NFL Nation: AFC North

Bengals camp report: Day 1

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
7:50
PM ET
CINCINNATI -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the Cincinnati Bengals' training camp:


  • It was hard not to notice how efficient starting quarterback Andy Dalton was Thursday as he connected with a number of his receivers during the Bengals' first day of camp. While the short and intermediate routes impressed at times, it was his work with the deep ball that caused the estimated 1,200 fans on hand to "ooh" and "ahh" at times. Few receptions drew applause from onlookers like the bomb Dalton completed late in practice to receiver A.J. Green. Thrown approximately 50 yards on the fly, Green settled underneath the pass just before crossing the goal line. Like he had done often during the day, he got behind the secondary for the unimpeded catch. This time, it was Adam Jones who was beat. Green said after practice that much of his focus this offseason has revolved around improving his deep-ball relationship with Dalton. "It starts with me being able to run my routes consistently and knowing where I need to be for him to place the ball," Green said. "I feel like with [new offensive coordinator] Hue [Jackson] it's all detail. It's going to be right here in this spot and that's where [Dalton] is going to put the ball."
  • Green wasn't the only one snagging passes from Dalton. Receiver Mohamed Sanu, getting a lot of attention with No. 2 wideout Marvin Jones shelved with an injury, had a few "hands" receptions that featured him snaring the ball out of the air just before his defender could make a play on it. One of those catches came early in the workout when he beat a corner deep and jumped high for a ball that Dalton lobbed to a spot on the sideline where only Sanu could make the play. It certainly appears early in camp that the time Dalton spent working on his mechanics with throwing coach Tom House in Southern California this summer have paid off. Then again, maybe we should all remember what Jackson said about the quarterback after practice: "It's only Day 1." While pleased with Dalton's afternoon, he's still exercising some patience.
  • Patience is exactly what has gotten cornerback Leon Hall through the past three seasons. He missed most of the 2011 season because of an Achilles tear, and missed more than half of last season because of one. After being sidelined all spring, he was back on the field for the first time Thursday. About overcoming his latest injury, he said: "Mentally, it's easier the second time. Not even close. I mean, the first time going into my goal was to come back for training camp, and I felt I could achieve that goal, but obviously I was going into it blind. I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know what to do as opposed to this second time."
  • Fellow veteran defensive tackle Geno Atkins also dealt with a season-ending injury last season. Unlike Hall, though, he was unable to return in time for Thursday's practice. He joined Jones and others in rehab exercises as he continues trying to get past the ACL tear that had him miss half of last season. With fellow tackle Devon Still also injured, Atkins was replaced on the line's interior by Brandon Thompson.
  • Back to the Bengals' passing game. With Jermaine Gresham nursing a back injury, fellow tight end Tyler Eifert will have a chance this preseason to do something he didn't do most of the spring: play. He said his springtime shoulder injury was fully healed. Like Green and Sanu, he had a few attention-grabbing receptions Thursday.
CINCINNATI -- When he saw his big outside linebacker loaded onto a cart and leaving the Cincinnati Bengals' final 2013 preseason game in obvious pain, for one split second, Paul Guenther felt lost.

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

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

What a difference time can make.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"He gives you great ability to change the look of the fronts," Guenther said. "He's a smart player. He's a player who knows the defense. Maybe not as much as Burfict because he was out last year, but he's that kind of guy that understands the big picture. Having him back is a big advantage for us."
CINCINNATI -- As the news of longtime owner Pat Bowlen's departure from the Denver Broncos made headlines early Wednesday, I was reminded of a few comments Cincinnati Bengals president Mike Brown made about his own ownership status just Tuesday.

Bowlen, 70, is stepping aside after 30 years while he battles Alzheimer's disease.

The 78-year-old Brown isn't battling with health issues, but there are signs his time in charge of the Bengals has started nearing its end. Daughter Katie Blackburn has in the past few seasons been more of a behind-the-scenes player for the organization, as has head coach Marvin Lewis.

[+] EnlargeKatie Blackburn
AP Photo/Al BehrmanBengals president Mike Brown, left, shown in 2011 with his daughter, executive vice president Katie Blackburn. When Brown, now 78, relinquishes control of the team, Blackburn will take over.
Blackburn's work with recent contract negotiations make it clear she is pulling some of the team's most important strings. Lewis' work with the organization's scouting department has helped Cincinnati have some of the league's best draft classes in recent seasons.

When the day comes that Brown decides to relinquish control, the Bengals are well-placed for a good transition. That is primarily because the transition has been in motion for many years now. When the Bengals were moving into Paul Brown Stadium (named, naturally after Brown's father, the legendary NFL coach) in 2000, they started making it known the organization would one day be Blackburn's to run. Here is a story from June of that year about how Cincinnati was laying the foundation for that transition, written by former Cincinnati Enquirer Bengals reporter Mark Curnutte.

Back to Tuesday and the 47th installment of the Bengals' preseason media luncheon. Just before the event at the stadium, Brown relayed his thoughts on how the transition has gone of late.

"Oh, you can tell I'm getting old," Brown said. "When you get old, your children get impatient with you. Just the way it works in life. I have been blessed to have been able to work with my two kids and my father. That's something that is unusual in America these days, and I realize that roles change. My role changed with my father, just as Katie's role with me changes.

"One time I went up. Now I'm going down and that's just the way it is."

The Bengals have truly been a family organization for the life of their existence. Paul Brown ran the organization in some capacity every year from the time he founded it in 1968 until his death in 1991. Mike Brown has been in charge the 23 years that have followed, and he has been joined in the front office over the years by his brother, Pete, his son, Paul, and Blackburn and her husband Troy Blackburn.

Asked if he felt the transition with his son and daughter has gone as well as the transition between he and his father, Mike Brown said: "I like to think so."

Among the recent decisions he's most proud of, Mike Brown said he was glad he could give Lewis another year on his contract this offseason.

"Marvin's a solid coach and a good guy," Brown said. "I've gotten to know him through thick and thin. He's brought us to a good level. We're a winning team. And when you have that coach that can do that for you, I think you'd be foolish to be unsatisfied with him."

Before Lewis took over as head coach in 2003, the Bengals had gone through six straight losing seasons, and 12 straight seasons where they won eight games or fewer. As Lewis enters his 12th season, the Bengals are hoping to make their sixth playoff berth since 2005, and are looking to build on the nine-, 10- and 11-win totals they have amassed in the past three seasons.
CINCINNATI -- Bengals president Mike Brown, who very rarely addresses reporters these days, may have decided to discuss quarterback Andy Dalton's looming contract extension before a kickoff luncheon at Paul Brown Stadium on Tuesday, but his head coach is done discussing the issue.

Lewis
Dalton
Dalton
Apparently Dalton is, too.

"We're not going to talk about it anymore, thank you," Lewis said, stopping one questioner who was curious about when the deal needed to get done. "That's the same thing he's [Dalton] going to tell you when he gets to tell you. We've talked enough about it. It'll get settled, and when it gets settled it will be done. We don't need to continue to ask the questions, and I've asked [head of Bengals media relations] Jack [Brennan] to share that with you, to quit asking about it.

"And when the national people come in that aren't here, it's the same thing. We've talked enough about it. It's part of professional sports so just let it go."

Well, there you have it. The public conversations about Dalton's contract are officially over, as far as Lewis is concerned. That sentiment echoes other comments Lewis has made this summer. After spending his availability sessions at the combine and owners' meetings discussing the contract situation, Lewis shied away from talking about it when asked during the end of the organized team activity practices in June.

Dalton is set to make nearly $1.7 million this season, which concludes his rookie contract. He could earn more than $18 million annually on a deal that would put him a little closer to the top of quarterback heap. To that end, he'd arguably be a second-tier quarterback, although he has been regarded a tier 3 quarterback, according to a recent ESPN Insider survey Insider featuring general managers, scouts, players and coaches. ESPN's Ron Jaworski also recently dubbed Dalton the No. 18 player on his list of NFL quarterbacks Insider.

Lewis contends fans don't care about the minutia involved with extensions like Dalton's. He believes they only care once the ink has dried on the contract.

"They only care about it when it's signed," he said. "It will be a big day, so save some space for that."

Maybe that day is on the preseason horizon? If so, Lewis' lips won't be staying sealed on the matter for too long.
Now that we've explored how the Cincinnati Bengals might spread passes to receivers under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, let's take a look at how they might coordinate touches for their running backs.

In the story linked above, we used receptions -- not targeted plays -- to compare how often Jackson's offenses in Oakland saw receivers and running backs catching passes. The split indicated that running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill ought to brace for numerous receiving opportunities this fall. Assuming Jackson keeps elements that worked for the Raiders, the Bengals could easily have two running backs with 25 or more catches this season.

[+] EnlargeBernard
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsWith Hue Jackson's plan to increase the pace of the Bengals' offense, it's safe to assume that Giovani Bernard sees at least 275 touches this season.
Coupled with the rushing the Bengals are expected to do, those 50 passes could be key elements in an offense that's expected to be explosive and productive.

We'll begin Friday's factoid with this figure: 450.

Cincinnati's top two ballcarriers, Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, had 450 touches combined on offense last season. Bernard barely edged his fellow back, getting 226 touches compared to Green-Ellis' 224. Bernard's came from his 170 rushes and 56 receptions. Green-Ellis' came from his 220 rushes and four receptions. Put them all together and you get 450 rushes and receptions from the two of them.

For now, it isn't clear exactly how many options the Bengals will have at running back, or how often they might use them all. Green-Ellis appears on the bubble as we enter Thursday's start of training camp. Rex Burkhead and Cedric Peerman also appear to be in the mix. Hill and Bernard certainly are and figure to at least be the top two options at the position this year. The big question from a production standpoint is if they'll get significant help from Green-Ellis, Peerman or Burkhead, too.

The reason the amount of running back touches is an issue is because Jackson, in the seven months he's been offensive coordinator, has stressed how he wants to increase the amount of carries his backs have. He wants his offense to be more physical than the Bengals were overall last year. He wants the passing game to develop off the running game; not the opposite.

That's why it's easy to assume that Bernard might not only get 200 carries this year, but it's easy to assume that he may in fact hit 250 or more. Hill, too, could hit the 200-carry plateau if he's one of the primary backs used this season. It's possible to believe Bernard could have 275 or more offensive touches, and Hill could have somewhere in the neighborhood of 230 or 240. Combine those, and they could easily have more than 500.

But again, that's only if they are the primary ballcarriers. It's possible that Green-Ellis, Peerman or Burkhead could have significant enough touches to keep Bernard and Hill's combined numbers well under 500.

Which leads me to this: Is it really important how many touches any of the running backs in this offense get? Probably not. Remember, we're talking about an offense that hinges on its multiplicity of playmaking options. As former offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was apt to say, "there's only one ball." With A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu poised for productive seasons at receiver and the tight end tandem of Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert hoping for better production and more effective play, there are only going to be so many opportunities for running backs. And that's even if they do as Jackson wants, and run more plays per game than they did last season.

Jackson hopes his group is able to get more plays off per drive and per game. But how many more plays will they be running? Last season Cincinnati ranked sixth in the NFL in snaps with 1,097. The Lions led the league with 1,156. Even assuming the Bengals run 1,200 plays next season, they'll still be sharing the bulk of their touches between two or three running backs, three to four receivers and two tight ends. Those odds make it increasingly difficult for a back like Bernard to have 300 or more individual touches. Not saying that won't happen, but if it does, expect someone else's production to take a hit.

One Raiders back came close to 300 when Jackson coached in Oakland. Michael Bush had 293 in 2011. Darren McFadden had 260 in only 13 games in 2010. He had a chance to go over the 300-touch plateau had he played the whole season. Under Gruden in 2012, Green-Ellis got exactly 300 when he rushed 278 times and caught 22 passes for the Bengals.

Only nine running backs in the NFL had more than 300 touches last season. LeSean McCoy paced all with 366 rushes and receptions. Knowshon Moreno, who played for a playmaker-rich Denver team that was similar to Cincinnati's, had 301. He also was the only Broncos running back to have more than 125 carries. Remember, the Bengals had two with more than 170 last year and should have two this year who will go beyond that number again.

That just goes to show that a talented and deep offense like Denver's had trouble getting a premier back to 300 touches. If Bernard somehow gets there this year, he'll likely barely do so, too.

Information from ESPN Stats & Information was used in this report.
Examining the Cincinnati Bengals' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (3)
The Bengals were content with having just two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster last season, but expect them to take three this year. McCarron would be the odd man out, but since they drafted him this year and made him a de facto heir apparent to the position in case something happens with Dalton in the next few seasons, they probably won't cut him or place him on the practice squad. In Campbell, the Bengals also get a tried and true veteran who could step in if Dalton's play is unsatisfactory, or if he gets hurt.

RUNNING BACKS (5)

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

RECEIVERS (5)

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

TIGHT ENDS (3)

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

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)

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

DEFENSIVE LINE (9)

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

LINEBACKERS (6)

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

CORNERBACKS (6)

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

SAFETIES (4)

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

SPECIALISTS (3)

These guys aren't going anywhere. The punter, kicker and long snapper will make the team.
CINCINNATI -- Good for A.J. Green.

Kudos to him for beginning to heed the advice that was offered to him in January.

At long last, Green has started implementing an attitude worthy of a player of his lofty stature. He's embracing his role as a vocal team leader and has started opening his mouth in ways the Bengals had long been anticipating.

[+] EnlargeCincinnati's A.J. Green
Robert Mayer/USA TODAY Sports"I've got to speak up when [my teammates] are not having a good day," A.J. Green said.
Based on comments he made during his youth football camp in suburban Cincinnati on Thursday, Green has emerged from his shell. He's asserted his support for quarterback Andy Dalton this offseason more adamantly than he has in years past and he's emphasized that the entire team needs to play better in the postseason, sending loud messages not only to his teammates, but to those of us looking from the outside in.

It's about time.

"If you're a great athlete, I feel like you'll think you always left something [on the table]," Green said. "I feel like I still haven't reached my peak yet."

He knows the Bengals haven't, either.

Part of what Bengals coaches think will get him dramatically closer to his personal summit is him being more vocal.

After the Bengals lost their wild-card playoff game to the Chargers, Green met with head coach Marvin Lewis and then-offensive coordinator Jay Gruden as part of the standard exit meetings. The general theme in the conversations was that Green needed to be louder and more assertive on the sidelines and in the huddles.

They wanted him to lead with his voice. If his teammates needed to be called out, he needed to be the one to do it. If they needed to hear more praise, he had to be the one to provide it.

Green knew those requests would be a lot easier to make than to fulfill.

"That's a big thing for me, stepping out of my box," he said. "I'm not really a vocal guy in general. I let my play, my work, speak for itself. ... It's definitely an adjustment for me because I'm more of a quiet guy, more of a lead by example by what I do on and off the field guy. That's the biggest thing for me is that I've got to speak up when we're not having a good day or we're down or things like that."

While taking a break during the second day of his sold-out, two-day camp, Green told the few reporters listening that he felt his transition was going well.

It certainly appears he's right.

Just look at a few of his comments from the interview session. He was unflinching in his critique of his own postseason play. Asked to characterize his three career playoff games, two words immediately came out of his mouth: "Not good."

Had he been asked that question in the past, he may have ultimately meandered to same answer, but only after giving a stock answer about just simply needing to execute better. This time around, not only did he put pressure on himself to perform better, but he prodded all his teammates to step up their postseason games. He said Thursday that Cincinnati's recent postseason woes weren't only the result of poor performances by he and Dalton, but he challenged the defense to play better, as well.

That's what a vocal leader does. He doesn't just challenge himself, he pushes those around him.

That's also what an 0-3 postseason showing gets you: a frustrated superstar who's eager to prove his worth.

What also makes Green's comments interesting was the manner in which they were delivered. There was no hesitancy in his voice, no uncertainty about whether he was saying the right things or not. Let's just say that he sounded more sure of himself when answering these questions than he did last year.

So where has this new vocal and assertive Green come from? He doesn't have a complete answer. He probably doesn't really need one.

It's safe to say that new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has had something to do with it. Known for a confidence that some might say borders on arrogance, Jackson has a personality that may be rubbing off on Gree. Like Lewis and Gruden, Jackson believed Green, as one of the team's elite players, needed to make his presence known a little better in the locker room.

"He's never satisfied with where I am," Green said of Jackson. "That's one thing about him. No matter what I do or what I've accomplished these first three years, there's always more I can do.

"I remember when the [NFL Network's] top 100 came out and I was the No. 2 receiver, he said, 'OK, let's go be No. 1.'"

Deep down Green may have previously believed he could be the best in the league. But now, based on the comments he made Thursday, it seems he actually believes it, and is doing more to prove it.

Listen up, NFL. A.J. is talking. But will the chatter be enough to help reverse his team's postseason fortunes and to make him even more respected than he already is?

Time will tell.

Camp preview: Cincinnati Bengals

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
10:00
AM ET
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NFL Nation's Coley Harvey examines the three biggest issues facing the Cincinnati Bengals heading into training camp.

Stay healthy: As Cincinnati saw last year, injuries that arise in training camp and the preseason can have a big impact on the rest of the season. Among the biggest preseason setbacks last year were receiver Andrew Hawkins' ankle injury and linebacker Emmanuel Lamur's shoulder injury. Hawkins was hurt attempting to dive for a ball in practice, and Lamur got banged up during the preseason finale against the Colts. Hawkins was placed on injured reserve with the designation to return (by Week 9), but Lamur was lost for the year. Without Lamur, the Bengals had to use linebackers and additional defensive backs to accomplish everything they previously had planned to do defensively with him on the field. Just as it will be for every team, the focus this training camp will be on working hard but minimizing injury.

Continuing to push the tempo: During the mandatory minicamp and voluntary organized team activities, the Bengals harped on tempo and pacing, and how they want to push both offensively this season. If the Bengals are able to carry over what they did in May and June, they'll be calling plays faster than in recent years. The goal for new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is getting his unit into a rhythm for four quarters, running a lot of plays, and the affect that tempo will have on opposing defenses by the end of the game. Watch during camp for how in sync the Bengals are while playing up-tempo offensively.

Establishing defensive rotations: The Bengals are going through their share of defensive changes, too. Former linebackers coach Paul Guenther takes over as the new defensive coordinator, getting his first chance to serve as a lead assistant on an NFL team. In years past, he already had a fairly large impact on Cincinnati's defense, setting linebacker rotations and helping draw up blitz packages for the entire unit. He's been praised by current and former players for his attention to detail. The organization's hope is that he'll be coaching the full defense the way he did his position group. You'll notice often this season that the Bengals will rotate players in and out of various position groups based on the sub-package personnel they want to trot onto the field. You'll even see them do some switching at the line of scrimmage, as ends might rotate sides or switch into interior positions during pre-snap maneuvers. The goal has always been to mask coverages and rushes, and to confuse offenses, but Guenther's scheme seems as if it will predicate itself on keeping an offense more off rhythm than even Mike Zimmer's defense did. It will be interesting to note some of the many defensive rotations that arise during training camp and preseason as the roster starts getting smaller.
CINCINNATI -- It's been nearly two years since James Wright caught a pass in a game.

[+] EnlargeJames Wright
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsThe Bengals are hoping rookie James Wright's skills on special teams translate into offense as a wideout.
Despite that rather ominous fact, the Cincinnati Bengals used one of their two seventh-round picks on him in May's draft, selecting the little-used former LSU wideout and special teamer.

There are still some scratching their heads over the move.

Those who call Paul Brown Stadium their place of employment couldn't care less. They believe that Wright could have a real impact in their offense, even if it's been a while since he directly contributed to someone else's. When training camp opens next week and the battle for spots on the 53-man roster begins in earnest, Wright could be one to watch.

"I know he's going to make this football team better," Bengals receivers coach James Urban said.

Urban could tell pretty early in the evaluation process that Wright could be a valued contributor on the Bengals' special teams. After all, Wright won LSU's "Wild Tiger" trophy last season for having the team's highest number of special teams production points that included his 12 special teams tackles as part of their coverage teams. He also had a pair of fumble recoveries, including a key takeaway that helped set up an LSU field goal in the Tigers' win over TCU.

Now the goal is get Wright to play offensively the way he did on special teams. Urban believes the rookie can do that and challenged him to do as much the day he arrived in Cincinnati following his draft selection.

"That day I talked to him and said, 'Look, I know what you can do on special teams, now you've got to play wide receiver,'" Urban said. "He's embraced it, he's worked his tail off and he's given us [a lot]. I mean, he's a very intense young man. He wants to prove this organization and [team president] Mr. [Mike] Brown right in selecting him."

During the minicamp and voluntary organized team activities the Bengals had this spring, Wright made his presence known. At least one reporter had a hard time ignoring Wright after he repeatedly chased down deep passes from all four Bengals quarterbacks. It was quite common to hear, on those days when media members were allowed to watch practices, compliments directed toward Wright from Urban and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson after various drills.

"We'll see once we get the pads on, but it's been encouraging," Urban said.

Wright got on Cincinnati's radar after Urban and other Bengals coaches heard their colleagues at LSU speak highly of the receiver. Much like Jackson and head coach Marvin Lewis, Urban has his own connections with LSU coaches that extends beyond the Xs and Os. Those relationships not only helped Wright get drafted by the Bengals, but they also aided in running back Jeremy Hill's second-round selection.

Part of the reason Wright went without a catch last season stems from the Tigers' receiver-deplete system. LSU seldom trotted out three- and four-receiver sets. It instead focused on running the ball and splitting receptions among the top two receivers and the top running back, Hill. As LSU's third-leading receiver, Hill caught 18 passes for 181 yards. Wideouts Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham had 77 and 59 receptions apiece. Primarily because of the scheme, Wright didn't field a pass, even though he had done so 18 times through his first three seasons. The last pass he caught in a game came Nov. 17, 2012, in a win over Mississippi.

Only once did the Tigers lose a game that saw Wright catch a pass.

In addition to his special teams abilities, Wright became known at LSU for being a good blocker in pass scenarios. For a Bengals offense that is expected to rely in part on screen passes that can be turned into big gains, having another receiver who already knows how to block downfield would be an ideal addition. The only problem is that the Bengals couldn't just trot him onto the field to block. Opposing defenses would figure that out quickly and have an idea that a play needing a big block downfield could be coming.

So to avoid tipping that, Cincinnati certainly would want to use Wright as a receiver.

Regardless of the roles Wright would be asked to fulfill if he makes the team, Urban doesn't think the young player will have any problem accepting what's asked of him.

"When Mr. Brown asked me, I said, 'That's the kind of guy we want,'" Urban said. "I know he's going to make this football team better. He's a team player. He's proven that. You can't question that. Now, is he good enough for wide receiver? We'll find out."

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- AFC North

July, 11, 2014
Jul 11
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This offseason has seen plenty of high-profile additions and departures in the AFC North.

The Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens brought more excitement to their offenses. The Browns drafted quarterback Johnny Manziel in the first round, and the Ravens signed wide receiver Steve Smith.

The Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers dealt with some significant losses. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer left to become the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, and three starters (Brett Keisel, LaMarr Woodley and Ryan Clark) are gone from the Steelers defense.

How will these changes affect the teams in the division? That's the focus for ESPN's AFC North reporters: Scott Brown in Pittsburgh, Coley Harvey in Cincinnati, Jamison Hensley in Baltimore and Pat McManamon in Cleveland.

First Down

Johnny Manziel will be the starting quarterback for the Browns in the season opener in Pittsburgh.



Scott Brown: Fiction. Johnny Football has too much ground to make up to overtake Brian Hoyer as the starter by the time the Browns open the regular season in Pittsburgh. Manziel will start at some point this season, but it won't be Sept. 7 at Heinz Field. Even if it is a toss-up between Hoyer and Manziel leading up to the season opener, the Browns will be wise enough to go with the player who has NFL starting experience over the one who will have a Texas-sized bullseye on his jersey. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau generally torments rookie quarterbacks and definitely doesn't take selfies with them. The Browns wouldn't put Manziel in a position in which he has little chance of succeeding ... would they?

Coley Harvey: Fiction. As bold a prediction as it might be to claim Manziel is Cleveland's Week 1 starter at Pittsburgh, it's simply not happening. For starters, the Browns already said he wasn't going to get the nod. Right now, the organization seems to view the first-string quarterback job as Brian Hoyer's to lose, and judging from the way Hoyer's once-promising year so abruptly ended, I can't imagine he's going to be handing many reps to Manziel if he can help it. While I'd expect Manziel to perform well in the preseason, it just doesn't seem right now that Cleveland feels comfortable putting so much control in his hands to start the season. Manziel probably hasn't helped himself in that regard by going against the reported wishes of management and continuing to put himself in vulnerable situations weekend after weekend. By ignoring their requests to calm the partying, a coach or executive has to feel a little less inclined to trust the young quarterback for now.

Jamison Hensley: Fiction. There are too many factors going against Manziel starting right away. Browns coach Mike Pettine was on the Bills' sideline this past season when he watched EJ Manuel struggle as a rookie. The Browns have a legitimate alternative in Brian Hoyer. And the Browns' first game is against the Steelers, who are known to rough up young quarterbacks. Including the playoffs, the Steelers are a league-best 17-2 vs. rookie quarterbacks since 2004, when coordinator Dick LeBeau re-joined the Steelers as defensive coordinator. Plus, Manziel hasn't done much to prove to the coaching staff that he's mature enough to handle the starting job after becoming Johnny Las Vegas on holiday weekends. It just makes too much sense to sit Manziel as a rookie. Then again, the Browns aren't known for making logical moves

Pat McManamon: Fiction. The Browns simply do not want Manziel to start the opener, and Mike Pettine has made no secret of that. Over and over, he's said that though Manziel can start at some point, he does not believe it's ideal. Given that the first three opponents are the Steelers, Saints and Ravens, it's even more reason not to rush him. Those three opponents have chopped up a lot of veterans, not to mention rookies. If Josh Gordon is not on the team, the quarterback's challenge is even more difficult. The Browns want to take things slowly with Manziel, and right now he admits he's not the best quarterback on the team. The only way he starts in Pittsburgh is if Brian Hoyer is hurt.


Second Down

The Bengals have a top-10 defense even without coordinator Mike Zimmer.



Brown: Fact. With all due respect to Zimmer, he didn't make one tackle in the six seasons he coordinated the Bengals' defense. Not to marginalize coordinators, but Dick LeBeau has one of the keenest and most imaginative defensive minds in NFL history, and he somehow forgot how to coach defense this past season, when injuries and age caught up with the Steelers. The Bengals have plenty of talent, assuming defensive tackle Geno Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall make a healthy return from their respective injuries. And the adjustment to new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther should be a relatively smooth one since Guenther coached the Bengals' linebackers before succeeding Zimmer. If the Bengals don't field a top-10 defense this season, it will be because they can't make up for the free-agent loss of defensive end Michael Johnson or their secondary springs too many leaks.

Harvey: Fact. Zimmer was rightfully deified during his time in Cincinnati, but his exit for Minnesota doesn't mean there's now a sudden end to the Bengals' era of defensive dominance. Cincinnati will be bringing back a defense that mostly mirrors the group it had last year. The only absences of note are Michael Johnson, James Harrison and Chris Crocker. Johnson was signed by Tampa Bay in free agency, and Harrison was released. Signed to a one-year deal when he emerged from retirement this past September, Crocker was a free agent this offseason who didn't have his contract renewed. Still, knowing Crocker's track record of signing as a September off-of-the-couch call-up the past two years, you can't fully rule out an appearance from him in Cincinnati at some point this year. Of all the Bengals' defensive departures, Zimmer's was certainly the biggest. The coordinator who helped revolutionize the Bengals' defensive system and turned them into a perennial power implemented unique rotations, lineups and blitz and coverage packages. As the league's No. 3 defense this past season, the Bengals pulled off a franchise feat that hadn't been replicated in more than 30 years. Under new coordinator Paul Guenther, who formulated many of the blitz packages for Zimmer, the Bengals are hoping to be even better than that No. 3 ranking this year. While they probably won't get ranked as high as No. 3, they still will be among the top 10.

Hensley: Fiction. It's true that a defense is only as good as its players on the field. But let's not disregard the impact of Zimmer on the Bengals' defense. In Zimmer's first season in Cincinnati (2008), the Bengals jumped from No. 27 to No. 12 in defense. The Bengals then went on to finish in the top 10 in yards and points allowed in four of the next five seasons under Zimmer. He's a fiery leader who got the most out of his players. Many expect a smooth transition with Paul Guenther being promoted to defensive coordinator, but he's never been in charge of a defense in the NFL. His job won't be made any easier by the fact that defensive end Michael Johnson left in free agency and defensive tackle Geno Atkins is still recovering from an ACL injury. The Bengals secondary is dealing with aging veterans (Terence Newman and Adam Jones), injury (Leon Hall) and unfulfilled potential (Dre Kirkpatrick). Don't be surprised if the Bengals slip out of the top 10 this season.

Pat McManamon: Fact. The Bengals have too many good players and too good a system to falter with Zimmer's departure. He'll be missed, but defenses are as good as the players on the field, and with stalwart Geno Atkins coming back from injury to go with a crew that includes Vontaze Burfict, the Bengals should still be formidable. Also, new coordinator Paul Guenther knows the system, knows the blitzes and worked closely with Zimmer. It always hurts to lose a coordinator like Zimmer, but the Bengals seemed to be as prepared as a team can be. The other thing to remember is that offenses can help defenses by possessing the ball, and new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson will run the ball more than Jay Gruden did.


Third Down

Steve Smith will become Joe Flacco's top target this season.



Brown: Fiction. I'm tempted to say fact here because of the trust and rapport that Flacco developed with Anquan Boldin before the Ravens traded the veteran wide receiver to the 49ers this past year. Boldin, however, is bigger and more physical than Smith and doesn't rely as much on speed as the latter still does, even at the age of 35. Look for tight end Dennis Pitta to re-establish himself as a big part of the Ravens' offense after missing all but four games this past season because of a dislocated hip. Pitta caught 61 passes and was targeted 93 times by Flacco in 2012, while Boldin caught just four more passes than Pitta, despite getting targeted 112 times. A healthy Pitta becomes Flacco's go-to receiver again.

Harvey: Fiction. Another Smith will end up being Flacco's top passing target this season. Torrey Smith, the man who saw 139 throws directed his way this past season, will remain the go-to receiver in an offense that hopes for increased production from 2013. During the mostly down year for Baltimore's offense, Torrey Smith caught 65 of the 139 balls thrown his way, leading the team in receptions. While at Carolina last year, Steve Smith caught 64 passes on just 109 targets from Cam Newton. The longtime Panther was one of the stars of an offense that also relied on Newton to make plays with his feet, in addition to spreading the ball to other receivers. The Ravens had difficulty getting any kind of rushing offense going, which made it easy for defenses to sell out on guarding their receivers. If Ray Rice struggles to perform out of the backfield again this year -- or if he ends up missing considerable time due to a possible suspension from commissioner Roger Goodell following his arrest in Atlantic City this offseason for assault on his now-wife -- much the same could happen to the Ravens' receivers in 2014. Even if that happens, Steve Smith's addition ought to help Flacco and the Ravens. Still, don't look for the 35-year-old to take over as the team's dominant receiver. That title ought to remain Torrey Smith's.

Hensley: Fact. There's a chance tight end Dennis Pitta or wide receiver Torrey Smith will end up being Flacco's go-to receiver. In the end, Flacco will spread the ball around to Pitta, Torrey Smith and Steve Smith. But if you're asking who will be Flacco's top target, the best bet is Steve Smith. All you needed to do was watch one practice this offseason, and you'd see the chemistry building between Flacco and Smith. Many have compared Steve Smith to Anquan Boldin because both are tough receivers. Smith, though, stacks up more favorably to Derrick Mason, who averaged 71 receptions in three seasons with Flacco. Like Mason, Smith can get open on the comeback route as well as slants. A prideful player such as Smith will also do everything in his power to show the Carolina Panthers he can still play. The Ravens will get the best out of Smith this year.

Pat McManamon: Fiction. The Ravens still have this guy Torrey Smith, right? He's a little younger than the 35-year-old Steve Smith. A little bigger too. And he should be ready to be the No. 1 receiver on the team. This is not to say Steve Smith won't help. He will. He brings a veteran presence the Ravens lacked -- though it's curious they gave away Anquan Boldin before last year and signed another aging guy who fits the "crafty veteran mold" a year later. Ozzie Newsome said Smith is not the "typical aging player," which is good, because he'll catch a lot of passes and open up the field more to provide opportunities for Torrey Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta. The Ravens also seem to be a team well-suited to getting the most from veterans. But if Baltimore brought Steve Smith in to be the top guy, it's a problem. That role and responsibility belongs to Torrey Smith.


Fourth Down

The retooled defense is enough to get the Steelers back to the playoffs.



Brown: Fact: The Steelers got younger and faster and will be better on that side of the ball if their outside linebackers provide some semblance of a pass rush. The Steelers don't need dramatic improvement from their defense if their offense builds on its strong finish in 2013. The Steelers averaged just under 28 points in their final eight games this past season, and they only lost one starter (wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders) on offense. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey returns from a torn ACL to lead an offensive line that allowed just seven sacks in the final seven games last year. And the Steelers have enough talent at the skill positions for Ben Roethlisberger and the offense to carry the defense.

Harvey: Fact. I've gone on record in recent days saying I believe the Steelers will pose a legitimate threat to the Bengals' chances at defending their division title, so I won't waver now. Pittsburgh's culture will be the real difference-maker in getting the Steelers back to the playoffs. You're simply not going to see coach Mike Tomlin or quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tolerating the type of year the team had in 2013. By the way, we can't forget how close Pittsburgh was by the end of the season, after imploding near the start primarily because of a lacking offensive line that caused a poor running game and offensive imbalance. When it comes to the retooled defense, offseason moves such as drafting outside linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt ought to help. The addition of Cam Thomas on the line also should help counter the interior rushing attack teams like to employ in the physical AFC North. While I still see the Bengals making the playoffs too, the Steelers ought to get there again, thanks to their improved defense.

Hensley: Fact. The Steelers got younger and quicker with their first two draft picks this year, linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt. Cam Thomas, a free-agent addition, will be a space-eater on the interior of the line. What will help this retooled defense become even better are the moves made on offense. The Steelers stockpiled their backfield by signing free agent LeGarrette Blount and drafting Dri Archer in the third round. Plus, Le'Veon Bell was beginning to hit his stride at the end of his rookie season. This commitment to the run will control the clock and take pressure off a defense adjusting to its new parts.

McManamon: Fact. There is no team in the league that finds personnel to fit its system better than the Steelers. With three new starters defensively, Pittsburgh continues its transition from the James Harrison-James Farrior-Casey Hampton-Brett Keisel days. Kevin Colbert's drafting is usually logical and sound, and in Ryan Shazier the Steelers believe they found an immediate starter. One thing will be true about Pittsburgh this season: They will be faster on the field and they will not start slow. Pittsburgh will build on the momentum of an 8-4 finish in 2013 (after an 0-4 start), and as they build the defense will grow.

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John TaylorUSA TODAY Sports
We have a winner. The voters selected John Taylor's game-winning TD catch in the 49ers' win over Cincinnati in Super Bowl XXIII as the Bengals' most memorable play and I question their selection.

Score: 49ers 20, Bengals 16
Date: Jan. 22, 1989. Site: Joe Robbie Stadium.

Apparently the people who voted all this week in our Cincinnati Bengals most memorable plays poll aren't on Twitter. Because a good majority of the tweets I received this week regarding the Bengals' three most memorable plays -- selected, I might add, in part by those who participated in an unofficial Twitter survey back in June -- criticized the inclusion of 49ers receiver John Taylor's 10-yard touchdown catch that closed Super Bowl XXIII.

SportsNation

Which is the most memorable play in Bengals' history?

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    20%
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    46%
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    34%

Discuss (Total votes: 30,879)

Those of you who vented such frustrations, I get them. When you think about a top plays or most memorable plays countdown, it's in your nature as a sports fan to assume right away that all of the plays involved are "good" ones for the team you root for. For example, either of Ken Anderson's two touchdown passes during the 1981 AFC championship "Freezer Bowl" game with minus-59 wind chills could have been options. Or Jerome Simpson's no-hands goal-line front flip into the end zone in 2011 might have been one. So, too, could Giovani Bernard's field-reversing, tackle-breaking 35-yard run at Miami last season.

Neither of those plays, though, made the cut. Stanford Jennings' 93-yard kick return touchdown that gave the Bengals a late lead in Super Bowl XXIII did, as did running back Corey Dillon's 41-yard touchdown run in 2000 that broke Walter Payton's longtime single-game rushing record. Since some of the best and brightest moments in team history include the Super Bowl appearances, it simply made sense that Jennings' return was a memorable play option. The same had to be said for Taylor's reception, as painful as it may have been for some of you to relive. That reception, which capped another one of Joe Montana's famous comebacks, came at the close of the most recent Super Bowl for the Bengals.

As problematic as the inclusion of Taylor's catch was for some of our loyal Twitter followers, it apparently wasn't an issue for the rest of you. Taylor's catch led the memorable play voting much of the week and ended up the winning selection.

Again, that reception arguably contributed (maybe in a small way) to the downturn the Bengals endured that caused a generation of football fans to grow up believing they weren't a very good franchise. As Chad Richard Bresson tweeted, "One could argue the Jennings return represents apex of Bengals franchise. SB loss, then Montoya. Downhill." (Max Montoya was a guard on the 1981 and 1988 Super Bowl teams. Instead of coming back to Cincinnati as expected in 1990, the then-free agent and California native signed with the Los Angeles Raiders. That postseason, his Raiders beat the Bengals in the second round. Cincinnati hasn't won a playoff game since that year's win over the Houston Oilers a round earlier.)

Instead of Taylor's catch, my pick would have been Dillon's run. Although his record has since been broken by Jamaal Lewis and Adrian Peterson, Dillon's 278 yards against the Broncos were just the dose of optimism the organization needed at the time. In the middle of what was a 14-year stretch without a winning record, the Bengals were in real dark days. They were 0-6 entering that game alone. There was very little to cheer about. But then Dillon came along and smashed one of the game's longstanding records, bringing some positive vibes to the city, even if they lasted for only one more week.
video A few NFL players weighed in on Josh Gordon’s most recent arrest, for suspicion of DWI in Raleigh, North Carolina, early Saturday morning.

Gordon allegedly had a blood-alcohol count of .09, which would be over the legal limit of .08. It marked a continuing pattern of behavior that has drawn attention from players, fans and the Browns organization.

Gordon faces a minimum one-year ban for failing an offseason drug test. He has been pulled over twice this offseason, once with marijuana in the car and the second time for the DWI. He was suspended two games a year ago and played two without pay. He also did not last at two different colleges.

The general theme from those players who voiced their opinions about Gordon were strong: Don’t criticize Gordon; instead put the focus on helping him.

One teammate was angry at the public bashing Gordon has received. As of Saturday evening his name had appeared in more than 45,000 tweets, most of them critical and negative.

Browns defensive tackle Phil Taylor posted this Sunday morning:



This from former teammate D’Qwell Jackson, now with the Colts, drew a lot of attention:



Jaguars receiver Cecil Shorts:



From former NFL linebacker Keith Bulluck:



Finally, Ben Watson, former Browns and current Saints tight end, and a member of the NFL Players Association Executive Committee, said this:

Andy DaltonRob Carr/Getty ImagesThe Cincinnati Bengals need Andy Dalton to make his postseason struggles a thing of the past.
CINCINNATI -- It was one of the best seasons in the Cincinnati Bengals' 45-year history.

An 11-5 regular-season record. A division championship. A top-three playoff seeding. A top-three defense. A top-10 offense. Indeed, 2013 will forever be remembered as the year it all finally came together for a franchise that, believe it or not, long ago discarded its status as a perennial loser. Some outside southwest Ohio might have trouble comprehending it, but these really aren't the Bengals of old. This organization now not only thinks it belongs in the annual NFL playoff picture but also does well to prove it.

Still, I know what you're thinking. Even with the Bengals' recent track record of success, surely it'll be virtually impossible this season for them to top, let alone match, the accomplishments they had a year ago.

You would be right. It's time the Bengals are told that, too. It's time they brace for a step back. Right now, some three weeks before training camp, it's hard seeing them progress past the leaps and bounds they made a year ago. Regression is real in the NFL. It will find a home on the banks of the Ohio River this fall.

Don't try telling that to the Bengals, though. Understandably, their optimism this offseason has been every bit as high as it was last July and the July before that. The focus in the locker room isn't on sliding backward, nor should it be. Cincinnati's goal, just like any other team's goal, continues to revolve around improving and building upon what it did the year before.

"This team can do a lot," offseason newcomer and veteran safety Danieal Manning said. "Everybody wants to be better than they were the day before. You don't hear that all the time in locker rooms."

Certainly all 89 players currently on Cincinnati's roster believe that a 12-4 regular season is possible, along with another AFC North title. The same group currently sees itself as a lock for a first-round playoff bye and is confident it has a top-five defense and offense.

It's possible that each of those feats gets realized this year. Good teams are able to steadily improve year by year to the point where they eventually become great. But the way things stand right now, such vast improvements just don't seem all that likely for the Bengals.

Along with playing in the same division as a Pittsburgh team that seems poised to make a legitimate turnaround from an injury-plagued 8-8 season, the Bengals enter the season with the same player behind center who regularly wilted in some of the biggest games and moments from the past three seasons. Quarterback Andy Dalton appears to have made mechanical improvements, but he'll need boosts to his psyche to make constant success his norm instead of the bouts of inconsistency that have routinely sabotaged his otherwise stellar play.

Combine the Pittsburgh factor and the Dalton factor with the coaching factor, and the odds the Bengals progress from good to great this season continue looking less than favorable.

We talk often about how the Bengals are replacing coordinators Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer, but there were other changes made aside from Hue Jackson's and Paul Guenther's promotions. They also brought on a linebackers coach and a co-defensive backs assistant from the outside and will have a first-time position coach in running backs assistant Kyle Caskey.

The last time Cincinnati made a change at either of the coordinator positions was ahead of the 2011 season, when Gruden was hired to replace Bob Bratkowski as offensive coordinator. Each year since the change, the organization steadily improved. After a relatively unexpected 4-12 showing in 2010, the Bengals rebounded and made the playoffs in 2011 with a 9-7 record. In 2012, they were 10-6 and went to the postseason. The common thread in the past three playoff years, though, has been the disastrous first-round exits. To some players, those defeats alone rendered the respective season's failures.

Which brings us to an interesting point: Could we actually call it a step back if the Bengals fall to 9-7 this year yet make the playoffs and win a playoff game?

If they knew this instant that very scenario would come to the fore, most Bengals fans would want to throw a parade downtown tomorrow. And they wouldn't be faulted. Nineteen years of postseason misery would be released in a cathartic celebration few other cities these days could truly comprehend. Along with the Bengals' playoff-win drought that dates back to 1991, the Reds haven't won a baseball playoff series since 1995.

A playoff win, regardless of what happened in the regular season, certainly should be greeted as a positive. But would that be a sign of progress? In the postseason sense it would, but unless that playoff win kicks off a string of victories that put the Bengals in the Super Bowl, it would do little to show where they have grown between 2013 and 2014.

Playoff-win daydreams aside, the reality is the Bengals haven't won in the postseason in a long time and didn't do much this offseason to make themselves dramatically better than what they were last year. True year-over-year progress would mean the Bengals this season will compile a 12-4 record, claim another division title and make, at worst, an appearance in the AFC Championship Game.

Right now, it's hard seeing a season like that in Cincinnati in 2014.

The realistic, pre-training-camp view of the Bengals' upcoming season is that it won't be as good as the last. So it would be wise the Bengals start bracing for the possibility they'll be taking the undesired step backward.
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PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers' dynastic teams of the 1970s lost another great one Friday night when iconic coach Chuck Noll passed away at the age of 82 at his Pittsburgh-area home.

Dubbed “The Emperor” by late Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope, Noll never left any doubt who ruled the teams that won four Super Bowls in six seasons despite dealing with outsized personalities and enough stars that the Steelers players from the 1970s could have their own wing at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Cerebral and often detached from his players, Noll nevertheless commanded their respect and admiration with his attention to detail, devotion to fundamentals and teaching, and his desire to win.

No coach won more spectacularly than Noll in the 1970s, and he did it after going 1-13 in 1969, his first season as the Steelers’ head coach, and with a franchise that had made the playoffs just once in its 36-season history and cycled through coaches at a comical rate.

Noll, incredibly enough, never won an NFL Coach of the Year Award, even though he remains the only coach to win four Super Bowls. Few, if any, coaches in NFL history had a more profound effect on their franchise.

Noll transformed the so-called “same old Steelers” into a standard for greatness. His legacy is still evident, from the national following the Steelers enjoy based in part on their success in the 1970s to the organization’s philosophy of building through the draft and exercising patience with its head coach.

The Steelers have yet to comment on Noll’s passing, but there has to be a profound sense of sadness among those in the organization who will have to say goodbye to a seminal figure from the 1970s for the second time in little more than a month.

Bill Nunn, the longtime scout who convinced Noll during the 1974 draft that the Steelers could select Lynn Swann in the first round and still get John Stallworth later in the draft, died on May 6 of complications from a stroke.

Nunn opened the pipeline to the historically black colleges that the Steelers had too often overlooked while heaping one losing season on top of another. That pipeline helped supply the talent that Noll molded into one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history and the team that defined the 1970s.

The loss of Nunn and now Noll is a painful reminder that time remains undefeated and inexorably marches on. But four decades later, the Steelers remain a model franchise as well as the only one with six Lombardi trophies.

When current Steelers coach Mike Tomlin says, “The standard is the standard,” which is another way of saying nothing less than excellence will be accepted, Charles Henry Noll is a big reason for that.
PITTSBURGH -- The tears that made it hard for Maurkice Pouncey to talk Thursday afternoon also cut short what should have been a celebratory news conference.

Emotion choked the Pittsburgh Steelers center, and it emanated from the day last September when a teammate crashed into his right knee and left Pouncey in the kind of pain that made him wonder if he would ever walk well enough to play football again -- or at least at a high level.

What also had to overwhelm Pouncey: Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, team president Art Rooney II, general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin all attended the official announcement of the five-year contract extension he signed nine months after tearing several ligaments in his right knee, including his ACL.

[+] EnlargeMaurkice Pouncey
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesMaurkice Pouncey is the only center in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons.
Their presence as much as the new deal that could be worth as much as $44 million, affirmed to Pouncey that he is a Steeler.

And there is a difference between that and playing for the Steelers.

“It’s true love here,” Pouncey said shortly after the Steelers concluded organized team activities. “I’ll do anything for this team and I’m ready to lead us to where we’ve got to get back to.”

The Steelers concluded that Pouncey is one of the keys to them re-establishing themselves as perennial Super Bowl contenders following consecutive 8-8 seasons.

They made a bold move with the contract that is now the most lucrative for a center in the NFL.

They also made the correct move in locking up Pouncey long-term after the Jaguars had raised the ante at the position by signing Alex Mack to a five-year, $42 million contract (the Browns later matched it to retain Mack).

Pouncey is the only center in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons. His teammates respect him so much that they voted Pouncey a captain last season, not much more than a month after he had celebrated his 24th birthday. And Pouncey is the kind of player you build around on the offensive line, especially if your goal is to maximize Ben Roethlisberger's remaining seasons as a top-tier quarterback, something that Colbert has stated.

Questions have been raised about Pouncey and whether the 2010 first-round pick is prone to injury. But he had missed just three regular-season games prior to 2013.

And the injuries he suffered in the Steelers’ season opener were a result of nothing more than rotten luck, as friendly fire took Pouncey out after right guard David DeCastro whiffed on an attempted cut block.

The Steelers are obviously comfortable with Pouncey’s injury history as well as where he is from a health standpoint nine months after hurting his right knee. Pouncey’s teammates, meanwhile, were nothing short of ecstatic about his new deal.

And not because Pouncey is likely to pick up the next couple of dinner tabs.

“He worked his butt off so we’re glad to have the team commit to him like that,” Steelers left guard Ramon Foster said. “We’re more excited than he is about it.”

Just not as emotional.

“I was just telling coach (Tomlin) it seems like five years all over again, and I’m ready to start this path and help this team get back to where we need to,” said Pouncey, who turns 25 the day before the Steelers report to training camp. “This is really an awesome feeling and words can’t really say enough about it.”

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