NFL Nation: NFL

Rapid Reaction: Chicago Bears

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- A few thoughts on the Chicago Bears' 28-20 win against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium.

What it means: The Bears avoided significantly reducing their postseason chances, while preventing a fourth consecutive loss dating back to Dec. 22 of last season with their come-from-behind triumph over the 49ers. How big was this victory? Well, under the new playoff format, which started in 1990, just 12 percent of teams to start the season 0-2 advanced to the postseason. Meanwhile, 41 percent of teams to start 1-1 make it to the playoffs. With the Bears headed to New York to face the Jets next week on "Monday Night Football," this certainly qualifies as a major victory.

Stock watch: Chris Conte caught plenty of flack (undeservedly) for his performance in the club's season-opening loss to the Buffalo Bills, but the fourth-year veteran put together a strong outing prior to leaving in the second quarter because of a shoulder injury (the extent of his injury wasn't known). In addition to swooping in to make a touchdown-saving tackle in the second quarter on Michael Crabtree, who had gotten past Tim Jennings and Ryan Mundy, the safety dove in front of a pass down the seam intended for Anquan Boldin for an interception. Conte flashed speed and aggression. But what's most important is Conte appears to have not lost any confidence after such a difficult 2013 season, and a horrid showing in the opener. Conte's stock is definitely up after his outing against the 49ers.

Draughn bombs: Chicago started the game on its own 9 due to a holding penalty on the opening kickoff by Shaun Draughn. Then, when the team elected to punt on fourth down, it was Draughn, who Aaron Lynch blew past to tip Pat O'Donnell's punt, causing it to roll out of bounds at the Chicago 8. Three plays later, Colin Kaepernick hit Crabtree for an 8-yard touchdown. That took place just two minutes and 14 seconds into the game, and put the Bears in a hole.

This problem seems bigger than just Draughn though, as the front office basically gutted the corps of the special-teams unit. In the past, this team emphasized special teams and consistently fielded one of the league's best units. The team has since elected to go with younger, less-experienced players and we're starting to see the results.

Prior to the start of the season, a source said special-teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis would have to do the best coaching job of his career. Apparently, the source wasn't lying.

Game ball: Brandon Marshall overcame injury and a slow start to outmuscle San Francisco's aggressive defensive backs for three touchdown grabs. Marshall receives the game ball for the second consecutive week.
CINCINNATI -- It was an uncharacteristic day for Cincinnati Bengals kicker Mike Nugent.


He had never missed three field goals in a game before Sunday's sudden case of the shanks and hooks. Not in the 109 previous NFL games he played had he been that inaccurate. Not in the four years he spent at Ohio State, either.

Plain and simple, Nugent's misses don't come in the bunches that they came in during the Bengals' 24-10 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. His coach, Marvin Lewis, knows that and made it known that he still believes in his veteran kicker.

"I know he'll be better next time out," Lewis said. "That's the one good thing about Mike. He's such a pro."

Despite the missed kicks, the Bengals still beat the Falcons convincingly.

Lewis was asked if he knew what contributed to Nugent's poor performance. The coach said he didn't know. Nugent, who normally speaks with reporters after every game, good, bad or otherwise, wasn't in the locker room when the media was allowed in Sunday.

Wind didn't appear to be a factor. For most of the day winds never reached double-digit miles per hour.

Perhaps, it was just simply one of those days that players can sometimes go through; days when it seems like nothing goes the way it's supposed to.

In addition to missing on the three field goals, Nugent also seemed to struggle on kickoffs. The plan, naturally, was to prevent electric Falcons return man Devin Hester from even touching the football. That wasn't the way the day worked out for Nugent and Cincinnati's coverage team.

Hester was able to field each of Nugent's four kickoffs, catching them in the end zone, not far from the goal line. Hester returned each of them, making at least one coverage-teams player miss on every return. Hester, who exchanged words via reporters earlier in the week with Bengals cornerback and punt returner Adam Jones about which of them was the better returner, averaged 29.5 yards on the four returns. His longest was for 36 yards.

With respect to the missed kicks, Nugent missed from 38, 49 and 55 yards. The second miss took a bizarre sharp angle left of the goal posts after first appearing to go straight through off Nugent's right foot. The third field goal try fell just short and to the left of the uprights.

Nugent's only make was a 31-yard attempt; his first of the game.

While the kicker had never missed three in one game in his career, he has missed two kicks in a game six times. He also missed two kicks in two games in college.

Last week, Nugent was remarkably better, nailing five of the six field goal attempts. The one miss was a blocked kick. Blocks aside, Lewis is confident the Week 1 Nugent will emerge when Cincinnati hosts Tennessee next Sunday.

"We lived a bad day," Lewis said, "and next time out I can count on him like we did a week ago."
CINCINNATI -- As Andy Dalton approached the line of scrimmage his eyes panned the field.

Left, right, middle. Short, intermediate, deep. The Cincinnati Bengals quarterback scanned the zones where he wanted to send his receivers, wondering if there was a soft spot for them run into, and if there was a place he could pass to in order to convert a crucial third down.

It was in his pre-snap read of the third-and-6 defense when he saw a safety creep up and the linebackers get even closer. At that moment, it was evident: The Falcons were going to bring an all-out blitz, forsaking the deep portions of the field. If a receiver could get past the safety, he might not only get a first down.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsAndy Dalton ran his record against NFC teams to 10-3.
He could get a touchdown, too.

That was Dalton's hope when he saw the defensive formation called a "Cover Zero." That particular formation is one in which only a safety sits downfield in zone coverage, while the cornerbacks line up in man coverage and the rest of the defense goes in all-out pursuit of the quarterback. Once Dalton recognized what was coming, he made a few tweaks at the line of scrimmage, barking out protection changes and additional blitz pickups.

His adjustments paid off.

Perhaps the most crucial line change was getting running back Giovani Bernard to pick up a blitzing defender. When he did, the block gave Dalton just a split-second long enough to get off his pass without a hand being directly in his face.

"I saw exactly what he saw," receiver Mohamed Sanu said.

When the ball was snapped, Sanu's objective was simple. He needed to run a slant and quickly get enough separation from his cornerback that Dalton could lead him to a spot where only he could get hands on the ball.

That's precisely what happened, and 76 yards and one missed tackle later Sanu was in the end zone with a key touchdown that began the Bengals' separation. The touchdown made it 17-3, and came just before an interception and subsequent score pushed the lead even further barely five minutes later.

"We had a good check on and Mo ran a really good route," Dalton said. "When you're playing Cover Zero and you make one guy miss, there's nobody else in the back end. When [cornerback Robert Alford] fell off on the route, Mo had a pretty good jog into the end zone."

Sanu's touchdown reception showed just how in sync the pair was. With Pro Bowl wideout A.J. Green dealing with a toe injury that could keep him out next week against Tennessee, the Bengals will desperately need this pairing to continue to be on the same page.

"When guys go down like that, that's the mentality that you have to have as a team, regardless of the position," said Dalton, referencing the five Bengals who were lost to injury Sunday, including Green. "Everybody here knows what Mo can do and obviously he had a really good chance to showcase his ability."
CINCINNATI -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 24-10 victory over the Atlanta Falcons:

Posters for Still: Sitting just inside Devon Still's locker late Sunday afternoon after the win was an orange poster that read: "Be Leah Strong." A fan had requested the poster be brought into the locker room for the defensive tackle who began the season on the practice squad due to a hamstring injury and because of his anxiety over 4-year-old daughter Leah's cancer prognosis. To his surprise, Still had been kept earlier in the day on the active game-day roster. In relief of an injured Brandon Thompson, he had three tackles.

'A good night': When reporters streamed into the Bengals' locker room, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was among the most jovial players they encountered. The backup defender was shouting at the top of his lungs: "Tonight's gonna be a good night." Those are lyrics from the Black Eyed Peas song "I Gotta Feeling." On special teams, Kirkpatrick played a key role in securing two fourth-quarter punts that were downed inside the Falcons' 4.

Shouting 'Gio!' On one second-quarter play, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was stuck behind some intense Falcons pressure and needed to get rid of the ball. So he shouted out "Gio!" to running back Giovani Bernard, who had just pulled away from a linebacker he was blocking in pass protection. Bernard said when he heard his name, he instinctively caught Dalton's improvisational screen pass. Bernard ended the broken play with a 46-yard reception.

Football trophy: Bengals rookie Jeremy Hill scored his first career touchdown in the third quarter when he plowed right behind defensive tackle Domata Peko (who was playing fullback) for a 1-yard score. Hill said he has the perfect place for the ball which he held on to -- his mom's mantel in New Orleans. She was in attendance Sunday. "I'll probably lose it or my dog will probably chew it up," Hill said, laughing.
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The Miami Dolphins and their offense might have to get used to life without Knowshon Moreno. Based on Sunday’s 29-10 loss to the Buffalo Bills, it might not be pretty.

Moreno suffered an elbow injury on his first carry when he fell awkwardly on his left arm. His arm bent the wrong way and the injury was gruesome enough that Moreno was immediately ruled out for the rest of the game.

[+] EnlargeKnowshon Moreno
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesThe Dolphins gained just 76 rushing yards after Knowshon Moreno left with an elbow injury.
Now the question becomes: How many games will Moreno miss moving forward?

Although the Dolphins didn't give an official timeline and Moreno didn't speak to reporters after the game, media reports have already indicated Moreno could miss up to a month with a dislocated elbow. That would be a long month for the Dolphins.

The offense looked like a shell of its Week 1 self with Moreno out of the lineup against Buffalo. Miami, after scoring 33 points last week against the New England Patriots, was shut out in the first half and finished with just 10 points against Buffalo.

"Obviously, we'd love to have him, but you have to deal with those things," Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. "They pop up in football. Injuries happen. So it didn't really impact the game plan. Other guys have to step up. That's football. If a guy gets injured you can't really alter things."

We are about to find out how important Moreno is to this Dolphins team. The free-agent acquisition quickly established himself as the heart and soul of the offense with his energy, intensity and consistent play.

Not coincidentally, the Dolphins lacked energy, intensity and consistency Sunday. Buffalo's defense quickly deflated the downtrodden Dolphins offense, which averaged just 3.9 yards per play.

The Dolphins couldn't run the ball with any efficiency without Moreno. Miami had just 80 rushing yards on Sunday after running for 191 with Moreno the previous week.

"We weren't even close to matching their intensity," Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace said. "We did a good job of playing football, but the [Bills'] intensity was so much higher than ours that I think that's why they won the game, honestly."

Wallace explained the mood of the offense when Moreno went down.

"I saw him on the ground. I know it wasn't good because he never really stays on the ground like that," Wallace said. "It was quiet for a little while, but it was early in the game and we had to keep playing. We definitely missed his intensity."

Moreno is just one player. But he brings a certain attitude and toughness to the offense that is hard to replace. The Dolphins will host the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 3 and travel to London to face the Oakland Raiders in Week 4. Those are two winnable games before the bye week.

But winning those games will be tougher without Moreno. The Dolphins now will have to rely on Lamar Miller and rookies Damien Williams and Orleans Darkwa.

"As running backs and as an offense we can't really sit there and mope and cry about it," Darkwa said. "We just got to go out and do what we got to do as an offense and as running backs. ... As a group, we got to step it up."

Rapid Reaction: Cincinnati Bengals

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
videoCINCINNATI -- A few thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 24-10 win against the Atlanta Falcons at Paul Brown Stadium:

What it means: Sunday's win should have sent a strong message to the rest of the league. That message? That even after having to replace both their coordinators, the Bengals still have a smooth and fluid offense and the same intimidating defense that ended last season ranked third in the NFL. After placing fifth in ESPN's Power Rankings last week, the Bengals certainly proved in this win that they deserve to be considered a top-five team at this early stage of the season. The only problem with Sunday's 14-point victory was that it may have come at a price. The Bengals were attacked by a vicious injury bug during the game as five players, including Pro Bowlers A.J. Green and Vontaze Burfict, were lost with varying ailments. It was the second straight game Burfict left early.

Stock watch: One week after going 5-for-6 on field goals (one was blocked), Bengals kicker Mike Nugent trended in the opposite direction against the Falcons when he made just one of the four field goal attempts he had. Like his first five at Baltimore, all four of Nugent's attempts Sunday came in the first half. The second miss, a 49-yard try, looked the worst. After appearing to be good off Nugent's foot, the ball knuckled at the last second and glided left of the goalposts. His next attempt, a 55-yarder in the final second of the second quarter, fell just short. Nugent's kickoffs weren't any better. All four were just short enough in the end zone that Atlanta's electric return man Devin Hester was able to bring them out. Hester, who had been in a war of words with Bengals punt returner Adam Jones over their return skills earlier in the week, averaged 29.5 yards on the four kick returns he had. His longest was 36 yards.

Run-game revival: After being held to just 79 yards rushing last week, the Bengals performed better on the ground in Week 2. Combined, they rushed for 170 yards, with second-year back Giovani Bernard and rookie Jeremy Hill leading the way. The pair combined for 67 yards on 18 carries against the Ravens in the opener. This week, they had all but six of the Bengals' yards. Quarterback Andy Dalton, who didn't run any read-option this week, had those other six.

Game ball: Receiver Mohamed Sanu gets this week's game ball after factoring in both the Bengals' passing and receiving game. He caught three passes for 84 yards, including a touchdown and completed a 50-yard pass to receiver Brandon Tate. The pass came on the first play of the Bengals' second drive and set a tone about how well the offense could operate. The Bengals came up dry on the drive, though, as Nugent missed his first field goal at its conclusion.

What's next? Cincinnati will be back in action next week when it hosts Tennessee in an important pre-bye week contest. One week after the Titans come to Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals are off. This will be the Bengals' first meeting with an AFC South team this season, the division that had the lowest combined winning percentage in the league last year. The timing of the bye might be good for the Bengals considering all the injuries they picked up against the Falcons.

Rapid Reaction: Miami Dolphins

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- A few thoughts on the Miami Dolphins' 29-10 loss at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

What it means: The Dolphins (1-1) continue their struggles against the Bills (2-0), who have been Miami’s biggest nemesis of late. The Dolphins fell to 1-4 against the Bills in their past five meetings. Buffalo swept Miami last season and is halfway toward doing so again in 2014. The Bills won this game Sunday the same way it won most of the others. Their defensive line pounded Miami's offensive line and at times rattled quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who was sacked four times.

Stock Watch: There are several candidates trending down for Miami after this game, but the two biggest culprits are the Dolphins’ offensive line and special teams. Miami's O-line boasts five new starters this year, but it was the same result trying to run and protect the quarterback against the Bills' defensive line. Miami's defense held the Bills to field goals in the first half, but Buffalo running back C.J. Spiller scored the first touchdown of the game with a 102-yard kickoff return in the third quarter to help seal the win. Even Miami Pro Bowl punter Brandon Fields had a tough day. He had one punt blocked and shanked two punts that helped the Bills with field position.

Oh no, Moreno: The Dolphins lost running back Knowshon Moreno in the first quarter with an elbow injury and he didn't return. Moreno fell awkwardly after his first carry, and his left arm bent the wrong way. The injury wasn't pretty, and it makes you wonder if Moreno could miss multiple games going forward. Moreno proved to be the engine of Miami’s offense early this season. He rushed for 134 yards in a Week 1 win over the New England Patriots. The Dolphins' running game isn’t the same without him in the lineup.

Game ball: Miami's game ball goes to linebacker Jelani Jenkins. The second-year backup got the start in place of the injured Dannell Ellerbe, who went on injured reserve this week. Jenkins was active and had the best game of his career. He finished with a career-high 14 tackles against the Bills.

What’s next: The Dolphins will return home to face the Kansas City Chiefs in another important AFC game. Kansas City made the playoffs last year as a wild-card team.
CINCINNATI -- It started as just another run-of-the-mill catch.

Late in the first quarter of last week's game at Baltimore, Tyler Eifert, the Cincinnati Bengals' second-year tight end was adding a third reception to his season total when he turned toward the end zone, trying to elude defenders.

When he did, he awkwardly contorted his body as he slipped in and out of Ravens tackle attempts. As he stretched for more yards, Eifert subconsciously extended his right arm to brace his fall. That's when he heard the pop.

[+] EnlargeTyler Eifert
AP Photo/Nick WassTyler Eifert's dislocated elbow suffered in the opener against the Ravens will force him out of action until at least Week 10.
Immediately he clutched his elbow in agony, screaming as teammates furiously waved members of the training staff onto the field.

"I could feel that it wasn't right," Eifert said.

Cameras caught exactly what trainers saw when they reached the injured player. He had dislocated his elbow and needed it set back in place. Once it was, Eifert's pain calmed considerably, giving him a measure of relief.

As he made his first comments since last Sunday's injury on Friday, Eifert told reporters that to his knowledge he didn't suffer any other structural damage around his elbow, and that he and doctors continue to believe that he'll be fully healed by Nov. 6, when the Bengals host the Browns in a Thursday night showdown.

"That's what they say. I'm not a doctor," Eifert said. "I know it hurts right now, but I'm sure it'll get better and I'll be ready to go."

Like it has been since the injury happened, Eifert's arm was wrapped in a bandage and placed in a sling Friday. He said the arm has mostly been immobilized this week, and added that he has tried to extend it at times as he begins his rehab.

Placed Wednesday on short-term injured reserve, Eifert won't be allowed to practice until six weeks after the injury -- in other words, Week 7. Per rules of the IR with a designation to return, he also isn't allowed to play until Week 10.

Eifert said the injury occurred when he was trying to brace himself on the turf as he stretched for more yards on his 14-yard reception. He was told that had he landed with his arm straighter, he would have probably come out of the play injury-free. Instead, he landed with his arm open at a particular angle. It appears that's what caused the dislocation.

Cincinnati was expected to make Eifert a bigger part of its offense this season. His three catches for 37 yards through barely a quarter of play last week was a strong indication of that.

"With some of those plays, just the design of them puts the defense in a bind," Eifert said of how open he was getting. "You know how to cover it. It's just defense dictates where the ball's going. I happened to get the ball early. So it was good."

This injury also comes after Eifert battled shoulder issues all offseason and training camp. They became so bad in the preseason that he missed numerous practices and didn't play in the final three preseason games.

"Every time I feel like I'm getting back into it, something happens," Eifert said. "It is what it is. It happened. It's hard to make the most of an injury, but it's the situation I'm in right now. So just be positive and keep going."
Procedural tweaks and a personnel overhaul bring us a fresh level of NFL officiating uncertainty in 2014. Three new referees and a total of 13 first-year officials made their regular-season debuts in Week 1, yet another reason why it makes sense to track their calls and search for trends using the vast trove of data available from ESPN Stats & Information.

We'll get to the volume of penalty calls in a moment; they were only slightly higher than Week 1 of 2013. For now, however, I thought we would examine how each referee crew called the two most notable points of emphasis penalties last weekend. Numbers from any one week could be anomalies, but over time, we can start to get a feel for how a crew might call its upcoming game.

The NFL doesn't announce crew assignments ahead of time, but Football Zebras does a reliable job of pulling together all of the information by week's end if you want to match up these figures with the assigned referee for your favorite team's game.

The chart breaks down by crew the 38 penalties, accepted or declined, for defensive holding and illegal contact. For context, recall that those penalties were called an average of 1.1 times combined per game last season. In Week 1 of 2014, it worked out to 2.4 times per game -- a notable jump but not nearly the rate of about 4.7 we saw during the first three weeks of the preseason.

Penalty rates are dependent on more than simply the whim of the referee. A team's playing style is among other critical components. If nothing else, however, we can see that the crews of Tony Corrente and Jeff Triplette were far more active than those of Brad Allen, Clete Blakeman, Bill Leavy and Pete Morelli. You better believe that most NFL teams are aware of those numbers and have taken them into account while preparing for Week 2.

The uptick in defensive holding and illegal contact accounted for a minor rise in overall penalties in Week 1 (268) compared to the first week of last season (250). As always, of course, there was significant discrepancy among the crews -- figures that will start to take on more meaning as we add multiple games to their ledgers.

The crews of Ed Hochuli (25 penalties), Carlton Cheffers (24) and Ronald Torbert (22) were most active in Week 1. (Hochuli's two-game total is 39 after Thursday night's game in Baltimore.) Blakeman (12), John Parry (12), Morelli (11) and Gene Steratore (8) called the fewest.

My plan for this season is to post this analysis every Friday morning. Stay tuned.

CINCINNATI -- The war of words between the Cincinnati Bengals and Atlanta Falcons has already started, and it doesn't look like it's going to end anytime soon.

So don't be surprised if Sunday afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium if the two teams play with an edge that's uncommon for an early season, cross-conference matchup like this one.

[+] EnlargeAdam Jones
Patrick Semansky/Associated PressAdam Jones has been engaging in a war of words with Atlanta's Devin Hester this week.
Brace yourselves, ladies and gentlemen, for a chippy game.

For the past two days, boastful barbs have been lobbed back and forth between the locker rooms as players on both teams have used the media to state their case at positional supremacy. Primarily, it's been two of the four men in Atlanta's talented receiving corps who felt compelled to respond to one of the players who will be charged with stopping them. Bengals cornerback and punt returner Adam Jones levied the first blow in this verbal battle on Wednesday.

"He's a good returner," said Jones about Atlanta's receiver/return specialist Devin Hester, "but he's not better than me. He played more games than me, way more games than me. I don't feel like there's anybody better than me when I'm right there. I've said that a long time before now."

Hester has an NFL-record 18 combined kick-return scores in 124 career games, including an NFL-record 13 punt-return touchdowns. Jones has five career punt-return scores in 85 career games. Last week, Hester had a kick return for 21 yards and gained a yard on a punt return. Jones had one punt return for 45 yards.

In the career sense, Hester was right. So how did he respond?

"Every return man is going to try and compare himself to me," Hester told ESPN's Vaughn McClure in Atlanta on Thursday. "That's just the way it is. If you look at the stats, I'm on the top of the list. So everybody, when it's time to play me, is going to try and want to be the next Devin Hester."

Added Falcons receiver Roddy White: "Oh my God. You're talking about a Hall of Famer and then [Jones]. I don't even know how many Pacman's got. It's like apples to oranges, man. Devin, everybody knows what he can do in the return game."

Even if they tried to laugh them off, the two Falcons clearly weren't happy with Jones' remarks.

Atlanta's cornerbacks might not like what Bengals receiver A.J. Green said Thursday while noting the considerable height difference between he and the cornerbacks who will go up against him. Green said, "those guys are chippy, man. Chippy little guys, like little gnats."

At 6-foot-4, Green is athletic with tremendous leaping ability. His likely matchups, Robert Alford and Robert McClain, are 5-10 and 5-9, respectively. The best way to beat them, Green said? To be physical.

It's much the same kind of physicality he said was necessary to handle Falcons safety William Moore, a "big, physical linebacker [type of] safety." Green said that when Moore is on the field a receiver or tight end must always be aware of where he is.

See? There's respect here despite all the mid-week trash talk. Players on both teams train together in the offseason, and their coaches have crossed paths several times before. Green also makes Atlanta his home in the offseason, and has been revered in the area since starring at Georgia. An East Point, Georgia, native, Jones also has strong ties to the area.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said it best when describing the relationships on both teams.

"I've got a lot of friendships with a lot of people, but this week we're competing," Lewis said. "We can go back to being friends next week again."

The players might be friendly at the end of Sunday's game, but this early war of words gives them reasons to be anything but during it.

Miami Dolphins' injury report

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
DAVIE, Fla. -- The Miami Dolphins completed their week of practice Thursday before traveling to play the Buffalo Bills.

Here is the latest injury report for the Dolphins:

Out: C Mike Pouncey (hip), DL Terrence Fede (knee), LB Jordan Tripp (chest)

Did not practice: LB Koa Misi (ankle), G Billy Turner (foot)

Limited practice: RB Knowshon Moreno (shoulder), LB Chris McCain (illness), TE Charles Clay (knee), S Walt Aikens (hand), DE Derrick Shelby (knee), TE Dion Sims (neck), DT Randy Starks (toe), WR Mike Wallace (hamstring), LB Philip Wheeler (thumb)

Analysis: The Dolphins’ injury picture is clearing up for Sunday. It appears Misi is unlikely to start at middle linebacker. He missed all three practices this week after injuring his ankle in Week 1 against the New England Patriots. Misi also is in a boot. However, Starks made progress Thursday with a limited practice. He didn’t practice on Wednesday with a toe injury. McCain also returned for the first time this week from his illness and says he will be ready to go on Sunday. The Dolphins will need the depth McCain brings at linebacker and on special teams.
CINCINNATI -- You're probably going to hear, read and see a lot the next few days comparing A.J. Green and Julio Jones.

The irony is, you've probably already heard, read and seen much of what will surface.

 The two Pro Bowl receivers have been linked since they were in high school, when they were All-America standouts in their respective native states South Carolina and Alabama. In college, a sort of rivalry formed when they competed in the SEC. Green played at Georgia. Jones was at Alabama.

When the 2011 draft rolled around, the question wasn't if either would be top-10 draft picks. It was who was going to go first.

At No. 4, the Cincinnati Bengals were the first team on the draft board that year with a dire need for a receiver. The Atlanta Falcons, at No. 27, had enough of a need for another pass-catcher that they ended up jumping all the way to No. 6 when they pulled off a draft-night trade with the Browns.

Green was chosen by Cincinnati. Jones was the Falcons' choice with the sixth pick. The rest, as they say, is history.

One look at both their careers, and it's clear the moves worked out well for both teams. Upon examination of last season, it's clear Jones gave his team slightly better overall production than Green. This Thursday factoid delves into this number: 116.0.

That's the number of yards per game since last season that Jones has averaged. That figure is only outpaced by Josh Gordon, who averaged 117.6 yards per game for the Browns in 2013. Unlike Jones, Gordon hasn't played yet this season as he awaits a possible reversal of his yearlong suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

Green isn't trailing Jones by much in the average yards per game since last season's statistic. The Bengals' star receiver has averaged 91.6 yards per game in that span. That includes his six-catch, 131-yard performance in Sunday's 23-16 win over the Ravens. Only Gordon, Jones, Calvin Johnson and Antonio Brown have higher per-game-averages in that time.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis didn't need to see those numbers nor those rankings to know how good both Green and Jones were.

"They were in the top four players we felt that year," Lewis said, referring to the draft. "We knew we were going to get a good player when we stayed at No. 4 and picked."

A case could be made that Green has had the more overall impact in his career. Injuries have been an issue at times for Jones, and they're the reason he's only appeared in 35 games as compared to Green's 48. Green has only missed one Bengals game in his career. He's trying to avoid making it two this week as he tries to recover from a foot injury that has slowed him so far this week. He was limited Wednesday because of it, and didn't practice at all Thursday.

How much more productive has Green been over Jones?

Green has caught 266 passes compared to Jones' 181. Green has 3,964 yards receiving, compared to Jones' 2,853. Green's 30 touchdowns overshadow Jones' 20. It would be interesting to see how much closer that gap would be if both had the same number of games played.

It also will be interesting to see how their stats compare Sunday when they square off in their first regular-season meeting.

Ryan Tannehill preps for nemesis Bills

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
DAVIE, Fla. -- Miami Dolphins third-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill owns career wins over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts and even Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks.

But, surprisingly, the one team Tannehill has struggled most against throughout his NFL career is the Buffalo Bills. Tannehill is 1-3 against Buffalo, completing just 48 percent of his passes in those four games and averaging only 136.7 yards per contest.

Tannehill’s most recent outing against Buffalo was arguably his worst game. He was 10-of-27 passing for 82 yards in a 19-0 loss to the Bills in Week 16.

Tannehill will get to meet his personal nemesis when the Dolphins (1-0) travel to face the Bills (1-0) on Sunday. Tannehill knows he wasn’t his best in Week 1 against the Patriots but still put together a winning performance. He completed 18-of-32 passes for 178 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

“We left a lot of plays out there. I left a lot of plays out there, personally,” Tannehill admitted. “Location of throws, missing throws, [I] had a couple of dropped passes. Details like that where we left a lot of yards and a lot of touchdowns out on the field. ... But you can’t leave that many plays on the field consistently and expect to win week-in and week-out. Definitely, we want to clean those details up this week.”

Tannehill will have to play better this week. Buffalo has found a way to batter Tannehill and force Miami's offense to be one-dimensional in the past. That was especially the case during last season's season sweep when the Bills' defense registered nine quarterback sacks on Tannehill in two games.

Those two contests helped convince Miami to do a major makeover of its offensive line via free agency and the draft. The Dolphins signed veteran left tackle Branden Albert to a $47 million contract, drafted rookie right tackle Ja’Wuan James in the first round and added center Samson Satele and veteran guards Daryn Colledge and Shelley Smith in free agency.

Miami had five new starting offensive linemen in Week 1, and the unit thrived against New England. The Dolphins had impressive balance with 191 rushing yards and 169 passing yards, which caught the attention of Bills head coach Doug Marrone.

“As far as just a unit, in general, they’re working extremely well together and I think that’s the most impressive thing,” Marrone said in a conference call with the Miami media. “They’re knocking people off the ball.”

Both teams enter this game with momentum. That sets up this interesting matchup of surprise undefeated teams where the winner will be 2-0 and in first place in the AFC East.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, 63 percent of teams that start 2-0 since 1990 have gone on to make the playoffs. Whoever wins Sunday will be well-positioned to end a lengthy postseason drought. The Dolphins haven’t made the playoffs since 2008, and the Bills have the NFL’s longest playoff drought dating back to the 1999 season.

“Very important just because we need to get this lead. We don’t need to be playing catch up,” Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace said. “We’ve been there before. We need to see how it feels to play as the division leaders the whole time. We can do that. We have the team to do it. We just have to continue to put in the work every single week, every single day."
Aerial view of CenturyLink FieldKirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCreating the kind of home-field advantage the Seahawks enjoy is not as easy as replicating the design of CenturyLink Field.
As he set about designing a new stadium for the Seattle Seahawks, architect Paul Griesemer juggled a series of requests and realities. Seahawks owner Paul Allen wanted an homage to nearby Husky Stadium, where fans are close to the field. A relatively tiny footprint mandated steep inclines to squeeze in 67,000 seats. Seattle's rainy weather prompted a metal covering that protected 70 percent of the seating bowl.

The result is a structure that provides the loudest and most effective home-field advantage in U.S. sports today. And to me, it yields an obvious question: Why aren't designers elsewhere emulating the conditions at CenturyLink Field -- accidental as they might have been, in some cases -- to give their teams a similar advantage? The question is especially significant, of course, as the Seahawks' NFC West rivals prepare Levi's Stadium for its regular-season debut Sunday night.

The answer is not as simple as the question. I've spoken recently with three designers, including Griesemer as well as architects for the San Francisco 49ers' and Minnesota Vikings' new stadiums, and found that psychology is as important as architecture in creating an in-house environment.

"What we usually find is that, above all else, people want a unique experience," said Bryan Trubey, whose HKS firm designed the Vikings' stadium, scheduled to open in 2016. "That's what we really focus on, to make a place that is so unique relative to the team that it's special. When you have a building that's absolutely and totally unique in every way, the response will be unique and there will be a connection made between the fan and what's going on in front of them. The quality of the environment -- which every community sees a little differently -- is a big key to [home-field advantage]."

In Seattle, science tells us that having a metal roof amplifies and redirects crowd noise back to the field. Positioning fans close to the field also raises noise levels. The stadium famously posted a Guinness World Record at 137.6 decibels last season, and crowd reaction has caused at least two recorded earthquakes.

In the big picture, the Seahawks have a .698 winning percentage at home and .392 on the road since the stadium opened in 2002. More recently, they've won 18 of their past 19 at CenturyLink, with an average margin of victory of 16.1 points. Griesemer, however, was emphatic in dispersing credit for those numbers.

"I don't know that we necessarily went into it thinking we would cause a record of false starts and all that," said Griesemer, of the firm AECOM. "What the fans there have made it into is as much or more as what we made it. The fact is they created this identity of the 12th man, and taken the framework of the stadium to create something special. That's one of those pleasant surprises that you like to be part of.

"If someone were to say, 'I'm going to replicate Seattle and replicate the same great game environment,' well, one plus one doesn't really equal two. You add up one plus the 12th man, and you get something more than 13.

"A lot of it comes down to how connected people can be to team and game environment. There is a lot of pride in Seattle that they can be influencers of the game. When you get that level of connection, it takes on a level of its own."

So how did the designers of the 49ers and Vikings' stadiums endeavor to create the same connection? Let's take a closer look.

Levi's Stadium

In deference to their location near Silicon Valley, the 49ers set out to build the most connected new stadium in the NFL. A custom smartphone app will allow fans to check traffic, order food, update statistics and view replays. There are also nine separate clubs to service the 49ers' high-income clientele.

[+] EnlargeLevi's Stadium
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsLevi's Stadium's open concourses will give fans a full view of the field as they walk to bathrooms, concessions and other areas.
What, then, will keep fans focused on and engaged with the game? Lanson Nichols, senior project manager at HNTB, pointed to a series of features. The 49ers will have more seats in the lower bowl -- about 45,000 -- than any other NFL stadium. Fans in the first row will be as close as 17 feet from the back of the sideline.

Most notable, however, are the open concourses that give fans a full view of the field as they walk to bathrooms, concessions and most other destinations. During preseason games, fans gathered along the rails of the lower concourse facing the field to create impromptu standing room areas.

"People really lined the edges of the concourse, the rails, standing and watching the games," Nichols said. "It brought a lot of people closer to the field. Two- and three- people deep all the way around the edges of the concourse. I think it will make a big difference in terms of people's engagement.

"You talk about noise, but you also have to talk in a larger sense about the presence of the fan. It's about giving them the ability to engage and observe and participate in what's going on on the field."

And in Minneapolis …

The Vikings' as-yet-unnamed stadium will benefit from the advantages of a fixed roof, much as the notoriously raucous Metrodome did from 1982 through 2013. About 60 percent of it will be built with a clear synthetic polymer commonly known as ETFE, and the rest will be metal.

ETFE hasn't been used much in American stadiums, but Trubey said "it's a more acoustically reflective material" than the Metrodome's fabric roof. "It should make the stadium louder" as a result, he added.

Meanwhile, Trubey's efforts to engage fans by positioning them close to the field took a unique turn. The first row of seats will be elevated an average of seven feet off field level, about twice the industry standard.

"A lot of these buildings, the first three or five rows are too low and people there can't see too well," Trubey said. "To us, that makes a critical difference in terms of how people are connected. When the first five rows don't feel connected, that really has a powerful effect on the excitement of fans all the way up. On the other hand, if the fans closest to the field are engaged, it will have a domino effect."

It would be fruitless, all three designers agreed, to copy the CenturyLink blueprints and expect an identical result. In this case, architects are like coaches. Their job is to put fans in position to impact the game. The rest is up to them.

Falcons vs. Bengals preview

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11

Paul Brown Stadium, or "The Jungle" as it's been nicknamed in Cincinnati, has been a place of horrors for opposing offenses in recent seasons.

Since December 2012, when the Cincinnati Bengals started a nine-game regular-season home winning streak, only once has an opposing offense scored 30 or more points. One, the New England Patriots' offense, couldn't even score a touchdown.

So far this very young season, scoring appears to be exactly what the Atlanta Falcons do best. At home against New Orleans last week they scored 37 points in an overtime thriller that was decided when Matt Bryant drove in a game-winning 52-yard field goal. Quarterback Matt Ryan emerged as one of the top offensive players in the NFL's first week, passing for 448 yards and three touchdowns.

When the Bengals and Falcons meet Sunday in Cincinnati, something will have to give. Will the Bengals finally relent and get outscored at home for the first time in a regular-season game in three seasons? Or will the Falcons' offense fail to take off after last week's explosion?'s Vaughn McClure (Atlanta Falcons reporter) and Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) are here to help you preview the matchup:

Harvey: Let's start with you, Vaughn. Ryan’s right arm was the story for the Falcons against New Orleans last weekend. What kind of message do you think his performance sent the league?

McClure: I think the message here is that Ryan is definitely among the league’s elite quarterbacks, when he has time to throw. Last year, he was the most pressured quarterback in the league and didn’t have time to step up in the pocket and go deep. Against the Saints, I think we saw how beneficial it was for Ryan to have a big, strong right guard protecting him in offseason acquisition Jon Asamoah. Ryan didn’t have pressure in his face like he did last year when the Saints came to the Georgia Dome. And Ryan showed off some surprising mobility, that he says he’s always had inside of him, to extend plays. A large part of that was him, but he also had noticeable space to work with due to better protection. Ryan was sacked just once against the Saints. If he continues to stay upright, and his primary weapons in Julio Jones, Roddy White, Devin Hester and Harry Douglas stay healthy, he should put up astronomical numbers this year.

Speaking of quarterbacks, I've had my doubts about Andy Dalton, and then he gets rewarded with a contract extension. What makes you believe he was a worthwhile investment and where does he need to improve the most this season?

Harvey: Two words: Hue Jackson. Not long after the Bengals promoted Jackson to offensive coordinator, and not long after he began telling reporters here what his offensive approach would be, I became sold on the fact it would be wise for the Bengals to invest in Dalton before this season. Why? Because I believe Jackson's scheme and tough-as-nails coaching is going to put Dalton in more favorable positions than he's been in at any point of his career. I'm serious when I say this. We'll see if Jackson's in Cincinnati this time next year. This offense has the potential to be that good. Already we've seen Dalton play relatively clean football. He didn't have a turnover in the preseason against the Chiefs', Jets' and Cardinals' first-team defenses, and he didn't have one against the Ravens last Sunday. He's starting to showcase some of his old college mobility with the read option, and he's giving defenses looks he hadn't previously shown. He also came into the season passing better, following instructions from quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese and off-team throwing instructor Tom House. Dalton still has to show his decision-making has improved, and he needs to clean up his read-option play. Otherwise, he's in line for a big year.

Atlanta’s offense has gotten most of the headlines the past couple of seasons. Having a combination like Ryan, Jones, White and Tony Gonzalez will do that. What does the Falcons’ defense have to do in this game to prove that last week's 34 points allowed was an aberration, and that it can have an impact, too?

McClure: The Falcons won’t boast a top-10 defense this season, probably not even a top-15 defense. But they don’t have to if the offense continues to put points on the board. What the defense needs to do is come up with timely turnovers, as it did with William Moore's forced fumble in overtime of the opener, which set up Bryant’s game-winning field goal. The defense needs to be much better on third down, and a big part of that will be avoiding penalties in third-down situations. The Falcons also have to surrender fewer explosive plays, which really was a regular occurrence last year. There’s a tremendous concern about the lack of pressure up front, particularly after no sacks were recorded against the Saints. But they were up against Drew Brees, arguably the best in the business with his footwork and getting the ball out quickly. If the Falcons can just generate adequate pressure despite not having an elite pass-rusher, life will be much easier.

I know a couple of key players on defense exited the last game early. Is Geno Atkins ready to go and is Vontaze Burfict going to be cleared off a concussion? How will it change the dynamic of the defense if Burfict's not ready?

Harvey: As I'm typing this, there appears to be a greater deal of uncertainty over Atkins than we originally thought. After reporters saw Atkins get carted into the locker room after Sunday’s game, head coach Marvin Lewis said he believed the defensive tackle was just dehydrated. Lo and behold, Atkins didn’t practice Wednesday and was listed as having a “feet” injury. It’s possible Devon Still’s activation this week had something to do with Atkins possibly being unable to go this week. As for Burfict, it depends in part on whether he's able to practice Friday. But even then, that's not necessarily the best barometer of showing whether he'll play Sunday. Offensive tackle Andre Smith took two weeks at the end of the preseason to pass the concussion protocol and be allowed to practice. He didn't play in a single preseason game, though, per doctor's orders. If Burfict isn't able to play, you'll see a lot of Vincent Rey. The backup can play any linebacker position and became a fan favorite last year after performing well in relief of middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. Without Burfict, the Bengals may have to adjust their pass rush and send pressure from other areas of the secondary. Last week, safety Reggie Nelson blitzed a lot after Burfict's departure.

Steven Jackson had a decent showing last week with his 12 carries for 52 yards. How confident are people around the team in him after last year’s injury struggles and comparative lack of production?

McClure: Some folks are going to lobby for other players such as Jacquizz Rodgers, Antone Smith and rookie Devonta Freeman to take carries away from Jackson. Of course, Jackson is the aging veteran at 31. But what people sometimes underestimate is the value he brings as a punishing tone-setter at the start of games. And if playing a four-back committee works as well as it did in the opener, Jackson will simply be fresher to pick up the tough yards in goal-line and short-yardage situations. He doesn’t need to gain 100 yards per game. That’s the old Jackson. But picking up a handful of first downs, breaking off a long run here and there and helping the Falcons achieve their 75 percent conversion target in short-yardage situations means Jackson’s doing his job. He just needs to stay healthy and hope hamstring issues don’t resurface.

I fully expect the Falcons to give added defensive attention to A.J. Green. If that occurs, which player do you expect to take advantage the most in one-on-one situations?

Harvey: I probably would have said tight end Tyler Eifert. But with Eifert now out with an elbow injury, I'm going to go with a combination of Mohamed Sanu and running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill. Sanu is the Bengals' No. 2 receiver right now with Marvin Jones still out with a foot injury, and he has been impressive since training camp. He's a player who can take advantage of mismatches, and one who can be used in a variety of ways. Not only will he catch passes but he'll run the ball some, too. He might even pass the ball if the situation presents itself. He has a pretty spiral when he throws. Along with Sanu, Bernard and Hill could be key in the screen and short-yardage passing game. Last week Bernard had the most targets of any Bengals pass-catcher with 10.




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