AFC North: Taylor Mays

CINCINNATI -- When he saw his big outside linebacker loaded onto a cart and leaving the Cincinnati Bengals' final 2013 preseason game in obvious pain, for one split second, Paul Guenther felt lost.

"I almost fainted," the assistant coach recalled earlier this week.

[+] EnlargeVontaze Burfict
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesBengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said LB Emmanuel Lamur, No. 59, is high on skill and smarts.
Exactly 11 months and six days ago, Guenther and the rest of Cincinnati's coaching staff were left wondering where they ought to turn as the haunting reality began to settle in: Emmanuel Lamur, one of their top cover linebackers and most knowledgeable young defenders, was lost for the season. A shoulder injury in the first quarter of the preseason finale against Indianapolis led to their concern, and forced Guenther's stomach to churn.

What a difference time can make.

Now a year later and some weeks shy of another series of preseason games, Guenther, the former Bengals linebackers coach who was elevated to defensive coordinator earlier this offseason, is excitedly welcoming a fully healed Lamur back into the fold.

"There's a lot of things you can do with him," Guenther said. "He can play safety, he can cover tight ends. And as we all know now in the league there are a lot of pass-receiving tight ends that we're going to face, particularly probably in the first ball game."

Along with facing in Week 1 Baltimore's Dennis Pitta, who also will be returning from his own serious injury, the Bengals are set to see tight ends Jordan Cameron, Delanie Walker, Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Julius Thomas, Coby Fleener, Greg Olsen and Heath Miller, among others this year. Cameron, Graham, Olsen and Thomas were among the top 8 receiving tight ends last season, and despite missing more than half the season, Gronkowski wasn't too far down the list, either, ranking 14th. As a frame of reference, the Bengals' top tight ends, Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, were 22nd and 24th despite having played 14 and 15 games, respectively.

With a lineup full of that many well-regarded tight ends, the Bengals will take all the help they can to cover them.

Hence, Guenther's happiness over Lamur's return.

Safety Taylor Mays, who spent part of the first few weeks of last regular season filling Lamur's shoes before his own injury, also could be an option for the Bengals in certain tight end-defensive back matchups. He has the type of athleticism and size that makes him a better fit for such coverage assistance than any other Bengals safety. That's one of the many reasons the veteran, who could be considered on the 53-man bubble, actually has a shot to make it onto the full roster.

Back to Lamur. Along with assisting in coverage downfield, Guenther lauded the linebacker's intelligence. Vontaze Burfict, who will continue making calls and checks at the line this season, knows Guenther's defense better than any other player, the coach said. But he quickly added that Lamur wasn't far behind. With a chance to get back on the field and play this fall, Guenther believes Lamur's football intelligence will only increase.

"He gives you great ability to change the look of the fronts," Guenther said. "He's a smart player. He's a player who knows the defense. Maybe not as much as Burfict because he was out last year, but he's that kind of guy that understands the big picture. Having him back is a big advantage for us."
Examining the Cincinnati Bengals' roster:

The Bengals were content with having just two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster last season, but expect them to take three this year. McCarron would be the odd man out, but since they drafted him this year and made him a de facto heir apparent to the position in case something happens with Dalton in the next few seasons, they probably won't cut him or place him on the practice squad. In Campbell, the Bengals also get a tried and true veteran who could step in if Dalton's play is unsatisfactory, or if he gets hurt.


This grouping includes Charles at H-back, meaning the Bengals are more likely to take four true running backs. I'd argue that neither Green-Ellis, Peerman nor Charles is a lock right now to make the team, but there are compelling reasons for each being part of the 53-man roster. Rex Burkhead and James Wilder Jr. also have real chances to be part of the full roster.


The top three on this list are locks to make the team. The true battle during training camp will be for the other two spots. If this group holds, that means veterans Brandon Tate and Jasper Collins, former Bengals practice squad player Cobi Hamilton and undrafted rookies Colin Lockett and Alex Neutz won't make the team. Tate would be the real notable cut here after performing well as a kick returner and filling in at punt returner last year. With a fully healthy secondary around him, though, expect Adam Jones to get back to returning punts. While the Bengals will give Tate opportunities to contribute in the passing game (he's had only 14 catches in three seasons with Cincinnati) this preseason, Sanzenbacher can also do much of what Tate can. Sanzenbacher has been more consistent in the passing game and could fill in as a returner on punts or kickoffs. Hamilton's size (6-foot-2) and leaping ability make him a possible pick to make the team, but performance would be a reason for cutting him. Wright's special-teams background and his strong showing in minicamp and organized team activities make him a possibility too.


Gresham is entering a contract year, and expectations have never been higher for him. The Bengals believe he can play better than he has in recent years and hope to get that type of production out of him. An offseason hernia surgery might have Gresham out of the mix early in training camp, but he ought to make the team, just like Eifert and Smith, who re-signed this spring to help bolster the position group after Gresham's injury.


It's possible the Bengals end up taking only nine linemen so they can fit additional players at other positions. For instance, they could end up taking another running back or another receiver. It's common for most teams to have nine or 10 linemen, and this group seems to provide the versatility coaches are seeking. Hopkins, an undrafted rookie, was used at a variety of spots in the spring. Of the undrafted free-agent linemen the Bengals signed this year, Trey Hopkins -- a versatile guard who was used in a variety of ways this spring -- has the best shot to make the team, but even he's just barely left off this list.


The only player on this list who wasn't on last year's 53-man roster is Will Clarke. The rookie was drafted in the third round in May. He effectively takes the roster spot of Michael Johnson, who signed with Tampa Bay in the offseason. This may be the most set group on the team.


Like the receivers, the top spots at linebacker are pretty much squared away. In this case, it's a veritable lock that Vontaze Burfict, Emmanuel Lamur, Vincent Rey and Rey Maualuga will make the team. The two remaining linebackers, on the other hand, will be part of one of the better position battles on the team. DiManche and Flowers have the best chances among the rest of the outside linebackers to make the team, but they'll have to fend off Sean Porter, Brandon Joiner and James Davidson too. Dontay Moch could make the team because of his versatility as a stand-up defensive end and hybrid linebacker. J.K. Schaffer was snubbed on this list at middle linebacker, but there's a lot about his drive and internal makeup that could make him a repeat roster surprise.


The top four positions are effectively locked down. Kirkpatrick runs the risk of being cut for performance reasons, but it's unlikely he will be dismissed because the Bengals would take a $1.2 million cap hit if they let go of the former first-round pick. The sixth cornerback spot will be a battle between Hampton, R.J. Stanford, Lavelle Westbrooks, Chris Lewis-Harris and Onterio McCalebb. Hampton has some versatility and ability the Bengals like, as well as special-teams leanings.


This may end up being one of the tougher cuts Bengals coaches have, if they end up keeping just four safeties. Taylor Mays would be the odd man out in this situation, which might come as a surprise given how well his spring practices seemed to go. Nelson and Iloka are virtual locks, Manning seems like a good possibility and Williams appears to factor into the team's future at the position.


These guys aren't going anywhere. The punter, kicker and long snapper will make the team.
CINCINNATI -- Now that the Cincinnati Bengals have signed former Houston Texan Danieal Manning to a one-year deal, let's take a look at how his career numbers compare to the other safeties already on Cincinnati's roster.

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

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

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

Evaluating Bengals' free agents

February, 4, 2014
CINCINNATI -- The start of free agency is still a month away, but it still appears to be as good a time as any to evaluate the Cincinnati Bengals' free agents and break down the odds each will be back next season.

WR/KR/PR Brandon Tate
The money (2013 season cap value): $966,000
The stats (2013 stats): 35 kick returners, 26.1 yards per kick return (ninth among players with at least 20 returns), 36 punt returns, 9.3 yards per punt return.
The skinny: The Bengals benefited all season from THE strong field position that Tate's kick returns provided. He also had a 29-yard punt return in overtime that helped set up Cincinnati's game-winning field goal at Buffalo. With cornerback Adam Jones the only other returning specialist with significant experience, the Bengals should want to keep Tate.
The odds: High.

TE Alex Smith
The money: $620,000
The stats: 3 catches, 12 yards, 1 TD, 1 fumble.
The skinny: Smith was the third tight end in an offense that ended the year with five (including offensive tackle Dennis Roland and H-back Orson Charles in that mix). With Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert emerging as a solid two-man tight end rotation, Smith likely will be on the outside looking in again. The Bengals don't need to re-sign him, but they don't have to let him go, either.
The odds: Push.

OT Anthony Collins
The money: $2.1 million
The skinny: Arguably the Bengals' second-most valuable offensive lineman, Collins was a flexible and versatile edge protector this season. In addition to starting at left tackle late in the year after injuries forced the Bengals to shake up their lineup, Collins also came off the bench and performed adequately in relief. Pro Football Focus credited him with not allowing a sack all season. As he stands to earn a significant pay increase, Collins might be too expensive to be brought back to the Bengals.
The odds: Low.

OG Mike Pollak
The money: $620,000
The skinny: His knee injury aside, Pollak provided the Bengals with great value on the offensive line. Like Collins, he was asked to come in off the bench when injuries slowed starting right guard Kevin Zeitler. Even when Zeitler was healthy enough to play, Pollak remained in his spot, starting five of the last six regular-season games. Pollak also can play center if need be.
The odds: High.

OT Dennis Roland
The money: $130,588
The skinny: Roland wasn't on the roster at one point in the season, released as the Bengals tried to address other deficient areas on their roster. But when o-line injuries popped up late in the season, he was brought back. Most of his playing time came in the regular-season finale, when he served as an extra blocker with Gresham and Eifert hurt.
The odds: Push.

DE Michael Johnson
The money: $11.2 million
The stats: Career-high 56 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 8 batted passes, 1 interception.
The skinny: Johnson will be one of the most coveted players of this free-agency cycle. Whatever overtures Johnson receives, the Bengals probably won't be able to compensate him everything he's worth. While the batted passes were a point of pride for the Bengals, there was a concern that Johnson didn't get to the quarterback often enough this season.
The odds: Very low.

LB Michael Boley
The money: $642,353
The stats: Eight tackles, 10 games played.
The skinny: Brought to Cincinnati to help address lacking depth and linebacker coverage concerns, the Bengals added Boley during the 2013 season. He probably won't return as the Bengals try to add a younger cover linebacker through the draft.
The odds: Low.

CB Brandon Ghee
The money: $630,000
The stats: Six tackles, 10 games played.
The skinny: 2013 was supposed to be the year Ghee finally began playing regularly in the Bengals' secondary rotation. A preseason concussion was a major setback, though, and he never did quite get back to where he was before the injury. Still, with cornerback depth and age an issue for the Bengals, there is a chance they keep him in the mix.
The odds: Push.

DB Taylor Mays
The money: $645,000
The stats: 17 tackles in eight games.
The skinny: Mays ended the year on injured reserve after suffering a shoulder injury in the Week 9 blowout win over the Jets. It was poor timing, too, because just before the injury, he was in the middle of arguably the best season of his four-year career. He had already played some linebacker, helping fill a serious need that arose following Emmanuel Lamur's late-preseason injury.
The odds: High.

S Chris Crocker
The money: $457,059
The stats: 37 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 interceptions.
The skinny: Like Boley, Crocker was signed to a year contract in the middle of the season to address depth issues. The 33-year-old who was called out of retirement mostly played well and was a vocal leader in the locker room. He came back mostly because of previous defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's presence on the team. With Zimmer now Minnesota's head coach, it's likely Crocker is gone, too.
The odds: Very low.

WR Dane Sanzenbacher
The money: $555,000
The stats: Six catches, 61 yards in 10 games played.
The skinny: Sanzenbacher was a favorite of former offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's. He gave the Bengals an extra possession receiver.
The odds: Push.

WR Andrew Hawkins
The money: $560,425
The stats: 12 catches, 199 yards, 8 first downs in eight games played.
The skinny: A preseason injury placed Hawkins under IR/designated-to-return status until the middle of the season. When he came back, he showed just how potent Cincinnati's offense can be with another player with his stature, speed and athleticism.
The odds: High.

LB Vincent Rey
The money: $630,000
The stats: Career-high 47 tackles, career-high 4 sacks, career-high 2 interceptions.
The skinny: Rey was one of the Bengals' unsung defensive heroes, filling in admirably when Rey Maualuga was lost in the middle of the season to a knee injury. The career Bengal is well-liked in Cincinnati and could see his star rise with former linebackers coach Paul Guenther as the team's new defensive coordinator.
The odds: High.
MIAMI -- Just when it seemed the news had gotten as bad as it could have for the Cincinnati Bengals, it took another awful turn Thursday night at Sun Life Stadium. Yet another player was escorted off the field with the type of injury that has Who Dey Nation holding its collective breath and wondering if its once-promising season is suddenly in peril.

This time, it was defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who suffered what appeared to be a serious injury in the second quarter of the Bengals' game against the Miami Dolphins. Officially, it is a right-knee injury. As of halftime -- with the Dolphins leading 10-3 -- there are no real updates as to what Atkins' status is or will be going forward. All we know is that the injury was bad enough to run him from the game.

As Bengals fans well know, this isn't the first time one of their key players has left a game because of an injury. In the past three weeks, it seems as if the hits have just been coming, and coming, and coming.

Two weeks ago, cornerback Leon Hall tore his Achilles while trying to break up a pass intended for Detroit's Calvin Johnson. Last week, defensive back Taylor Mays' season came to an end because of a dislocated shoulder that came one play shy of halftime against the New York Jets. Linebacker Rey Maualuga also will miss three to four weeks because of an MCL sprain from that game. Now, it's Atkins, the $55 million man, who has suffered an injury that appeared so straining that he ripped his helmet off immediately after it occurred. It was one that had his teammates taking knees as they looked on in disbelief that another one of their leaders had fallen.

If you're the Bengals, you have to hope for good news when it comes to his injury. This is a team that can't take another season-ender.

If there is a silver lining to the hits that have come so far, though, it's this: The Bengals have been able to take them and bounce back. It is rather amazing that even with all they were dealing with entering Thursday's game, the Bengals had a 6-2 record and looked like one of the NFL's top teams.

We'll see if Atkins' injury has any long-term effect on how well they can continue to roll.

Keep your eyes peeled, folks.

Update: A Bengals source confirmed to ESPN's Bob Holtzman that Atkins tore his ACL, but will have an MRI Friday to confirm the diagnosis.

CINCINNATI -- All of a sudden, depth has become a concern for the Cincinnati Bengals.

Just this time two weeks ago, everything seemed fine on the injury front. The entire 53-man roster was in great shape. The Bengals were being lauded for their rather stunning health.

Yes, there were some bruises, to be sure. There were nicks and scrapes and bumps and discomfort, but overall, whatever issues individual players had were so minor that shots, painkillers and mental toughness were enough to keep them on the field.

That isn't the case now. The injury bug that had been doing such a great job avoiding Paul Brown Stadium can no longer stay away. Now it's taken up residence inside the Bengals' locker room, and doesn't appear to be leaving anytime soon.

On the same day ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported that linebacker Rey Maualuga would be out three to four weeks with an MCL sprain, the Bengals listed defensive back Taylor Mays as out on their first injury report of the short week. Mays will miss Thursday night's game at Miami, joining cornerback Leon Hall and defensive tackle Devon Still.

Maualuga, however, was not ruled out, even though he (and Mays) did not practice Monday. Maualuga left in the first half of Sunday's 49-9 win over the New York Jets with a knee injury and concussion. Even if the knee injury wasn't as bad as Schefter is reporting, the linebacker would have had a difficult time getting back on the field five days after a concussion.

Mays' right shoulder injury came on the final play of the first half.

Hall was lost for the year with an Achilles tear last week, but has not yet been put on injured reserve. No timeline has been provided for Still's injury, but he will be missing his second straight game after suffering an elbow injury against Detroit last week.

The timing of Mays' departure from the lineup, coupled with Maualuga's likely long-term injury, couldn't be worse. It creates a little uncertainty for the Bengals, who now have to move players around throughout the secondary to fill the gaps that have formed. If Maualuga is included, the Bengals would be down three key pieces of their secondary, including Hall and Mays. A versatile back-end defender, Mays has played some nickel linebacker this year and would have been a logical option to play more of that role this week to accommodate for Maualuga's absence at middle linebacker. Vontaze Burfict, who occupies one of the outside spots, would be able to play some at the Mike position in place of Maualuga if need be.

Since that scenario won't be able to take place, the Bengals likely will work some combination of Vincent Rey, Michael Boley and Jayson DiManche into the inside linebacker spot. It could even end up being just Rey and DiManche. Although there's little reason to indicate he won't play right now, Boley did appear on the did not participate portion of Monday's walk-through.

The Bengals have to be happy the Dolphins don't have an offense that mirrors theirs schematically. Unlike Cincinnati, Miami doesn't work a two-tight end set that often. For that reason, the nickel linebacker responsibilities and any other linebacker coverage responsibilities might not end up having the same necessity that they have had in past weeks. In an effort to not only match the Dolphins' wideout personnel, but also to meet their own depth concerns, the Bengals' nickel could end up resembling more of a dime setup, with an extra cornerback coming into the game.

As far as roster moves are concerned, it isn't likely any major ones will take shape before Thursday. As much as Cincinnati would like to add to its depth and bring in new bodies, three days simply isn't enough time for a brand new linebacker to come in, learn coordinator Mike Zimmer's complex defense and contribute. The only real change that appears like a distinct possibility is moving of linebacker J.K. Schaffer off the practice squad and onto the game roster. If that happens, the Cincinnati native would have a chance to play in his second career game. He played on special teams in the Week 2 home opener against Pittsburgh.

Regardless what moves the Bengals end up making, the fact remains: They are hurting.

For their aching, beat-up bodies, this weekend and its three straight off days couldn't come fast enough.

Here is Monday's full injury report:

CB Leon Hall (Achilles)
DB Taylor Mays (shoulder)
DT Devon Still (elbow)

LB Rey Maualuga (knee/concussion)
LB Michael Boley (hamstring)
WR Mohamed Sanu (shoulder)
OT Andrew Whitworth (knee)

RB Rex Burkhead (hamstring)
DE Wallace Gilberry (groin)
CINCINNATI -- After home games, particularly wins, most Cincinnati Bengals are quick to change and even quicker to dart out the door to see their families and friends as they start unwinding from another physical contest.

There typically isn't much lingering by lockers.

This wasn't the typical Sunday evening.

[+] EnlargeRey Maualuga
Marc Lebryk/USA TODAY SportsBengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga gets a ride off of the field after being injured in the second quarter against the New York Jets.
In the minutes after pummeling the New York Jets 49-9, the jovial but banged-up bunch took a little extra time getting out of uniform and into celebratory street clothes. Some were shuttling themselves between the MRI room and the training room. Others were spending a little longer soaking and icing their latest round of wounds.

Four players left the ballgame with injuries so significant that they didn't return. It should be noted that some of those extended absences were the product of Cincinnati's wide halftime margin. With the game so well in hand and with another so fast approaching, there was no need to risk further injury.

That's right, believe it or not. The Bengals aren't done with October yet. They'll be playing again in four days.

"We are going to have to lick our wounds and heal them quick," coach Marvin Lewis said.

When the Bengals fly down to South Florida on Wednesday for Thursday night's game against the Miami Dolphins, they could be riding a cloud of uncertainty. Linebacker Rey Maualuga, offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, defensive back Taylor Mays and receiver Mohamed Sanu were run from the game with their respective injuries. Maualuga, Whitworth and Mays didn't play at all in the second half, departing before halftime.

Lewis said during his postgame news conference that he had not been told by trainers that any one of the four would miss Thursday's game.

"So they all have a shot at playing," Lewis said.

While standing near his locker during the postgame interview session, Whitworth told reporters that his knee will be evaluated Monday.

"We'll see where we're at," he added.

The Pro Bowl lineman suffered a knee injury near the end of the second quarter. He didn't say which knee got banged up, but in the offseason, he did have surgery to fix an issue with his left one.

Had Sunday's game been closer, Whitworth would like to think that he would have been able to stay in and continue playing, but he said he wasn't so sure he could have really played through the pain.

Also, Mays and Sanu were diagnosed with right shoulder issues. Both were among the last players still dressed about 45 minutes after the game as they were getting treated.

Maualuga's injury appeared to be the most serious when it happened. With 4:16 left in the second quarter, the linebacker shot through a hole to prevent a first-down run by the Jets' Chris Ivory. On the third-and-1, Maualuga got to Ivory a yard late, colliding with him at the end of a 2-yard run. A split second after impact was made, Maualuga's body seemed to go limp, causing trainers to race out to see about him.

After examining him near midfield for about three minutes, he was carted off and a helmet-less Maualuga waved to fans to let them know he was OK. Within minutes, it was determined Maualuga had a knee injury and a concussion. According to Lewis, after the game, Maualuga "met us at the door." Then, smiling, the coach added, "He'll be fine."

There will be a lot of attention paid to Maualuga's concussion symptoms this week. Under the league's revised concussion protocol, four days doesn't seem like enough time for a player to be cleared, but Maualuga will have that time to see if he can clear the tests.

Again, the magnitude of concussions are different for different people, but it took defensive end Michael Johnson 13 days to return to full practice after he picked up a concussion in Week 4. It's worth mentioning that he may have been dealing with his second concussion of the season, after suffering an apparent minor head injury against Pittsburgh two weeks prior.

If the Bengals are forced to play without any of the aforementioned players, they feel confident in the depth at those positions. Just like they had to do all this week without cornerback Leon Hall, they will move another player into the potentially vacated spots. In Maualuga's case, that could mean more time for Michael Boley and tweaked responsibilities for Vontaze Burfict. Mays' injury likely would mean more action for the combination of Chris Crocker, Dre Kirkpatrick and Brandon Ghee in the secondary. A Whitworth absence would mean Anthony Collins would mix in at left offensive tackle. If Sanu were to miss this week's game, the Bengals have the timely fortune of being able to officially activate receiver Andrew Hawkins off the injured reserve list.

"It's always tough when you have guys that get hurt," center Kyle Cook said. "But you have young guys that can step up."

Cincinnati's long lauded depth could be put to the test during this very quick week that has only just begun.

Rapid Reaction: Cincinnati Bengals

October, 27, 2013

CINCINNATI -- A few thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 49-9 win against the New York Jets.

What it means: Are there any words that can define what Sunday's blowout means for the Bengals? Not really. About the only thing I can think to say after the type of dominating performance that had to make the Oregon Ducks and Florida State Seminoles envious is the following: If you haven't already, wake up, NFL fans and turn your attention to Cincinnati. The football team here certainly looks for real. Although the Bengals have had wins in which they seemed to control every facet of their game, none this season have been as complete as Sunday's. They put their foot on the proverbial gas and, for the first time, didn't let up.

Stock watch: Training room -- falling. For the second straight week, injuries were a problem for Cincinnati. With a short week that includes a trip to South Florida, they could swell into something significant, too. Before the teams even returned to their locker rooms for halftime, linebacker Rey Maualuga, offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth and defensive back Taylor Mays had been lost to injuries. None of them returned to the game. Neither did receiver Mohamed Sanu. Maualuga's and Mays' injuries looked serious at the time. Maualuga was one of several Bengals who missed action at the end of last week's game in Detroit, too, when the injury bug first settled into the organization's camp. Cornerback Leon Hall was lost for the season during that game. Just two weeks ago, injuries didn't appear to be an issue at all for the Bengals, who were remarkably healthy.

Dalton-to-Jones: Andy Dalton and Marvin Jones formed quite the duo in the blowout, setting a pair of career highs. Dalton's five touchdowns were the most of his three years in Cincinnati, and Jones' four touchdown receptions were the most in franchise history. The memory of Dalton's 203-yard showing at Cleveland five weeks ago is so distant, some of the young quarterback's biggest detractors are even forgetting about it. Over the past three games, he has thrown for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns. He is the ninth quarterback since 2001 to have such showings in three consecutive single-season games. Jones finished the day with eight catches for 122 yards.

What's next? The Bengals travel to Miami on Thursday night for their final game against an AFC East team this season. If they can get past the Dolphins, they'll be 7-2 and virtually playing for home-field advantage.
CINCINNATI -- Pick your adjective: tough, persistent, disciplined, ugly. According to the Cincinnati Bengals, all apply when discussing their formidable eighth-ranked NFL defense.

One look at the unit's recent performances, particularly inside the red zone the past two weeks, and it becomes hard to disagree with any of those descriptions. When the Bengals needed a pair of big goal-line stops in consecutive games, each of those traits came out. When they did, key goal-line stands were made, momentum was established and an entire team was galvanized.

Oh yeah, and wins were had, too. Cincinnati beat both New England and Buffalo in back-to-back weeks to extend its winning streak against the AFC East to three games. Before the streak began, the Bengals had lost six in a row to teams from that division.

As the Bengals continue through the regular season, they will need to sustain what has so far made them successful. They'll have to keep leaning on their intimidating defense, the hardscrabble table-setter of their apparent playoff-bound organization.

Sure, their offense, one that racked up nearly 500 yards against the Bills on Sunday, remains a vital piece to the season. So does their special-teams play, which on the overall appears to be turning a corner and finally settling in at a consistently good clip.

[+] EnlargeAdam Jones
AP Photo/Tom UhlmanAdam Jones is one of several defenders who have made pivotal plays for the Bengals this season.
But, if we're speaking candidly, it is the identity of the Bengals' defense that actually paces the entire team. It's the brash and boisterous play of coordinator Mike Zimmer's unit that gets the rest of Cincinnati's sideline going. It's the fearless, unflinching mentality that the defense adopted in the wake of Week 4's loss at Cleveland that really has gotten the rest of the team believing that it should and ought to be taken seriously.

Of course, no Bengal will admit that. Football is, to quote the cliche of cliches, a team game. When speaking inside the camera lenses and tape recorders that are allowed in their locker room, they'll be quick to say that the entire team shares the same tough, intimidating style of play. Maybe a player or two will say it starts with head coach Marvin Lewis. Maybe a few others will say it begins with the types of players the front office has brought to Paul Brown Stadium. None of them would be wrong.

The thing is, though, whatever they say, just know this: the physicality of this team comes from the defense.

Consider what Lewis said Monday about the physical nature of his overall team.

"We have to play physical. That's what we are," he said. "We're not cute and pretty. We have to be physical. We have to keep doing it that way. That's a great asset that we have. Not only the ability to do that, but the ability to do it throughout the football game, and we can't let that waiver."

Offenses can be physical, but they're mostly cute and pretty. Defense is an ugly man's game. The Bengals, in the most affectionate sense possible, are an ugly team.

"We've been working really hard this offseason," defensive tackle Domata Peko said when asked to give his State of the 4-2 Team address. "They've been working hard upstairs and the coaches have been working hard. Hard work pays off. It's really good to start seeing the fruits of our labor. As long as we keep our nose to the ground and keep striving to be the best, good things will happen."

Good things happened for Peko and the rest of the Bengals defense two Sundays ago when Tom Brady and the New England Patriots were turned away on a key fourth-quarter goal-line stand.

More than halfway through the final period, Cincinnati's defense stood in the shadow of its own end zone as Brady led the Patriots 75 yards to the Bengals 1. Another touchdown drive from Terrific Tom appeared to be in the works. After all, he had led touchdown drives in each of the 52 games that came before this one. Why couldn't he add another?

After a run for no gain, a Bengals timeout and a pair of incomplete passes, including one that cornerback Adam Jones punched out of a receiver's hands in the end zone, Brady didn't lead a touchdown drive for the first time in 53 games. Cincinnati's ugly side showed up, forcing a field goal. Since the Bengals ended up winning by a touchdown, that crucial stop later proved clutch.

So did their goal-line stop this past Sunday in Buffalo, when they turned back the Bills on a four-play stand that began with tackles by Geno Atkins and Vincent Rey, and ended with a dramatic sack by James Harrison.

"That was a hell of a play," defensive back Taylor Mays said of Harrison's stop. "We've got a tough defense."

Where does that toughness come from?

"We've got tough players on our team and Zim has a tough mindset, regardless of whether they drive 98 yards to our 1-yard line," Mays said. "That's kind of how the defense thinks. It starts from the top down and we have players that really buy into that."

Harrison's touchdown-denying sack gave the Bengals offense the ball at its own 2. Nine plays later, running back Giovani Bernard weaved around Bills defenders after catching a shovel pass from quarterback Andy Dalton, and capped Cincinnati's fifth 90 yard-plus scoring drive of the season with a 20-yard touchdown reception.

The defense paced the offense.

Asked to share his thoughts on the Bengals' defensive identity, Rey, one of the standouts of Cincinnati's goal-line stands, paused for 13 seconds.

"I'd say, in my opinion," be said, deliberately, "that we're disciplined, smart players that run to the ball. Period."

Isn't that what defense is all about?

"Well yeah, but we try not to make it lip service here."

That's why the Bengals believe they play tough, persistent, disciplined, ugly football. Period.

So is the Bengals' Taylor Mays an LB?

September, 14, 2013
CINCINNATI -- It may be the biggest mystery within the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room. Chances are, it could go unsolved for perpetuity.

Just what position is Taylor Mays actually playing right now?

If you ask his head coach, the tall secondary defender is not a linebacker. Far from it. Marvin Lewis' mindset is that Mays still is more of a true defensive back, relying on some of his old safety principles and slot cornerback techniques.

The answer may be different, though, if you ask Mays' current position coach, linebackers coach Paul Guenther.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Mays
AP Photo/Greg TrottNo one on the Bengals seems to want to put a label on where Taylor Mays is playing these days.
Last week, Guenther excitedly told reporters about how he was spending extra time with Mays, cross-training him at the position that even Mays acknowledged as being the nickel linebacker position. In the wake of a season-ending injury to slot outside linebacker Emmanuel Lamur, the change in Mays' duties was a way the Bengals felt they could more comfortably absorb Lamur's injury without having to sign a new linebacker.

It made sense. Mays, who drew his share of preseason criticism for appearing lost at times while playing safety, was in need of playing a position a little closer to the line of scrimmage that could better use his size and get him closer to the football. Instead of constantly struggling to race in from the back end, he would be more involved with man-coverage packages.

So since Mays was essentially moving into Lamur's old spot, Guenther didn't bat an eye at the suggestion that he was moving to a linebacker position. For the week leading up to the season opener at Chicago, Mays had even stopped practicing with the safeties and was participating in drills with all linebackers.

This week, ahead of Monday night's home opener against Pittsburgh, he was still lining up with the linebackers.

So is Mays a linebacker? And how well did he do in his first game at the position last weekend?

"Taylor didn't play linebacker," Lewis said Monday, responding to a similarly posed question at one of his two news conferences. "But in Taylor's snaps he had, he did OK."

Posed the same questions, Guenther hedged on calling Mays a linebacker. Instead, he told reporters they could call Mays whatever they wanted.

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck ...

With respect to Mays' performance at whatever position it is he's playing that the linebackers coach is coaching him at, Guenther said, "He did good. He got in there. He didn't really miss a beat much. He did a good job for us."

Mays made three tackles last week as he came in on nickel situations.

Guenther remarked before the game about how he essentially had nine days to teach Mays his new role. For his entire pro career before last weekend, and for all of his college years, Mays had considered himself a safety only.

"Every week, it's just that he's getting better at it, at whatever you want to call what he's playing," Guenther said. "He did good, and hopefully he'll continue to grow in that role and he'll get better every week."

It bears mentioning that, after the tweak to Mays' role, the Bengals brought in several true outside linebackers and worked them out as they continue to assess their options after Lamur's injury. Free agents Thomas Howard, Tyrone McKenzie, Michael Boley and Leroy Hill reportedly worked out for Cincinnati in the past two weeks. None of them was signed.

One way to read it is that Mays must be doing a good enough job to keep whatever title it is he's currently holding.

"I just work the guys out," Guenther said. "If they decide to sign them, they sign."

OK, so we still haven't answered the question: What position is Mays playing?

Maybe Guenther had it right. Flip a five-cent coin; you decide.
Cincinnati cornerback Leon Hall remembers exactly how Bengals fans reacted one year ago next Tuesday when he and his teammates were blown out by Baltimore in their latest season opener.

"It wasn't a very good reaction," he said.

A 44-13 defeat to kick off what many thought would be a promising season will cause that.

But it wasn't just the way the Bengals lost that left many smarting. It was the fact that for the fourth time in five seasons, their team failed to place a "W" on the ledger to start off a year.

When they go to Chicago on Sunday, the Bengals will be out to reverse that horrid opening-day trend as they once again attempt to state their case for being the best team in the AFC North.

"The last opener wasn't quite how we wanted it to end. We didn't play too well," linebacker Rey Maualuga said. "This will wash it away if we go out there and execute the game plan and leave with a win."

ESPN's "NFL Live" crew certainly believes the Bengals will scratch out a Week 1 win. Unanimously, the television show's three-man crew predicted a victory.

When it comes to learning lessons from last year's opener, safety/linebacker Taylor Mays said the Bengals "just have to take it to them."

"We had a good offseason and preseason [last year] and didn't punch first," Mays said about the 2012 opener. "You have to start fast."

Against Chicago, a team that sports an offense that likes to methodically dink and dunk its way downfield in short chunks, the Bengals may have to exercise patience if they begin the game on defense. If they start on offense, though, the Andy Dalton Air Show may need to commence.

One critical piece to the Bengals' passing game this season will be tight end Jermaine Gresham. The team's No. 2-leading pass-catcher last year, Gresham has certainly had his share of successes in Cincinnati's offense. He's also had his share of failures, highlighted most specifically by his trio of drops in January's AFC wild-card game.

While Gresham contends his "short-term memory" has made him forget much of last year's finale, it bears mentioning that he still can describe what was supposed to happen on every play call when a drop occurred. Few Bengals are more eager to see Sunday come around.

"It couldn't get here fast enough," Gresham said.

As disappointing as the first and last games were for the Bengals a year ago, they let them know that one of sports' oldest adages remains true: It isn't necessarily how you start; it's all about how you finish. After Cincinnati's Week 1 blowout, the team went 10-5 through the rest of the regular season before falling to the Texans in its only playoff game.

"You really can't look at the first game and say we are going to be great or we are going to be terrible," Hall said.

After Lamur loss, Bengals turn to Mays

September, 4, 2013
One of the favorite words in a football coach's dictionary is "cross-train." In Cincinnati this week, there has been a whole lot of it going on.

For the uninitiated to that bit of football nomenclature, cross-training occurs when players at one specific position are taught techniques at another. Days before the Bengals head to Soldier Field to open the 2013 season against the Chicago Bears, safety Taylor Mays has seen his share of it.

According to Mays, the Bengals long had designs of alternating him between the safety and linebacker positions. It was just a matter of when the learning would take place.

Enter last Thursday night, when, in Cincinnati's preseason finale, nickel linebacker Emmanuel Lamur went down in the first quarter with a shoulder injury so bad it finished him for the season. All of a sudden, as coaches began trying to set the 53-man roster, an opening appeared on the depth chart. Expecting to be down to just five linebackers entering the season, they began scrambling for a solution.

Part of that solution included working out a rehabbed Thomas Howard and young free agent Tyrone McKenzie on Tuesday. Either could fill the linebacker hole at any time. For now, though, it doesn't appear they will. Cincinnati's big fix will come from within.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Mays
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesTaylor Mays said his move from safety to nickel linebacker in Cincinnati's system could be a natural fit.
"Next guy up's gotta play. Whoever it may be," linebackers coach Paul Guenther said Wednesday afternoon. "Whether it’s a backup player or a guy who we’re putting in at a new spot. Chicago’s not going to feel bad for us. So we’ve got to get the guys ready to play."

Part of getting each of his linebackers ready for the opener means making sure they each know and understand multiple roles and multiple positions. That's where cross-training comes into play.

"We kind of train guys to know all the positions," Guenther said. "That’s how I teach it from Day 1. It’s kind of putting guys in different situations. The techniques and responsibilities are similar in what we’re doing. If they learn the techniques and understand the difference in the formations and the motions or whatever that may be, it’ll be just like in practice."

Rey Maualuga, a fifth-year veteran who has starred in Guenther's system at middle linebacker, echoed those sentiments. Now that Cincinnati's linebacker numbers are down, the knowledge of concepts at the Mike, Will, Sam and nickel positions becomes paramount for each of the Bengals' 'backers.

"We’ve just got to make sure to know every single position on the field so if somebody goes down, you might be thrown into that spot you’ve never played before," Maualuga said.

Mays has never played linebacker. He didn't during his first two seasons with the Bengals, despite insistence from some fans who were puzzled that the 6-foot-3, 220-pound defensive back hadn't made the switch. He didn't play it in college, either, despite leading USC in tackles as a senior with 96.

Despite lacking linebacker experience, Mays feels very confident he'll learn Guenther's techniques and will shine at the nickel linebacker position.

"It's definitely exciting," Mays said. "Maybe naturally, for me, it's a little better [fit]. I'm more in the box and it could be a better position for me. I felt good about it and excited. It's the kind of plays that I can make."

Mays didn't seem comfortable at safety in the preseason, and at times drew the ire of fans who still wanted to see him moved. Through those four games, he had 10 total tackles, including a sack.

At the nickel linebacker spot, one that Guenther contends will see an occasional rotation featuring Maualuga and Will linebacker Vontaze Burfict, Mays will be required to cover receivers and tight ends. His experience as a safety may make him more suited for that job than the more physical, run-stopping Maualuga and the defense-setting Burfict. At the position, Mays also will play closer to the line of scrimmage, enabling him to have a presence in certain blitz packages.

"It's the same thing as when a safety inserts into the box," Mays said. "Some of the run-gap fits are a little different. Paul does a great job of teaching and making things simple. I've been picking it up quick."

Guenther's teaching methods include getting into a gymnasium with Mays and simulating coverages and formations by using chairs and other inanimate fill-ins. It was the same approach the coach took last season when he quickly had to move Burfict into an outside linebacker's role after Howard went down with a season-ending injury to his anterior cruciate ligament.

"He’ll be fine," Guenther said of Mays. "He’s the same body type as E-man, the same ability as far as his coverage. So he can play in the back half on some of the things. He’s a versatile guy. Really, I’m doing the same thing with Taylor that I’m doing with Vontaze. We’re getting him ready the same way. It worked last year, so hopefully it’ll work this year."
The third preseason game, which is often considered the dress rehearsal, was more of a disaster at times for the Baltimore Ravens in a 34-27 loss to Carolina on Thursday night. You can click here for my observations on the game. For what's happening around the division, here's the wake-up call ...

RAVENS: The Baltimore Sun's Mike Preston believes the Ravens failed Thursday night to build any sort of offensive momentum heading into the regular season. "There is no need to panic yet, because most offenses are behind the defenses at this time of year, and the Ravens have some proven commodities with [Joe] Flacco, running back Ray Rice, fullback Vonta Leach and receiver Torrey Smith," Preston wrote. "But you'd at least like to see more life in the offense, and so far there hasn't been much."

BENGALS: Taylor Mays is no lock to survive the final cutdown, and the final two preseason games could determine the safety's fate. "If they went with four [safeties], Mays could be on the bubble," wrote Joe Reedy of The Cincinnati Enquirer. "Reggie Nelson, George Iloka and Shawn Williams figure to be locks with Mays and Jeromy Miles vying for a spot. Miles saw the second-most snaps on special teams during the regular season and was second in tackles."

STEELERS: Ben Roethlisberger is the oldest and most experienced quarterback on the Steelers for the first time since he entered the league in 2004. He is the player responsible for making sure the new quarterbacks -- Bruce Gradkowski, Landry Jones and John Parker Wilson -- know what they're doing. "It's definitely different," Roethlisberger told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I wish I knew the offense even better than I do, just because I feel I know my answers will be even more right. I do the best I can to talk with Todd, to know the answers, so I can help these guys because they come to me and ask. And even if they don't come and ask, even in practice, if I see something, I'll come up to them and say, 'Do this,' or 'I'm thinking do this.' It helps to have that growth in this offense."

BROWNS: Wide receiver Greg Little said he will act more responsibly after it was reported that he wrecked his car driving 127 mph, which was more than 70 mph over the legal speed limit. "It's obviously something that I've got to take very seriously and slow my speeds down and be cautious of others on the road," Little said, via The Plain Dealer. "I could have seriously put my life and other lives in danger." Little was cited in April for drag racing after he crashed his expensive, high-performance Audi into a guardrail, took out a light pole and left more than 40 yards of brake tracks, according to a police report. Little was not hurt in the crash, which records say took place at 2:47 a.m., but said he understands his behavior was unacceptable.

What to watch: Bengals-Falcons

August, 8, 2013
A look at what to keep an eye on for Thursday night's preseason opener between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Atlanta Falcons, which will air on ESPN at 8 p.m.:

1. Backup quarterback job. The Bengals are set with Andy Dalton as their starter, and he is expected to go a couple of series. Then, it's time to get a look at who is going to be backing up Dalton. Josh Johnson has the edge over John Skelton so far in training camp, and that was to be expected. He has a better understanding of the offense, having played under Jay Gruden in Tampa in 2008. Skelton has never played in a West Coast offense, but has more game experience than Johnson. I'm interested to see if Skelton closes the gap tonight.

2. Strong safety competition. This looks like a three-player race now with George Iloka, Taylor Mays and rookie Shawn Williams. Iloka is currently atop the team's depth chart, and it's assumed that he will get the start. But Williams has looked very good at times in camp and seems to be a better fit at strong safety because of his physical style. I wouldn't be surprised if the third-round pick out of Georgia moves up the depth chart if he can make some plays in the preseason.

3. Wide receiver depth. There will be plenty of opportunity for the young receivers to impress. A.J. Green (knee) and Andrew Hawkins (ankle), two of the team's top three receivers, didn't make the trip to Atlanta. Another promising wideout, Marvin Jones (hamstring), is doubtful to play. Mohamed Sanu, who is expected to start opposite Green in the regular season, is the most experienced receiver who will be suiting up. For most of the game though, expect to see Dane Sanzenbacher, Cobi Hamilton and Ryan Whalen trying to state their case to make the team.