offensive tackle Anthony Collins to the Buccaneers. Receiver Andrew Hawkins also left as the Bengals botched the handling of his restricted free agency. So far this March, the Bengals have had only one free-agency hit. Tackle Marshall Newhouse signed a first-week deal with the New York Giants. At one point, there was fear the Bengals would lose offensive guard Clint Boling, who fielded multiple outside offers before ultimately agreeing last Tuesday night to stay a Bengal. Technically there hasn't been a significant loss yet. Newhouse's departure arguably upgraded the offensive line.

Biggest surprise: The biggest Bengals surprise of this free-agency period had to be the $7.1 million cap charge the team agreed to letting linebacker Rey Maualuga take this season. Six days before the start of the new league year, Maualuga returned to the Bengals on a three-year, $15 million extension. While the back end of his contract was structured commensurate to his playing time the past two seasons, that first year was rather alarming. While he will be -- for the foreseeable future -- the Bengals' starting middle linebacker, Maualuga has primarily been a run-support specialist, and a frequent entrant in the team's training room. He missed three games in 2013 because of a knee injury, and was out four in 2014 due to a bad hamstring. So with pending priorities that include Boling's new deal and signing a starting defensive end, why did the Bengals feel Maualuga deserved so much money up front?

What's next? Chief on the Bengals' remaining free-agency list is determining what to do at tight end. There aren't many top targets available at the position. Jermaine Gresham is still among the best on the board. It's been stated before that many around the team were displeased with the way Gresham declined playing through injuries in two of the more important late-season games last year. As a result, many don't want him back. But the Bengals still have a need for a good blocking tight end and could welcome him back on a lower contract than he probably expected at the start of free agency. Aside from that concern, the Bengals likely will re-sign others who were under contract last season, such as quarterback Jason Campbell and running back Cedric Peerman. A couple of other low-tier free agents could be signed just ahead of the draft.

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CINCINNATI -- A.J. Hawk couldn't care less about where in the linebacker rotation the Cincinnati Bengals put him.

He could be lined up in the middle or outside. It doesn't matter. Wherever he goes, he has just one focus: the player running with the football.

"We're all trying to tackle the guy with the ball. That's it," the newest Bengal said Wednesday. "I don't get caught up in positions. They are different, you have different responsibilities and different setups, but a 'backer's a 'backer. Football's football. I don't want to complicate it."

Sounds simple enough. Remember, this is a player who has spent nine years in the NFL and at 31 is considered "old." If the Green Bay Packers' most prolific tackling linebacker has been approaching football this way his entire career, why change now?

Hawk
Hawk, speaking inside only the second NFL locker room that he'll soon call come, was asked about the different places he's lined up on defense because of concerns about how he'll adjust from Green Bay's 3-4 scheme to the 4-3 the Bengals run under defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. A noted inside linebacker, he could play the middle, or "Mike" linebacker spot for the Bengals. That would involve moving Rey Maualuga over to the "Will" outside linebacker spot.

There's also a chance Hawk could play the "Sam" outside linebacker position, giving the Bengals a boost to that position. Emmanuel Lamur, recently tendered at the second-round restricted-free-agent level, has been Cincinnati's "Sam," but he's more of a true cover linebacker instead of one who specializes in playing the run. It's possible he and Hawk would be interchangeable, alternating playing passing and rushing downs, depending upon personnel matchups.

Hawk also could play the "Will" position if Vontaze Burfict doesn't come back as hoped from his January microfracture knee surgery. At this point, virtually any scenario is on the table.

Hawk, a native of Kettering, Ohio, played every linebacker position at Ohio State and did the same at times in Green Bay. His first three seasons also were spent in a 4-3 base scheme before the Packers switched to defensive coordinator Dom Capers' 3-4 base setup in 2009.

One reason Hawk believes his two years in Cincinnati -- worth $3.25 million total -- will work out well is because of his new coordinator. All it took was a meal during his visit last weekend to see why.

"He has his specific plan of what he wants to do, and he wants his guys to execute it, be violent and go out and become great at what they do, and not try to overcomplicate it and not try to get guys overthinking, worried about assignments," Hawk said of Guenther.

"That's a huge thing I noticed when I went to dinner with him Sunday night. We're drawing up stuff on the table and talking about coverages and blitzes and stuff. It got me excited."

Something else that got Hawk excited and convinced Cincinnati would be the perfect free-agency landing spot was the fact that he'd get to play alongside Maualuga and Burfict. He's been tracking both of their careers from afar, and even developed a friendship with Maualuga through Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, who played at USC with Maualuga.

"When it comes to football, are you physical and do you make plays?" Hawk said. "Those guys do it."

Wherever he fits in their rotation, the Bengals are banking on Hawk to play physically and make a few plays, too.
CINCINNATI -- So far, there has been little mystery to the Cincinnati Bengals' free-agency efforts this offseason.

Nugent
Two of their top in-house targets, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and kicker Mike Nugent have been inked to deals that will keep them in Cincinnati through 2016 and 2017, respectively. Both extensions were expected.

Nugent was the most recent of the two to sign, agreeing with the Bengals on Monday to a two-year extension that, according to a source, will pay him a maximum of $4 million. Officially, $3.5 million will count against the Bengals' cap the next two years, but Nugent has a chance to make an additional $500,000 in the way of performance-based incentives that involve field-goal percentage.

The percentage isn't specified, but as long as he hits it, he gets an additional $250,000 per season the feat is accomplished.

Overall, the deal is remarkably similar to the last one he signed. The two-year deal Nugent agreed to before the 2013 season paid him $3 million across two years. The main difference was that he didn't have as much in the way of roster bonuses. He also didn't receive any added incentives.

Nugent's $1.9 million cap value for 2015 is half a million higher than it was in 2014. It also keeps him in fairly competitive company among other league kickers.

The big question is will this be Nugent's final deal? Or will the 33-year-old have another one or two after it ends?

Per a league source, here are the numbers behind Nugent's latest contract:

2015
Cap value: $1,950,000
Base salary: $1,000,000
Guaranteed money:$600,000 (to be paid in the form of a roster bonus on Saturday)
Roster bonus: $850,000 (the total roster bonus, including guaranteed money; the remaining $250,000 paid per game active in 2015 -- $15,625 per game)
Workout bonus: $100,000
Added incentives: $250,000 (for hitting a particular field-goal percentage)

2016
Cap value: $1,550,000
Base salary: $1,200,000
Guaranteed money: $0
Roster bonus: $250,000
Workout bonus: $100,000
Added incentives: $250,000 (for hitting a particular field-goal percentage)
Hawk
CINCINNATI -- On the same day one of his former high school and college teammates was expected to sign a contract extension with the Cincinnati Bengals, veteran linebacker A.J. Hawk was in the Queen City visiting coaches and other front-office personnel.

ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Hawk's visit early Monday.

If Hawk ultimately signs with the Bengals, he'll have a reunion with kicker Mike Nugent. Reports late Sunday indicated Nugent will sign a two-year extension. Natives of suburban Dayton, Ohio, Hawk and Nugent played together some 50 miles north of Cincinnati at Centerville High School before also starring at Ohio State.

Hawk has only called one place home since college. Drafted fifth overall in 2006, the inside linebacker spent the last nine seasons with the Green Bay Packers before he was cut two weeks ago. Since he was released, he could sign Monday if he and the Bengals reached an agreement that quickly.

One of the Bengals' focuses from a personnel standpoint this offseason has involved strengthening their depth chart at linebacker. Injuries ravaged the unit in 2014, forcing the Bengals to thrust a pair of inexperienced linebackers into some of the season's more pivotal games. At Indianapolis in the middle of the season, reserve Vincent Rey led a linebacker group that included rookie Marquis Flowers and former undrafted free agent Jayson DiManche, who was getting some of the first defensive snaps of his career.

It's likely the Bengals will draft a linebacker, in addition to trying to sign one in free agency, like Hawk. They already kept Rey Maualuga from hitting free agency, signing the six-year vet to a new deal last week just days before his previous contract expired.

Although injuries have caused Hawk's career to take a bit of a decline the past season or two, he still fits the Bengals' free-agent profile, and could give them solid depth at a position that lacked it.
CINCINNATI -- Count Rey Maualuga among the believers.

While some around the Cincinnati Bengals are concerned about how well linebacker Vontaze Burfict will respond this offseason to microfracture surgery on his left knee, his teammate and fellow linebacker expects the recovery to go well.

Burfict
"I know Tez. He's a fighter. He'll come back," Maualuga said Friday following a news conference regarding the three-year contract extension he signed Thursday.

Maualuga was asked about Burfict because the Bengals' interest in re-signing him appears to have stemmed, in part, from the fact nobody knows yet what to expect.

Microfracture surgery is regarded as one of the most career-threatening procedures athletes can endure, with patience and persistence a necessary virtue.

"He's a tough guy," Maualuga said. "With the healing process, that's going to take some time. But with the spring and OTAs (organized team activities) and all of that, it's a chance for guys to get better. It's a chance for coaches to see what guys can be put in that role and look comfortable in it. We don't have to worry. We have time to find the right guys to take on that role if he doesn't come back in time."

Maualuga said he was optimistic the same old Burfict would be running around when training camp begins in July and August.

For now, that's the timeline the Bengals are hoping for. Head coach Marvin Lewis and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther were told Burfict's slow recovery process ought to have him back in time for the start of camp. They likely will take it easy with him when he first gets on the field, but the hope is that when he's 100 percent, he will not have lost the explosiveness and burst that made him a virtual wrecking ball in the middle of the defense during the first two of his three seasons in stripes.

His 2014 season was almost completely derailed because of injuries, but Burfict, led the Bengals in tackles in 2012 and 2013. A former undrafted free agent, Burfict made the Pro Bowl following his second season before signing a contract extension that is scheduled to pay him about $20 million through 2017. He's still just 24 years old.

"Vontaze is a big reason for this linebacker group to be what we need it to be," Maualuga said. "With his presence and his understanding of the game, we're a lot more comfortable. If he's not out there, it's like we're playing not so much a catch-up game, but it's like that overall mindset is off for us. It changes a little bit."

Part of the reason Maualuga anticipates Burfict to make an adequate return is because he knows what drives him.

"Doctors are going to say what they want to say: 'This guy will come back in six months' or whatever," Maualuga said. "No, it's on the player. Just like my hamstring the first time [last season]. They said, 'Oh, it's going to be 6-9 weeks.' Well, I came back in four. It's all about how bad you want it and how fast you can come back."

Anyone who has spent time around Burfict knows there really is no questioning how much he wants to play at a high level again.
CINCINNATI -- Last spring, the Cincinnati Bengals used strong ties to LSU's coaching staff to land two of their eight draft picks.

Running back Jeremy Hill and receiver James Wright were selected in the second and seventh round, respectively. Bengals coaches said that conversations with friends and trustworthy allies in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had them convinced about adding both despite varying concerns other teams had.

Hill brought to the draft process his share of off-field baggage, the result of two arrests in three years. The first came when he was in high school and delayed his arrival to LSU by a year. The second forced him to miss the first game of his sophomore year; a year that proved to be his final college season.

Ahead of last year's combine, Hill sent a letter to all 32 teams explaining in deep detail what led to his arrests. He wanted them to know they were part of his past, but didn't define his character. Since coming to Cincinnati, he's avoided legal troubles and is a well-liked teammate and media favorite.

Teams were concerned about Wright because the receiver didn't catch a pass his senior year. The Bengals' own evaluations of the special-teamer/wideout and their conversations with LSU coaches led them to believe he was worth the gamble.

The decisions paid off extremely well in 2014.

But what about in 2015? Are there any Tigers gems the Bengals might mine from Les Miles this year? Here are four LSU prospects who could draw some attention from the Bengals the next few weeks:

OT La'el Collins
Size: 6-foot-4, 324 pounds
Projection: Possible first-round pick
Analysis: Collins is one of six LSU products who will be at the combine and one of seven who are hoping to be drafted (there are two running backs and a corner not listed below; those are position groups not pegged as needs for the Bengals this year). He's certainly one player worth keeping an eye on for the Bengals as they start focusing on shoring up depth behind veteran tackles Andrew Whitworth (another LSU product) and Andre Smith. Whitworth hasn't shown signs of slowing down, but he will turn 34 next season. His career likely will come to a close soon. He and Smith also will hit free agency next year, and it will be good for the Bengals to have a talented player to groom there in case they don't get re-signed. ESPN draft insider Todd McShay said Collins is a strong run-blocker with good character.

DE Danielle Hunter
Size: 6-foot-6, 235 pounds
Projection: Rounds 2-3
Analysis: Cincinnati needs pass-rushers, and Hunter fits the prototypical build the Bengals like. He's got the right height, although he's a little lighter than they might want as an edge-rusher. He had trouble getting to quarterbacks in 2014, though, finishing with just 1.5 sacks. He had 4.5 across his three seasons. It's not likely the Bengals will draft him, but he could be worth exploring.

LB Kwon Alexander
Size: 6-foot-2, 230 pounds
Projection: Rounds 2-4
Analysis: Depending upon what happens in free agency with Rey Maualuga, the Bengals could have a draft need for interior linebackers. Even if Maualuga is re-signed, they still have depth concerns at the position from a talent standpoint. Alexander is primarily noted for his speed, toughness and blitzing ability. He's ESPN's third-rated inside linebacker.

DE Jermauria Rasco
Size: 6-foot-4, 260 pounds
Projection: Rounds 5-7
Analysis: Any and all pass-rush options are on the table for the Bengals at this point. It seems most likely they'll use one of their earlier picks on taking a pass-rusher, but it's also possible they could have a few late-round options.
CINCINNATI -- Marvin Lewis received a pair of firm endorsements from his top two assistant coaches who told ESPN.com on Tuesday they believed Lewis pulled off one of his best head-coaching jobs in 2014.

"Outstanding," Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said.

"It was the best coaching job Marvin had outside of Andy Dalton's and A.J. Green's rookie year," defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said, referring to the lockout-affected 2011 season. That also was the year that began a playoff streak that reached four seasons earlier this month. Like all their playoff appearances since 2005, the Bengals have failed to get out of the wild-card round in each of the last four years.

[+] EnlargeMarvin Lewis
John Grieshop/Getty Images"It was the best coaching job Marvin had outside of Andy Dalton's and A.J. Green's rookie year," defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said.
In the immediate wake of the latest postseason defeat, a 26-10 loss at Indianapolis, calls sounded for Lewis' firing. Inside the offices at One Paul Brown Stadium, they fell on deaf ears.

Team president Mike Brown had no plans of making a swap at the top of his coaching staff. Like others around the organization, he continues to believe Lewis gives the organization its best chance for finally clearing the playoff hurdle.

"What's happened here, which is great, is that it's expected that you're going to be in the playoffs," Jackson said. "The expectation's changed. At one time, that wasn't even the expectation. Now, that's the expectation, and this is a good, young team. He did an outstanding job. One, of coaching his coaches. Two, of coaching the football team, motivating the football team and leading the team and the staff and putting us in position."

Jackson wants those still irked by the string of first-round exits to blame the players and the coaching staff.

"We have to reward him for a job well done," Jackson said. "He helped get us to the dance, and now we have to go dance."

The Bengals went 10-5-1 and were potentially a lost fumble away from winning the AFC North.

The assistants lauded Lewis specifically for the way he managed, with two first-year coordinators and two new position coaches, the flood of injuries that hit the team at various times of the season. One of the newest position coaches, linebackers coach Matt Burke, was hit by the injury bug harder than most others. Pro Bowler Vontaze Burfict only finished two games after dealing with head, neck and knee injuries. Fellow starters Rey Maualuga and Emmanuel Lamur missed multiple games due to hamstring issues.

There also were injuries to tight end Tyler Eifert, who missed all but one quarter of the season opener; receiver Marvin Jones, who was hampered by injuries since early last offseason and never made it on the field for a game; and tight end Jermaine Gresham, receiver A.J. Green and offensive tackle Andre Smith. Veterans Geno Atkins and Leon Hall played all year, but spent all last spring and summer rehabbing serious injuries instead of spending their time actually training for optimal play during the long season.

"If you want to know the truth, it's amazing," Guenther said.

Neither assistant wanted to call the season a success. Both were quick to point out the many flaws their sides of the ball had in 2014, and how they are working with Lewis to resolve them and to finally win that playoff game.

"I would hope everybody feels it in the pit of their stomach like our coaches do, like I do," Jackson said. "You've got to have that fire that burns in order to get over to the other side. We've got to take it and work our tails off to get there."
CLEVELAND -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 30-0 win over the Cleveland Browns:
  • Hill
    Powder-toss diss: At the end of his 2-yard touchdown run in the first quarter Sunday, Bengals running back Jeremy Hill broke into one of his patented touchdown dances. Earlier this year, he has performed the popular "Shmoney" dance, and even did his own rendition of the "Ickey Shuffle," named after former Bengals back Ickey Woods, who made the dance famous in the Bengals' 1988 AFC championship run. This time, he broke into a "Whip" dance before adding a move that mirrored LeBron James' pregame powder toss. Hill didn't finish the Cleveland Cavaliers star's move, though, knocking the "powder" down with a hand. After the game, Hill was told James had been in attendance. It didn't faze him. "I'm actually a Lakers fan," he said. "I'm a Kobe [Bryant] guy."
  • Hill evokes Bell: One week after Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell torched the Bengals for 185 yards on the ground, Hill did his best rendition of his rival rusher. More than any trait Bell possesses, patience arguably is his best one. Many of Hill's 148 yards came after he showcased his own patience running through the line. "We watched a cut-up on him a few weeks ago," Hill said of Bell. "We kind of stole a few more moves from him, just being patient like that. A lot of guys just get the ball and just run downhill and just run into people. But sometimes, you've just really got to set up your blocks. ... It's just being patient and hitting it when you find that crease."
  • Mocking money signs: Bengals defenders weren't the only ones doing Johnny Manziel's "money sign" this weekend in Cleveland. A couple of Bengals said Browns fans were flashing the signs at them as they walked around town while going to dinner Saturday night. Linebacker Rey Maualuga, who was flagged for taunting after flashing Manziel's sign in the quarterback's face after a deflection, said he didn't respond to the fans. "Whatever we would have said to them that night won't change the facts or change the outcome of the game," Maualuga said at his locker. "Just let it go in one ear and out the other. Eat dinner and just make sure to walk out of there as fast as you can before some crazy things go on."

Rapid Reaction: Cincinnati Bengals

November, 23, 2014
11/23/14
4:06
PM ET

HOUSTON -- A few thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 22-13 victory over the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium:

What it means: Two years ago, the Bengals won seven of their last eight games to get into the playoffs. Last year, they went 4-1 in December to also reach the postseason. So with all that in mind, what did Sunday's win, one week after another victory in front of another hostile crowd, mean? It meant that maybe the Bengals aren't the inconsistent club they have been most of this season. Perhaps they're just a good late-season team? If you had told the Bengals before the season that they would go 2-0 in back-to-back weeks at New Orleans and Houston, they'd have taken it. As part of one of their more difficult parts of the schedule, it seemed the Bengals would be lucky to earn a split in these two games. But they now have a second straight win and are 7-3-1.

Stock watch: Linebacker Rey Maualuga's stock continues trending upward after six tackles and an interception Sunday. His presence has clearly had a positive impact on the Bengals' defense. After missing four games with a serious hamstring injury, Maualuga returned last Sunday at New Orleans. In each of the seven previous games, the Bengals had allowed opposing offenses to rush for 100 yards or more. In these past two games, the Bengals haven't allowed a team to gain more than 74 yards on the ground. Even if Maualuga isn't the one recording the tackles, he is moving teammates into the right running lanes and gaps that stop ball carriers quickly.

Newhouse hangs tough: Although he didn't do enough to earn a game ball, you have to credit Bengals right tackle Marshall Newhouse for hanging tough given the harrowing circumstances in which he entered the game. Newhouse was forced into action in the first quarter after starting right tackle Andre Smith left with a left arm injury -- he got tangled up with defensive end J.J. Watt while trying to block a pass that Watt swatted. Charged with blocking Watt, Newhouse held the right edge pocket just long enough that the all-world lineman was held in check late in the game.

Game ball: Although the Bengals had a relatively balanced game plan offensively -- running 43 times and passing 35 -- they spent a good portion of the afternoon going to receiver A.J. Green, who nearly set a franchise record in catches. Green caught 12 passes, one shy of the record 13 that Carl Pickens had in a game in 1998. Green's 12 catches also set a career high, passing his previous high of 11 that he set last Halloween at Miami. While Green's receptions were spread throughout the game, his best sequence came on the Bengals' second drive, when he caught three passes for 27 yards on four targets. His final catch of that series put the Bengals into goal-line territory ahead of their first score of the game.

What's next? Cincinnati's great November road swing ends next Sunday when the Bengals travel to Tampa Bay for the last of a three-game stretch away from Paul Brown Stadium. The Buccaneers lead the all-time series 7-3 and haven't lost in the past six meetings. The last time the Bengals beat the Buccaneers was in 1989, the last year Cincinnati went to the Super Bowl.
NEW ORLEANS -- Heads were shaking in the Cincinnati Bengals' huddle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rapid Reaction: Cincinnati Bengals

November, 16, 2014
11/16/14
3:54
PM ET

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

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

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

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

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

What's next? The Bengals (6-3-1) are back in action next Sunday when they travel to Houston to play the Texans.
CINCINNATI -- It still isn't official, but it appears a foregone conclusion at this point that Giovani Bernard and Vontaze Burfict will end up missing a third straight game for the Cincinnati Bengals after both missed practice Thursday afternoon.

Burfict
lastname
Bernard
Burfict hasn't worked out since before having arthroscopic knee surgery three weeks ago. Bernard hasn't practiced since hip and clavicle issues shelved him ahead of the Bengals' Week 8 game against the Jaguars.

Since neither has gone through a practice session, it stands to reason they won't end up playing Sunday when the Bengals visit the New Orleans Saints.

Typically, Bengals who are injured for extended periods of time go through a series of conditioning drills before making it back to the practice fields. Those conditioning sessions are held on the side of the practice fields, with head trainer Nick Cosgray watching. It depends upon the injury and the player, but it's common for most to be on the rehab field for a couple days before returning to practice.

Burfict still hasn't made it there since this injury. Bernard was there Thursday for a second straight day.

The Bengals likely will turn to rookie Jeremy Hill at running back and Vincent Rey at linebacker. Rey has been helping to fill in for Burfict all season.

In addition to monitoring Burfict and Bernard, the Bengals also are keeping an eye on right offensive tackle Andre Smith this week after he had apparent setback with an ankle injury. The veteran practiced in a limited capacity Wednesday, but he didn't go at all Thursday. Earlier in the day, he was seen in his protective boot that he wore after hurting the ankle against Jacksonville two weeks ago.

Smith missed last week's game against the Browns because of the injury and was replaced by backup Marshall Newhouse. The veteran Newhouse, added during free agency in the offseason, had a disappointing game. He received a minus-5.6 pass-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus after allowing three quarterback hurries, a quarterback hit and a sack.

"He understands the challenges," offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said of Newhouse. "If he has to be out there, he has to go play. He has to play better than he did a week ago, but our whole offense has to play better than it did a week ago."

Here is the complete Thursday Bengals injury report:

DID NOT PRACTICE
RB Bernard (hip/clavicle)
LB Burfict (knee)
OT Smith (ankle)
OT Andrew Whitworth (veteran's day off)
CB Terence Newman (knee)

LIMITED PRACTICE PARTICIPATION
LB Rey Maualuga (hamstring)
RB Cedric Peerman (knee)

FULL PRACTICE PARTICIPATION
CB Leon Hall (concussion)
TE Jermaine Gresham (thigh)
S Taylor Mays (foot)
OL Mike Pollak (knee)
CINCINNATI -- Allow the following numbers to sink in for a moment: 30th, 31st and 20th.

Out of 32 teams, those are the Cincinnati Bengals' rankings in total defense, rushing defense and passing defense, respectively.

Suffice to say, the Bengals haven't been very good on that side of the ball this season, and the rankings bear that out.

[+] EnlargeTerrance West
John Grieshop/Getty ImagesTerrance West and the Browns were the seventh straight team to run for more than 100 yards against the Bengals.
Chalk up their defensive woes to any number of things: injuries, on-field miscommunication stemming from said injuries that forced young players into larger roles, poor run support, inadequate gap control, a new defensive coordinator. Pick your poison.

Whatever you fancy as the reason behind the Bengals' defensive problems, just know that new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther understands and is adamant about ending his unit's problems. As much as he can point out unforeseen rotation changes or highlight tweaks he might make to his scheme, Guenther put it all in much simpler terms Wednesday.

His defenders, regardless who gets on the field, simply have to execute better, he said.

"I told the players it's all very fixable stuff that we got to go do," Guenther said. "We can't talk about it. We have to go do it and get it done and be effective."

The Bengals could get a slight push this weekend when linebacker Rey Maualuga returns from a left hamstring injury that has had him out since Week 6. There also has been a hope that linebacker Vontaze Burfict would return after arthroscopic knee surgery two weeks ago, but that's not looking too likely right now. Whether Burfict is back or not, the returns of Maualuga and cornerback Leon Hall should give the defense a little extra stability and veteran depth.

"Hopefully I can just step in and get that spark," Maualuga said. "I know it's there in this defense and it's going to have to start today. They talk about controlling our own destiny, well someone has to step up and do something.

"I'm not saying it's me, and I'm not pointing anybody out, but what I'm saying is that you just can't show up at practice just to practice and go home. Things have to change like Coach [Guenther] said and if you're not going to do things they're asking you to do then you're not going to play. Hopefully that hits a couple of people and gets things changed around here."

Guenther told players earlier this week that if they didn't start doing their jobs better, he would consider replacing them in an effort of proving how easily "fixable" his unit's issues are.

"They know I mean what I say," Guenther said.

The Bengals have given up more than 100 yards rushing in their last seven games and have allowed opposing offenses to pick up more than 350 yards of total offense in six games so far this season.

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