Cincinnati Bengals: leon hall

Bengals Camp Report: Day 4

July, 27, 2014
Jul 27
CINCINNATI -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Cincinnati Bengals training camp:
  • The most anticipated activity of the weekend, Sunday's previously scheduled Oklahoma drill, was scrapped at the last minute by head coach Marvin Lewis, in part due to an overabundance of caution. "We know who 35-40 of our players are going to be," he said to reporters after Sunday's practice. "Let's make sure those 35 or 40, we give them every opportunity to get to Baltimore in one piece." The Bengals open the regular season at the Ravens on Sept. 7. On Saturday, a few players and coaches expressed mixed feelings about the physically demanding, collision-focused drill. Linebacker Rey Maualuga said he wasn't sure what the exercise had to do with football. Lewis backed his sentiments slightly, adding Sunday afternoon that the Bengals "got the same thing out of" the Oklahoma-less practice.
  • Rookie running back Jeremy Hill was among the players who did wish to participate in the drill. He said he and some of his offensive teammates were getting tired of some of the trash talking their defensive counterparts were doing. "Those guys have been yapping all week," Hill said. "But that bravado is what allows them to play better. I'm glad we have a defense that plays with swagger and plays fast." Instead of mixing in the Oklahoma drills, the Bengals incorporated a few half-line and blitz pickup/receiver-blocking exercises that allowed the fully padded players to get some contact. On the blitz pickup drills Hill was part of, he won both times he was paired with linebacker Vincent Rey. Those were two noteworthy plays in an afternoon that also saw him run aggressively as he slipped in and out of holes on some of the first inside runs the Bengals have worked on in this training camp.
  • Another running back, Rex Burkhead, had what I'd consider the feel-good play of the day. After getting knocked down during one of the aforementioned interior 11-on-11 runs and getting trapped underneath the dogpile, he got right up, bounced outside and sprinted another 20 yards downfield. It was the type of hustle play that can turn heads and earn the kind of brownie points a player on the fringe of the 53-man roster needs. You can read more about Burkhead's knack for finishing practice plays off here.
  • The actual play of the day came late in the practice when backup cornerback R.J. Stanford disrupted what looked like a sure long first-down catch for receiver Cobi Hamilton. On the play, quarterback Andy Dalton waited for Hamilton to race past Stanford on the post route and lobbed a deep pass over the middle that had the right amount of air underneath it. As Hamilton got in position to catch it, Stanford jumped and swung his arm at the last moment, forcing a break-up as Hamilton hit the turf without what previously looked like an easy reception.
  • Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was the only addition to Cincinnati's group of injured. He didn't participate in the practice after coming out in the middle of Saturday's session due to an apparent hamstring injury. It's not expected to be a serious ailment that will keep him out for too long. Corner Leon Hall was back into the mix in most coverage drills as fellow veteran Terence Newman received a day off from that part of the practice. The Bengals are slowly trying to ease Hall back into full action after his Achilles tear last year. Rookie Darqueze Dennard has benefited from more reps as a result.

Bengals Camp Report: Day 3

July, 26, 2014
Jul 26
CINCINNATI -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the Cincinnati Bengals' training camp:
  • Offense was the big story for the Bengals through the first two days of training camp, but on Saturday, defense stole the headlines. Cornerbacks Adam Jones and Darqueze Dennard had a few key pass breakups and interceptions in a practice that hinged largely on third-down play. Jones rebounded after giving up a few receptions in one-on-one drills with receivers. By the end of the 11-on-11 portion of practice, he was stopping most everything that came his direction. Arguably his most noteworthy pass breakup occurred off a play-action fake from quarterback Andy Dalton. As Dalton threw off his back leg and hung a deep pass to A.J. Green, Jones turned and jumped in the path of the ball, knocking it down. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said Jones has played with good technique through the first three days. He added that veteran Terence Newman has as well. "It's good for our younger guys to see how they play and how they're out here competing every snap."
  • One of those younger players, the rookie Dennard, had the play of the day when he dove full length for a Dalton pass that flew wide of its mark. It was hard to tell whether Dalton threw the pass to the wrong spot or if the receiver ran the wrong route, but Dennard, playing in the familiar lockdown style that was his hallmark at Michigan State, saw the ball heading toward the sideline even as the receiver didn't. Players and fans both reacted favorably to the pickoff. "Saturday] was the first day we could play press-man on the receiver, and that's what he did at Michigan State, so he's back in his comfort zone doing what he does. He's just got to continue to get better and work on his technique, and going against good receivers every day will help him."
  • One of the cornerbacks who did not take part in the live offense vs. defense portions of the workout was Leon Hall. The veteran is still rebounding from an Achilles tear that ended his 2013 season in Week 7. It was out of an abundance of caution that the Bengals held him out of most of the practice, even though he still participated in position-specific drills early in the session. Although he's fully recovered from the serious injury, the staff still wants to ease him back into action.
  • Along with Hall, the Bengals are taking a similar slow approach with offensive linemen Clint Boling and Mike Pollak. The left guards are rotating days on and off for the foreseeable future. After Boling started at the position Thursday, Pollak took his share of snaps Friday. Keeping with the rotation, Boling claimed the starting reps at the spot Saturday. Both still dressed in the shoulder pads-and-shorts attire the rest of the team sported as the full-gear acclimation period begins to slow down. The team will be in full pads Sunday.
  • The Bengals had two injuries during Saturday's practice. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick pulled up, holding his right hamstring, after using good coverage to prevent Green from catching a pass from Dalton off a deep go route. Kirkpatrick was stretched out but didn't return to practice. Defensive tackle LaKendrick Ross had a minor injury as well, jogging off the field at one point for treatment. He ended up returning and finishing the practice.
CINCINNATI -- As the Cincinnati Bengals get going with Day 2 of training camp Friday, here are three items we're going to be keeping an eye out for:

Marvin Lewis addresses media. At noon ET, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis sits down for his first news conference of training camp. He'll be asked about his impressions of Day 1 and likely will share his thoughts on where his offense and defense need to progress for the next five or so weeks. One thing he won't address? Quarterback Andy Dalton's contract. He said as much Tuesday at the team's preseason kickoff luncheon. He's done discussing that matter until the extension gets done. It's worth adding that just before Lewis' news conference, players will speak with media in the locker room beginning at 11:15 a.m. ET.

Cornerbacks and coverage. It was clear Thursday was all about the receivers and tight ends. Dalton's throwing mechanics and his well-placed passes both deep and short were a hot topic of conversation during the practice. I'll be paying a lot of attention to the defense on Day 2. It will be interesting to see how the cornerbacks respond to the strong showing A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and Mohamed Sanu, among others, had Thursday.

Return watch. One player who may very well be battling for a roster spot these next few weeks is return man Brandon Tate. The receiver who has just 14 catches in the 48 games he's played the past three seasons has primarily been used in return situations. The big question is, are there enough spots on a very deep team for a player who will be used almost exclusively as a kick returner? He spent the 2013 season working as the lead punt returner also, but only after cornerback Adam Jones was kept off special teams because of a bevy of injuries to the secondary. This year, with a deep -- and for now, healthier -- defensive backfield, Jones will be back in his old No. 1 punt returner role. Where will that leave Tate? For now, he'll have to impress on both special teams and offense.
Now that training camp is finally here for the Cincinnati Bengals, at the start of each day we'll try to leave you with three items to watch at that day's practice. As we kick off the practices Thursday afternoon, here are three things I'm going to be keeping an eye on:

[+] EnlargeGeno Atkins
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyGeno Atkins is one of a few Bengals players recovering from injuries worth watching at training camp.
Roster count. One of the more difficult parts of covering any practice -- preseason, regular season, minicamp or otherwise -- is keeping track of the whereabouts of every person on the team's full roster. Primarily what reporters are tracking when they're doing in-practice roster counts is to see who is and who isn't practicing. Of course, we have the Bengals' physically unable to perform and non-football injury lists to serve as a guide, but surprises, particularly on the first day of a camp, can happen. Don't be surprised if a few of the names you saw listed in that link end up dressing out and practicing. Also, don't be surprised if there's a last-minute scratch and another player who had previously been cleared gets axed ahead of the first day. Between the time this post goes live and the start of practice, virtually anything can happen. That's why you do the count.

It's perhaps the toughest part of the practice-viewing portion of the job, simply because you don't want to miss anything. With 89 players running around along with coaches, support staff members and trainers, it can be tough to spot the non-practicing players. Among those we'll be looking for: Defensive tackle Geno Atkins, cornerback Leon Hall, receiver Marvin Jones, tight end Jermaine Gresham, and offensive lineman Mike Pollak among others. Atkins and Hall are the most notable active PUP-listed players who are returning from serious injuries last season.

Dalton and the tempo pushers. As offensive coordinator Hue Jackson started laying the groundwork of his new scheme this spring, he implored the players on his side of the ball to pick up their pace of play. He wanted them to break huddles quicker and get to the line of scrimmage at a similarly stepped-up tempo. His hope has been that in doing that, the Bengals will be able to get plays snapped earlier in the play clock. If they do that and move the chains as regularly as Jackson anticipates, they'll be calling more plays and wearing down more defenses by the fourth quarter.

Quarterback Andy Dalton had to adjust to the stepped-up tempo during minicamp and organized team activities. Overall, Jackson was quite pleased with the way Dalton led the group through that modified hurry-up, but he wants to see what the entire unit will be able do once the temperatures go up and the shoulder pads come on. I'll be keeping an eye on how well the group continues pushing the tempo it established in the spring, and if that will allow it to get into the rhythm Jackson is seeking. After all, the best offenses are the ones that can get in and stay in sync.

Following Vontaze. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said earlier this week that third-year linebacker Vontaze Burfict enters the season as the unquestioned leader of the defense. No other player knows Guenther's system as well as Burfict, the assistant said, primarily because Burfict spent the last two seasons knowing everything Guenther wanted him to know about linebacker play when he coached the position. Now that Guenther has been elevated to the coordinator role, he expects his right-hand man to know the same nuances of the entire defense that he does. When you stop and think -- I mean really stop and think -- about Burfict's journey from undrafted free agent to starter to Pro Bowler to potential team captain, you can't help but want to see what's next on his career progression. He certainly has quite the story as he awaits his forthcoming contract extension.

I'll be keeping an eye on him Thursday, and watching the ways he leads and talks to his teammates during the first practice. While it's tough to quantify what being a good leader is, seeing how well a player interacts with his teammates, and how well they accept his advice, can be rather telling.
CINCINNATI -- Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins was one of nine Cincinnati Bengals to be placed Monday on the team's active physically unable to perform list. Another three, including backup quarterback AJ McCarron and receiver Marvin Jones, made it on the active non-football injury list.

Since the dozen players are on "active" lists, they will still count against the team's roster limit, but they can be activated to practice as soon as they are cleared medically. The list designations only stipulate they they aren't cleared medically as of Monday, but they still can be cleared by Thursday when training camp officially starts in Cincinnati. Rookies arrived Monday.

Along with Atkins, the Bengals placed offensive guard Clint Boling (knee), linebacker Marquis Flowers (hamstring), cornerback Leon Hall (Achilles), punter Kevin Huber (neck), receiver Colin Lockett (hamstring), defensive tackle Zach Minter (back), defensive tackle Devon Still (back) and receiver Ryan Whalen (hamstring) on the active PUP list.

Atkins (knee), Boling, Hall, Huber and Still's injuries go back to last season, when they missed games late due to season-ending injuries. Atkins and Boling tore ACLs, Hall tore an Achilles, Huber hurt his neck on a violent blindside hit, and Still battled through a disc injury. The expectation has been for all to be healthy in time for the start of the regular season.

Boling may be the furthest of the group from full strength since his injury occurred so late in the 2013 season. His ACL tear came Dec. 1 at San Diego. Still, he's remained optimistic all offseason about returning in time for some portion of training camp.

McCarron (shoulder), Jones (ankle) and cornerback Onterio McCalebb (knee) were placed on the active/non-football injury list, but still can practice Thursday if they get cleared by then.
One measure of a defense's success can be seen in how well it prevents an opposing offense from getting first downs.

Last season, the Cincinnati Bengals were quite good at doing that. They ranked third in the league in first downs allowed, giving up 282. The most a defense gave up in 2013? It was the 388 chain-moving plays permitted by the Cowboys.

This Thursday's factoid looks specifically at one area the Bengals were particularly successful at when it came to limiting first-down chances for opposing offenses.

The number of the day: 29.0.

Out of the 614 passing attempts the Bengals allowed last season, opposing offenses converted first-down passes on just 29 percent of those throws, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That was the lowest first-down-per-attempt conversion percentage in the league. At 29.8 percent, the Seahawks were the only other team that allowed fewer than 30 percent of the passes attempted on them to be converted for first downs.

On the other end of the spectrum was Washington, which allowed a league-high 39.7 percent of passes attempted against it to be turned into first-down receptions.

It wasn't only in the first downs per pass where the Bengals had a solid conversion rating. They did well in the first downs per rush category as well. They ranked fifth in the league last year in limiting first downs per rushing attempt. Of the 385 carries opposing offenses had against them, the Bengals permitted teams to convert first downs on only 18.7 percent of them. The Jets, Lions, Ravens and Cardinals were the only teams with lower first-downs-per-rush conversion ratings.

Why are the conversion percentages lower for rushing attempts than passing ones? The same reason yards-per-carry averages are typically lower than yards-per-reception averages. It's simply easier to gain yards in the air than it is to consistently pick up big chunks on the ground. That's long been a truism in the NFL, and likely forever will be.

Regardless which is easier to contain, the fact is the Bengals were pretty good at getting offenses to third down and not letting them convert last season. The aforementioned first-down conversion ratings are evidence of that, as is the 32.9 percent overall third-down conversion rating Cincinnati had in 2013. Detroit was the only team that had a better third-down conversion rating. All of the statistics discussed here are related, and are among the reasons the Bengals ended up having the league's third-best defense.

The question now becomes if the Bengals will be able to obtain similar numbers this fall when they field a defense for the first time in seven years without Mike Zimmer in charge of it. Newly promoted defensive coordinator Paul Guenther believes the transition from Zimmer will be smooth, and that his talented, mostly returning defense will be able to pick right up where it left off last year. The only true losses this offseason were defensive end Michael Johnson (signed away in free agency), linebacker James Harrison (released) and safety Chris Crocker (wasn't re-signed in free agency).

It's the Bengals' "additions" that could be the real game-changers. Along with signing veteran defensive back Danieal Manning and drafting the likes of cornerback Darqueze Dennard and defensive end Will Clarke, the Bengals also will see corner Leon Hall, defensive tackle Geno Atkins, safety Taylor Mays and outside linebacker Emmanuel Lamur return from injuries that cut short their 2013 seasons. One could argue those gains will greatly outweigh the losses -- from Zimmer to Johnson -- the Bengals had this offseason.
Now that the Cincinnati Bengals' springtime practices have ended, we turn to the portion of the offseason when we look for just about anything to discuss and debate until training camp begins.

As a result, this week's post-practice mailbag doesn't begin by discussing any of the team's starters. Instead, we open by chatting about a pair of rookies who likely won't see any real game action this season. These two rookies are certainly worth the attention, though.

(By the way, programming note: if you didn't get your question asked this week, it has been rolled into next week's mailbag. Oh, and get any other submissions for next week's mailbag in early. I'm giving you until noon ET on Tuesday. Hashtag your question #Bengalsmailbag so I see it. I'll be on vacation late next week, but want to answer your questions.)

@ColeyHarvey. I like AJ, D.J. Granted, we only really got a chance to see the rookie quarterback compete for one of the four weeks of organized team activities and minicamp, but still, he was as impressive as he could be in shorts and a helmet. He didn't get a chance to pass early in the OTA schedule because of an arm injury that had him limited just after his arrival following the draft. But by the end of the first week when he did finally throw, you could see where some of the Bengals' offensive concepts were beginning to make sense. The former Alabama signal-caller didn't think quite as much when determining which read he needed to make in various 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills. One thing that also impressed me was the amount of work he regularly put in after practice. After Monday's OTA, he walked back in the locker room a good 30 minutes after practice concluded. That's not a surprising trait, but one I definitely took notice of. That post-practice work reminded me of another quarterback I covered when I was on the beat covering Florida State: the recently transferred and current Alabama quarterback Jacob Coker. While they didn't overlap at Alabama, Coker and McCarron did play together in high school. Maybe they just teach that post-practice work ethic in Mobile, Alabama.

@ColeyHarvey. Another player I had a chance to cover at FSU, James Wilder Jr. was the thunder in the Seminoles' thunder, lightning and rainstorm trio of Wilder, Devonta Freeman and Karlos Williams. While it was clear where Wilder fit when he came to college and proclaimed that he was a running back and wanted nothing to do with playing linebacker, it's not quite as certain where he fits in the Bengals' plans. He was added as an undrafted free agent along with defensive-tackle-turned-fullback Nikita Whitlock. Jeremy Hill also came to Cincinnati last month, taken with the 55th overall pick in the draft. Since Hill appears slated to get a number of reps alongside Giovani Bernard, and since backs like BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Cedric Peerman and Rex Burkhead also are part of the Bengals' plans for now, there doesn't seem to be much of a role for Wilder on the active roster. For that reason, plus the fact he still needs a little refining for the NFL, my guess is he begins the year on the practice squad, but that'll be a tough decision to make. Why? Because on Thursday Wilder tweeted that he broke the Bengals' conditioning test record. You don't want to run the risk of letting go of such an already finely tuned rookie back if you can help it.

@ColeyHarvey. Interesting question, Carp. Honestly, I can't tell you how the carries and targets will be broken down. At the end of a week that's been all about playbooks in the NFL, the Bengals haven't given me theirs. My educated guess is Bernard and receiver A.J. Green will play their anticipated big roles. But Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Hill, Tyler Eifert, Jermaine Gresham and presumably Green-Ellis, will all play complementary roles, too. The short of it: look for the same type of balance you saw last season, just maybe with a few more run plays. I do anticipate Sanu having a greater role than he did last year.

@ColeyHarvey. How's that for a segue? Yes, I'd say that Sanu is in line to receive the bulk of the Bengals' catches in the slot. I actually hinted I felt that way in this Bengals factoid about Sanu's slot production. Of his 47 receptions last season, 48.9 percent came while he was lined up in the slot. That was a higher percentage than any other Bengals receiver had last year. Add that to Sanu's possible increase in speed -- receivers coach James Urban told me earlier this week he thought Sanu was faster -- and it makes sense he gets the bulk of the Bengals' passes in the slot. That said, though, Dane Sanzenbacher seems to better fit the mold of the stereotypical shifty, speedy and smaller "slot" receiver.

@ColeyHarvey. Nice question, Ramon. My friend Kaci Kust of cn|2 Sports in Cincinnati has a more expansive answer in this package, and it's clear a few Bengals are paying attention. Defensive tackle Domata Peko and cornerback Leon Hall are among the biggest soccer fans on the team. Peko -- who reminded reporters this week that his native American Samoa had the worst World Cup qualifying loss in history; 31-0 to Australia in 2011 -- has been tweeting his support for the United States. He also came to the Bengals' facility Monday wearing an Didier Drogba's Ivory Coast jersey. That same day, Burkhead wore a U.S. World Cup jersey. 
If you haven't noticed by now this is the offseason -- a time of year when every publication and outlet that covers football in some capacity has rankings on just about every subject imaginable.

We've had our share on all spring, and certainly will have more the next several weeks as the march toward training camp continues.

Some of the best rankings you'll read this offseason are compiled by Mike Tanier & Co. of Sports on Earth. They use various metrics, film study and common sense to reach their conclusions. For the past month they've unveiled a different type of ranking each Monday. This week's rankings broke down the best secondaries in the league.

It was no surprise that Seattle's indomitable group finished first. But who was No. 2?

The Cincinnati Bengals.

Which brings us to Tuesday's factoid: 7.58.

As is the case with many of our factoids, we could use multiple numbers to highlight the points we're trying to make, and we will. But for starters, the 7.58 represents the average number of yards per play the Bengals' defensive backs allowed last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That ranked as the third-lowest figure among secondary groups. Cleveland's defensive backs led the way allowing just 7.39 yards per play, and Seattle's were No. 2, allowing 7.42.

When you think about the fact that Cleveland has the likes of $68 million man Joe Haden anchoring its secondary and Seattle has arguably the game's best cornerback in Richard Sherman, then its kind of eye-popping to see how well the Bengals and their mix of less recognized veterans and youngsters performed so well last season.

As Tanier points out, it's even more notable when you realize the Bengals lost their top pass-rusher last season when defensive tackle Geno Atkins went down midseason with an ACL tear. Even though Atkins' replacements performed admirably enough, added pressure was placed upon the safeties and corners to make sure they locked down their receivers. As part of previous defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's scheme, playing tight man defense was virtually seen as a rite of passage.

Even though Paul Guenther is taking over for Zimmer, very little about the defense's setup will change this year, including the style of one-on-one play on the outside. That's one of the biggest reasons why Cincinnati jumped in the first round to draft Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard at 24th overall. He was lauded as the best lockdown cornerback in the draft.

Along with Atkins' injury, other injuries forced the Bengals to play much of the year with a mixed bag at cornerback. The Bengals' highest-paid cornerback, Leon Hall, was lost for the year in Week 7 with an Achilles tear that came after he bounced back and forth between active and inactive status for the first few weeks due to hamstring injuries. Adam Jones also dealt with a tender hamstring early in the season, and Terence Newman missed the last three games with a knee injury. Like Hall and Atkins, safety Taylor Mays missed the last half of the season with an injury.

Backup Dre Kirkpatrick filled in just well enough for the corners who missed time, and veteran Chris Crocker came out of retirement for the second straight year as an in-season plug-and-play option at both safety and corner. The ragtag nature of the Bengals' secondary due to the injuries made their success even more respectable.

In addition to its low yards-per-play average, Cincinnati's secondary also ranked third in first downs allowed. The group gave up 146, which was just over the 145 Seattle's secondary allowed, and the 142 Carolina's secondary gave up. When it came to turnovers by the secondary, the Bengals ranked fourth.

Sports on Earth used its multilayered approach to rank the league's top secondaries, but advanced stats from last season seem to prove their point regarding the Bengals, too. Will Cincinnati have one of the top secondaries this season? It'll be another two months before we start finding out.
CINCINNATI -- It was honesty at its finest, candor at its best and humility at its strongest.

When rookie cornerback Darqueze Dennard proudly said Wednesday, with a smile on his face no less, that the Cincinnati Bengals "really don't need me," a few eyebrows in the huddle of reporters around him raised.

Did he really say that?

He really did.

"It is what it is," Dennard said, still grinning as he was pressed on the statement. "I'm a realist. We've got a lot of great players out there. Looking especially in the secondary, there's a lot of players that have done a lot of good things in their careers. I'm just here to learn from them and do the best I can to help the team."

[+] EnlargeDarqueze Dennard
Matthew Holst/Getty ImagesDarqueze Dennard could have a hard time cracking the Bengals' veteran lineup as a rookie.
Realistically, he's right. It was the correct and proper thing to say. With so many veteran cornerbacks on the depth chart in front of him, the odds Dennard starts at either of the outside cornerback positions or on the inside as a slot player, are quite slim. Terence Newman might be 35, but he's healthy. Adam Jones is entering his ninth year, but he's still quite spry. And 29-year-old Leon Hall is bracing for a big bounce-back year after tearing his Achilles in the middle of last season.

Add third-year corner Dre Kirkpatrick to the mix, and Dennard's climb to the top of the cornerback depth chart gets even steeper.

It's important to stress that none of Dennard's comments are indications that he's already packed it in for the spring and summer and won't compete for a starting job. He plans to be a key piece to the Bengals' defensive puzzle for as long as he's playing in the league.

Part of that push for playing time will include learning the playbook and getting acclimated with everything the coaches will want him to do. In addition to covering passes downfield on the outside, he'll be relied upon to play in the slot, and looked to for help in run support. He's likely to be called upon to blitz on occasion, too.

Since his whirlwind first day of voluntary organized team activities two weeks ago, he has seen a steady progression in his knowledge of his role and responsibilities. If he were to grade his comfort level in Cincinnati's defensive playbook on a scale of 1 to 10, he said he would give himself an "8."

That is another check in the right-things-to-say box. A number that high suggests growing confidence in the system, but not so much growth that he feels he knows it all. He still sees room for more improvement. "Eight" is a good place to be when it comes to understanding the playbook.

"It's slowed down a lot," Dennard said. "I have gotten comfortable so I am out there not thinking as much, so it allows me to play faster."

Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has seen some flashes of that improved comfort.

"He's real sharp mentally," Guenther said after Wednesday's minicamp. "We've thrown him in there sometimes with the [starters], and we've thrown him in there both inside and outside. He's done a good job. He's picked up the defense good. He just needs the little things. The tweaks are here and there, but he'll get that when we get to training camp."

Among the tweaks Guenther and Dennard want to improve are his blitz moves. To hear the young cornerback tell it, he doesn't have any right now. Guenther politely agrees, and wants to see him hone his ability coming off the outside edge toward the passer.

"We'll have periods in the practice where everybody will work on their blitz techniques," Guenther said. "Everybody's got to be proficient with that so anybody could come at any time."

As linebackers coach, Guenther was the architect of some of the Bengals' more creative blitz packages when Mike Zimmer was the defensive coordinator. Guenther designed plays that brought players from all levels and angles. Safeties and cornerbacks this season will have their share of rushes from up high.

So what does Dennard need to do to start blitzing better?

"Probably need to find some moves," he said.

Could Hall have something to share as a veteran whose style of play is similar to Dennard's according to coaches?

"You have to stay talking to him, but you got to find your own thing," Dennard said.

Another check. Be your own man.

How about a defensive lineman? Might they have a move he can mimic?

"Maybe," Dennard said. "I can ask how they use their hands and how they get offensive linemen to get their hands of them to get to the quarterback. Talking to them would definitely help me, so I will do that in the future."

Yet again a check. Be your own man, but don't be afraid to get insight from someone who makes their living doing what you're trying to do.

For now, Dennard keeps saying the right things. If he keeps saying them and keeps believing in them, he will find the deep Bengals secondary will need his services a lot sooner than he's anticipating. He will have earned the right to be a key contributor.
We spent part of Wednesday discussing the Cincinnati Bengals' cornerback situation and whether the position was an area of weakness. We're still debating that in the poll that's in the link, but the following is evidence that the Bengals' corners and safeties actually did fairly well last season.

I present Thursday's Bengals factoid: 20.4

OK, so we're only two decimal spots away from Wednesday's factoid of 20.2. So, no, not a big change there. That particular factoid, however, dealt with the difference in completion percentage for quarterback Andy Dalton on long throws versus shorter and intermediate routes last year. His completion percentage on shorter and intermediate throws was 20.2 percent higher than his completion percentage on deep passes. For the exercise, "deep" stood for anything that traveled 15 yards or more in the air.

As for 20.4, this number refers to the disrupted dropback percentage Bengals defensive backs had last season. Let's make it clear, this percentage only pertains to safeties and cornerbacks. It doesn't directly relate to what other defensive units did in order to disrupt opposing quarterback dropbacks. Of course, the linemen and linebackers did have an indirect impact on this figure. That's based purely on the varying forms of pressure they put on opposing quarterbacks or even the lack of pressure they also had on occasion. The better the pressure up front, the better the players on the back end had a chance at breaking up or intercepting a pass downfield.

Now, what all does disrupted dropback percentage entail? It's a rate that's calculated by adding the sacks, interceptions, defended passes and batted balls a defense or defensive player has, and dividing that by the opponents total number of dropbacks. That means that 20.4 percent of the 674 dropbacks the Bengals' defensive backs were part of in 2013 resulted in disrupted plays for the unit. That was good enough to rank sixth among all defensive back units for the year. Buffalo's DBs paced the league in this statistic, disrupting 23.6 percent of the dropbacks that occurred on their watch. The Super Bowl champion Seahawks, praised for having arguably the league's best overall secondary, ranked just ahead of the Bengals at fifth. Seattle's DBs disrupted 20.8 percent of their opposing dropbacks.

Cincinnati's relatively strong secondary play correlates to its overall solid defensive play. The Bengals ranked third in total defense last season and were fourth in ESPN Stats & Information's defensive QBR rating. Opposing quarterbacks compiled an average QBR of 39.0 (on a 100-point scale) against them. Seattle had the lowest defensive QBR in the NFL at 29.0. Buffalo ranked second at 36.0.

See? Disrupted dropback percentage, defensive QBR, total defense ... it all relates.

While the Bengals are indeed a year older and have one of their best players returning from his second major injury in three seasons, they still bring back a solid core of last year's defensive backfield. Their only losses this offseason have been Brandon Ghee and Chris Crocker. Ghee jetted off to San Diego early in free agency and Crocker had been expected to return to retirement. With their departures, Cincinnati added veterans Danieal Manning and R.J. Stanford and rookies Darqueze Dennard, Lavelle Westbrooks and Isaiah Lewis. The Bengals' first-round pick, Dennard has a chance to play in a limited capacity this season. In theory, though, it should be tough for him to crack the deep cornerback depth chart. The Bengals are, after all, returning the heart of a group that ranked sixth in the league in disrupting quarterback dropbacks.
CINCINNATI -- Our friend Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders had this interesting ESPN Insider Insider article Tuesday that kind of got my brain working.

So, in an effort to get you thinking, too, I decided to pose to you, our loyal Cincinnati Bengals readers, one of the questions he was answering.

Is cornerback a hole for the Bengals?


Where is the Bengals' biggest roster weakness?


Discuss (Total votes: 802)

The overall story attempted to address the single biggest holes that remain for each AFC North team. If you take a look at the link, you'll see the Bengals aren't the only ones in the division who Kacsmar believes needs help in the back end of their defense.

Before getting too deep into the conversation about cornerback, it bears mentioning that Kacsmar said he would have considered the coordinator positions to be the holes most worthy of the Bengals' attention if he wasn't focusing on player personnel. In January former offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer accepted jobs serving as the head coaches in Washington and Minnesota, respectively. They were replaced by internal hires Hue Jackson and Paul Guenther, who promise to build off the schemes Gruden and Zimmer left them.

The reason Kacsmar believes cornerback is the Bengals' biggest hole with respect to player personnel is because their primary offseason addition there, rookie Darqueze Dennard, doesn't figure to be an immediate fix to what could soon become a problem. The issue? Cincinnati is getting older at the position. Leon Hall has battled injury in recent seasons and at 29 is starting to fight age, too. Adam Jones will be 31 in September. Terence Newman will be 36 that month, too.

Dennard probably won't play much this first season, although he has been gaining valuable experience through the first two weeks of voluntary organized team activities, practicing with the first-team defense. On Tuesday, he ran with the first team as a slot corner, playing the position Hall will have once he returns fully from an Achilles injury that sidelined him last October. Hall expects to be back to full activity sometime next month before training camp starts July 24.

Some would consider Dennard the solution to the Bengals' cornerback age problem. He was, after all, the best player available when the Bengals drafted him, and they used a first-round pick on him. They also knew that like a lot of rookie corners he didn't stand much of a chance to start regularly this season. Still, they believed he had a strong chance to do so next year.

Dennard also was praised in college for being the type of cornerback Kacsmar said the Bengals needed: a true man-to-man defender who kept constant pressure on his opposing, typically single-covered receiver. That style of play made Dennard the head honcho of Michigan State's self-proclaimed "No Fly Zone" defense.

So we turn it to you. Did Dennard's addition do enough to convince you cornerback wasn't a hole for the Bengals? Or do you agree with Kacsmar and believe that since he won't see the field much this year, Dennard didn't really help address Cincinnati's cornerback age issue? Or do you believe there's actually another position that deserves the Bengals' attention for fixing first? Is the offensive line a hole? The defensive line? The linebacker corps? Or is it another position altogether?

Vote in our poll and share your thoughts. If you think the issue is another position we didn't mention, feel free to type it into the comments below.
CINCINNATI -- When the Bengals made cornerback Darqueze Dennard their first-round pick earlier this month, they did so with their immediate future in mind.

Terence Newman is 35 and is scheduled to hit free agency next spring. Adam Jones isn't too far behind him. Leon Hall is turning 30 at the end of year and is coming off his second major injury in three seasons. As much as the Bengals respect and appreciate what the trio has accomplished in recent years, they know it's time to start preparing for life after them.

[+] EnlargeDarqueze Dennard
AP Photo/Al BehrmanDarqueze Dennard (left) knows that a he can learn a lot from veteran players like Terence Newman.
So Dennard, a 22-year-old who was named college football's top defensive back last year, was added to the mix when the Bengals' pick rolled around at No. 24.

The rookie understands his place in the team's cornerback hierarchy and knows he may not see much playing time defensively this fall. He's OK with that, though, because he believes his time will come soon enough.

"I'm just waiting on my moment," Dennard said earlier this week following the Bengals' first organized team activity practice.

He's also waiting on something else: a contract. The Bengals have already signed their other seven draft picks, but they haven't yet inked Dennard to his deal. Despite the delay in getting him paid, Dennard has been participating as the Bengals go through their first series of full-team offseason practices. He said Tuesday that he wasn't worried about not having a contract, but remains hopeful that an agreement will be made soon.

As far as his place in the Bengals' cornerback rotation, for now, Dennard is trying to learn from the likes of Newman, Jones, Hall and third-year cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick.

"Those guys have been playing a long time in the NFL and have a lot of games under their belt," Dennard said. "I'm here to play. That's my mindset -- to get on the field -- but being under the tutelage of them is going to help me, as well. A lot of guys don't have the same chance I have. Those veteran guys have played a lot of games and have done great things on the football field. I have them and I'm going to use them."

Dennard added that he is already peppering the vets with questions about playing the position and being a professional player, in general. He wants to be a pest to them and anyone else who's willing to help him navigate this next stage of his development.

"I'm probably going to get on their nerves by asking them so many questions, but I'm going to use that to better me as a player and a person," Dennard said. "Hopefully I'll have the same kind of career as them."

His career could begin this season by getting the majority of his playing time on special teams. Possible injuries aside, for now, the depth ahead of him at corner will make it difficult for him to get on the field. Newman and Jones opened this week's OTAs as the starting boundary cornerbacks. Kirkpatrick got time with the second-team corners alongside Chris Lewis-Harris, a third-year corner who was active for six games last season. In time, the expectation is that Dennard and Kirkpatrick will be the top options at the two boundary spots.

Kirkpatrick still has to prove he's starting material. As well as he played at times filling in for an injured Newman last season, Kirkpatrick still gave up his share of touchdown passes and got burned on occasion in coverage.

Dennard seldom got burned at Michigan State. He held opposing receivers to just 5.78 yards per catch, the lowest figure for a defensive back during the entire BCS era. He and the rest of the Spartans' defensive backfield considered themselves so effective against the pass that he nicknamed the group "No Fly Zone" last summer.

Part of what made Michigan State's "No Fly Zone" live up to Dennard's nickname was the intense nature of his single-coverage play on opposing receivers. He blanketed pass-catchers so well in college the Bengals believed he needed to be in their defense.

Dennard's former college teammate, current Spartan safety Kurtis Drummond, said Dennard's coverage was a credit to his preparation.

"He works on it. That's not something he just throws himself in," Drummond said. "That's something that he's very prepared to do. Something he takes pride in. He's a competitor and he wants to be the best at whatever he does."
OK, it's only late May, and the Cincinnati Bengals still haven't held an offseason organized team activity (OTA). Still, that doesn't mean we can't try to break down their depth chart.

Now that the draft is over and a few additional signings have been made, we're spending this week looking at the three phases of Cincinnati's game, and taking a stab at how the team's position-by-position rotations may look when training camp opens July 24 (NOTE: the original date was July 23, but the Bengals last week pushed the camp's start back a day).

After looking at offense Monday, we're breaking down the defense:

Defensive end
1. Carlos Dunlap (LE)
2. Wallace Gilberry (RE)
3. Margus Hunt
4. Robert Geathers
5. Will Clarke
6. Sam Montgomery
7. Dontay Moch
8. Christo Bilukidi
9. David King
Analysis: Nine defensive ends? Well, not technically. Montgomery and Moch could play hybrid end-outside linebacker roles depending upon the schemes they are part of when on the field. Not to mention, there's a strong chance not all of the players listed above will make it to the regular season. For now, though, Dunlap seems likely to retain his starting left end spot, while the right end position could really be anyone else's for the taking at this point. That was where Michael Johnson primarily played before signing with Tampa Bay earlier this preseason. Gilberry seems like the logical choice for now at right end, with Hunt, Geathers and Clarke as possible options to mix in with him. Hunt and Clarke may be the future at the position, but Gilberry is a proven veteran who performed well getting to the quarterback last season.

Defensive tackle
1. Geno Atkins (NT)
2. Domata Peko
3. Devon Still
4. Brandon Thompson
5. Ogemdi Nwagbuo
6. Zach Minter
7. Larry Black
Analysis: Like at the end position, the Bengals are deep on the line's interior. It's likely at least one of the seven tackles won't make it to the season opener, but the rest of the core group will be there. It's a group that should be led during the preseason by Atkins, the nose tackle who missed half of last season because of an ACL tear. While Atkins hasn't been in the most talkative of moods this offseasons, all signs seem to be pointing toward him returning to full health sometime during training camp. Still and Thompson remain the top two tackles off the bench behind Atkins and Peko, and Black is a player many around Cincinnati likely will be rooting for following his training-camp leg injury last season. The Cincinnati native's raw, emotional response to the injury was a memorable part of the first episode of last year's HBO "Hard Knocks."

Outside linebacker
1. Vontaze Burfict (Will)
2. Vincent Rey (Will)
3. Emmanuel Lamur (Will)
4. Jayson DiManche (Sam)
5. Sean Porter (Sam)
6. Bruce Taylor (Sam)
7. Brandon Joiner (Will)
8. Marquis Flowers (Will)
Others: James Davidson (Sam)
Analysis: With spread-style offenses becoming so prevalent in the NFL, a team can never have enough defenders who can cover receivers, tight ends and running backs. The Bengals learned that the hard way last season when Lamur went down with a season-ending injury at the end of preseason camp. The injury took away the team's most athletic cover linebacker, and forced a few roles to change. Since the Bengals are almost in constant nickel packages, they want each of their linebackers to have some coverage ability. They also want them to be able to step up and tackle in run support. For that reason, the "Sam" and "Will" tags may at times be interchangeable, specifically as they try to find a true "Sam" in the wake of James Harrison's release in March. As a result of the incessant use of nickel defense, Harrison wasn't on the field much during his only season in Cincinnati.

Middle linebacker
1. Rey Maualuga
2. J.K. Schaffer
Analysis: Maualuga and Schaffer aren't the Bengals' only interior linebackers. Burfict may play inside, depending upon the situation. Rey could, too. So might DiManche. While the focus is on having linebackers who can cover and help counter this pass-first offenses, there still is great importance on having a player who can help set the defense. Burfict did much of that last season, despite technically playing an outside linebacker position. Maualuga was a leader on the inside throughout the year, too, and expects to be again this year.

1. Leon Hall
2. Terence Newman
3. Adam Jones
4. Dre Kirkpatrick
5. Darqueze Dennard
6. R.J. Stanford
7. Chris Lewis-Harris
8. Brandon Burton
9. Lavelle Westbrooks
Analysis: This is one position that could easily look much different by the start of September. Hall anticipates being healthy from an Achilles tear just in time for the start of camp, meaning the Bengals will have their starting corner by Week 1. He's also their best slot corner option, meaning he'll be on the field often with Newman and Jones, who will be playing the two boundary corner spots. The rest of the depth chart after Dennard, a rookie, could look very different by July.

1. Reggie Nelson
2. Danieal Manning
3. George Iloka
4. Taylor Mays
5. Shawn Williams
Analysis: It's hard to rank the safety rotation because it will primarily be just that, a rotation. Aside from Nelson, who will be playing a safety role that permits him to blitz and rush up at times, the Bengals will have a revolving door at safety and the hybrid safety/slot corner position that Chris Crocker ended up playing last year, and that Manning will take on this season. Iloka, Mays and Williams could all be used in deep zone or tight man coverage. With new co-defensive backs coach Vance Joseph on board, the Bengals' secondary will be worth watching.
At long last, we're beyond the first day of the draft. Pat yourselves on the back, everybody. You made it.

Now the real fun begins. Day 2 is all about the second and third rounds and seeing which talent the Cincinnati Bengals will bring in as they start setting up their middle of the draft boards. As we've seen in recent years, the second round is typically a big one for the Bengals, one where they typically bring in quick contributors. Look no further than 2013 (Giovani Bernard and Margus Hunt) and 2011 (Andy Dalton) to see that. Below, we'll break down a few more of the second-round snags they have made recently.

Speaking of, let's get to this Friday edition of the Quick Takes, shall we?

1. Slipping into Cincy's lap. I mentioned it a little in our live chat Thursday night (by the way, we'll have another chat Friday night for the second and third rounds starting at 6:30 p.m. ET. Join us here on the Bengals blog, won't you?), but I was surprised Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard was still there when the Bengals had their pick at No. 24. I went on record throughout the draft process saying that my favorite of all the cornerbacks was Jason Verrett of TCU, who ended up going 25th to San Diego. And I also mentioned that Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller was the player who I most saw ending up in Cincinnati. Much of the emphasis on Fuller was because it just seemed like there was no chance Dennard would fall deep into the 20s like he did. But it happened, and the Bengals -- who also were a little surprised he dropped into their laps -- couldn't be more glad. The one thing that Fuller already could do that Dennard still has to learn is to trust his hands. Fuller was known to be more of a ball-hawking corner than Dennard. Don't interpret that as a knock on Dennard, though. Otherwise, he's a fundamental player who just won't let many receivers touch the ball, let alone get open enough to draw a throw.

2. Dennard's one lesson. As much as I can applaud the Bengals for making one of the steals of the latter portion of the first round, and as much as I'm curious to see what the young defender can do, I must offer him this one critical piece of advice: Don't be afraid of making, and admitting, to mistakes. Early in his career, they'll happen. His task is to minimize the frequency and scale of them, though. What prompted that message was this statement Dennard made near the close of his conference call with Cincinnati media Thursday night: "I can press, I can blitz, play inside or outside, I'm very smart, have great ball skills -- I don't think I have any weaknesses, to be honest." Rest assured, by NFL standards, you've got one or two weaknesses, Darqueze, and someone in this league will eventually find them. Remember, you're not covering Big Ten receivers anymore. You're covering the best in the world. All of that said, though, there's no knocking a player for being confident; it's typically a hallmark of the great ones.

3. Compared to Hall. You probably saw this all over the Internet late Thursday and Friday morning, but here it is one more time. From the moment they saw him in person, Bengals coaches Paul Guenther and Vance Joseph saw Leon Hall 2.0 in Dennard. Like Hall, Dennard likes to jam. Like Hall, Dennard can stay with the quickest receivers from snap to whistle. Like Hall, Dennard is soft-spoken but speaks assertively when he does talk. Like Hall, Dennard hails from the rugged Big Ten, the college football equivalent of the hard-scrabble AFC North. In one of our reactions to Dennard's drafting Thursday -- by the way, he's the fourth first-round cornerback the Bengals have taken since 2006; only the Jets have that many first-round corners in that span -- I wrote about how Dennard was the perfect cornerback Cincinnati could have brought in to be an understudy at the position, even if he wasn't quite the guy the Bengals had been expecting at No. 24.

4. Time for a second-round steal? Like we mentioned earlier, the second round is where the Bengals have historically made some of their most legitimate draft moves. In addition to Bernard, Hunt and Dalton, the embattled quarterback who started as soon as he arrived, the Bengals also have selected the likes of defensive end Carlos Dunlap, linebacker Rey Maualuga and Pro Bowl offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth in recent second rounds. All three have been key contributors for the lion's share of their careers. Odell Thurman was a second-round linebacker in 2005. Chad Johnson came to the Bengals at 36th overall in 2001. In more distant drafts, Boomer Esiason was a second-round Bengals selection, as was Chris Collinsworth, Ickey Woods, Carl Pickens and Corey Dillon. Some of the more recognizable names in franchise history were taken in this round. Might another be coming when the Bengals pick at No. 55? The last 55th overall pick they had has turned out pretty well: Whitworth.
videoCINCINNATI -- When Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther saw Darqueze Dennard practice in person for the first time, he had an immediate revelation.

It was that day that Guenther joined Bengals co-defensive backs coach Vance Joseph in realizing that Dennard might be the key to helping them connect their team's cornerback past with its future. When the pair looked at the way the self-proclaimed "shutdown cornerback" used his hands and feet in drills they had designed for him, they were reminded of a player they already knew quite well.

"[We] said, 'That's Leon Hall,'" Guenther said.

From his on-field mannerisms, to his physical style of play, to his soft-spoken yet still assertive way of talking, so much about Dennard reminded the two coaches of Hall, one of their veteran cornerbacks who is in the final stages of rehabilitation from an injury that cut short his 2013 season. It was that day that had Guenther and Joseph convinced: if by some miracle Dennard was still available when the Bengals' first-round pick came around in this year's draft, the team would pounce on him.

Cincinnati did just that in Thursday night's opening round, taking Dennard at No. 24.

About the only place where the Hall-Dennard comparisons end is with respect to the players' alma maters. Dennard, like Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko, hails from Michigan State. Hall is the team's resident Michigan man, known to occasionally needle his teammates who went to Michigan State or Ohio State.

"I'm not going to hold that against him," Dennard said of Hall's college choice.

With a bevy of aging corners that included the likes of Hall, Adam Jones and Terence Newman, the Bengals entered this draft cycle believing it was time to start thinking about the future at the position.

Dennard won't start right away, but he gives the Bengals the right understudy.

There are good reasons to believe that the Dennard experiment will go well. For starters, Dennard possesses a fearlessness that has head coach Marvin Lewis giddy.

"In [Michigan State's] scheme, they really switched and were a big-time pressure defense over the last year," Lewis said. "So he's been out there [on an island] by himself quite a bit. He's got a great feel of being around receivers, he's not afraid. Part of playing in that job back there at cornerback is that you can't be scared. He has that great feel around him. He can run and cover and get his hands on guys. That's what you've got to have in a cornerback."

You also want to trust your cornerback, something Joseph seems hopeful about doing with Dennard.

"He's got a very high floor," Joseph said. "So if he drops, it shouldn't be very far."

Each of the coaches credited Dennard's fundamental, physical and constantly jamming style of play as a major reason why he was perfect for their aggressive, man-based scheme.

"He played good people, so I would say, 'Yes. He's probably the most physical corner in the draft,'" Joseph said. "In this league if you're a technique-sound corner and you play smart, you can play a long time. It's guys that don't make a bunch of plays, but that don't give up big plays. That's the key in this league is to be consistent and smart, to be tough and competitive. He's that."