Cincinnati Bengals: kevin zeitler

CINCINNATI -- If you had the opportunity to watch the Cincinnati Bengals' open training camp practices earlier this month, you probably heard one word shouted more frequently and more emphatically than any other.

Finish!

[+] EnlargeBengals offensive line
AP Photo/Tom UhlmanThe blocking by the Bengals' offensive linemen won't just be focused at the line of scrimmage in 2014.
It was a command most often given by offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, receivers coach James Urban and running backs coach Kyle Caskey. Their goal: to get the skill players on offense to continue running downfield even if they had been "tackled" or stood up by a defender or series of defenders who had touched them down. That encouragement was referenced in this ESPN.com story last month on running back Rex Burkhead, the now-injured back who was upheld as an example of finishing practice-play runs even after he got knocked down.

Running backs and receivers weren't the only ones prodded to keep going, though. Offensive linemen were, too. If the 300-pound blockers get up and down the field the way they have so far this preseason, the Bengals believe they will be in good shape when the regular season starts.

"It's an emphasis every team has this time of year, but the key is we're working hard to actually get it done," right guard Kevin Zeitler said. "As you know, we had a couple of fumbling issues at times last year and it would have been nice if we had been there to pick them up."

Fumbles and the possibility of having linemen there to help scoop them up aren't the only reasons behind the added push to get linemen downfield. By getting linemen automatically running downfield, the pace of the Bengals' no-huddle offense could get quickened, too. Additionally, Jackson believes that by getting all of his players to flow to wherever the football is, he'll enhance the intensity and aggressive nature he's trying to instill in Cincinnati's offense.

"That's how you get bigger runs," he added.

In a recent film session he showed evidence of what downfield blocking can do. He put on screen one lengthy Bengals run that was sparked in part by receiver A.J. Green, who rode a defender into the sideline, helping open an alley.

"To me when our star players do that, it shows that they're into it like everybody else," Jackson said.

"It's just got to be the mindset. It's my mindset," he added Monday. "You've got to become that and do it every day. It can't be a sometime thing. I told the guys this morning, if you're going to play on our offensive football team, you've got to demonstrate those characteristics, and they have."

One of the in-game instances of finishing that Zeitler was proud of came in the first quarter of Saturday's 25-17 loss to the Jets after he and center Russell Bodine had trouble holding off defenders at the line of scrimmage. As a result of their issue at the snap, a screen pass to the right to tight end Jermaine Gresham very nearly resulted in a lost-yardage play. But because Zeilter and Bodine didn't resign themselves to the play being over, they cleared a post-catch hole that Gresham scooted through to turn an apparent negative play into a 9-yard gain.

Quarterback Andy Dalton has noticed the extra attention his linemen have made in trying to get down the field even after the ball has been thrown, and believes it's paying off. So does veteran leader and Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who echoed Jackson's sentiments when he pushed Jackson's desire to get the entire unit to showcase that scrappy style of play.

Whitworth would rather point to some of the less recognizable intangibles like players finishing to Jackson's liking, as a theory behind why the first-team offense has looked so impressive through two preseason games. Dalton's stats, including his perfect passer rating last weekend, are good, Whitworth said. But they wouldn't be so high if it weren't, in part, for some of what Jackson is reinforcing.

"That kind of thing," Whitworth said, "is the kind of mentality that helps you win football games."
After looking at position battles in Part 1 of our final mailbag series before training camp begins, we open Part 2 with a look at the competition at the most talked about position on any football team: quarterback. Let's just get down to it: @ColeyHarvey: To answer your question, Jarrett, I'll give a simple "No." Chances are there won't be any competition between Andy Dalton and AJ McCarron at quarterback, at least not this year. The Bengals have stated rather emphatically this offseason that they believe Dalton is their man at the position. Although that hasn't yet translated to a contract extension for him, I'd still listen to their insistence about that if I were you or anyone else. That of course probably annoys some Bengals fans, but the fact of the matter is that the franchise chooses to cling to the good memories their star has given them. They think he can build upon them this year; not McCarron and not fellow backup Jason Campbell. It is worth noting that the additions of Campbell and McCarron behind Dalton give the Bengals greater assurance about the depth at the position than they have had in some time. It's also worth noting that during minicamp and organized team activities, McCarron was never in a position to challenge Dalton. He was recovering from an arm injury and learning his playbook. Campbell got his share of snaps, but the bulk of the reps went to Dalton. That might change a little in training camp, but don't read too far into it. Dalton probably will be sharing a lot more practice reps with the others, but that's only so the Bengals can keep him as fresh as possible for the regular season. It's much the same reason as to why you'll see other punters and kickers participating in camp as much as, if not more than the actual starters, Kevin Huber and Mike Nugent. @ColeyHarvey: I actually think the tight end production has been rather sound of late, Bill. As an example, here's a blog from earlier this offseason about just how good Jermaine Gresham has been in the red zone. That said, did the Bengals' production from their tight ends decrease over the course of last season? Absolutely. After catching a combined 54 passes through the first eight games, the tight ends had only 35 in the second eight. They also had three drops in the second half of the year, as opposed to two in the first. But none of that suggests there's something wrong with the position, the players or the coach, assistant Jonathan Hayes. I'd say the combination of scheme alterations and injuries affected a lot of what the Bengals were able to do with their tight ends down the stretch last season. Remember both Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham missed time in the season finale with injuries. It also didn't help their cause much that other playmakers like receiver Marvin Jones emerged in the second half, taking some of their opportunities. The Bengals definitely would like greater production from their tight ends and believe they'll get it. Expectations are high for Eifert to emerge here in Year 2, and Gresham could very well be playing for a contract as he enters the final year of his rookie deal. While the Bengals are hoping to get more efficient plays via deep passes to outside receivers and yard-after-catch-generating screens to players out of the backfield, you can be assured they will have plays drawn up for the tight ends. Will you see either of the tight ends put up Jimmy Graham-like numbers? No. But don't worry, they ought to be effective, but primarily in certain situations. @ColeyHarvey: Interesting that you ask about Kevin Zeitler, NatiBuck513. We profiled him in this story from Friday. Zeitler told me last month that he dedicated his offseason to getting in better shape than he was last year. That's not to say he was in awful shape in 2013. He just felt that he was a little heavier than normal, and not as lean as he knows he can be. So, to get back to an old version of himself, he worked on his diet. It seems to have paid off. You know how jarring it is sometimes when you see someone you haven't seen for a while and they look noticeably different -- for better or for worse -- when you do see them again? That's how it was with Zeitler when I saw him at the start of the OTA schedule back in May. Why do I mention all of this? Well, because I do think that he could be in for a solid year as long as the mental matches the physical. If he's able to hone his play like he's honed his body, and if he's able to be a little more vocal and assertive on the line, then he's got a good chance to have that type of season. The question is, will Pro Bowl voters across the country recognize his exploits in Cincinnati? If the Bengals play well enough offensively, they will. @ColeyHarvey: I'm not 100 percent, TRL, but I don't believe ESPN is the only outlet with writers and commentators who see the AFC North having other legitimate contenders. I will say that I have gone on record a couple of times this summer as having said I believe the Steelers are improved and that I just can't see Pittsburgh's coaches, players, ownership and fans standing much more for the types of seasons the franchise has had the last two years. Offensive line injuries and a horrid rushing attack hurt the Steelers the most last season, and they devoted part of the offseason to bolstering that. They also added a solid outside linebacker in Ryan Shazier in the draft. In short, they may not have made themselves drastically better, but the Steelers have the pieces to be a better team this year. That, combined with the Bengals' slightly more challenging 2014 schedule makes me think the division will come down to the Dec. 28 regular-season finale at Pittsburgh. As for the Ravens, they'll be competitive, but the Bengals' real threat for the division crown is in the Steel City. 
CINCINNATI -- Kevin Zeitler's biggest food critic has noticed some improvements to his cooking in recent months.

What are the culinary upgrades the Cincinnati Bengals right guard has made? He has been told by his wife, Sara, that he now apparently makes the world's best scrambled eggs.

You were expecting something more? You were expecting to read something like Tagliatelle pasta with porcini mushrooms and a white truffle sauce? Or Chicken Provencal, made with fresh rosemary, thyme and parsley? Baby steps. Zeitler has to start somewhere. He contends the growth from his once "basic" cooking skills haven't yet turned him into the head chef of a five-star restaurant.

What he has turned into, though, is a careful cooker, a cautious eater, and most importantly, his old lean self.

[+] EnlargeKevin Zeitler
AP Photo/Al BehrmanKevin Zeitler says he added weight while injured last season but consulted a nutritionist and will enter this season leaner and stronger.
Zeitler dedicated this offseason to improving his diet after dealing with a foot injury last fall that derailed most of the latter half of his 2013 season.

"I took a hard approach to my nutrition," Zeitler said. "I got a little heavy last year with the injury and everything. I met with a couple nutritionists and did everything I could to get my body back to what it naturally is.

"I'm naturally lean."

Zeitler was listed at 315 pounds last season, and remains there entering next week's training camp, per Bengals.com. He believes his body fat percentage was a little elevated, as well as his in-season weight, affecting his ability not only to avoid the injury but to recover from it.

"It was a mix of things. I got married last year so maybe my metabolism just automatically dropped from that," Zeitler said, laughing. "I don't know. But I'm back on track and everything is good right now."

He was banged up in the Bengals' overtime loss at Baltimore early last November and ended up missing the next four games. Even when he returned in Week 16, the foot wasn't as healed as he had hoped.

While he still averaged 50 snaps in the three games he was able to play after his return (that includes the wild-card round loss to San Diego), Zeitler still wasn't playing at the capacity he had been before the injury. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he was part of all 93 Week 9 snaps at Miami, and even gutted out every snap in the game at Baltimore the week after when he was injured.

Zeitler missed only 10 snaps in the 10 games he played before the injury, per ESPN Stats & Information. After his return, he missed 62 in the three games he played. Part of that drop could be attributed to the emergence of Mike Pollak, the backup who impressed coaches with the way he filled in for Zeitler. In an effort to keep the hot Pollak in the rotation, Zeitler was forced into splitting snaps after his return.

It doesn't appear Zeitler has to worry about competition from Pollak this training camp as it appears the veteran reserve Pollak will be moving to center. While the Bengals haven't formally indicated such a move will happen, it has been expected Pollak will play there following Kyle Cook's release earlier this offseason. Pollak has experience at both center and guard. He didn't get a chance to work at either position in the spring, though, as he dealt with a knee injury he expects to be rid of once camp starts on Thursday.

With respect to his diet changes, Zeitler said he was compelled to make them precisely because of the way the season ended -- without major contributions from him and with another first-round playoff loss.

"It's just been a very get-after-it offseason," he said. "I didn't like how the season went for us."

In order to meet his goal of trimming the fat and getting back in his peak, lean shape, Zeitler studied as many diet plans as he could. Unlike Bengals such as A.J. Green and Carlos Dunlap, he didn't want to hire a personal chef to make meals for him. He wanted to forge this path on his own.

"Cooking is a life skill. You need that for afterwards anyway," Zeitler said. "I knew a lot of basics, but if you ever look at a nutrition magazine, there's only 10,000 ways of people doing things. I just wanted to get myself on a more focused path and just made up a plan. It told me what to eat and I took care of all that. I took care of all the cooking myself."

That means you won't find many add-ons in meals Zeitler makes. He's avoiding additional salt and unnecessary seasonings on his dishes. He isn't, however, avoiding meats and carbohydrates.

"It's more of a bodybuilder style," Zeitler said of his diet, adding that Cincinnati-based nutritionist and gym owner Jim Riggs was among those he consulted when looking into his eating changes. "It's just pretty much eating every three to four hours, and it's just a higher protein intake and still a good amount of carbs. You eat more, but you lose. It's a crazy thing."
CINCINNATI -- Russell Bodine has yet to send back a snap in an NFL game, but the Cincinnati Bengals rookie center has already learned an important lesson about playing his position: Avoid drawing too much attention.

[+] EnlargeRussell Bodine
AP Photo/Michael ConroyThe Bengals like what they see in their fourth-round pick, center Russell Bodine.
"If they don't even know my name, that's all right," Bodine said. "Don't mess anything up. That's about the only way they figure out who you are."

Bodine has nonetheless drawn his share of attention in the month that he's spent in Cincinnati. A fourth-round draft pick out of North Carolina, the young center had his share of eyeballs during this spring's organized team activities and minicamp practices. With veteran Mike Pollak nursing a knee injury, Bodine made an early push to win the team's starting center position battle.

Since the Bengals concluded their on-field practices Tuesday, Bodine and other possible starting centers have to wait until sometime in August before they figure out exactly where they stand in the coaches' minds. For now, we at least know that offensive coordinator Hue Jackson believes Bodine is a good prospect who has all the potential in the world to factor into the Bengals' offensive future.

"He has the characteristics we are looking for in a center," Jackson said.

Among the areas that Bodine struggled at times with this spring was his ability to snap the ball cleanly to quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Jason Campbell, the two signal callers he spent the most time snapping to during OTAs and minicamp. During Monday's open OTA, Bodine sailed one snap over Dalton's head and sent another to the quarterback's feet. After talking through the miscues with Dalton and offensive line coach Paul Alexander, Bodine finished the practice much cleaner.

"He's got to get the ball to the quarterback right," Jackson said. "He can't play center if you don't snap the ball correctly. He's working at it and he's done a good job. But he's got to become a little more consistent on an everyday basis."

Bodine, a member of NFL Draft Report's All-American Sleeper Team earlier this year, agreed with Jackson's assessment. Part of the problem, Bodine said, has been the fact that he's still learning the audible calls and line checks that will be unique to the Bengals' new offense under Jackson. As an offense that wants to get plays called quickly and to the line of scrimmage early in the play call, the Bengals' scheme will rely on a bevy of pre-check reads and the quarterback and center's ability to make sure the play is perfectly set up before it gets run.

That's a little different than what Bodine is used to. In college, Bodine's Tar Heels liked to get to the line quickly, too, but they often snapped the ball right away and ran a play. There weren't as many pre-check assignment reads and changes as he's been dealing with since getting drafted.

"In the offense I ran in college, we didn't change plays. We'd call a play, we'd get up there and our goal was to run a play every 12 seconds," Bodine said. "So there wasn't a whole lot of checking and audibiling at the line of scrimmage or anything like that. Handling those checks is big for me. It's definitely the most difficult aspect right now. When that play changes, all my calls change and I've got to get everybody on the same page, and that's been the most difficult thing."

When Jay Gruden was still the Bengals' offensive coordinator, he used to regularly say that one of the more underrated aspects of longtime Bengals center Kyle Cook's game was his ability to see the field and to make the proper pre-snap calls. Cook may not have been the best center physically speaking -- which led to his release earlier this offseason -- but from a cerebral standpoint, he was considered a star among his peers.

The Bengals are hoping that Bodine, who has been praised for his brute strength and savage physicality, will become even sharper at the mental aspects of the position.

"I don't think anything's jarring to him. He's doing well," said right guard Kevin Zeitler, who lined up next to Bodine often this spring. "He's got the basics down. A lot of offenses are very similar from college to the NFL, it's just different terminology. Sometimes it's just making the right call, or if there isn't the right call to make, it's just communicating."

For Zeitler, a lineman not known for being verbal at the line, having the rookie next to him had an unintended positive impact. Zeitler was forced to open his mouth and talk more.

"It was Whit who was saying it's given Zeitler a chance to come out of his shell because he was having to make some calls," Pollak said. "The last couple of years he's had Cook to rely on. Now he has to make sure Bodine is doing the right thing, which is good for Zeit."

Pollak expects to be at full health late next month when training camp starts, but he knows he'll have a real position battle if coaches put him at center. For now, the recently re-signed lineman isn't sure whether he'll be called upon to play center or guard. He has experience at both positions, although he's never made a starting snap from center. With Clint Boling possibly out for most if not all of training camp, Pollak could find himself at left guard when the Bengals return to Paul Brown Stadium.

"I'm just ready to come wherever they need me to go," Pollak said. "They brought in Bodine and he's doing a great job, and if they want to go with him at center, great. But I'm going to be ready to go at center or guard, wherever they need me."

When Bodine practices next month, he doesn't want to be coddled like a first-year player.

"My goal is not to be a good rookie," Bodine said. "My goal is to be a good player. The rookie thing doesn't really mean anything to me. I'm going to go out there and I'm going to try and make strides in the right direction. I'm going to learn everything there is to learn as quickly as I can learn it."
CINCINNATI -- For a while now I've been hoping to sit down and give you a nice breakdown of the history of the NFL draft's No. 24 pick. That, as you well know, is the spot where the Cincinnati Bengals will be making their first-round selection Thursday night.

A modest hat tip to CBS Sports' Will Brinson for giving me some added motivation to finally dive a little deeper into this pick.

Analysis from Brinson vis-a-vis Pro Football Reference's career approximate value -- a numerical value Pro Football Reference has devised to show a player's overall value over time -- shows that since 2002, the 24th pick in the draft has gone on to have a better career than most of the other 31 picks.

According to Brinson's calculations, since 2002, the 24th pick has a higher career approximate value than every pick other than the 11th. The career approximate value for the 24th pick across that time span is 46. The value for the No. 11 pick is 49. If you're the Bengals, what's one takeaway from those numbers?

Don't trade away the 24th pick.

Right now, there's no indication the Bengals are even planning on making any draft-day trades. Besides, doing so isn't really in their DNA. It's simply not a common practice for them. They've only pulled two draft-day trades since 2004, the same year they shipped away a familiar pick -- No. 24 -- to St. Louis in exchange for the No. 26 and 123 selections.

That year, both the Rams and Bengals picked running backs at 24 and 26. St. Louis took Steven Jackson, a back who rattled off eight straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons between 2005 and 2012. He's still in the league. Cincinnati took Chris Perry, a player who hasn't been in the NFL since 2008. He started only nine games in his four-year career.

Perry's career approximate value: nine. Jackson's: 70.

There you go.

While that trade may not have worked out for the Bengals, it's worth noting that the other, the 2012 trade down from 21st to 27th, did. The Bengals wanted guard Kevin Zeitler with their 21st pick and traded down with the Patriots to 27. They got Zeitler there anyway, and he's been a starter since.

Other players who have been selected at 24th overall include Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (88 CAV, drafted in 2005), longtime Ravens safety Ed Reed (108 CAV, drafted in 2002) and current Jets running back Chris Johnson (63 CAV, drafted in 2008). Dez Bryant, Dallas Clark, Cameron Jordan, Brandon Meriweather, Eric Moulds, Craig Heyward, J.T. Thomas, Calvin Hill and the late Korey Stringer are among those who also have been selected at No. 24.

In 2006, the Bengals took cornerback Johnathan Joseph with the 24th pick. Running back Archie Griffin was selected there in 1976.

You can read Brinson's full post here. It goes into a little bit of a deeper breakdown of the overall draft and uses charts and graphs to do so. One final bit of analysis from there that I will point out here, though, is the fact that the 24th pick is home to the third-most All-Pro selections since 2002. There have been 25 All-Pro players who were picked at 24 in the last 12 drafts. The pick slot with the most All-Pros since then (with 30) was the No. 3 overall selection.

Does being the No. 24 pick alone impact how good a player's career is and can be? No. Not in the least.

But this is at least a sign that there's no need to panic. Even late in the first round, the Bengals can theoretically find a true gem. Will they find one this year? And if so, which one? Only three more days until we find out.
CINCINNATI -- Now that the Cincinnati Bengals' free-agency efforts are nearly wrapped up following Dane Sanzenbacher's re-signing Tuesday, we turn our attention to the NFL draft.

As drafts go, this ought to be a relatively painless one for the Bengals. They enter it with few needs and are focused on bringing in players who have potential, but will likely be kept on the bench until some veteran starters depart.

Depth is the issue in this draft for the Bengals; not instant impact.

That hasn't always been the case for them, though. At various points during coach Marvin Lewis' 11-year tenure the Bengals have needed players who could come in and start from Week 1 of their first season. Quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green are prime examples. The two 2011 picks were selected with the expectation they could jump right in and start establishing themselves as the franchise's quarterback-receiving tandem of the future.

Part of the reason the Bengals have sought players who could start right away across the past 11 drafts is because early in Lewis' career the Bengals were rallying back from the disappointment of the 1990s. High draft picks were a near certainty in those early seasons under Lewis, so when Carson Palmer was taken first overall in 2003, it was because the Bengals were seeking a new direction and someone who had the tools to take them there right away.

The chart below offers a quick look at the Bengals' first-round picks under Lewis.

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CINCINNATI -- We've talked often in this space about the Cincinnati Bengals' recent draft efforts and the inroads they have made toward building their roster.

So, with less than a month until the 2014 draft, we've been taking a look back at how those draft classes came together. Thirty-two players on the team were drafted by the Bengals in the past 10 drafts. Robert Geathers is the oldest homegrown product; he was selected in the fourth round in 2004.

We started this look at the Bengals' recent drafts last week with the 2006 class. Then followed it with reviews of the 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 drafts. Wednesday is all about the 2012 group headlined by Dre Kirkpatrick, Kevin Zeitler and Mohamed Sanu.

We're using Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value statistic to help evaluate how valuable a pick each player has been. The AV statistic is a unique metric that assigns value to each season of a player's career, and averages it out. The higher the number, the better.

First-round picks: No. 17 overall (Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama ... on roster); No. 27 overall (Zeitler, OG, Wisconsin ... on roster)

Number of picks: 10

Highest player AV: Zeitler, AV of 14 (Zeitler's career AV ranks 20th in the draft class; Seahawks QB Russell Wilson has highest AV with a 31)

Jones
How they fared: So far so good for the Bengals' 2012 class. All 10 selections not only spent the full 2012 season on Cincinnati's roster, but they all also accrued NFL service in 2013, too. Sixth-round pick Dan Herron and fifth-round pick Shaun Prater were the only ones who didn't play all of last season with the Bengals. They were waived near the start of the season and were quickly picked up by Indianapolis and Baltimore, respectively. There hasn't been enough time to declare each of the drafted players true successes or failures, but the potential that exists on the 2012 class is rather strong. Kirkpatrick received significant playing time at the end of last season and figures to be a long-term option at cornerback. Zeitler started every game his rookie season and might have done the same last season had a foot injury not derailed a big chunk of his year. Receivers Mohamed Sanu (third round) and Marvin Jones (fifth round), and safety George Iloka (fifth round) have played key roles the past two seasons and appear to be in the organization's long-term plans.

Pivotal pick: It might be best to call the "pivotal pick" the "underrated pick" instead. It is amazing that the Bengals got Jones where they did. The former Cal wide out has been an important part of Cincinnati's offense throughout his brief career. But it was his 51-catch, 712-yard performance last season that seemed to solidify his place in the Bengals' passing plans. Jones had 10 touchdown receptions last season, including a team-record four against the Jets in a 40-point blowout. Not only did he become a fantasy football dream after that game, but he started drawing more attention from opposing defenses. By the end of the season, he figured out how to better handle the additional attention, giving the Bengals a viable receiving option behind A.J. Green.

Zeitler
Best pick: It's tempting -- quite tempting -- to say Jones has been the best pick. He does, after all, have numbers that could be considered the best of anyone else the Bengals drafted in 2012. Kirkpatrick hasn't had enough playing time to keep up with Jones, and neither have defensive tackles Devon Still (second round) and Brandon Thompson (third round). Orson Charles (fourth round) has moved around from tight end to H-back and barely seen the field at either spot. Iloka simply hasn't had the turnover numbers to be considered the best player of this draft class. For the sake of picking another player, though, we'll say Zeitler has been the best pick of the 2012 class because he's earned the opportunities to prove himself. He started as a rookie and contributed to an offensive line that has steadily improved the past two seasons. He's expected to remain the starter at right guard this fall with his fellow right guard, Mike Pollak, believed to be moving to center.

Worst pick: Like we mentioned before, there really hasn't been enough time to evaluate this class. Two years isn't a very large sample size, and each of these players has proven they have some measure ability. Since they were the two who were let go by the Bengals, perhaps a case could be made for Prater and Herron as the class' worst picks.
With the offseason here, we've been spending the last week taking a position-by-position review of the Cincinnati Bengals' 2013 season and give a sneak peek at what may lie ahead in 2014.

After quarterbacks Monday, running backs Tuesday, receivers Wednesday, tight ends Thursday and offensive tackles Friday, up next:

OFFENSIVE GUARDS/CENTERS

2014 free agents: Mike Pollak

The good: Much like the Bengals' tackles, the centers and guards also had strong showings in 2013. When it came to pass protection, Pro Football Focus rated the Bengals as having the NFL's best offensive line during the regular season. Run blocking wasn't as good, but the Bengals still were able to move piles at times when they attacked the interior of the line of scrimmage. The deeper into the season, the better the line's interior was at providing enough push for running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard. When left tackle Andrew Whitworth moved from left tackle to left guard, the Bengals' inside running game made certain strides, as well. Whitworth's versatility was a good thing for both the interior and exterior portions of the line. There were times late in the season when he played both tackle and guard in the same game.

Zeitler
The bad: Even though the Bengals were rated as having the best pass protection in the league, some of their occasional issues with respect to sacks and stunts and missed blitz pickups came from their guard positions. One of the more notable sacks of the season came on the final play of the Bengals' 22-20 overtime loss at Miami on Halloween. Right guard Kevin Zeitler wasn't prepared for Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake to stunt inside. When Wake did, he pushed easily past Zeitler and tackled quarterback Andy Dalton in the end zone for a rare walk-off safety. While the sacks weren't a glaring issue for the centers and guards, injuries were. Zeitler missed multiple games in the second half of the season with a foot injury, and Pollak was unable to play the first half of the season because of a knee issue. Left guard Clint Boling went down for the year in the Week 13 win over the Chargers, forcing Whitworth to be moved to his spot the remainder of the season.

The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Cook ($3.3 million), Zeitler ($2.1 million), Boling ($765,362), Trevor Robinson ($572,000), Tanner Hawkinson ($540,606). Cook will be returning as the team's starting center in 2014, but Robinson's rather solid, meaningful snaps in place of the injured Cook during the regular-season finale make him a good enough backup. Robinson will be playing the final year of his contract this coming season and could be playing for a chance to remain with the team more long term. Cook turns 31 just before the start of the season. Robinson will be 24 in May. Pollak's strong play in relief of Zeitler, as well as his ability to play center and guard make him a real candidate for being re-signed this offseason. If Pollak remains with the team, the Bengals could have a real logjam at guard with Zeitler scheduled to return for his third season, and Boling due to come back from an ACL injury at some point next season. If Whitworth is in the mix at left guard -- which is a distinct possibility -- the Bengals could have some tough decisions to make regarding which interior linemen they want to keep going forward.

Draft priority: Moderate. Just like offensive tackles, a team can never have too many guards or centers. It's possible that at least one interior lineman gets drafted to keep the Bengals' depth strong, but that decision is partially dependent upon what the Bengals do about Whitworth and Pollak. Cincinnati has spent the last three drafts shoring up their offensive line. So far, it's paid off.
Now that the Cincinnati Bengals' season has ended, and coaching changes have kicked off the unofficial start to the offseason, we're counting down the 10 plays that helped shape the Bengals' 11-5, AFC North championship season.

Big plays, particularly those from Cincinnati's defense, and explosive ones from the likes of Giovani Bernard, were critical to the way 2013 played out.

As is the case with most top 10 lists, determining these plays was completely subjective. They could be placed in virtually any slot among these 10, or not among them at all. Some certainly won't make the cut that many believe should. It's the nature of lists. Somewhere a cut off has to come. Anyway, let's get back to it, with No. 8:

ANDY DALTON'S SAFETY SACK

Dalton
Dalton
When: Oct. 31, 2013

Where: Sun Life Stadium, where the Bengals lost to the Miami Dolphins in overtime, 22-20.

What happened: Remember, this is called "Ten plays that shaped the Bengals' year." Plays that shape and frame the way a season aren't always going to be good ones. When you have a mostly successful year like the Bengals did, though, they aren't all bad, either.

For now, we look back at the third-down Dolphins rush that resulted in a walk-off sack for a safety. On the play, a third-and-10 from the shadows of the Bengals' own end zone, Miami defensive end Cameron Wake stunted inside on a rush that brought him away from right offensive tackle Andre Smith, and directly into right guard Kevin Zeitler. It didn't appear Zeitler was ready for the move, and as Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton dropped back to the goal line to pass, the offensive lineman was driven backwards. Without good leverage, Zeitler couldn't keep Wake out of the backfield, and the Pro Bowl end sprinted right on by, diving toward Dalton and slamming him to the end zone turf.

Right away, officials signaled for a safety, claiming that Dalton was brought down beyond the goal line. Since it was a scoring play, though, the replay booth was forced to review whether the ball was in front of the plane of the goal line when Dalton was hit. It was close. After careful review, officials determined that the ball had broken the plane when forward progress was stopped. He was stopped in the end zone. Had officials been able to see the ball in front of the goal line and not in the end zone -- even if Dalton's body was in it -- they would have been able to signal the ball down at the Bengals 1. That would have led to a fourth down, a looming punt, and the possibility to still hang on in a 20-20 tie for a chance to win. More than six minutes remained in the overtime when the sack came.

What they said about it: Dalton: "My eyes were downfield, and he [Wake] was there pretty quick." (Dalton added that he thought he was outside the end zone.)

Coach Marvin Lewis: "I thought the ball was out of the end zone. ... I don't get it, I don't know. That's from a quick look at the board. They got a better resolution to look at it than I do."

NFL head of officials Dean Blandino: "We had a great look at it, a shot right down the goal line. And when Wake first makes contact with Dalton, the ball is breaking the plane of the goal line. If any part of that ball is breaking the plane when the contact occurs, and he's driven back into the end zone, that's a safety."

Wake: "You just have to do whatever you can to get to the quarterback. [The sack] couldn't have come at a better time. How much better could it have been than to have a D-lineman seal the deal?"

How the Bengals' season was impacted: The loss stalled a four-game winning streak and kept alive the notions that the Bengals couldn't win big games and that they couldn't win on the road. Cincinnati dropped to 0-3 on the road following the defeat, and fell once again in a nationally televised contest. Although they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night earlier in the year, this Thursday night loss only added to the notion that Dalton wasn't a big-game quarterback. He had two interceptions in the game, including one that resulted in a pick-six thanks to a throw behind the intended receiver. This was the first of two overtime road losses in consecutive weeks, and signaled the end of "October Andy." Until this game, Dalton was stellar in the month of October. His 4-0 record and 11 touchdown passes in the month's first four games earned him AFC Player of the Month honors. He was awarded those honors hours before taking the field in South Florida. That loss ended up later impacting the Bengals' seeding in the playoffs.
CINCINNATI -- When the Cincinnati Bengals submitted their injury report Friday afternoon, they turned in their cleanest pregame list in six weeks.

As we've been reporting all week, only one player appears in jeopardy of not being able to play Sunday when the Bengals host the Indianapolis Colts in a key conference contest that could determine playoff seeding.
Zeitler
Offensive guard Kevin Zeitler, who has been trying to return the past three weeks from a foot injury suffered at Baltimore, was the only player given a playing prognosis that was worse than probable. Zeitler was listed as questionable. He practiced in a limited capacity Friday. It was the second straight day this week he was limited in workouts after being held strictly to conditioning exercises Wednesday.

After Friday's walkthrough, which was held inside the University of Cincinnati's football practice bubble because of freezing rain and snow that moved through the area, coach Marvin Lewis insisted Zeitler was "fine." He didn't give any indication as to whether the lineman might play this week.

The Bengals may not need him. Even though Cincinnati also lost left guard Clint Boling to a season-ending ACL injury last week and is now down two starting guards, the Bengals have done enough lineup shifting in the past few days to make up for the possibility of playing without both. When Boling was sidelined with his first-quarter injury, the Bengals last week moved left tackle Andrew Whitworth over to his spot and kept backup Mike Pollak at Zeitler's right guard spot. Whitworth and Pollak filled in admirably, helping Cincinnati turn in one of its best rushing outings of the season.

Odds are favorable that if Zeitler has to be shelved for a third straight game, the Bengals will feature that offensive line setup again. With Whitworth playing inside, backup tackle Anthony Collins would come off the bench again and play left tackle.

In addition to Zeitler's questionable listing, the Bengals also officially placed Boling as "Out" on the injury report. He was placed on injured reserve earlier this week. Seven other players also appear on there, but each have probable listings.

Here is Cincinnati's full Friday injury report:

OUT
OG Clint Boling (knee)

QUESTIONABLE
OG Kevin Zeitler (foot)

PROBABLE
WR A.J. Green (groin)
WR Andrew Hawkins (hamstring)
OL Andrew Whitworth (calf)
CB Adam Jones (hip)
LS Clark Harris (illness)
TE Tyler Eifert (knee)
LB Vontaze Burfict (ankle)
CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals finally are healthy.

And with the playoff chase heating up, now was a good time for health to return.

After a string of injuries forced the Bengals to adjust their rotations for the past two months, the roster is starting to resemble the team they had before key losses began to mount.

With guard Kevin Zeitler's return to practice Thursday, Cincinnati was operating at its highest level of participation since the week of Oct. 21, when they had just lost cornerback Leon Hall to a season-ending Achilles injury and defensive tackle Devon Still to a dislocated elbow that took about five weeks to heal.

Since then, linebacker Rey Maualuga recovered from his own long-term injury. The team also lost defensive back Taylor Mays, defensive tackle Geno Atkins and offensive guard Clint Boling to shoulder and ACL injuries.

On Thursday's injury report, only Zeitler, Andrew Whitworth and Andrew Hawkins were listed among those who practiced in a limited capacity. Every other Bengal was a full participant.

"It feels good to be back out there," said Zeitler, who was originally added to the parade of injured four weeks ago at Baltimore.

Zeitler pinpointed a moment late in the first quarter of the game as the time when he injured his foot. It came as he was blocking on a third-and-7 pass play with just less than two minutes remaining in the quarter. As quarterback Andy Dalton rolled out of the pocket to his right, the line started protecting in that direction, too. Seconds later, Dalton completed a screen pass to running back Giovani Bernard that was advanced seven yards. With Bernard diving for the first-down marker along the sideline, there was a question initially about whether he had gained a first down.

It was while waiting for officials to review that play that Zeitler remembered feeling something wrong.

"It's a play that on film, you never would have thought anything of it," Zeiter said. "But yeah, the foot popped and I could tell it was going to be bad when we got home."

Zeitler played through the pain and finished the game. It wasn't until the team returned to Cincinnati that he realized the extent of the injury.

"I couldn't walk when I got back to the stadium," Zeitler said.

He's unsure right now whether coaches and trainers will clear him to play this weekend, but he'll work on being ready.

"I'm just going to keep working in practice and they'll make the best decision for the team," Zeitler said. "Whether that's me getting in there, or that's Mike [Pollak], who has played amazing. Whatever's best for the team, that's what's going to happen. I'm just going to keep working every day, and eventually this thing will heal and I'll be good, 100 percent."

Zeitler has been replaced the last two games by Pollak, who started this year for the first time since 2011. With Boling's injury at San Diego last weekend, the Bengals' depth has taken a bit of a hit. To assist with that depth, particularly if Zeitler can't play Sunday, the Bengals on Tuesday re-signed lineman Dennis Roland.

Out
OG Clint Boling (knee)

Limited Practice Participation
WR Andrew Hawkins (hamstring)
OL Andrew Whitworth (calf)
OG Kevin Zeitler (foot)

Full Practice Participation
LB Vontaze Burfict (ankle)
TE Tyler Eifert (knee)
WR A.J. Green (groin)
CB Adam Jones (hip)
CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals are slowly, yet surely, getting back to what passes as full health this late in the season.

Right offensive guard Kevin Zeitler, who missed the last two games with a foot injury, participated in conditioning exercises on Wednesday as the rest of the team went through the first full workout of the week. It was a promising sign for the lineman who was inactive at San Diego over the weekend despite making the trip.

Officially, he was listed as having not participated in practice.

Also making the injury report for the first time since Sunday's 17-10 win over the Chargers was left guard Clint Boling. On Tuesday, he was moved to the injured reserve after tearing an ACL in the first quarter of the Week 13 game.

With Boling out and Zeitler's status still undetermined, the Bengals may be mixing up their offensive line rotation when they host the Indianapolis Colts this weekend. One way to replace Boling includes moving left tackle Andrew Whitworth to left guard and calling upon backup tackle Anthony Collins to slip into Whitworth's spot. Reserve Mike Pollak would start at right guard. All three played at those spots last week following Boling's injury and helped the Bengals pick up 164 yards of rushing offense. In the event Zeitler doesn't end up playing Sunday, Pollak will get another start in his spot.

There's a chance the Bengals may decide to keep Whitworth at left tackle and move Pollak to left guard in case Zeitler is able to play. Whatever the setup becomes, the Bengals are confident they will be fine on the line.

Six other players were listed as having practiced in limited capacity. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict, tight end Tyler Eifert, receivers A.J. Green and Andrew Hawkins , cornerback Adam Jones and Whitworth appeared on it, too. Green's injury has to do with his groin. While he suffered a mild hip pointer during last Sunday's game and has no other injuries. It's unclear when Green picked up the injury, but he does have some soreness in his groin this week.

Here's the full injury report:

Out
Clint Boling (knee)

Did Not Practice
OG Kevin Zeitler (foot)

Limited Practice
LB Vontaze Burfict (ankle)
TE Tyler Eifert (knee)
WR A.J. Green (groin)
WR Andrew Hawkins (hamstring)
CB Adam Jones (hip)
OL Andrew Whitworth (calf)
CINCINNATI -- The NFL's leading tackler could be missing in action this weekend due to an injury he suffered in practice Friday afternoon.

Vontaze Burfict, the Cincinnati Bengals' fiery defensive playmaker, suffered an ankle injury during the team's final walkthrough of the week. As a result of the tweak, he was limited in the workout and was listed as questionable on the subsequent injury report the Bengals provided.

Burfict entered the week leading the league in tackles with 118. In Cincinnati's previous game two weeks ago, he was arguably the defensive MVP, coming away with a game-high 15 tackles and forcing a fumble and recovering it for a touchdown.

The second-year player out of Arizona State has been the Bengals' starting Will linebacker all season. It has been his responsibility much of the year to make most of the defensive line play calls and to help set the rest of the defense on individual plays. His value has been tremendous in what should be a Pro Bowl year.

If the Bengals had to pick a time when they would rather he miss a game, though, now would be it. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga is returning this week from a knee injury suffered at the end of October, and backup Vincent Rey has been playing some of the best football on the team in the plast three weeks filling in for Maualuga. Rey likely would be moved into Burfict's spot if any changes have to be made to the lineup.

That being said, though, there still is a strong chance that no lineup changes will be necessary. Burfict has played through minor injuries all season, often remaining in ballgames after previously coming off the field due to rather hard shots that have been related to his comparatively reckless play.

Put it this way: it might take an executive order to keep Burfict from playing later this weekend.

Had it not been for the Friday injury, the Bengals would have been true to coach Marvin Lewis' prognostication earlier this week, and come into their important AFC game this weekend operating quite close to full strength. They would have, at worst, been one player shy of it.

Of course, "full strength" is a relative term for a team that has dealt with four key season-ending injuries throughout the year. Among the players the Bengals do currently have, this is the healthiest they have been in several weeks.

Only right offensive guard Kevin Zeitler missed Friday's late-morning walkthrough. He was listed as out with a foot injury on the Friday injury report. It means Mike Pollak will be making his second consecutive start Sunday afternoon. In Cincinnati's 41-20 win over the Cleveland Browns in the Bengals' previous game two weeks ago, Pollak started for the first time since 2011.

In addition to Burfict and Zeitler, six other players were listed as probable on the injury report. Two of them -- Maualuga and defensive tackle Devon Still -- are coming back from injuries that forced them to miss all of November and part of October. Punter Kevin Huber also was among the probables. Despite practicing in a limited capacity Friday, he is expected to play Sunday, as well.

Here is the complete Bengals injury report for Friday:

OUT
OG Kevin Zeitler (foot)

QUESTIONABLE
LB Vontaze Burfict (ankle)

PROBABLE
LB Michael Boley (shoulder)
S Chris Crocker (hamstring)
P Kevin Huber (left ankle)
LB Rey Maualuga (knee)
DT Devon Still (elbow)
WR Brandon Tate (ankle; did not practice)
CINCINNATI -- "Meteorologist" Marvin Lewis returned Wednesday afternoon, proudly reporting that the Cincinnati Bengals were mostly good on the injury front entering Sunday's game at San Diego.

After going through their share of injury-induced storms the last month and a half, the Bengals are about as healthy as they could be this late in the season.

Lewis took a moment during his weekly news conference to relate his team's latest injury concerns to the weather it ended up practicing in later in the day. He often makes weather comparisons in an effort to explain the Bengals' injuries.

"It's a little chilly outside, but it's partly sunny," Lewis said, smiling. "It's cold, but don't let the cold fool you. We are about as good as you would hope to be at this point in the year. We've got to feel blessed that, knock on wood, we're where we are at this point in the season."

Temperatures hovered around 30 degrees much of Wednesday afternoon. About 15 minutes into the Bengals' 1 p.m. practice, snow flurries covered the sun and began floating throughout Paul Brown Stadium. With high wind gusts, the scene was reminiscent of the sudden monsoon-like conditions that descended upon the stadium during the early October game that featured the Bengals and Patriots. As New England went through its crucial final drive of the game, heavy rains kicked up, making it difficult to see and throw.

When it came to the practice, offensive guard Kevin Zeitler, injured three weeks ago in the 20-17 overtime loss at Baltimore, and punter Kevin Huber were missing in action. According to the injury report, Huber has a left ankle injury. He kicks with his left foot.

After spending parts of the last two weeks in a boot, Zeitler appears to be making progress with a foot injury that kept him out of the 41-20 win over the Browns in Cincinnati's previous game two weeks ago. He's no longer sporting the boot.

Asked if Zeitler could be healthy for this weekend's game against the Chargers, Lewis simply replied: "We'll see."

In addition to the absences of Zeitler and Huber, the Bengals did have veteran outside linebacker James Harrison back on the practice fields. Harrison was sidelined during Monday's walkthrough. Fellow linebacker Rey Maualuga and defensive tackle Devon Still also were practicing in full capacity. It was Still's second practice this week, after working out Monday for the first time since dislocating his elbow in mid-October.

Here is the Bengals' full Wednesday injury report:

Did Not Practice
OG Kevin Zeitler (foot)
P Kevin Huber (left ankle)

Limited Practice Participation
LB Michael Boley (shoulder)

Full Practice Participation
CB Chris Crocker (hamstring)
LB Rey Maualuga (knee)
DT Devon Still (elbow)

Chris Crocker among Bengals' inactives

November, 17, 2013
11/17/13
12:00
PM ET
CINCINNATI -- After he was kept out of practice all week dealing with hamstring issues, there was little doubt that Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Chris Crocker would play in Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns.

Lewis
Crocker
The Bengals have officially ruled him out for the game, placing the veteran defensive back on their seven-man list of inactives.

This is the first game Crocker has missed since coming out of pseudo-retirement and signing with the Bengals ahead of their Week 4 contest at Cleveland. He has 24 total tackles and an interception return for a touchdown in the seven games he has played with Cincinnati.

In addition to Crocker's absence, the Bengals will be without offensive guard Kevin Zeitler. Zeitler dealt with an ankle injury all week, sporting a protective boot and crutches.

With Crocker out, the Bengals are expected to move second-year cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick into the slot corner position. Zeitler will be replaced by Mike Pollak, who is making his first start since 2011. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (doubtful/knee) will miss his third straight game, and be replaced once again by Vincent Rey. In two starts in place of Maualuga, Rey has 18 tackles, three sacks and an interception.

Along with Crocker and Zeitler missing Sunday's game, former Bengals offensive lineman Reid Fragel also will be inactive for the Browns.

Here are the full inactives for both teams:

Browns inactives: TE MarQueis Gray, LB Brandon Magee, OL Patrick Lewis, OL Martin Wallace, OL Garrett Gilkey, DL Ishmaa'ily Kitchen, OL Reid Fragel

Bengals inactives: CB Chris Crocker, RB Rex Burkhead, WR Ryan Whalen, LB Rey Maualuga, DT Devon Still, OG Kevin Zeitler, OL Tanner Hawkinson

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