NFL Nation: AFC North

CINCINNATI -- Late in Monday afternoon's practice, on one goal-line exercise, quarterback Andy Dalton stepped up in the pocket, then stepped back, rolled to his right away from more pressure, and threw the ball to an empty space well beyond the back corner of the end zone.

The play resulted in an incompletion. And his offensive coordinator couldn't have been happier.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
AP PhotoAndy Dalton has worked on becoming a smarter quarterback during the offseason.
"Good, Andy. Good job," Hue Jackson shouted as Dalton jogged back to the huddle.

Indeed, it was good recognition by the Cincinnati Bengals' long-embattled quarterback who has struggled in the past with deciding in similar scenarios of good defensive coverage and pressure whether he wants to tuck the ball and run, take a sack, throw it away or still try to complete the pass.

More often than not, his instinct in the past was to make the play work anyway. The end result of those decisions? Typically wobbly passes that fluttered into the hands of a defensive back who greedily picked off the pass that shouldn't have been attempted. A number of Dalton's 20 interceptions last season came when he tried to force a pass.

So for much of the offseason, Jackson made sure Dalton understood his decision-making had to improve.

"It was a huge emphasis," Jackson said. "First, one, it's what I believe in. It's what our staff believes in. But two, it's truly what the essence of playing quarterback is about: making sure you don't have negative plays for your team. You've got to do a great job of carrying everybody under your hand. When you've got the ball in your hand, it's just about making a good decision. He's worked his tail off at doing that."

One of the more telling comments Jackson made during a post-practice huddle with reporters was that he wanted Dalton to realize that his decision-making doesn't only impact the offense. It can impact the entire team.

"You've got to protect the offensive football team and our entire football team with the ball," Jackson said. "He's starting to understand that. The guy had 33 touchdowns last year. But if we can get him to where when those opportunities come that are not there, to get him to be good with the ball, then great things can happen with this football team."

On the first day of training camp Dalton accepted responsibility for what he felt was his role in the Bengals' 27-10 loss to the Chargers in January's wild-card playoff loss. He was right to do that, just as he was at other times the past seven months. He had three costly turnovers in the game. All in the second half, he lost a fumble and threw a pair of interceptions. The Bengals' four-point halftime deficit ballooned after the turnovers, and eventually the game was out of hand.

It's film of that game that has Jackson wanting to see more of the heady Dalton who threw that pass away Monday.

"That was outstanding," Jackson said. "That's what I'm looking for. My goal, my thing with him, is to get us to the next down with the ball. It's not always about throwing a touchdown pass.

"Sometimes we're going to play good defenses and they're going to do things that stop us. And when they do, we have to be a smart football unit to make sure we're making proper decisions. Which sometimes, you've just got to say, 'Uncle,' and throw it away. It might mean taking a sack. It might mean whatever those things are. But just get us to the next down with the ball and we'll have a chance."

Bengals Camp Report: Day 5

July, 28, 2014
Jul 28
CINCINNATI -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Cincinnati Bengals training camp:

  • The Bengals had barely finished stretching at the start of Monday's practice before Mohamed Sanu made his presence known. The receiver went in motion on one of the first plays of an 11-on-11 drill before he was handed the football. Right after taking it from quarterback Andy Dalton, Sanu stopped, pulled up and threw a pass -- one of the few he has even attempted, in practice or otherwise, since college -- to fellow receiver A.J. Green. The throw fell easily into Green's hands well down field and set the tone for what ended up being a strong day overall for Sanu. "Coach had me doing a little bit of everything," Sanu said about offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.
  • In addition to throwing that pass, Sanu ran the ball once and, naturally, caught a few passes of his own from Dalton and other quarterbacks. While Sanu nor Jackson nor head coach Marvin Lewis will dare provide specifics about how they are using the receiver, they are all glad to have such a versatile playmaker on the roster. With Sanu a threat to do almost anything on the field, the Bengals know how big a challenge covering him, while also having to account for Giovani Bernard and Green, among others, can be.
  • Much of the Bengals' second fully-padded practice of training camp was spent working on short-yardage and goal-line situations. Running backs had to plow ahead on each play while defenders were charged with stopping them. It seemed like regularly during the third-and-short and fourth-and-short plays, the running backs were able to slither free for the first-down gain. On the goal line, however, the defense had its share of wins, breaking through and knocking down passing attempts, stopping running backs at the line of scrimmage or flushing quarterbacks out of the pocket and into forced throws. The units seemed split on the amount of time they respectively won battles in the trenches.
  • While the overall contact stepped up a notch Monday, the physical play that occurred Sunday may have been just a bit too much for several defenders. Linebackers J.K. Schaffer and Sean Porter got a little dinged after the first fully padded practice of the camp. That caused them both to stay in the training room Monday, while defensive end Robert Geathers and cornerback Adam Jones may have been receiving veterans' days off after the intense Day 4 workout. Neither was dressed Monday, but both were out on the practice fields. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick also was at practice but not participating after apparently tweaking a hamstring on Saturday.
  • The Bengals did lose one player to injury Monday. Offensive tackle Andre Smith ran into the locker room in the middle of the practice for an unspecified injury. Jackson said after practice he wasn't positive what the injury was but felt comfortable in affirming that the lineman shouldn't miss too much time. An off day couldn't have come at a better time for the Bengals. They won't practice Tuesday and will be back in action Wednesday.
CINCINNATI -- Geno Atkins has done it. So has Vontaze Burfict.

Now Carlos Dunlap believes it's his turn.

The Cincinnati Bengals' fifth-year defensive end said before training camp practice Monday that he would like to join Atkins and Burfict as the next Cincinnati defender to reach the Pro Bowl.

"Most definitely, that's been one of my personal goals: to get out there with those guys," Dunlap said, responding to a question about the Pro Bowl.

Dunlap's motivations for making it to the game were inflamed further in January by defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, who sent him a text message from Hawaii. Guenther was there as one of Burfict's guests. His message to Dunlap? It's time you get out here, too.

"He saw the guys that were out there, so for him to feel like I should have been out there, it just tells me that I need to put the work in and everything else will fall into place," Dunlap said.

Since 2006, Burfict and Atkins have been the only Bengals defenders selected to the Pro Bowl. Atkins played in the game in 2011 and 2012, and the former undrafted free-agent Burfict capped off his second season by reaching it for the first time last year. Before Atkins, the last Bengals defender to be selected to the Pro Bowl was cornerback Deltha O'Neal, who participated in the 2005 season's game.

"The Pro Bowl is based off numbers and fan support," Dunlap said. "We've got a good, strong fan base in Cincinnati here, so now I just have to go out and produce and put up the numbers."

Last season, Dunlap had career highs in tackles (58) and sacks (7.5). He tied for the team sack lead with Wallace Gilberry. Dunlap also forced four fumbles, matching a career high set in 2012.
Joe Flacco continues to be the face of bad contracts for quarterbacks, and it's just wrong to continue this narrative.

When Grantland named the starter for the Baltimore Ravens its choice at quarterback on the All-Bad Contracts Team, it was another instance of forgetting the deals signed by Tony Romo and Jay Cutler since. If Flacco's contract is the worst, how would you describe the bigger contracts given to two quarterbacks who haven't accomplished as much as Flacco?

In terms of guaranteed money, Romo ($55 million) and Cutler ($54 million) top Flacco's $51 million. And, to put this in perspective, the Ravens rewarded Flacco with his big deal after he was the Super Bowl's Most Valuable Player. Romo and Cutler were given this type of money after failing to lead their teams to the playoffs.

Flacco's 62 regular-season wins are the most by a starting quarterback in his first six seasons in NFL history. Before you say he was the beneficiary of playing on great teams, 35 of those wins came when Flacco produced a passer rating of at least 95.

In comparison, since Flacco entered the league in 2008, Cutler has 47 wins and Romo has 44. In Cutler's eight seasons, he has finished with a winning record as a starter three times.

Where Flacco separates himself is in the playoffs. While many remember Flacco's Montana-like Super Bowl run two years ago, he has been a hot quarterback in the postseason beyond that.

In his past three playoff seasons (2010-2012), Flacco has a 6-2 record with a 105 passer rating. He has averaged 251 passing yards per game with 18 touchdowns and two interceptions. He also came within a Lee Evans dropped pass from leading the Ravens to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances.

This overshadows the likes of Romo and Cutler. Romo has a career 1-3 record in the playoffs, and Cutler is 1-1 in the postseason.

This isn't to suggest that Flacco's contract is a good one. He would be the first to acknowledge he didn't live up to the six-year, $120.6 million deal last season, when he threw the second-most interceptions in the league.

But his contract isn't as gaudy as it was 17 months ago, when he became the NFL's highest-paid player. Flacco now ranks seventh in the league in guaranteed money.

Still, the perception remains that Flacco's contract is the worst in NFL history. The fact is, worse deals have been given to quarterbacks over the past year.

Bengals Camp Report: Day 4

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

 THE WORK: Once the Jason Pinkston situation was briefly discussed after practice, the first question asked of coach Mike Pettine was this: “Did Manziel take a step back today?” Point asked, point taken. Because it sure looked like he did. Manziel was indecisive, slow in his reads, quick to leave the pocket and sloppy with his throws. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, the play was wonderful. It’s best not to make too much of this, because guys will have bad days; but on this particular day, Manziel did little to quell the critics who would say he spent too much time taking party photos in the offseason and not enough mastering a complicated new system. It’s an easy criticism, but one that will arise anytime he struggles. Manziel’s body language reflected his frustration with the way things went. It simply was not a good day.

GOOD THROW: Typical that it happened when Manziel made something happen out of nothing. Manziel did not handle a low snap but he was able to pick up the ball and run to his right before planting and completing a pass across the middle to Miles Austin. The throw just beat the coverage, and came when Manziel does what he does best: improvise.

BAD THROW: After seeing nothing initially in seven-on-seven, Manziel rolled right and tried to sidearm a throw. It was poorly thrown, underthrown and almost intercepted. Bad decision, bad throw.

THE WORD: From Nate Burleson, on how the receivers view the QB competition: “We don’t ever think about [who’s ahead]. ... I’m not just saying that here and being politically correct about it. My whole career, it doesn’t matter who’s in. Most of the time we don’t think about it. It’s not like we’re jogging to the huddle and we think, 'Johnny's in' or '[Brian Hoyer's] in.'"

START CHART: On a 1-to-10 scale, with 10 meaning Manziel certainly starts the opener, we'll take a three-times-per-week look at his chances. Based on this one day, and based on Hoyer's good day, it drops from a 3 on the first day to a 1 on the second day.
BEREA, Ohio -- It took Brian Hoyer all of one day to move on from the excitement of the past and to focus on simply playing the position he’s always wanted -- quarterback of the Cleveland Browns.

[+] EnlargeBrian Hoyer
Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesBrian Hoyer made all the plays in Day 2 of training camp.
 The change in Hoyer from Saturday to Sunday was marked, as he was decisive, quick, accurate and confident in the second training camp practice. Johnny Manziel? Not so much ... as his body language steadily deteriorated as the day went on.

Hoyer had some first-day sloppiness, and that could have been for several reasons: getting cleared to practice fully following knee surgery, trying to win the job for his hometown team, the hype about his backup and appearing for the first time in front of fans and media.

“He’d have to a robot not to be affected,” coach Mike Pettine said. “I’m sure there was a lot going on inside his head.”

The Browns are publicly saying the right things about the quarterbacks, with Pettine admitting that both have gotten off to “solid starts” and GM Ray Farmer saying both will have plenty of opportunities.

But if a neutral observer descended above the team’s practice field on Sunday, he would float away with a clear and definite impression that Hoyer is well ahead of Manziel, who has a long way to go.

All the usual caveats apply. It’s only Day 2 of camp. Manziel is a rookie, and he should have a learning curve. The team has not practiced in pads, so Manziel can’t make many of his patented create-something-out-of-nothing throws.

But it’s also true that Hoyer is learning a new offense, he’s coming off surgery to repair a torn ACL and hasn’t played in a game since last October. He also has to learn to drive the ball off the knee that was repaired – and he’s shown no hesitation in doing so.

 The tally sheet of good throws and completions for Hoyer would be lengthy. He started his day in team work with a deep post that hit Anthony Armstrong on the numbers. He followed with a throw outside to Willie Snead just over a linebacker. Later, there was a deep throw to Taylor Gabriel past the corner and in front of the safety, then a deep sideline throw to Nate Burleson. In the final team drill, Hoyer completed all three passes and got the ball out quickly -- showing a strong grasp of the offense.

Manziel spent a fair amount of time snapping off his chinstrap and turning in disgust after not-so-good plays. As the day went on, his body language got worse and worse. A sidearm throw on a rollout that was well short of the receiver. An underthrow into double coverage. The same deep throw Hoyer completed to Gabriel was overthrown badly by Manziel. Another overthrow. Another near interception.

Manziel even started the day with neon shoes -- an interesting choice for a rookie -- but he changed them less than 30 minutes into the practice because they weren’t “team issued.” It’s way too early to make any final determination on the position, but the Browns also are at a point where every snap counts, as Pettine and Manziel have admitted. This was not a new group of plays for either quarterback. Pettine said the plays were the same ones run on the second day of offseason work, as the training camp lessons will mirror what happened in the offseason.

The Browns will not be drawn into a Manziel-Hoyer discussion, and Pettine does his best not to give instant feedback on quarterback play after practice. But it’s evident the respect the coaches and front office have for how Hoyer has attacked the opportunity -- and his rehab from last season.

“I think Brian’s been phenomenal,” Farmer said. “He’s handled it like a pro, which is what you would like. He’s a man’s man. He didn’t cry over spilled milk. He attacked his rehab. He was here probably more than anybody. I think I work a lot of hours, and there weren’t many hours that I was in the building that Brian wasn’t somewhere working on his craft. Be it the meeting room, the indoor facility, the weight room, he did everything he could to put himself in the best position possible.”

It was pointed out to Farmer that the obvious comparison to that is a guy who was on the party circuit.

“From Brian’s perspective, he’s been a pro,” Farmer said. “He’s handled himself the right way. I’m only going to compare Brian to Brian.”
LATROBE, Pa. -- A groin injury has sidelined Mike Mitchell for the first part of training camp but the Steelers, starting free safety said the setback is not a significant one.

 “I can sharpen myself in the film room, take every mental rep [in practice] which I wouldn’t do if I was practicing,” Mitchell said Sunday. “Now I literally pay attention on every snap. To have [football] taken away it's kind of frustrating. It’s making me hungrier.”

Mitchell said he had never injured his groin before getting hurt between the end of offseason practices and the start of training camp. He wouldn’t offer any details on how he got hurt other than that it happened while he was preparing for his first training camp with the Steelers.

Mitchell, who signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Steelers in March, has been standing next to Carnell Lake in practice to get the defensive backs coach’s view of drills and so he can ask Lake questions.

Coach Mike Tomlin said at the start of camp that Mitchell, who is on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, will likely miss the first week of practice.

The biggest downside to Mitchell’s injury is it cuts into the on-field work he will get with strong safety Troy Polamalu. The two only practiced together during minicamp last month since Polamalu didn’t take part in the organized team activities.

It is critical that the two build a strong rapport, but Mitchell said that won't be an issue.

“I know the playbook very, very well and you’ve just got to get out there and practice and when I’m back, we’ll be fine,” Mitchell said. “But we talk a lot, and I think our relationship is getting better every single day. When you’ve got one of the best safeties in the league to play with, your job isn’t that hard.”
CINCINNATI -- For some, it's the most anticipated moment of training camp.

For others, it's a pain they would rather not endure.

Ahead of Sunday afternoon's Oklahoma drill, the first fully padded, live contact exercise of their training camp, the Cincinnati Bengals offered mixed reviews on the necessity of the task.

"[It's] overblown for me," defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. "The faster that gets over with, the better for me. I'd just like to get to football."

The Oklahoma drill. Old-school football. The sport's roots. The most fundamental drill there is to determining how physical and overpowering a player actually can be. Regarded as a battle of will and determination, it has been viewed in some circles as a drill that shows how hard a player will fight to either finish off a tackle, break a tackle or to block in hopes of preventing a tackle.


The drill involves four players. Each is lined up within the narrow confines of a rectangle that's roughly 5 yards wide. One player is a defender. Another is a blocker. The third is a quarterback and the fourth is a running back. Quarterbacks, of course, do not get hit. They simply take a football, turn around and hand it off to the back who will try to follow a hole created by his blocker and slip away from the defender trying to tackle him in the small space.

It's a test to see how powerful the blocker and running back are, and how physical and savvy a defender can be.

"It's football," linebacker Vincent Rey said. "You come down, try to get on the block, get off the block and make the tackle.

"I like it."

In Cincinnati, the drill may take on a slightly different meaning than in other places, primarily because of the notoriety that has come to the Bengals' version of the drill, thanks to two showings of it on HBO's "Hard Knocks." Last summer, the drill was among the most entertaining parts of the first episode. Defensive linemen and offensive linemen were paired together. H-backs and fullbacks squared off with defensive ends and linebackers. Receivers and cornerbacks made contact, causing loud crunching noises to echo throughout the practice fields with the pop of their pads.

Last year's Oklahoma drill was so popular that dozens of fans walked up the walkway of a bridge that overlooks the practice fields and watched as the hitting commenced.

Rey is one of the few who like the drill. Fellow linebacker Rey Maualuga shares Guenther's sentiments on the exercise. He'd rather coaches used other things to test toughness, competition and team unity.

"If you don't make the tackle, does that make you less of a player?" Maualuga asked rhetorically. "Everyone is just worried about the initial contact. Everyone thinks of the Oklahoma drill as a smashmouth, downhill, who's going to get the upper hand kind of drill. You can dominate the blocker but not make the tackle. Does that mean you lost? I don't think so."

Maualuga, 27, also hit on the most concerning aspect of the drill for him: age.

"The older you get, you're just trying to get through it," he said.

Rookies have every reason to embrace the drill and enjoy it, he added. It's one of the first real tests they have to see where they stand. Otherwise, all others could do without it.

"[As a rookie] you want to impress your teammates," Maualuga said. "Since it will be Sunday, I'm assuming fans go to church and then come to practice, so there's going to be a bigger crowd. Everyone knows the Oklahoma drill's coming. People are going to talk: 'Oh, this guy lost. We thought he was going to win but he didn't.' It's a drill. It doesn't mean you're good or not good. It's just a chance for everyone to hit somebody."

As much as the competition and energy release can be good for certain players, the bottom line is the Bengals want to make sure they come out of the exercise healthy.

"We're trying to get out of that drill feeling good," Maualuga said. "That will probably be the first thing we do after stretching and individual drills. But we've still got four other periods we have to get through. What it will do is just set the tone for practice."

Bengals fans around Cincinnati eager to see the Oklahoma drill can show up at Paul Brown Stadium starting at 2:30 p.m. ET. Gates open at that time and practice begins 30 minutes later.

Bengals Camp Report: Day 3

July, 26, 2014
Jul 26
CINCINNATI -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the Cincinnati Bengals' training camp:
  • Offense was the big story for the Bengals through the first two days of training camp, but on Saturday, defense stole the headlines. Cornerbacks Adam Jones and Darqueze Dennard had a few key pass breakups and interceptions in a practice that hinged largely on third-down play. Jones rebounded after giving up a few receptions in one-on-one drills with receivers. By the end of the 11-on-11 portion of practice, he was stopping most everything that came his direction. Arguably his most noteworthy pass breakup occurred off a play-action fake from quarterback Andy Dalton. As Dalton threw off his back leg and hung a deep pass to A.J. Green, Jones turned and jumped in the path of the ball, knocking it down. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said Jones has played with good technique through the first three days. He added that veteran Terence Newman has as well. "It's good for our younger guys to see how they play and how they're out here competing every snap."
  • One of those younger players, the rookie Dennard, had the play of the day when he dove full length for a Dalton pass that flew wide of its mark. It was hard to tell whether Dalton threw the pass to the wrong spot or if the receiver ran the wrong route, but Dennard, playing in the familiar lockdown style that was his hallmark at Michigan State, saw the ball heading toward the sideline even as the receiver didn't. Players and fans both reacted favorably to the pickoff. "Saturday] was the first day we could play press-man on the receiver, and that's what he did at Michigan State, so he's back in his comfort zone doing what he does. He's just got to continue to get better and work on his technique, and going against good receivers every day will help him."
  • One of the cornerbacks who did not take part in the live offense vs. defense portions of the workout was Leon Hall. The veteran is still rebounding from an Achilles tear that ended his 2013 season in Week 7. It was out of an abundance of caution that the Bengals held him out of most of the practice, even though he still participated in position-specific drills early in the session. Although he's fully recovered from the serious injury, the staff still wants to ease him back into action.
  • Along with Hall, the Bengals are taking a similar slow approach with offensive linemen Clint Boling and Mike Pollak. The left guards are rotating days on and off for the foreseeable future. After Boling started at the position Thursday, Pollak took his share of snaps Friday. Keeping with the rotation, Boling claimed the starting reps at the spot Saturday. Both still dressed in the shoulder pads-and-shorts attire the rest of the team sported as the full-gear acclimation period begins to slow down. The team will be in full pads Sunday.
  • The Bengals had two injuries during Saturday's practice. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick pulled up, holding his right hamstring, after using good coverage to prevent Green from catching a pass from Dalton off a deep go route. Kirkpatrick was stretched out but didn't return to practice. Defensive tackle LaKendrick Ross had a minor injury as well, jogging off the field at one point for treatment. He ended up returning and finishing the practice.
CINCINNATI -- Rey Maualuga had just gotten up from a 16-minute, 28-second interview with a trio of reporters when fellow Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Brandon Joiner approached with a question.

The 27-year-old Maualuga knew exactly what his younger teammate needed help with. He stopped his stride across the mostly empty locker room, bent his body into a defensive stance and started pointing and speaking linebacker jargon with Joiner who nodded eagerly along.

[+] EnlargeVontaze Burfict
AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziBengals linebacker Rey Maualuga is attempting to rebound after seeing his production slip in 2013.
It was the very type of teaching lesson Maualuga had detailed moments before when he gabbed with the reporters. Ahead of what could very well be his final training camp with the Bengals, the veteran defender made it clear that while he's going to fight hard for a spot on the 53-man roster, he's still going to give advice to any of the players he's competing against who want to listen.

"I'm just out there to teach," Maualuga said. "So I'm doing whatever I can do to help the younger guys know how to line up and help them out with their playbook. Because eventually, we've got 12 linebackers and we're not going to keep all 12. If I can help someone be the best player in this short amount of time to do their job, then I can feel good about that."

Among the hottest offseason Bengals topics this spring and summer have been questions revolving around Maualuga's status as the team's starting middle linebacker. Several of the weekend mailbags that appeared on's Bengals blog the past few months were filled with fan inquiries about Maualuga, and whether he could be replaced by Vincent Rey, a veteran backup who played well in relief of Maualuga when he was injured three games last year.

Rey's 30 tackles, three sacks and one interception in those three games caught the fans' attention. Calls for him to take over the first-string "Mike" linebacker duties began and haven't ceased since, even as Rey starts camp as one of the top backups at all three linebacker positions. Those calls came at the same time Maualuga's production was waning. He finished with 47 fewer tackles in 2013 than he had in 2012, and miscues like his ill-timed personal foul penalty in the opener at Chicago last year combined to put him on the fans' bad side. That penalty ended any hope the Bengals had at putting together a final-minute comeback drive that might have won the game.

As for Rey, the backup said he's not concerned so much with trying to be the starter at any of the spots he plays. He just wants to get on the field, whether that's from off the bench or as a starter in specific situations like third-down or goal-line defense, much like he was last year.

"The honest truth is that for me it's more about getting on the field," Rey said. "And the thing is, you never know when you'll get on the field. That's the tougher position for me. I embrace it. I never know. I may be on the field at this position, or that position. I'm going to be ready. Whenever my name's called, I'm going to be ready."

That was Maualuga's approach when he arrived as a second-round draft pick from Southern Cal in 2009. He just wanted to play and learn from the players above him.

At the time, that meant hanging on to former "Sam" linebacker Rashad Jeanty's every word. It meant listening to all of former "Mike" linebacker Dhani Jones' pearls of wisdom, like the following that remain at the forefront of his mind.

"Coach Zim [former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer] asked Dhani, 'Why haven't you missed a practice since you've been here?'" Maualuga recounted. "He said, 'I'm afraid to lose my job.'"

After four seasons with the Bengals and six more in the NFL, Jones did in fact lose his job -- to Maualuga. When Maualuga opened the 2011 season at middle linebacker, he did so in place of the elder linebacker who wasn't re-signed after the 2010 season and soon after retired.

Reminded of how he became the Bengals' "Mike" linebacker, Maualuga paused and nervously grinned as the irony settled in.

"It's only due time until someone comes and takes my spot," he said. "I'm going to put up a fight, though."

He knows that fight might not be enough. Although there is much with respect to his position battle that he can control, the ultimate decision rests in the coaches' hands.

"My family's here. I want to be here," Maualuga said. "But there's a lot of great linebackers on this roster. We can't keep everybody.

"If I don't make it, I still know that I gave it my all and hopefully another team will be out there to pick me up."
CINCINNATI -- The Lombardi Trophy has taken up residence in the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room during this training camp.

OK, let's rephrase that.

Printed on the fronts of T-shirts and plastered into an image that occasionally flashes on the television screens mounted atop the wall posts inside the Bengals' locker room, representations of the Lombardi Trophy have been visible. The actual trophy has never seen Paul Brown Stadium, although the Bengals hope to change that this year.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Iloka
AP Photo/Tom UhlmanGeorge Iloka, No. 43, said the Bengals' defense wants to stay aggressive but cut down on penalties.
In their quest to win the franchise's first Super Bowl this year, the theme for the Bengals' camp this summer is comprised of two words: "smart" and "fast." Printed on the T-shirts and emblazoned on the same image of the trophy that flashes on the TV screens are those words, along with a series of claw marks. When it comes to making Cincinnati's team this year, coaches want to stress the words "smart" and "fast."

On defense, they want to stress another one -- "bullies."

When I asked third-year safety George Iloka what the defense wanted to be known as this season, he brought up a statement defensive coordinator Paul Guenther made during a meeting at the start of training camp. Clearly, Iloka was paying attention.

"We want to be smart bullies," he said.

That philosophy fits with the overall theme of the camp, but what exactly is a smart bully?

"Our mentality is to go out there and play aggressive and physical, but we've got to be smart," Iloka said. "We've got to know when to take chances. We've got to know if it's third-and-1, we've got to know if it's fourth-and-1, we've got to know if we're backed up that they're going to try to give you a hard count. Little things like that. You don't want to be too aggressive where you're hurting yourself."

It's an important fact to stress because at times last season the Bengals did let their aggression get the best of them.

They ranked 11th in the league in defensive penalties last season, incurring 41 infractions. While that number might not be astronomically high, the yards they were penalized for in all three phases were. Flagged for 1,000 total yards, the Bengals ranked fifth in overall penalty yards in 2013. When it came specifically to the defense, the most egregious violations seemed to come at inopportune moments (is there really a good time to draw a penalty, though?).

Linebacker Rey Maualuga's body slam of a Bears offensive lineman just after a third-down stop late in the fourth quarter of the season opener was costly. Had Maualuga kept his wits and not thrown down the lineman, the Bengals' third-down stop would have led to a punt. Out of timeouts and with a little more than a minute left in a game in which they trailed by a field goal, the Bengals had just enough time to get a good return and set up a possible comeback that could have ended in a Week 1 win.

Instead, after Maualuga's 15-yard penalty, the Bears went through a series of kneeldowns the Bengals were helpless to prevent because they didn't have any timeouts. Cincinnati lost 24-21.

"You want to cut down on penalties. You want to cut down on mistakes. But it's not even those things," Iloka said. "Let's say it's third-and-4 and all week we've practiced that this team in this formation is going to run a seam route. Why are you going to be overaggressive and jump the out route? Just be a smart bully. You're smart, and when the time comes to make the hit ... you bully them and you make the play."

While Guenther didn't use the term "smart bullies" at a kickoff luncheon earlier this week in Cincinnati, he made it clear that he was looking for that kind of play as he begins his first year as a coordinator.

"I like how passionate they are, how smart they are and how flexible they can be," Guenther said. "I'm really hammering home being a smart football team."

Will being smart and fast bullies be enough for the Bengals to finally obtain their goal? Iloka thinks so; as long as he and his teammates avoid the complacency that can come with having a top-3 defense like they did last year.

"Until we're No. 1, there's always room for improvement," he said. "Since I've been here the defense has been one of the strong points of this team. We really emphasize it. We just want to go up. Obviously [ranking third] wasn't good enough because we didn't win the Super Bowl. The defense has room for improvement. Turnovers, third downs, you name it. We can always get better."
CINCINNATI -- As the Cincinnati Bengals get going with Day 2 of training camp Friday, here are three items we're going to be keeping an eye out for:

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

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

Return watch. One player who may very well be battling for a roster spot these next few weeks is return man Brandon Tate. The receiver who has just 14 catches in the 48 games he's played the past three seasons has primarily been used in return situations. The big question is, are there enough spots on a very deep team for a player who will be used almost exclusively as a kick returner? He spent the 2013 season working as the lead punt returner also, but only after cornerback Adam Jones was kept off special teams because of a bevy of injuries to the secondary. This year, with a deep -- and for now, healthier -- defensive backfield, Jones will be back in his old No. 1 punt returner role. Where will that leave Tate? For now, he'll have to impress on both special teams and offense.

Bengals Camp Report: Day 1

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
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."