Cincinnati Bengals: mohamed sanu

CINCINNATI -- In recent years, the Cincinnati Bengals have developed a reputation for drafting receivers who were overshadowed in their draft classes.

Sure, there was that draft four years ago when they took a future Pro Bowl wideout from the SEC with the fourth overall pick. But since selecting A.J. Green in 2011, the receivers the Bengals have landed have routinely been under-the-radar prospects who -- mostly -- have eventually made an impact.

[+] EnlargeMohamed Sanu
Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY SportsCincinnati has had success finding quality receivers after the first round of the draft, including Mohamed Sanu, a third-round pick in 2012.
Most notable of the four receivers the Bengals have taken since 2012 are Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones, and James Wright. They went in the third, fifth, and seventh rounds, respectively. The other receiver drafted in the past three years, 2013 sixth-round pick Cobi Hamilton, has been an on-again, off-again member of the practice squad.

Why is mentioning all of this important? Because as the Bengals start setting their big board ahead of this year's draft, it's important to note that they might not go with the big-name first-round splash some fans may want, even if there is a true need for drafting a receiver this year.

Last week, Jon Moore of Pro Football Focus listed for ESPN Insider a post-combine group of undervalued receivers Insider. Though it's hard to see any of the players he cited as being Bengals favorites because their size specifications don't match what the Bengals want to draft, the post still raised an interesting point. Who are similar undervalued options at the position, and why are they being treated as such?

Perhaps the poster boy for undervalued receivers in this draft class is Mario Alford, the speedy 5-foot-8, 180-pound West Virginia product. He gets far less shine than his fellow Mountaineer, Kevin White. Some mocks project White to be a top-5 pick. This week, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. called him one of three receivers who could have an immediate impact in the NFL.

But why can't Alford?

Consider the Wright case study.

No, Wright didn't turn into a 30-catch, No. 2 option as a rookie in 2014, but he was a bigger part of the Bengals' game plan than many would have anticipated this time last year. A noted special teams contributor, he was poised to have double-digit receptions despite catching only two passes through the first 12 weeks of the season. But then he hurt his knee in Week 13, the same week he went off, catching three passes for key third-down conversions. The injury ultimately ended his season.

Wright might have only had five receptions all season, but that's five more than he had his entire senior season at LSU. It was because of his reception-less year that teams passed on him in the draft until the Bengals scooped him up at 239th overall last May.

Wright ended up in Cincinnati largely because of what Bengals coaches witnessed at his pro day, and what they were told by friends on LSU's staff.

A likely mid-round pick, Alford shouldn't slip as far as Wright. He has a more notable receiving record, too, catching 65 passes for 945 yards and 11 touchdowns last fall in an offense that also included a dynamic playmaker who could be a top-5 pick. Alford also returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, including one against Alabama in West Virginia's season-opening loss at the Georgia Dome.

His 4.43-second 40-yard dash time at the combine might not have been his most impressive, but turn on the tape and it's clear he has speed and elusiveness; two traits the Bengals want their draft targets at receiver to possess above all else.

To draw the Bengals' interest, undervalued receivers like Alford can best help themselves by following Wright's example and electrifying at their pro days. West Virginia's is March 13.
CINCINNATI -- Before turning our full attention to free agency, the draft and the 2015 season, let's take one last look back at 2014.

We're doing that this week through this position-by-position review of the Cincinnati Bengals' recent 10-5-1 campaign that ended with a wild-card round loss at Indianapolis.

Previous entries in the series. Now we continue with receivers:

2014 cap value: $10.7 million total -- A.J. Green ($6.3 million), Dane Sanzenbacher ($1.2 million), Brandon Tate ($1 million), Mohamed Sanu ($730,813), Marvin Jones ($615,950), James Wright ($432,456), Greg Little ($417,353)

Highlights: When Green was healthy, he was really good. The problem, though, was that he missed parts of five games during the regular season and playoffs with a toe injury and a concussion. Still, he made a fourth-straight Pro Bowl after leading the team with 69 catches for 1,041 yards. Among his highlights were his career-high 12-catch day at Houston, and an 11-catch performance two weeks later in a loss to Pittsburgh. In that Steelers game, he easily beat cornerback Ike Taylor for an 81-yard touchdown reception on a ball quarterback Andy Dalton put in the perfect spot. It was one of several times the pair hooked up perfectly on deep routes.

Along with Green, Sanu was a highlight waiting to happen. Sanu became a runner and a passer as part of the Bengals' gadget- and misdirection-filled offense. However, Sanu's career-high seven drops weren't much worth remembering.

[+] EnlargeSteelers, Bengals
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsA.J. Green's fourth-quarter fumble in Week 17 gave the game -- and the division title -- to the Steelers.
Lowlights: We'll get to the slew of injuries further down, but along with them, it was a travesty the Bengals weren't able to much use rookie James Wright. Just as he began getting comfortable in the offense, he suffered a knee injury he never returned from. He got hurt during the Week 12 win at Tampa Bay. During the game, he caught three passes for 59 yards -- all were third-down conversions.

From a game-play standpoint, the receivers' worst moment of the regular season came when Green couldn't hang on to a ball he had just caught late in the finale at Pittsburgh. The Bengals were driving for a comeback when he fumbled after taking a hard hit to the head by a safety. The Steelers recovered the football and held on for the win, and in turn, the AFC North division title.

Play of the year: We'll go with Wright's 30-yard catch on a late third-and-11 at Tampa Bay. The conversion may look inconsequential in the box score now, but at the time, it was an enormous play. When he jumped for the pass along the sideline and came down with a foot and knee in bounds, he helped give the Bengals necessary positive field position with about 2:30 remaining in the game. Cincinnati went from inside its own 20 to near midfield on the play. That was important because five plays later, the Bengals punted. Instead of the Buccaneers getting the ball at midfield, they took over at their own 20. They nearly got in field-goal range, but thanks to a key penalty, they didn't. Cincinnati held on, winning a third road game in as many weeks.

Necessary improvements: Health has to be the No. 1 priority for the Bengals' receivers heading into next season. Not only did Wright and Green miss significant action, but the unit also was without Marvin Jones the entire season. Jones was the second-leading receiver in 2013. Due to the injuries, the Bengals had to get even more creative with their tight ends, running backs and eligible offensive linemen. The injuries at the pass-catching positions were so glaring in the playoff game that third-string running back Rex Burkhead had to fill in as a slot receiver.
CINCINNATI -- Injuries affected much of what the Cincinnati Bengals could accomplish in 2014.

Still, they had to play around those who were hurt. As a result, several backups, even a couple of rookies, saw more playing time than they probably were expected to have. As we continue reviewing the season, we're spending the next few days briefly analyzing the snap-count percentages for individual players at specific positions.

Injury-free in 2013, A.J. Green led all Bengals receivers in snaps taken that year. Part of 1,021 plays, he was on the field 93.1 percent of the time. In fact, until this season, he had been among the top two receivers on the team from a playing-time standpoint every other year of his career. The player in those three seasons who had either the most or second-most snaps among the pass-catchers was Gresham.

Jermaine Gresham likely would have slipped out of the top two this season had Green been healthier and had Tyler Eifert not dislocated his elbow in the season opener. Lost for the season, Eifert was part of just eight plays. He played well during them, catching three passes for 37 yards.

Brandon Tate was part of just 345 snaps his first three seasons with the Bengals. This season, he was in on 465 plays, good enough for the 45.7 snap-count percentage, his highest since with Cincinnati. Again, injuries to Green and Marvin Jones necessitated him being among those who received more action than expected when the year began.

One other player who might not have expected much action last July, but who certainly would have received much more, was the rookie James Wright. His 176 snaps all came ahead of a Week 13 knee injury at Tampa Bay that cost him the rest of the season. Just before the injury, his playing time was beginning to increase. He went over the 20-play mark in a game for the first time in Week 11. The following week, he was part of 39 plays. Then he played 22 the afternoon he caught three passes -- all third-down conversions -- in the 14-13 win against the Buccaneers.

The seventh-round pick was destined for more action and more playmaking opportunities had he been healthy in the remaining games.
CINCINNATI -- Several Cincinnati Bengals had recent changes made to their contracts, according to records from the NFL Players Association and ESPN Stats & Information.

The changes were mostly bonuses to base pay that players received based on their play.

Among those receiving modest bumps were receiver Mohamed Sanu and George Iloka, two players who were eligible for raises because of the league's latest collective bargaining agreement. The CBA stipulates that players drafted in Rounds 3-7 in 2012 (Sanu was a third-round selection; Iloka was a fifth) can receive raises of close to $1 million this offseason if they played 35 percent of the offensive or defensive snaps in two of the last three years.

Both met that criteria.

As a result, Sanu's salary for 2015 moved up from $680,000 to about $1.6 million. Iloka's moved from $660,000 to that same approximate $1.6 million figure.

The increase in pay certainly was deserved for both as they played key roles for Cincinnati in 2014. Sanu spent parts of six games as the Bengals' No. 1 option at receiver while Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green sat with injuries. Behind Green, Sanu had the second-highest total of receiving yards for the Bengals, one year after he was arguably the No. 4 passing target in the offense.

Iloka played about 98 percent of the Bengals' snaps the last two years. His tackle and interception totals increased across the two seasons. This past season, he had three picks after claiming just one in 2013.

Both players are entering the final years of their rookie contracts.

Along with those changes, cornerback and return specialist Adam Jones received a $200,000 boost to his base 2015 salary based on his punt-return average this season. His 12.1 yards-per-return average ranked second in the league among those with 20 or more returns. Jones also was named a first-team Associated Press All-Pro as a kick returner.

Last year, Jones received likely-to-be-earned incentives for playing time.

Linebacker Vincent Rey also received an additional $500,000 to his base 2015 salary because of his performance in 2014. Like Sanu, Rey was a fill-in, playing for Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who missed much of the year because of injuries. Rey led the team in tackles with 121, the 12th-highest total in the league.

In addition to those changes, here is a look (via ESPN Stats & Information) at the contract figures for some of the Bengals who were recently signed to futures contracts or outright re-signed:

TE Kevin Brock
Length of contract: One year
2015 base salary: $585,000
2015 cap value: $585,000
2015 cap savings: $585,000
2015 roster bonus: $0
2015 workout bonus: $0
Guaranteed money: $0

DE Sam Montgomery
Length of contract: Two years
2015 base salary: $510,00
2015 cap value: $510,000
2015 cap savings: $510,000
2015 roster bonus: $0
2015 workout bonus: $0
Guaranteed money: $0

2016 base salary: $600,000
2016 cap value: $600,000
2016 cap savings: $600,000
2016 roster bonus: $0
2016 workout bonus: $0
Guaranteed money: $0

LB L.J. Fort
Length of contract: Two years
2015 base salary: $510,000
2015 cap value: $510,000
2015 cap savings: $510,000
2015 roster bonus: $0
2015 workout bonus: $0
Guaranteed money: $0

2016 base salary: $600,000
2016 cap value: $600,000
2016 cap savings: $600,000
2016 roster bonus: $0
2016 workout bonus: $0
Guaranteed money: $0

DT Kwame Geathers
Length of contract: Two years
2015 base salary: $510,000
2015 cap value: $510,000
2015 cap savings: $510,000
2015 roster bonus: $0
2015 workout bonus: $0
Guaranteed money: $0

2016 base salary: $600,000
2016 cap value: $600,000
2016 cap savings: $600,000
2016 roster bonus: $0
2016 workout bonus: $0
Guaranteed money: $0

S Shiloh Keo
Length of contract: One year
2015 base salary: $745,000
2015 cap value: $585,000
2015 cap savings: $585,000
2015 roster bonus: $0
2015 workout bonus: $0
Guaranteed money: $0
CINCINNATI -- How well did Year 4 of the Andy Dalton maturation process go?

That's the first question we're addressing in Saturday's Cincinnati Bengals mailbag. When Hue Jackson took over as offensive coordinator last January, it appeared Dalton might actually take another step forward. Jackson vowed to place a renewed focus on the run; a tactic that was expected to ease the pressure on Dalton's shoulders and not force him into being the team's primary playmaker.

But some things changed. Injuries happened. Plans got altered. How, then, did those factors affect Dalton's once-promising trajectory?

@ColeyHarvey. This is a really good question. If you look at his full body of work this season, it might appear on the surface as if Dalton regressed. After all, he once again failed to win a playoff game, and his passing numbers were down. His 3,398 yards tied for the fewest in a single season in his career. He had the exact same number his rookie year. The 19 touchdown passes Dalton threw also were the fewest of his career, while the 17 interceptions were the second most. When you put those statistics together, regression is exactly what you get. But like Pro Bowl offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth often points out, you can't always read into the numbers. Sometimes they don't tell the full story, and that's what you're getting at, wanderer.

It's safe to say that Dalton's overall production was limited this season due to a couple of different factors. The high rate of injuries to his pass-catchers -- five key passing options missed two or more games -- changed some of what Dalton could do. So did Jackson's insistence on getting the running game involved. Dalton attempted the fewest passes of his career -- nearly 100 fewer than he did in 2013. Despite that, he actually had a higher completion percentage. When Dalton looked good in 2014, he looked really good. When he didn't, he was a turnover machine waiting to happen. While I'm of the mind to say he neither progressed nor regressed, it's hard to deny how much better his season could have been had his pass-catchers all been healthy. Healthier receivers mean more plays get made. They also mean opposing defenses have less incentive to load the box and focus purely on stopping the run -- something that happened to the Bengals late in the season.

@ColeyHarvey. Speaking of one of those injured receivers, thanks for the question, Coach. I must be honest, I'm not sure what you mean by "look elsewhere." There is absolutely no reason in the world for the Bengals to look for a receiver to replace Jones. They could turn to the draft to develop receiver depth, but that's the only looking the Bengals will do at the position. Jones will be back in 2015 after not playing a down this past season because of ankle and foot injuries. Will he be the No. 2 receiver playing opposite A.J. Green? Time will tell. I don't think that spot is promised to anyone right now. Mohamed Sanu certainly had a strong start to the season, helping fill vacancies left by Green when he was injured, but he didn't produce as well by the end of the year. Drops also became an issue for him. Much like we expected last preseason, anticipate a healthier Jones to compete with Sanu at the No. 2 receiver spot.

@ColeyHarvey. As far as the Bengals and their first-round pick, I can see them going one of two directions right now: either drafting a dependable offensive tackle or focusing on a pass-rusher. I can't see them making that high a move for receiver because it's not that pressing of a need right now. The only way I could see it being that big of a need in this draft is if the Bengals already have a feeling they won't be able to re-sign three of the four receivers who will be up for free agency in 2016. (Green, Sanu, Jones and Greg Little are entering the final years of their contracts.) Otherwise, their attention ought to be on bringing in a tackle who can eventually take Andrew Whitworth or Andre Smith's place. Whitworth will turn 34 late next season, and Smith could re-sign elsewhere next offseason. In addition to that, the pass rush was so poor in 2014 the Bengals need to address it. Regardless of which position they draft at No. 21, just know it will be the player the Bengals deem the best available.

@ColeyHarvey. Some might say cornerback is another position the Bengals might consider drafting in the first round. I can't see that happening right now, personally, primarily because of the quandary Stew presents here. Cincinnati picked a corner (Darqueze Dennard) 24th overall last May, and he's barely been able to get on the field because of the talent above him. We'll see what happens with the 36-year-old Terence Newman, but it does seem Dre Kirkpatrick's strong 2014 season may have earned him a starting job. If that's the case, Dennard would be the odd man out of the rotation once again. Because of the faith that still exists in Adam Jones and Leon Hall, it could be tough yet again for Dennard to see time outside of special-teams play. That said, though, Hall and Jones are free agents next year. So Dennard's time to start may not be far away. I'll say this, coaches are desperate to find more defensive roles for Dennard.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 26-10 loss to the Indianapolis Colts:

Lamenting injury losses: All season, the Bengals have harped on how they hated using injuries as excuses. But the fact is, had it not been for ailments to certain players at critical times of the season, perhaps the year would have ended differently. In addition to playing another game without Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict, the Bengals learned Saturday they would be without Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green. Hours before Sunday's game, they found out Pro Bowl tight end Jermaine Gresham would be missing, too. Asked about how hard Green and Gresham's absences made things for the offense, receiver Mohamed Sanu said, "Extremely hard. When they [the Colts] have their best players playing and we have some of our best players missing, you can't do what we want to do."

Health a key to 2015? Sticking with the injury theme, rookie running back Jeremy Hill said the biggest change the Bengals needed to undergo in the offseason was simply getting healthy. In addition to the trio above, the Bengals also were without Marvin Jones -- their second-leading receiver in 2013 -- and tight end Tyler Eifert, among others, this year.

'Look at the Panthers': Like most Bengals, safety George Iloka was disappointed with the outcome of Sunday's game. He knows this loss will "resonate with longtime fans" who haven't seen a postseason win since January 1991. "It's also going to resonate with us," Iloka added. "Like they say, you're only as good as your last game." He added that it didn't necessarily matter how a team got to the postseason. It only mattered what the team did once it got there. "You've got to find a way to come out with the win," Iloka said. "Look at the Panthers. They're under .500 and they found a way to win." Carolina beat Arizona in Saturday's NFC wild-card round game after finishing the regular season 7-8-1.
CINCINNATI -- An argument could be made that the outcome of the Cincinnati Bengals' Sunday afternoon wild-card round playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts could come down to how well Andy Dalton plays.

Essentially, the big question is: Which Dalton will show up?

Will it be the one who began this season completing passes at a 62.5 percent or better clip through the first five games? Or the one who mustered a meek 2.0 passer rating in prime time against Cleveland? Will we see the quarterback who threw three touchdowns without an interception at New Orleans? Or the one who has an 0-3 playoff record with one touchdown and six picks in three postseason starts?

That's the $115 million-dollar question.

Based on what they've seen in practices and the locker room this week, Dalton's teammates are confident they'll see a winning quarterback this weekend.

"I expect a big game from him," rookie running back Jeremy Hill said Thursday. "I like the way he's been practicing. He's had a great week of practice and [Friday] is going to be the icing on the cake. So we've got to go out there and make sure we do everything right [Friday] and execute and get all the finite details of the game plan. I'm excited and really looking forward to seeing Andy play."

Those who have followed the Bengals the last three postseasons know all too well that winning a playoff game remains among the biggest giants for Dalton to knock down. Earlier this season, he ended the narrative that he couldn't win at Baltimore. He put a brief halt to the notion he couldn't win in prime time, claiming a win over Denver on a Monday night. He also led the Bengals to its first 3-0 road trip (Weeks 11-13) in franchise history.

So there are reasons for the Bengals to be optimistic about their starting signal-caller's playoff run this year.

"I expect a winning quarterback, period," offensive coordinator Hue Jackson succinctly said earlier this week. "It's winning time."

Dalton and the Bengals could use the help from their running game. Hill finished the regular season with 1,124 rushing yards, five shy of tying Corey Dillon for the franchise's single-season rookie rushing record. That number is most impressive because it wasn't until Week 9 that Hill's role expanded following an injury to previous starter Giovani Bernard. Since Week 9, Hill leads all rushers in yards with 929.

It will be interesting to see what the Bengals do on their first two drives Sunday. In their dominating 30-0 win at Cleveland last month, they ran the ball 11 times on their first 22 plays, including the first four plays of the game. All four were handoffs to Hill.

In their last two games, the Bengals' second drives have been capped with interceptions on balls that were either too high for their intended target (A.J. Green) or thrown into double coverage at a time when Dalton and Green had a miscommunication.

Regardless what they do at the start of Sunday's game, it's clear the Bengals plan to obey their leader's every command.

"I expect Andy to be Andy Dalton," receiver Mohamed Sanu said. "He's a very good quarterback and he knows how to command his offense, and knows how to run this offense. We're all going to follow him and he's going to take us where we need to go."

PFF reviews Bengals' Week 14 loss

December, 9, 2014
CINCINNATI -- Before we move on from Sunday's loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, let's take a peek at how Pro Football Focus graded the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 14.

As always, take the grades with a certain grain of salt because they can end up being later amended. They can also sometimes be the byproduct of particular schemes or coverages or setups a team happens to play that week.

Here are a few Bengals grades and notes following the 42-21 loss:

  • Boling
    According to PFF, all of offensive tackle Clint Boling's 65 snaps against the Steelers came at the injury-depleted right tackle position. Boling made his first career start at the spot as the Bengals continue figuring out their path forward with Andre Smith done for the year with a triceps injury. Boling's best work came in the run, where he posted a plus-1.8 PFF grade. He also allowed just one quarterback hurry and a quarterback hit on his 42 pass protections.
  • With Boling blocking on the edge, Mike Pollak came off the bench and started at left guard. He was part of 54 snaps, and didn't allow a single pressure. At plus-2.7 and plus-2.2, respectively, Boling and Pollak had some of the highest overall grades for Bengals linemen.
  • Veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth also has been strong much of the season in pass protection. PFF's Nate Jahnke tweeted Tuesday Whitworth hasn't allowed a sack or a quarterback hit in his past 11 games. The lineman also has yielded just four quarterback hurries in that stretch. Per Jahnke, in Week 14 alone, 17 tackles across the league allowed four or more pressures.
  • Reserve receiver Brandon Tate's play-making opportunities grew exponentially Sunday with rookie James Wright out nursing a knee injury. Tate played 32 snaps after participating in just 29 on offense over the previous four weeks.
  • Quarterback Andy Dalton saw pressure on seven of his 32 dropbacks (21.9 percent), a figure that closely resembles what he has faced all season. PFF said he has a pressure percentage this season of 23.2 percent. By comparison, Atlanta's Matt Ryan has been pressured on 35.6 percent of his dropbacks, and Russell Wilson on 44.8 percent of his this season. He went 5-for-7 for 117 yards and two touchdowns on those plays.
  • Dalton's 75.9 percent accuracy percentage was eighth best among quarterbacks Sunday. Of his 29 passing attempts, 22 were on target. He had 21 completions and a dropped ball to Mohamed Sanu.
  • Per PFF, running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill did not force a missed tackle, and combined for only 15 yards after contact.
  • In the last four games, A.J. Green's receiving grade has been a plus-10.2. On Sunday, he received a plus-3.5 receiving grade for catching 11 of 15 targets for a career-high 224 yards and a touchdown, earning him a spot on PFF's Week 14 team of the week.
  • Rey

    Linebacker Vincent Rey wasn't very pleased with his afternoon, particularly the way he failed to fit into run gaps during the crucial fourth quarter. Still, there was no denying that he was everywhere, and had a good game statistically. Rey posted a plus-3.7 overall grade. He had nine run stops without missing a tackle, and had one quarterback pressure on his three rush attempts. He also defended a pass in coverage early in the game, and helped stop a key screen on third down. He finished with 15 tackles.
  • No Bengals lineman had a positive pass-rush grade.
  • Veteran cornerback Leon Hall also gave up two catches on four targets in coverage, including the 94-yard touchdown late to Martavis Bryant. Hall had a minus-1.1 coverage grade.
CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati Bengals coaches have harped about it all season. They want their receivers to make big, contested catches at all costs.

Even if they aren't contested, naturally, they still want them to make the play.

With 8:42 left in Sunday's game at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Mohamed Sanu had a chance to make a difficult third-down play that might have helped set up a score. That play could have rendered completely unnecessary the last-minute hijinks that nearly allowed the Bucs to snatch a win.

But he didn't. Flashing across the middle of the field, Sanu got between two defenders as quarterback Andy Dalton tried to sneak a throw into the tight window. The Bengals would have suddenly gone from their own 18 to potentially across midfield. With that catch, an extended drive and good field position, who knows? A crucial extra score may have come.

It wouldn't. Sanu dropped the pass and out came the punt team. The game's 14-13 score would go unchanged the rest of the afternoon.

As the Bengals begin their four-game postseason push, they are going to need in particular the receiver who helped keep the passing game afloat earlier this season when A.J. Green couldn't play because of a nagging big right toe injury.

"When you get those things, you've got the ball down in the weakness of the coverage, and that's what you want," coach Marvin Lewis said. "When you've got the ball in the weakness of the coverage, you stand to make a very large play."

It's not like Sanu hasn't been playing well lately. He has. He made one key third-down conversion on an earlier catch that also came on a well-placed pass between two defenders. After the catch, he fought through a couple of tackles for extra yards. Plays like that were what made him appear to be the team's mid-season MVP when Green was still out.

The point here, though, is that the Bengals are seeking as close to perfection from each of their players the rest of the way as possible. And untimely drops like the one Sanu had make that push for perfection more difficult.

"We've got to continue to focus on making the big catch, the big play, rather than worry about what happens after the fact," Lewis said. "He's got to catch the ball before he tries to run with it."

Sanu, whose production and opportunities have increased significantly this season, has a career-high six drops. At this stage, even with four more catches than he had all last season, Sanu's 2014 drop percentage is exactly what it was in 2013: 6.7 percent. That's among the 25 highest drop percentages in the league this year, and it's also higher than the league average of 3.5 percent.

When you take the drops out of the equation, though, Sanu has had a tremendous year. Not only was he a key contributor in place of Green, but as the wideout once again demonstrated Sunday, he can be used as a runner (this time in a direct-snap, Wildcat formation) and thrower, too. With an 11-yard pass to Green, he improved to 5-for-5 for 177 yards passing in his three-year career.

He still has a perfect passer rating of 158.3.
CINCINNATI -- We're starting to get into that time of year when the playoff chase dominates the NFL news cycle.

That's a good thing.

Why? Because that's what teams play for each year, right? For them, the whole point of the regular season is to be one of the lucky 12 that survives and advances into the postseason all the way to final game of the league year. As we start getting closer to seeing which teams have legitimate chances of seeing their goals fulfilled, the season gets more fun and more dramatic.

So, what will it take to get the Bengals into the postseason? We attempt to answer that very question to kick off this week's Cincinnati Bengals mailbag:

@ColeyHarvey: In my most humble opinion, Erik, AFC teams have to convince themselves it will take 10 wins in order to be among the 12. In the Bengals' case, it might be more like 9.5. (Their overtime tie with the Panthers counts for half a win). If I'm Cincinnati, though, I still have to make 10 wins the goal. The AFC North is so good this year, and is particularly effective against teams outside the division. With three of their final games coming against division foes, the Bengals will have a difficult remaining road. But they already own the tiebreaker over the Ravens, and again, have the benefit of that extra half-win. If you get to 10 wins and are one of the top two seeds in football's toughest division, to me, you're a lock for the playoffs. Check out ESPN's "Playoff Machine" to see some of the scenarios that could get the Bengals into the postseason.

@ColeyHarvey: I'm assuming you're referring to A.J. Green here, Jack. I can't say that he's back to his "old" self, mainly because he's going to continue dealing the rest of the season with that balky big toe that has been problematic all season. As you know, that injury sidelined him three games, and it took him two before he showed some signs of his old self. Without a doubt, he had one of his best games of the season last Sunday at New Orleans when he caught six passes for 127 yards and the fourth-quarter touchdown that put the game out of reach. A large part of his success stemmed from the Saints leaving him single-covered after sinking up to protect against a Bengals running game that had been effective all day. Green also responded quite positively to challenges offensive coordinator Hue Jackson issued him in previous days. To keep showing glimpses of his Pro Bowl self, Green needs Jackson and the run to keep helping.

@ColeyHarvey. Ha, this must be the weekend for curiosity about getting Pro Bowl players back to form. Seriously, though, good question, CoachQuis. I'd argue that yes, Vontaze Burfict can get back in form. He has a better chance than Green after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery three weeks ago to clean out his leg. Although he still is recovering from the procedure -- the first surgery he's ever had -- he should be able to run and cut much better than he did in the Jaguars game earlier this month when he got his knee twisted up ahead of the surgery. After the first-quarter injury, he finished the afternoon. With a healthy Burfict, yes, playoff chances improve. Without him, the Bengals miss a lot: leadership, communication and intimidation.

@ColeyHarvey. Speaking of linebackers ... Mike, I'd agree that Rey Maualuga's return last week could provide a big jolt against not only zone-blocking rush offenses, but other schemes, too. He's one of the Bengals' best run stoppers, and as we saw last week, his presence alone can force running backs to run into other defenders. Maualuga only had three tackles last week -- including one vs. a pass -- but he fit perfectly in his run gaps, forcing ball carriers to extend plays where other Bengals were waiting. If the Bengals are to build upon their 74-yard rush defense performance last week, Maualuga certainly will be among the biggest reasons why.

@ColeyHarvey. Easy answer, Josh. Marvin Jones won't be back this year. He went on season-ending injured reserve back in Week 6. So for this season, yes, Mohamed Sanu has taken his job. The two won't have another chance to battle for the role of No. 2 receiver until next training camp. Have to figure this time around, Sanu will enter as the front-runner for the job after his solid work relieving Green at times this year.

@ColeyHarvey. Will, it is really early to tell what exactly the long-term plan will be for AJ McCarron. But I'll say this: it's clear the Bengals have him around as a backup plan. He won't be traded anytime soon and he won't be released, either. They're going to groom him into the backup role across the next three seasons. It'll be interesting to see what happens by the 2016 season if Andy Dalton struggles, though. If McCarron has come along by then, Dalton's contract does permit the Bengals to let him go if they favor McCarron. Will that scenario happen? It's hard to see it playing out that way right now, but you never know ...

@ColeyHarvey. Darqueze Dennard doesn't get more time on defense because he's down on the depth chart below three really good veteran cornerbacks. Of course, you saw him sneak onto the field for 14 plays last week against the Saints, and he looked good. I wouldn't be surprised if coaches at some point revisited the "give Leon Hall's Achilles a rest" tactic and give Dennard more time. Hall hasn't looked good much this year, and Dennard is a rookie with promise. They'll want to give him opportunities. But for the time being, he's just another first-rounder playing behind four others. 
CINCINNATI -- Since Monday, an image has flashed on the television screens in the Cincinnati Bengals locker room featuring a message the team hopes will be apropos by the end of the week.

In orange, at the bottom of a photo of receiver Mohamed Sanu reaching for a pass, are eight words: "One's best success comes after their greatest disappointment."

Quarterback Andy Dalton certainly hopes that will be the case Sunday afternoon when he and the Bengals face the New Orleans Saints in their first game since last Thursday's nightmarish 24-3 defeat to the Cleveland Browns. From the moment he walked into his locker room after the blowout, Dalton's focus was on proving that he and his team were much better than what the nation saw in prime time.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsAndy Dalton can't help but improve from a disastrous Thursday night game against the Browns.
"That's not the kind of player I am, not the kind of offense we are, not the kind of team we are," Dalton said.

As disappointments go, no game in Dalton's career went quite like last Thursday's. He scuffled to a career-low 2.0 passer rating and had the second-lowest QBR of his career, coming away with a 4.3. His passing yards (86) were down, as were his touchdowns (zero). Meanwhile, his interceptions (three) were up. He set a poor tone on the first drive when he threw an interception on a pass that tight end Jermaine Gresham appeared one step shy of possibly breaking up.

Dalton could have responded positively after that turnover. He didn't. Instead, he kept forcing the issue and putting the ball in the Browns' hands.

"You don't turn the ball over, it gives our team a better chance," Dalton said. "They score 14 points off turnovers. There's so many things that we could have done differently and I could have done differently. But like I said, it was one game, so we can't let it hurt us for the remainder of the season."

How will he try to accomplish that? By maintaining focus and trust, Dalton said.

"You can't lose any confidence," Dalton said. "You can't all of a sudden panic or anything. There's been a lot of good things that have gone on for this team. So hold on to that kind of stuff because you've still got to have a lot of confidence. I mean, that's the best thing you do do out on the field, because that's contagious."

Apparently, Dalton has been listening to his offensive coordinator.

Hue Jackson said the same thing Friday when giving his day-after take on the loss. As he put it, amid all the questions about what his offense didn't and couldn't do last week, "the elephant in the room" was that the Bengals had been good offensively at times this year. They needed to get some of that back.

Through the first three games, Dalton had thrown just one interception and hadn't been sacked. The Bengals had a 3-0 record and looked like an elite team. But then their bye week came around, a blowout loss at New England happened, and a seemingly unending stream of injuries took place, as did a stream of interceptions and sacks. Now they sit at 5-3-1 and are in need of a jolt.

"It all starts with the way you're preparing, the way you practice," Dalton said. "So when you get these looks in practice, you've got to hit them. You've got to show everybody that there's going to be big plays out there."

If you're a quarterback like Dalton, you also simply have to play better, and believe the words on that television screen.

Browns vs. Bengals preview

November, 6, 2014

This rivalry is starting to get more significant.

Credit both the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals for better talent evaluation practices in recent seasons that are beginning to turn their organizations into real power players in the NFL.

The Bengals are the furthest along that path, having made three straight playoff appearances and winning division titles in two of the past five seasons. Last year, the Browns showed flashes of success before a team-wide reorganization this offseason put them in what appears to be a much better position for tangling with the best of the AFC North. At 5-3, the Browns are one win from their highest win total in seven seasons. The Lake Erie tide has begun to turn.

Here to break down the matchup is ESPN Browns reporter Pat McManamon and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey:

McManamon: Coley, Cincinnati seems to just keep on keeping on. Two new coordinators, and the team is winning. How have Hue Jackson and Paul Guenther helped or changed anything?

Harvey: It is amazing to think the Bengals are 5-2-1 when you put it that way, Pat. But in all honestly, many Bengals fans aren't sure either coordinator has done much to help his side of the ball. There is greater optimism for what Jackson is building on offense, though, considering how well the unit has operated without the services of A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard. Mohamed Sanu filled in wonderfully for Green in the parts of four games the Pro Bowler missed, and rookie Jeremy Hill went off last week in place of Bernard, who is expected to be out again Thursday. Cincinnati's offense has laid one egg -- a 27-0 loss at Indianapolis -- but has otherwise featured creative looks and a renewed interest in running the ball. Guenther's defense hasn't been as good primarily because Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict, the leader of the unit, has finished only two games this year because of head, neck and knee issues. He's out Thursday after getting a knee scoped last week. Injuries have made it too soon to say how much Guenther's addition has helped the defense. But the potential is there.

Pat, I know you've been asking the Brian Hoyer doubters to take a seat all season. What has been the one thing you can point to about his play that has made him get the team to 5-3?

McManamon: Hoyer doubters should take a seat, Coley. There are still good seats available for them. As to his play, on the stat sheet, I'd point to the interceptions. Hoyer has thrown four all season, and his interception percentage of 1.6 percent ranks sixth in the league. He has been avoiding crucial mistakes and taking care of the ball. Off the stat sheet, I'd have to credit his preparation. Hoyer studies like he is taking his third bar exam. He pores over details, prepares for situations and plays and tries making sure he understands what he's seeing and what will work. Combine that with his steadiness and it's not hard to see why he's won three games with fourth-quarter comebacks. Hoyer's poise, steadiness and care with the ball have been huge for the Browns.

From afar, it seems that one guy who has really stepped up this season has been Sanu. The Browns have had trouble with big receivers this season. What has he done that has made him so effective?

Harvey: Simply put, he's played. Last year, Sanu turned into the No. 3 receiving option behind a healthy Green and surprising newcomer Marvin Jones. When preseason injuries sidelined Jones and eventually landed him on injured reserve and toe problems caused Green to miss three weeks, Sanu had no choice but to be the next man up. It all goes back to the offseason. Hoyer's study habits are a lot like Sanu's workout habits. He's always had great hands, but he focused this preseason on making difficult catches in practice look easy. Several rookies I've talked to mentioned how awestruck they were when they first saw Sanu pull in a jaw-dropping one-handed catch or have an over-the-shoulder grab that would make Willie Mays envious. That play has translated into games. Now that Green is back, the Browns and other defenses have two big targets -- former Brown Greg Little makes three -- to defend.

People in Cincinnati are still curious about Andrew Hawkins. Had he been able to re-sign here, he likely would be the No. 3 receiver right now. How important has Hawkins been to Cleveland's offense both on the field and in the locker room?

McManamon: Hawkins has been vital -- to the point I named him the team's midseason MVP this week. I wouldn't go as far as to say he's a leader because there are several veterans on the offense who lead, such as Hoyer and Joe Thomas. But Hawkins has been a find, and he's been key to the 5-3 start. He was signed to do what the Bengals planned to do with him: be the third wideout. But Josh Gordon's suspension put Hawkins in the starting lineup. Despite the fact he's never started before this season, he has responded by playing every game and leading the receivers in snaps while leading the Browns in receptions and receiving yards. He's also shown a toughness and a work ethic to admire. Without Hawkins, the Browns would not be 5-3.

A year ago, Coley, the Browns talked big about a meaningful game in Cincinnati then were embarrassed as the Bengals scored 31 points in a quarter. Do the Bengals take this one seriously, or do they figure eventually the same old Browns will appear?

Harvey: The Bengals believe the Browns are legitimate. Veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, the Bengals' version of Thomas, said it best earlier this week when he compared the AFC North to the SEC. "We've seen every year even the worst team in the division and the best have a tough time beating each other no matter what their records are," the former LSU Tiger said. Trust me, the Bengals are taking this game seriously. Little, as you well know, definitely is. The former Brown who was signed by Cincinnati last month said "somebody has to pay" for him being cut by the Browns in May -- even after it became apparent Gordon would be facing a multigame suspension. Combine all of that with the appearance of Leah Still, the 4-year-old cancer-fighting daughter of defensive tackle Devon Still, and you will have an emotional night at Paul Brown Stadium. For the Browns, this could be one of the more hostile "Battle of Ohio" crowds in Cincinnati in recent years.

Since 2011, this rivalry has hinged, in part, on one key matchup: Green vs. Joe Haden. Green will play Thursday despite a toe injury. Hobbled or not, what has it meant to Haden to consistently lock down a receiver the likes of Green?

McManamon: A tremendous amount, though I would say Green has won his fair share of this competition. Haden likes Green, and more important, he respects him. He continually talks about what a good guy Green is and how well he plays. There is tremendous respect between the two, and given that they both are among the best at their positions, it's one of the most interesting and entertaining rivalries in the sport. Haden values every opportunity he has to play Green, which means he greatly values being able to limit the damage Green can do.

Midseason report: Cincinnati Bengals

November, 5, 2014

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One word sums up the first half of the Cincinnati Bengals' season unlike any other: injuries.

From the very first game this season, the Bengals' bumps and bruises have completely taken them out of their preseason game plan and altered the rhythm they were seeking offensively and defensively.

Key players such as Tyler Eifert, Marvin Jones, Vontaze Burfict, Rey Maualuga, Giovani Bernard and A.J. Green have been among the injured at some point this season -- some injured and reinjured. The syncopated manner in which the defense has been hit at linebacker caused defensive coordinator Paul Guenther last week to call this a "hell of a first year" on the job.

Midseason MVP: No player is more deserving of this than receiver Mohamed Sanu. Not only has he been a more than adequate fill-in for Green, who has missed parts of four games with a toe injury, he also has been the most versatile player on the offense. Before Green's return Sunday, Sanu accounted for 31.3 percent of the Bengals' offense in games the Pro Bowler missed. He had 460 yards of total offense in those games by catching, running and throwing the ball. He still has a perfect career passer rating after completing 50-yard and 18-yard passes. The latter throw was a touchdown pass completed to quarterback Andy Dalton. Sanu leads all Bengals pass-catchers with 39 catches for 628 yards and four touchdowns.

Biggest disappointment: Aside from juggling their roster to account for the injuries, the Bengals' biggest disappointment has been veteran right offensive tackle Andre Smith. Lately, penalties have defined the sixth-year lineman's play. He's had holds and false starts in four of the past five games, including three holding calls that negated a pair of big first-down gains and a potential game-winning touchdown run in an overtime tie with the Panthers. The Bengals have learned from the league that at least one of those calls was incorrectly applied, but still, Smith hasn't had his best start. Pro Football Focus has him at a minus-4.6 grade through eight games, currently the second-worst grade of his career.

Best moment: The most memorable moment of the Bengals' first half was Sanu's 18-yard touchdown pass across the field to Dalton in a 33-7 Week 3 win against the Titans. It was a head-turning play that embodied the creativity coordinator Hue Jackson's offense possesses. But this isn't really about the most memorable moment. This is about the best. Rookie running back Jeremy Hill's 60-yard touchdown run with eight minutes left in Sunday's win against the Jaguars fits. The play featured a rookie in the most significant moment of his career, sprinting for a gain that extended the Bengals' lead and iced a crucial win. A case could also be made for Green's 77-yard touchdown catch late in the season-opening win at Baltimore.

Worst moment: For kicker Mike Nugent, no moment was as bad this season as his missed field goal as time expired in the overtime game against the Panthers. Had he made the 36-yard field goal, he wouldn't have fielded many of the threatening tweets that he retweeted after the game, and the Bengals would be 6-2. For the entire team, however, the worst moment was the 60 minutes it was playing inside Lucas Oil Stadium. During the 27-0 loss at Indianapolis, nothing went right for the Bengals. Their offense was timid and slammed around by the Colts' aggressive defense. Their own battered defense kept missing tackles and was exhausted because the offense couldn't stay on the field.

Key to the second half: Defense will be the difference-maker down the stretch. The offense will be fine. Smith will come around. The presence of Green, Bernard and, eventually, Eifert will help. Once the Bengals get their weapons back, the offense will hum. On the other side of the ball, the Bengals need to remain aggressive and get good pressure. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins must play a key role in that. After a slow start, he's finally starting to get back to his old self following last year's ACL surgery. He'd have been the biggest first-half disappointment had he continued without pass disruptions and sacks. Three straight road games, a game against the Broncos and three of the last four against division foes make the second half a challenge.

PFF reviews the Bengals' Week 9 win

November, 3, 2014
CINCINNATI -- After holding on to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, the Cincinnati Bengals have already placed that game in the rearview mirror.

But before we completely turn attention to Thursday's rapidly approaching game against the Cleveland Browns, let's take a quick peek at some of the ways our friends at Pro Football Focus analyzed and examined Cincinnati's Week 9 game.

As always, take the grades and notes you see below with a certain grain of salt because they can end up being amended. Bad grades also can sometimes simply be the product of particular schemes, coverage or formations a team happens to employ in a respective week based upon the opponent.

Here's a few Bengals grades and notes following Sunday's 33-23 win:

  • Cincinnati's offensive line drew strong remarks from PFF, which bestowed the best grades to left offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth and right offensive guard Mike Pollak, who was filling in for the injured Kevin Zeitler. Pollak wasn't the only backup getting action. Marshall Newhouse also came in at right tackle for Andre Smith, who was lost to an ankle injury. Newhouse played a season-high 46 snaps, allowing just one quarterback disruption on 20 blocks, according to PFF. Center Russell Bodine was the only lineman with a negative overall grade at minus-0.1.
  • According to PFF, through Week 9, the Bengals' offensive line pass blocking efficiency is 87.4, good enough for second in the league.
  • Quarterback Andy Dalton has been OK with standard pressure this season, but he didn't get many opportunities to show that Sunday. PFF said he was pressured just four times on 33 dropbacks.
  • Dalton also had an apparent affinity for passing into the middle of the field. Of his 29 aimed passes -- those that targeted a specific player -- 17 went into the middle of the field. That's a 59 percent rating on throws in between the numbers.
  • When the Jaguars blitzed Sunday, Dalton didn't look as good as he has for most of the year. He was 3-for-7 for 56 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.
  • A quick breakdown of running back snap counts: Jeremy Hill had 44, Cedric Peerman had 18, and Rex Burkhead had seven.
  • The majority of Hill's yards came while hitting the edges. Of his 154 yards, 133 of them came outside the tackles. Yes, he can run into the middle of the field, but clearly he's effective outside the numbers, too. His 60-yard run went outside the right tackle.
  • PFF believed defensive tackle Geno Atkins had his best performance this year Sunday. He was credited with five run stops en route to picking up a plus-2.4 run defense grade. He also was credited with two quarterback disruptions and batted away a pass.
  • The most quarterback disruptions on the team went to defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who had five in the win. He had three quarterback hits, one hurry and a sack. Per PFF, he also had the most opportunities to hound and harass quarterback Blake Bortles, rushing him 36 times, more than any other Bengal.
  • In pass coverage, safety George Iloka had a plus-1.1 grade as he allowed just one catch on three targets into his area of coverage. He also iced the game with about four minutes remaining when he had the Bengals' only interception of the game. They dropped at least four more passes that should have been turnovers.

Behind the Bengals' Week 9 snap counts

November, 3, 2014
CINCINNATI -- Our eyes showed us that Cincinnati Bengals Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green was limited in Sunday afternoon's 33-23 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but now we know exactly how limited he was.

According to snap counts from Pro Football Focus, Green was on the field for 58 percent of the snaps, a much higher percentage than it appeared. He played 40 of the Bengals' 69 snaps, the website reported. Receiver Mohamed Sanu played 60 of the Bengals' snaps.

Despite getting targeted six times and catching three passes for 44 yards and a touchdown, Green didn't participate as fully as normal because he was returning Sunday from a toe injury that kept him out of the previous three games. It has been a lingering issue that he aggravated during a practice about a month ago. Doctors have told him the pain in the right big toe will last the rest of the season. The combination of the down time and a quick turnaround this week made the Bengals ease Green back into action.

After Sunday's game, Green said he didn't have any complications with the toe and that he felt OK. He expects to be used more regularly Thursday when the Bengals host the Cleveland Browns in a nationally televised division contest.

Before Sunday's game, Green appeared in 160 of the 184 plays of the games he had finished this season. That accounts for 87 percent of the Bengals' snaps in those games, one of which was a 26-point blowout of the Titans that he and other starters left a few plays early.

So clearly, he was limited Sunday.

Here, with help from our friends at PFF and the NFL's Game Statistics and Information System, are this week's complete Bengals play counts:

OFFENSE (69 plays)*
OG Clint Boling (69), C Russell Bodine (69), OG Mike Pollak (69), OT Andrew Whitworth (69), QB Andy Dalton (69) TE Jermaine Gresham (67), WR Sanu (60), OT Marshall Newhouse (46), RB Jeremy Hill (44), WR Green (40), WR Greg Little (38), H-back Ryan Hewitt (34), OT Andre Smith (24), RB Cedric Peerman (18), WR Brandon Tate (14), TE Kevin Brock (11), WR James Wright (10), RB Rex Burkhead (7), DT/FB Domata Peko (1).

DEFENSE (64 plays)*
S Reggie Nelson (64), CB Terence Newman (64), LB Vincent Rey (64), S George Iloka (63), LB Emmanuel Lamur (63), DE Carlos Dunlap (58), CB Leon Hall (55), DE Wallace Gilberry (48), DT Geno Atkins (47), CB Adam Jones (46), DT Peko (40), DE Robert Geathers (31), DT Brandon Thompson (19), LB Nico Johnson (17), Dre Kirkpatrick (10), DE Margus Hunt (9), DT Devon Still (4), S Taylor Mays (1), S Shawn Williams (1).

SPECIAL TEAMS (33 plays)**
Williams (27), LB Jayson DiManche (27), LB Marquis Flowers (24), Mays (24), Wright (24), Peerman (23), Hunt (22), Burkhead (19), Kirkpatrick (18), Hewitt (16), K Mike Nugent (11), Jones (11), LS Clark Harris (10), P Kevin Huber (10), Nelson (9), Peko (8), CB Chris Lewis-Harris (7), Brock (6), Johnson (5), Whitworth (5), Pollak (5), Bodine (5), Gresham (5), Newhouse (5), Tate (3), Newman (3), Rey (3), Lamur (3), Dunlap (3), Hall (3), Still (3), Smith (1).

Note: *Counts come from PFF. **Counts come from NFL's GSIS.