NFC South: Jay Gruden
At 7-3-1, the Cincinnati Bengals lead the AFC North. Barely.
Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore each are 7-4. The Bengals are in the thick of a playoff race in what might be the league's toughest division.
On Sunday, the Bengals will play another playoff contender. Seriously, the 2-9 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in the playoff hunt in the shockingly weak NFC South. The Bucs are only two games behind Atlanta and New Orleans in the win column.
ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and ESPN Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas preview Sunday’s matchup:
Harvey: Pat, this is so weird to me: The Bucs, with two wins, still are technically in the NFC South playoff hunt because the division is so bad. I know recently you said that the team needed to start thinking about next year, but what do you sense the players’ approach is about still possibly trying to sneak into the postseason?
Yasinskas: Even the Bucs are amazed that they technically still are in the division race. Coach Lovie Smith has made it clear the Bucs are playing to win and aren't planning to look at young players to get ready for next season. I think that really is the only approach Smith can take. His team is only two games off the division lead, so the Bucs might as well play to win.
The Bengals lost coordinators Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer to head-coaching jobs in the offseason, but it doesn't seem as if they've missed a beat. How have they adapted to the changes?
Harvey: Well, Pat, I wouldn't quite say the haven't "missed a beat." You and the Buccaneers just happen to be getting ready to see them at the right time. Three weeks ago at home on a Thursday night against the Browns, the offense and the defense looked as if they had just been handed Hue Jackson's and Paul Guenther's new schemes about an hour before kickoff. They didn't run much in that game; they didn't pass well; and they didn't stop the run at all. In fact, until two weeks ago, the Bengals had allowed seven straight 100-yard rushing performances by opposing offenses. They ranked 31st in rush defense coming out of the 24-3 loss to the Browns. They have since turned it around with two 75-yards-and-under performances to rank 27th. Still not great, but progress.
Overall, though, the Bengals have adapted well to the changes at coordinator. Through the first three games, they looked unstoppable on both sides of the ball and were 3-0. Injuries later handcuffed them, with key players Vontaze Burfict, A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard and Andre Smith among those occasionally hurt. Now that they’re healthier, the Bengals have shown at New Orleans and Houston the past two weeks that they have a full grasp of Jackson's and Guenther's systems.
It's clear Josh McCown wears his heart on his sleeve. And although there were no tears after his homecoming loss in Chicago on Sunday, how much could that loss in particular weigh on him entering this week?
Yasinskas: Knowing McCown, he'll use what happened in Chicago as a motivating factor. The Chicago game was extra important to McCown because of his past there, but he wound up playing perhaps his worst game of the year. But I can't see McCown pouting about it. He's a pro's pro, and he'll be trying hard to bounce back from a bad game.
The Bengals have been running the ball especially well. Why have they been so successful on the ground?
Harvey: They are, in a word, "stubborn." That was the word Jackson used earlier this season after his backs carried the ball 12 times in a 27-0 loss at Indianapolis (another game neither side showed up for). He indicated then that, although the score eventually dictated the Bengals needed to pass to get back into that game, he still thought, in retrospect, that he abandoned the run way too soon. What we've seen in three of the past four games is a stubbornness when it comes to running the ball.
Since their 12-carry day at Indy, the Bengals have averaged 31.8 rushes per game. Whether down by a few or ahead in a close contest, the Bengals have made more of a concerted effort to keep feeding their backs. And those backs, namely rookie Jeremy Hill, have rewarded them. When Bernard missed three straight games recently, Hill rushed for 361 yards in his place, going for more than 150 yards in two games. Now both backs are healthy again, and there is clearly a renewed focus on running the ball. In Sunday's win at Houston, they rushed 43 times.
I see Michael Johnson's production is down in Tampa Bay this year. He hasn't much looked like a defensive end worth $9 million a year. What has led to his poor play, and is there still confidence that he could be the team's future defensive cornerstone?
Yasinskas: Johnson's lack of production is a bit misleading. He has been injured virtually all season. He played through an ankle injury early on and is playing with a broken hand right now. That has limited his playing time. But Johnson is getting close to being fully healthy, and the Bucs remain optimistic about his future.
Speaking of Johnson, who has taken his place at defensive end, and how has that worked out for the Bengals?
Harvey: Johnson's replacement, so to speak, has been Carlos Dunlap, a fifth-year player who helped Johnson bookend the defensive line the past four seasons. Dunlap was already a solid player, but he has emerged as the line's star now that Johnson is gone. It isn't just on the field that Dunlap has replicated his former teammate -- he's closing in on potential career highs in tackles (48 currently) and sacks (5.5 currently) -- he has done it off the field, too. In Cincinnati, the Carlos Dunlap Foundation has become the most recognized of the team's player charities, and he has taken a more active role in working with underprivileged children and treating them to experiences such as a Cincinnati Reds game. As you well know, Pat, Johnson remains quite active in the community in his hometown of Selma, Alabama.
Dunlap isn't doing it all himself, though. Wallace Gilberry also has had an impactful year in the Bengals’ pass rush, as has the Bengals' most-tenured player, veteran Robert Geathers, who missed all but two games last year because of an injury.
But, as we wait for tonight’s playoff game, let’s take a look at some headlines from around the NFC South.
Jay Gruden reportedly could be headed for Carolina’s coaching staff. Gruden, the younger brother of former NFL coach Jon Gruden, has been coaching in the United Football League. He previously worked on his brother’s staff in Tampa Bay and as a coach in the Arena Football League.
D. Orlando Ledbetter has a list of things that could go right for the Falcons tonight and a list of things that could go wrong.
Jason Wilde has his keys to the game from a Green Bay point of view.
Steve Reed reports the Panthers are expected to retain defensive coordinator Ron Meeks, although he likely will become a position coach.
Charlie Campbell has his first mock draft and it follows logic on the NFC South picks. He has the Panthers taking defensive tackle Nick Fairley with the No. 1 overall pick. He has the Bucs taking defensive end Adrian Clayborn, which would fill a huge need. He has New Orleans taking offensive tackle Derek Sherrod and the Falcons settling for a cornerback after a run on defensive ends, which looks to be their top position of need.
Mike Triplett has a detailed analysis of the contract issues the Saints face this offseason.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
The whirlwind weekend continues for the Buccaneers. About midway through the AFC Championship Game, the Bucs sent out an e-mail announcing six assistant coaches will not be retained by new head coach Raheem Morris.
Offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Bill Muir, defensive quality control coach Johnny Cox, defensive quality control coach Ejiro Evero, offensive assistant coach Jay Gruden (brother of fired head coach Jon Gruden), strength and conditioning coach Mike Morris and assistant offensive line coach George Yarno have been fired.
Raheem Morris will continue working on his staff while at the Senior Bowl over the next few days. Filling the offensive coordinator spot will be a key move for Morris, whose background is on defense. The Bucs likely will make a run at Denver quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates, who started as a Tampa Bay quality control assistant with Morris in 2002.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
A little update to Thursday's item when Carolina coach John Fox jokingly laughed when asked if he would donate 10 percent of next year's salary if Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin leaves for the University of Tennessee, which he reportedly will after the season.
Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden took it a step further and jokingly offered Fox up for a job with the Volunteers.
"I'm trying to get Fox to go down there and coach the secondary, personally," said Gruden, who is a close friend with Fox and shares the same agent. "I wouldn't mind seeing that. That's the latest rumor I heard, is that Fox was going with Monte to coach the DBs. I think it's a big-time deal. And I think Steve Smith is going to be a G.A. and teach the young receivers. I wouldn't mind seeing that. There's a lot of rumors and speculation."
Gruden then went on to heap more praise on Smith, who he called "Freddy Kreuger" on Thursday.
"My brother (Bucs assistant Jay Gruden) makes a tape every week, we look for explosive plays and he sends me splash plays -- if you ever just watch the highlight tape of Steve Smith it's unbelievable," Gruden said. It's unfair, really, some of the catches that he makes. He's great. You have him covered, he's just a phenomenal player. What he did in Green Bay last week with the game on the line -- two plays that are just [great] against great defenders. The ball is thrown up in the air. It's a credit to him. He's really something."