NFL Nation: Andrew Whitworth

TAMPA, Fla. – At a news conference to introduce the Buccaneers' two newest players, Anthony Collins was seated to Josh McCown's left.

Collins
That was more than appropriate because that’s where Collins will be spending much of his time. Continuing with their full-fledged overhaul, the Bucs signed Collins to a five-year, $30 million contract Thursday. They promptly released veteran Donald Penn, who previously played left tackle. That’s where Collins is going to line up as McCown’s most important protector.

“He is a natural left tackle,’’ general manager Jason Licht said.

But Collins hasn’t followed a natural path to get to where he is. With the Cincinnati Bengals since 2008, Collins has only 25 career starts and he’s bounced between both tackle positions and guard.

“I’m ready,’’ Collins said. “I’ve been waiting for six years.’’

Collins caught the attention of the Bucs with what he did last season. An injury to Andrew Whitworth opened the way for Collins to get seven starts.

“Watching all the tackles this year, he’s the one that jumped out the most to me,’’ Licht said. “It was such a surprise to see a guy thrown into the starting lineup and to actually see their team perform better. That’s not a knock on any player. He has great feet. He has great athleticism and he plays very hard. I don’t want to say he came out of nowhere because everybody’s been aware of Anthony for a long time. But when he got his opportunity, he performed exceptionally. We felt very lucky to get him and I don’t think he’s hit his prime yet.’’

There’s no question the Bucs are doing some projecting with this move. But I think it’s a step in the right direction as they rebuild their offensive line. Penn was getting older and he didn’t have a good season last year. Collins has plenty of upside and he said he is more than ready to protect McCown’s blind side.

“Patience is a virtue,’’ Collins said. “Now is my time.’’
Andrew Whitworth; Terrell SuggsRob Carr/Getty ImagesWith Anthony Collins gone, Andrew Whitworth will remain the Bengals' starting left tackle.
CINCINNATI -- At long last, resolution has come to the Anthony Collins free agency saga, effectively ending the Cincinnati Bengals' pursuit of their top two unrestricted free agents.

Collins has signed a five-year deal, worth $30 million with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers according to a report by ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

Three months ago, I would have found it troubling that just three days into free agency the Bengals wouldn't be able to re-sign either Michael Johnson, one of their best defensive linemen, or Collins, their third-best offensive tackle who actually had the talent to start. I would have been particularly bugged that Collins wouldn't be brought back because he was the cheaper of the two and earned the right to keep contributing to the Bengals' offense.

But my, oh my. How enlightened one can become in a matter of three months. I can now confidently say that his departure from Cincinnati ought to be viewed as a good thing. With him out of the picture, stability will come to the Bengals' offensive line.

It's strange to make that admission, especially when you consider how valuable Collins was for the Bengals off the bench during the final quarter of the 2013 season, and when you read he hasn't allowed a sack since 2009, according to Pro Football Focus. Remember, just last year alone he kept the likes of Julius Peppers, Elvis Dumervil and Robert Mathis off quarterback Andy Dalton.

After Andre Smith restructured his contract last offseason, the Bengals were forced into this awkward dance when it came to playing -- and eventually paying -- Collins. With Smith as their starter at right tackle and Pro Bowl standout Andrew Whitworth as their starting left tackle, the Bengals simply didn't have the room to give Collins his share of snaps. He entered 2013 relegated to the same bench role he had since he was drafted in 2008.

But unlike the rookie version of himself, Collins had matured. He was with former Bengals receiver Jerome Simpson the day in Sept. 2011 when more than six pounds of marijuana was seized from Simpson's home. It was the only run-in Collins was associated with during his career in Cincinnati, and one he repeatedly said he learned from.

His on-field development began blossoming as well as he steadily improved his blocking techniques. When he filled in for Whitworth during the season opener and maintained a sturdy left edge against Peppers and the Bears, it became clear that the Bengals were going to have a real issue on their hands this offseason. Collins had the talent to be in the starting lineup, but he just couldn't fit.

Cincinnati's goal during this free agency period was to figure out ways to get him more playing time and to justify paying him like the starter other teams thought he was. After signing Johnson on Tuesday to a deal that will give him an average $8.75 million per year, Tampa Bay signed Collins to one that will pay him $6 million per year.

With Smith and Whitworth still committed to the franchise for at least another two years, the Bengals couldn't justify paying him a salary comparable to their other tackles. Unless they were going to move Whitworth to left guard and bump Clint Boling out of the starting lineup, that is.

Such a proposal was on the table after the way the Bengals' offense performed the last five games of the regular season. Due to Boling's season-ending ACL tear that came early in Cincinnati's Week 13 win at San Diego, Whitworth was forced to move to left guard, bringing Collins in to take his place at left tackle. In the five-game stretch that followed, the Bengals scored 40 or more points twice, and posted their second-highest rushing total of the season in 17-10 win over the Chargers.

With new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's push this offseason about wanting to be even more physical, it made sense that Cincinnati would want to keep doing some of what made its rushing game and overall offense so successful.

Whitworth has contended since January that he considers himself a left tackle and wasn't moving to guard unless coaches felt that was the right course of action. It seems clear that Whitworth will now remain at the position that got him named to the Pro Bowl in 2012. Versatile tackles and guards still could be drafted in May to add depth, but for now the Bengals' offensive line plans are clearer.

Collins' loss is not one the Bengals will take lightly, but it is one that should be welcomed. Instead of spending the rest of the offseason answering questions about where Whitworth will play, or how Collins might fit into their scheme, or how they can justify paying Collins a salary comparable to Smith and Whitworth, team officials can focus on one thing: stability.

Combine countdown rewind: Bengals OL

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
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Last week, in the days leading up to the start of on-field workouts at the NFL combine, we counted down five of the top position needs for a Cincinnati Bengals team that will go into May's draft looking to build depth instead of trying to find immediate starters.

As part of the countdown, I listed three players from each position who I said I would have my eyes on during the interview and testing portions of the event. Now that the combine is concluding, wrapping up Tuesday with defensive back workouts, I figured this would be a good time to go back and look at the numbers posted by the players who were part of the countdown. Each day this week, we'll be doing a rewind of the countdown, analyzing how well the players who were in it worked out.

After running backs Monday, up next: Offensive line

Questions still loom with respect to the Bengals' plans about their rotations at left guard and left tackle. They likely won't be answered until free agency begins in two weeks, and some resolution begins to occur regarding tackle Anthony Collins' ability to either re-sign or ink a contract elsewhere. Guard Mike Pollak also is an unrestricted free agent and might not be in Cincinnati next season, although the odds are more favorable for him to stay. Until any type of resolution is made with respect to these two rather important free agents, there will continue to be some uncertainty about what the Bengals might do as far as drafting an offensive lineman or multiple linemen.

The age of some of the Bengals' current linemen also gives the organization reason to want to add to their depth on the line. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's push for a more physical, run-based scheme this fall certainly would warrant more depth on the line to account for any injuries that might occur. At this point, though, who the Bengals draft on the offensive line depends solely on the types of players who are around when they make their selections. Body size, ability and a previous understanding of Bengals line techniques are factors that could influence draft decisions here. Versatility has always been key for Cincinnati offensive line coach Paul Alexander, too. He'll be looking for players who can fill multiple roles and play multiple positions in times of need.

Two of the three linemen I looked at last week, Clemson's Brandon Thomas and Alabama's Anthony Steen, are those types of versatile players. Thomas played tackle in college, but may be making the move to guard in the NFL. His shorter arms (34 3/4 inches) project better for playing guard than tackle at the next level. His experience at both positions, though, could make him attractive to teams in the middle rounds of the draft. Steen was a guard throughout his time with the Crimson Tide, but he has been told that teams are interested in moving him to center at the next level. While the Bengals seem comfortable with Kyle Cook's ability as their starting center, they also have Trevor Robinson and T.J. Johnson who are listed as backup centers. Pollak could play the position in a pinch, too. Either way, Steen's desire to play either center or guard could make him attractive.

The other lineman, Morgan Moses (Virginia), is a bigger bodied tackle who projects into the first two rounds. He might be gone before the Bengals are ready for him, but he could be a solid enough addition for an offense trying to run more efficiently.

Here are numbers (per NFL.com) from the trio's workout Saturday:

Morgan Moses (Virginia)
40-yard dash: 5.35 seconds
Vertical: 21.5 inches
Broad jump: 106 inches
3-cone drill: 7.93 seconds

-- Moses was included on the pre-combine list mainly because I just liked him. He has good size, good arms and really made a name for himself at the Senior Bowl. He looked rather clean in run- and pass-block situations during that game. If the Bengals decided to go offensive lineman with their late first-round pick, he'd likely be there. Overall, he didn't test well Saturday. His 40 time wasn't one of the best among offensive linemen, his vertical was tied for the worst and his broad jump and cone drill numbers didn't wow, either.

Brandon Thomas (Clemson)
40-yard dash: 5.09 seconds
Bench: 35 reps (at 225 pounds)
Vertical: 29 inches
Broad jump: 98 inches
3-cone drill: 8.13 seconds

-- Compared to Moses, Thomas had a better day of on-field testing, turning in the 10th-fastest 40-yard time among linemen, having the sixth-most bench reps and a vertical that tied with others for the fifth highest. The mid-round projection may have boosted his draft stock slightly with those numbers. His greatest asset moving forward, though, will be his versatility.

Anthony Steen (Alabama)
40-yard dash: N/A
Bench: N/A
Vertical: N/A
Broad jump: N/A
3-cone drill: N/A

-- A shoulder injury that was finally operated on late in Alabama's season forced Steen to sit out the physical portion of the combine. He participated in interviews and met with teams, but didn't bench or run. He expects to be healthy enough for Alabama's pro day in April. Another mid-round projection, his versatility will be his biggest asset this spring.
INDIANAPOLIS -- At the mere mention of a question about run blocking, Dakota Dozier's eyes grew wide, and his speech quickened.

"I get chill bumps thinking about doing it," the NFL hopeful and offensive lineman said.

He wasn't the only one. John Urschel, another fresh-out-of-college prospect hoping to land with a professional franchise, also felt a swell of personal pride and positive emotion at the NFL combine Thursday when he was asked about how an aggressive offense differs from a passive one for an offensive lineman.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Whitworth
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliStar offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth said he wants to see the Bengals run the ball in a "violent" manner in 2014.
"I'm an aggressive guy. I like getting after it," Urschel, a Penn State product, said, smiling. "I like getting after defensive linemen. That's why I play the game. I love hitting people."

So does Hue Jackson, the Cincinnati Bengals' new offensive coordinator who vowed the day after he was promoted to implement a more physical, punch-first type of offense that will respect the run and the finer details that can make a solid running game a true difference-maker.

Details like attitude, that one hard-to-fully-define trait that some believe can separate good offenses from great ones, and teams that simply appear in the playoffs from ones that reach the Super Bowl. If the Bengals want to be the latter in both cases, they will need serious attitude on offense this season.

A good offensive line can be the perfect starting point for creating just the type of attitude adjustment the Bengals are seeking.

"A lot of times with respect to more physical offenses, we blow it up into running versus passing and all this kind of stuff," Bengals Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth said to ESPN.com earlier this offseason. "But the real truth is that it's more about an attitude and a confidence and about imposing your will on another team. That could be done in the air or on the ground. That's more of what [Jackson] is talking about. He knows that to be able to do that, you're going to have to run the ball successfully."

Which is why it seemed logical to ask a few of the draft hopefuls here to share their thoughts about blocking in the running game.

"We want to get down and nasty with people and show people we can move them out of the way," said Dozier, a prospect from Furman. "We don't get a whole lot of glory as an offensive lineman, so when that running back rushes for over 100 yards, that's when we feel good."

All of this run and attitude talk is important with respect to the Bengals for several reasons. For starters, they do have a back in Giovani Bernard who has the ability to rush for more than 100 yards several times in a given season. In fact, when he and BenJarvus Green-Ellis are playing well, they could consistently top 150 yards combined. Another reason stems from free agency, where tackle Anthony Collins' possible departure could leave the Bengals looking for a new lineman who can bring the type of attitude that will match what Jackson wants. Players like Urschel, a guard, and Dozier, a tackle likely switching to guard, are some examples of physical linemen who could potentially help fill Collins' massive shoes.

It's also important to look back at last season when highlighting the importance of establishing the run and creating attitude. In some clutch situations last season, the Bengals ran little and didn't have a consistent attitude. It arguably led to them coming up short in the postseason. As has been rehashed often since their first-round playoff loss to San Diego, the Bengals' decision to go away from the run hurt. During a fourth quarter the Bengals entered trailing by just seven points, quarterback Andy Dalton ended up throwing 31 passes.

That high rate of passing attempts also came in a second half that saw Dalton throw two interceptions and fumble the ball as he dived reaching for more yards at the end of a first-down scramble.

The Bengals' departure from running the ball -- Green-Ellis and Bernard finished with a combined 20 carries for 87 yards that day -- played a key role in the team's third straight first-round exit. The defeat also showed one other troubling trend: The Bengals might run the ball in the regular season, but they don't like keeping it on the ground once the playoffs begin. Their two previous playoff losses had similar poor rushing trends.

As Jackson hopes to implement his bruising style of offensive play, he has to turn to his offensive line. As long as linemen are setting the tone for aggressiveness and not getting popped in the mouth themselves, a certain tenor will be set that opposing defenses could struggle to meet play after play for 60 minutes. That same tone ought to not only lead to wider holes for running backs, but it also should lead to more open opportunities for Dalton in the passing game, play-action included.

Last season, the Bengals had issues with adequately running the ball and demonstrating the full attitude of their line, Whitworth admitted. It was part of the identity issues the team had in 2013 -- concerns it hopes to address long before training camp breaks.

"Attitude doesn't mean you'll have to run the ball every play, but it means when you do run it, you're going to have to run it in a violent way," Whitworth said. "I think any offensive lineman that plays in a system like that has a whole lot of fun."

That said, whether it gets tweaked through the draft or not, the Bengals' offensive line would be well served to bring on the violence, bring on the nastiness and to play with a whole lot of attitude.
CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals likely won't draft Michael Sam, but count them among the teams that would gladly welcome him or any other openly gay player.

"The Bengals are about winning football games and we are a welcoming workplace that supports the concept of the NFL as a football meritocracy," a team spokesman told ESPN.com earlier this week, citing the franchise's official stance on signing a gay player. "Purely personal factors will not affect the prospects here for someone who shows ability, determination and a commitment to be a good teammate in the club environment."

Sam, a former Missouri football player who could be a mid-round pick in May's draft, revealed Sunday that he was gay.

The sentiments expressed in the Bengals' statement were in sync with what Pro Bowl offensive tackle and team leader Andrew Whitworth told ESPN.com during a phone interview this week from Louisiana, where he is spending his offseason. He spoke about how he believed his teammates and players in other locker rooms wouldn't be concerned with the personal lives of their peers. It's about playing games and winning them, in his eyes.

"The biggest challenge [for Sam] is that he's got to play NFL football and that's not going to be easy," Whitworth said.

As Cincinnati's NFL Players Association representative, Whitworth was the only Bengal who spoke to ESPN.com on this issue, although other voices were sought. While many of his statements would be echoed across the team, it should be pointed out that he mostly spoke on his own behalf. ESPN.com's NFL Nation reached out to players through the league to collect their thoughts on what the league will look like in the wake of Sam's announcement, and the types of challenges they believe he will encounter.

When Whitworth first heard the news, he knew it would have far-reaching impact. But like many others, he questions if it should.

"I knew it was going to be a big story in the media and people were going to have different reactions, but like I've said, for the most part, guys aren't going to be that concerned with people's personal choices," Whitworth said. "The truth is, as much as people want to paint all football players the same, in a locker room with 50, 60 different guys, there's 60 different personalities and preferences ... . I just don't think it's a topic or one of those things that's talked about that much.

"People don't realize this isn't high school football. We aren't sitting around a bonfire talking. This is work. ... Sometimes it becomes a hot topic within the media and within the ranks that try to make it a big deal around fans. But the truth is, if they think this is the first gay player that's been in the locker room, they're crazy."

Cincinnati likely won't be bringing Sam into the fold in May. As a 6-foot-1, 260-pound defensive end (who could be moved to linebacker) in a 3-4 scheme, he doesn't really fit the mold of defender that the Bengals are currently seeking. They like their defensive ends a little leaner, and their linebackers more suitable for playing in coverage and rushing the passer. If he were to transition into a 4-3 linebacker in the Bengals' scheme, Sam likely would be a "Sam" -- or strongside -- linebacker, used mainly in run support.

While the Bengals may need a new "Sam" linebacker in the coming seasons with veteran James Harrison nearing retirement age, their current scheme doesn't seem to support drafting a player for that position.
The Cincinnati Bengals were nearly completely passed over in an ESPN.com NFL Nation survey that anonymously asked players across the league to pick an opposing player they'd most like to see in the Super Bowl.

Only two Bengals were picked by respective single voters outside their locker room: receiver A.J. Green and cornerback Leon Hall.

Respondents to the survey were requested to pick fellow active players who had not yet appeared in the Super Bowl. Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was the player most picked to appear in his first Super Bowl. The Vikings have made just three playoff appearances in Peterson's seven-year career, advancing to the NFC Championship Game once, in January 2010.

What does this apparent virtual snub mean for the Bengals? Who really knows?

A few items we can perhaps glean from it are below:
  • Maybe it means the Bengals don't yet have players who garner the same type of attention and respect as veterans like Peterson.
  • Maybe it means few players outside Cincinnati believe any current Bengals will ever make it to the Super Bowl.
  • Maybe so many players outside Cincinnati believe the franchise is cursed, like fans in the Queen City are beginning to believe.
  • Maybe on the day they were asked, those players in other cities just happened to forget about the Bengals.
  • Maybe the Bengals just don't have that many good friends in other locker rooms.

Seriously, the possibilities are endless.

What it does appear to suggest is that not enough time has gone by for rising Bengals stars like Green to draw the empathy of his league brethren. The vote for Hall was likely out of empathy, as the seven-year veteran also has yet to appear on the grandest stage in all of football. He's only appeared in two playoff games his entire career, in part because of the Bengals' mediocrity his first two seasons, and also because of injuries that have ended his year before the postseason even arrived. Like this year, Hall was lost for the year when he tore an Achilles in the middle of the 2011 season.

Other Bengals worthy of empathy votes include veteran offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth, Terence Newman, Adam Jones, Domata Peko and Chris Crocker.
CINCINNATI -- Four Cincinnati Bengals have earned a measure of respect by their peers, according to an anonymous, player's only survey conducted by ESPN's 32 NFL Nation team reporters during the regular season.

As part of a broader survey that posed a series of questions, multiple players on each team were asked to name the player in the NFL they respected the most. Among the 78 selections, four were Bengals. Denver quarterback Peyton Manning was the overwhelming favorite.

None of the Bengals listed received double-digit votes, but receiver A.J. Green ended up on more ballots than any others. The third-year receiver also was one of two Bengals picked in a survey that asked players to pick one player across the league who they would want to start an NFL franchise with. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins ended up there, as well. Like he did in this survey, Manning won that one fairly handily, too.

Along with Green, veteran Bengals Chris Crocker, Andrew Whitworth and James Harrison made it on the "respected player" survey. Harrison also was among the top vote-getters on a survey asking players who was the most "feared" in the league.

Respect is one of those subjective traits that truly depends upon point of view. No statistics or metrics can truly track it. It just has to be felt.

The feelings of the players who participated in the survey are pretty strong. If one was to compile a list of respected Bengals both on the field and off it, he or she would be hard-pressed to not include any of these four.

Crocker has been in four different locker rooms during his 11-year career and has perspective from his travels that few others in Cincinnati have. During his six seasons with the Bengals, the cornerback's leadership has grown to the point where his advice is among the most sought after on the team. The fact he's been able to come out of retirement the past two years and enter as a solid in-season acquisition makes him even more respected in the locker room.

Whitworth is the longtime stalwart of a Bengals offensive line that has seen its share of change since his career started in 2006. His respect probably grew this season when he selflessly moved from left tackle to left guard following a season-ending Week 14 injury to Clint Boling. The Bengals' already good line was arguably better after the change.

While Harrison's respect likely comes mostly from his hard-hitting, physical on-field persona, his Bengals teammates have remarked often about how they enjoy being around him as a person.
CINCINNATI -- One thing offenses at all levels of football consistently preach is balance.

The Cincinnati Bengals were no different this year.

Four games into the season -- that ended with Sunday's 27-10 wild-card loss to the San Diego Chargers -- offensive coordinator Jay Gruden harped on the virtues of offensive balance while insisting the team was still searching for an identity. In the weeks that followed, his players publicly pleaded for their running game to be considered every bit as important as the passing game was.

[+] EnlargeBenJarvus Green-Ellis
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesBenJarvus Green-Ellis and the Bengals attempted just 25 rushes against the Chargers.
Offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth campaigned hardest to incorporate the run. Over the final eight games of the regular season, the Bengals ran the ball more than 30 times in a game seven times. In the first eight contests, they topped the 30-carry mark only three times.

On Sunday, in their biggest game of the season, the Bengals only rushed 25 times. That's remarkably low considering how their 38 rushes for 164 yards were a key reason why they beat San Diego in Week 14.

So, did the Bengals run enough against the Chargers on Sunday?

Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis says "no."

"I don't care if it's a passing league or not, like I've said since the beginning of time, when the playoffs start, championship teams are built off running the football and stopping the run," Green-Ellis said. "Those things you've got to do. I don't care if they keep changing the rules or if they keep becoming a passing league.

"That's playoff football."

Green-Ellis supported his claim by bringing up his hometown New Orleans Saints. Sure, a game-winning field goal clinched the Saints' playoff victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday, but Mark Ingram's 97-yard rushing performance helped keep them in the ballgame, he said. Against the Bengals, San Diego's three-man rushing team of Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown also factored in that win, he said. They combined for a 196-yard team rushing attack.

"They ran the ball well and they won the game," Green-Ellis said. "That's just how it goes. If you play good defense and don't have turnovers, that's the recipe [for success] since football started."

Cincinnati committed four turnovers, and its defense gave up a season-high in rushing yards. The last time a team had more than 150 rushing yards in a game on the ground against the Bengals was on Halloween night when the Miami Dolphins held on for a 22-20 overtime win. That was only the second time all season that Cincinnati's typically stout defense allowed that many rushing yards in a game.

But the Bengals defense aside, this playoff loss was the result of what the Bengals didn't do when they had the ball. For the third straight postseason, they failed to keep running.

"You would have thought we'd learn from Houston," center Kyle Cook said.

Cincinnati's two previous postseason losses -- both wild-card round defeats -- came at Houston.

The Bengals ran 35 times total in those two games. Circumstances in the 2011 game were much like they were for most of the fourth quarter Sunday. In that first postseason meeting against the Texans, the Bengals trailed the entire second half, going down by as much as 14 entering the final period. Against San Diego, they were down just seven entering the fourth quarter. Last year, they only trailed at halftime, 9-7.

"It's tough because you want to say you'd love to run the ball every play, but when you're down that many points late in the game or when it's 17-10, you're really looking for a big shot to get you back in it," Cook said.

It seemed that against the Chargers the Bengals were committed to employing as many big shots as they could until one stuck. One almost did.

Among quarterback Andy Dalton's 31 fourth-quarter passing attempts was a deep pass to A.J. Green down the near sideline. With about six minutes remaining in a 10-point game, a possible catch likely would have given the Bengals the ball inside the 10 with a chance to score. With another hold by their defense, the Bengals could have had a potentially game-tying or game-winning drive in the closing minutes.

But that didn't happen.

What did happen was this: The Bengals got predictable. The same offensive line that entered the game wanting to be the aggressor ended up playing back on its heels, constantly trying to protect Dalton from consistent blitzes and pass rushes. Instead of pushing piles forward, the line was caught off guard as linebackers and defensive linemen pushed it back hard.

That resulted in a flustered Dalton who escaped the pocket once on a third-down scramble before fumbling as he dove for extra yards. That was the same Dalton who later threw an interception off his back foot, and one more that a linebacker read all the way.

"We've got to be a better team in those type of situations and knowing what type of environment we're going into," Green-Ellis said. "I mean, we just have to do a better job of attacking them where we can beat them at."

When asking whether the Bengals ran enough Sunday, consider these numbers:

  • 43.8: The percentage of all plays this regular season that were Bengals runs.
  • 32.9: The percentage of all plays in Sunday's wild card game that were Bengals runs.
  • 36.3: The percentage of all plays this regular season that were runs by Bengals running backs.
  • 26.3: The percentage of all plays in Sunday's wild card game that were runs by Bengals running backs.
  • 25.0: The percentage of all plays in the Bengals' last three postseason trips/losses that were runs by Bengals running backs.
You would have thought the Bengals learned from Houston. In the postseason, an offense has to run. Yet again, when the Bengals needed it most, their offensive balance disappeared.
CINCINNATI -- Moments after the Cincinnati Bengals beat Baltimore to close out the regular season last Sunday, linebacker Rey Maualuga fielded a few questions before taking off for the evening.

As he pulled on a jacket and strapped on a watch, I asked him to explain what this particular upcoming postseason appearance meant after the series of first-round disappointments the franchise has had in recent seasons. His response was open, honest, candid.

"Winning is a big challenge for us," Maualuga said. "The city of Cincinnati needs it. We need it to build momentum, and get this town hope and give them a reason to cheer."

[+] EnlargeBengals Fan
AP Photo/David KohlThe Bengals are hopeful their fans will help make life difficult for the San Diego Chargers on Sunday.
When it comes to sports, those who have called the Queen City home the past generation or so haven't had much to celebrate. Aside from the collegiate exploits Cincinnati, Xavier and Dayton have had on the hard court, the area's professional sports teams haven't done much lately worth cheering. The Bengals have been in six playoff games since the 1990 season, and lost all but one. The Reds have been in a World Series drought since that year, too.

That is why at a time when it appears the Bengals are best suited to go on their longest postseason run since the 1988 Super Bowl season, it was of utmost importance this week to clear the big hurdle that has been standing in the way since last Thursday. It was important the Bengals sell out Paul Brown Stadium, and do so in way that could give deserving spectators a chance to see the team play.

Thanks to a last-minute ticket buy Friday from a group of corporate partners that included locally headquartered giants Kroger and Proctor & Gamble, thousands of active-duty and veteran military personnel will have a chance to watch Sunday's playoff game against San Diego without having to spend a dime.

It was a power move by the city elite that came with the added benefit of helping some of its most blue-collar souls. Much like the effect of having a winning franchise, the move ought to help unify a community that has been distantly vocal about its football team all season.

"Our fans should take a lot of credit for the fact that we're here," center Kyle Cook said. "Obviously, hats off to your fans just knowing that they can give us that extra push, that benefit to play at home. Not a lot of teams can say that. Our fans have been great all year, and hopefully they'll come out full-force on Sunday."

Expect Bengals fans to do just that. And when they do, be on the lookout. The place the Bengals call "The Jungle" has been hostile to opposing teams all season. The Bengals have scored 40 or more points four times, had six defensive touchdowns, limited the likes of Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck, and come away with an enviable 8-0 record.

OK, some of you probably want to back up a few paragraphs. I'm sure you're curious as to what I meant by "distantly vocal." It's this. Bengals fans, you might not pack Paul Brown Stadium each week -- a fact that cornerback Terence Newman noted this week, saying he was surprised to routinely see gaps in the club seating across from the Bengals' sideline -- but your support for this team has been steadily growing in other ways.

Like I mentioned in this opinion piece about attendance at Bengals games last month, I'm still a newbie to these parts. But I do know that since I've been here, I've watched a metamorphosis of sorts within the fan base. Maybe it's also because I've been on the beat a little longer now, and the ESPN NFL Nation buzz has grown dramatically in recent weeks, but it seems like I get more questions on Twitter and emails in my inbox now from people who are legitimately curious about the ins and outs and nuances of the organization. At the earliest stages of my tenure, it seemed like the same few people were posing the same few inquiries.

I noticed another example of the growth of the Bengal bandwagon Tuesday night. In an effort to continue introducing myself to Cincinnati and its customs, I braved the chill of New Year's Eve night and drove downtown to Fountain Square to ring in 2014 with thousands of other Cincinnatians. While there, I noticed countless people in Bengals hats, jackets, coats, scarves, gloves and other team paraphernalia. Even the emcee of the event was wearing a Bengals jersey. While making numerous pleas for fans to scoop up remaining playoff tickets, he led a few "Who Dey" chants.

That distant support is inching closer to the Riverfront. This city is thinking playoffs.

It just wasn't -- for a collection of reasons that the NFL has to concern itself with this offseason -- thinking playoff tickets. Neither were the fans in Green Bay and Indianapolis, who also were tardy in buying tickets for their postseason games this weekend.

But now with a full stadium, don't be surprised if the "Jungle" comes more alive than it has been since the Bengals' first home game of the season.

"I relate it to the home opener," veteran offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth said of hosting a playoff game. "That energy and feel is almost overwhelming. The key is going to be worrying about the fact that we're not just happy being in the playoffs. We want to go to the Super Bowl."

To make it to New York in February, the Bengals have to impress their fans with a long lost home playoff win.

W2W4: Chargers at Bengals

January, 4, 2014
Jan 4
4:30
PM ET
CINCINNATI -- Before the Cincinnati Bengals began practices this week, coach Marvin Lewis rattled off a list of themes they could expect reporters to write about and ask about this week.

In no particular order, among them were statements about how:
  • The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since Andy Dalton and A.J. Green were drafted.
  • The Bengals haven't won a playoff game under Lewis.
  • The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since 1990.
  • The Bengals were good at home, sporting an 8-0 record there this season.

In a week in which Cincinnati was hosting a first-round playoff game against a San Diego team it had already beaten on the road this year, he was trying to get them to feel like underdogs. He wanted his players to feel like they weren't loved by the rest of the football world. He wanted them to feel the same sense of desperation and urgency the fans of their city had felt for 23 years.

He wanted them to know what was at stake Sunday afternoon.

Along with needing a win in order to advance in the playoffs, some around the city simply want the Bengals to win Sunday so they may start changing the city's postseason luck. Lewis knows that. He wanted his players to be aware of that, too.

For a possible drought-ending playoff win to happen, the Bengals will have to do the following four things. Here's this wild-card round Chargers-Bengals W2W4:

Does Good Andy show up? This was the top question most had for the Bengals for 16 weeks this season, as they wondered which version of the team's enigmatic quarterback would make an appearance. "Good Andy," the version of Andy Dalton who posted 300-yard passing games with ease and who could connect with receivers for three and four touchdowns in wins, showed up multiple times this season. But he wasn't present enough to render "Bad Andy" moot. Twice this season, Dalton threw for less than 200 yards in a game and four times had QBRs that were below 30.0. It was mostly against intense pressure that "Bad Andy" arrived on the scene, throwing ill-advised interceptions and forcing incompletions into difficult coverages. During the first half of last month's Bengals-Chargers game, Dalton was bad for one half before completing a 180-degree turn in the second half to help spark a big late-season victory. Of course, Cincinnati will need more of the good guy this week.

Hostile at home. Paul Brown Stadium has been a difficult place for opposing offenses to play this season. Even some of the league's best units -- the No. 3 Packers and No. 7 Patriots -- had their struggles there. New England quarterback Tom Brady saw a consecutive games touchdown streak ended as he was held out of the end zone. Two field goals were all the Patriots could muster in the teams' October meeting in Cincinnati. The Bengals had a timely fumble return for touchdown and a key fourth-down stand that beat Green Bay the week before the Patriots arrived. Inside the building nicknamed "The Jungle," the Bengals are averaging a 17.6-point margin of victory in all eight home wins. Ask the Bengals why they play so well there, and they are quick to defer to fans who attend those games. After needing help from local businesses to make a sellout possible, be on the lookout for how many fans the Bengals are able to have show up. An emptier stadium could lead to a less hostile environment than what the Bengals are accustomed to.

Offensive line shuffle. Last Sunday against Baltimore, Cincinnati's offensive line took a beating so intense that offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was growing concerned about whether he was going to get out of the game with a line he could field this week. At one point, a trainer shouted: "We don't have any offensive tackles." When he did, Andre Smith and Anthony Collins, both sidelined by ankle injuries, offered to go back in and finish the contest. Injuries like those were among reasons why the Bengals barely had any linemen practice Wednesday when the week's playoff preparations began. Center Kyle Cook also had a foot injury and guard Andrew Whitworth dealt with his own ankle issue. Because of the line shuffling that resulted, Gruden said preparations this week have been "unique." While all of the injured linemen should be healthy Sunday, watch to see how well they all respond to their apparently nagging injuries. If just one isn't able to go, it could throw the starting line rotation out of whack. The same anticipated rotation that includes Whitworth at left guard and Collins at left tackle was first used the day the Bengals pounded 150 yards of rushing offense at a battered Chargers defensive line.

Kirkpatrick or Newman? In addition to a little uncertainty on the Bengals' offensive line, there are some question marks revolving around the left boundary cornerback position. Second-year defender Dre Kirkpatrick, who missed Thursday's workout with an illness that he was still getting over Friday, appears set to make his third straight start in place of veteran Terence Newman. Although Newman finally returned to practice Friday for the first time since injuring his left knee Dec. 8, it doesn't appear he's had enough time to get fully healthy. He only had the one day of practice this week. Still, he contends that he'll be in shape if needed. Officially, he was listed as doubtful for the game. Tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert could be similar game-time scratches or additions. After missing last week completely, both were declared questionable going into this weekend.
CINCINNATI -- A bevy of previously injured Cincinnati Bengals, headlined by receiver A.J. Green, returned to practice Thursday as the team went through its second practice ahead of Sunday's first-round playoff game against San Diego.

Green missed Wednesday's session with a knee injury, and he was limited Thursday. During the open portion of the workout, he was seen running at a moderate speed through passing drills that called upon him to cut, pivot and turn. He appeared to show little effects of a possible knee injury.

Along with Green's return, tight end Tyler Eifert, defensive end Wallace Gilberry and offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth, Kyle Cook and Andre Smith came back to practice after being held completely out the day before. Gilberry suffered a concussion in last week's 34-17 win over Baltimore, and Whitworth, Cook and Smith picked up foot and ankle injuries in the game.

Cook's foot was so bad Monday that he was placed in a protective boot and on crutches out of an abundance of precaution. He was back to walking under his own power Wednesday, and practiced in a limited capacity Thursday.

Eifert was back at practice for the first time in two weeks. A neck injury brought on by the after effects of a stinger he picked up in the Bengals' Week 16 win over Minnesota had him sidelined. He and fellow tight end Jermaine Gresham were declared inactive for last week's game against the Ravens, forcing Cincinnati to start its third-string tight end and move back there a player who had played H-back much of the year.

That third-string player, Alex Smith, ended up dislocating a wrist in the game and needed to be placed on injured reserve.

Gresham returned to practice earlier this week.

While each of those players returned to action, cornerback Terence Newman and offensive tackle Anthony Collins missed another practice. Collins is coming off an ankle injury that he received last week against the Ravens. Newman hasn't practiced in about a month, after suffering an MCL sprain in the Bengals' Week 14 win over Indianapolis. He was expected to return this week. His absence Thursday appeared to be a sign that he likely won't be suiting up this weekend.

He still has a chance to practice Friday and to play, but without going Wednesday and Thursday, it becomes harder for him to ensure his conditioning is at its peak coming off the layoff. In case he isn't able to play, Newman would be replaced yet again by cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, as long as Kirkpatrick is healthy. He was downgraded to not practicing after being listed on the latest injury report with an illness. Against the Ravens, Kirkpatrick had two interceptions, including the game-icing pick-off that was returned for a touchdown.

Here is the full Bengals injury report from Thursday:

Did Not Practice
OT Anthony Collins (ankle)
CB Terence Newman (knee)
CB Dre Kirkpatrick (illness)

Limited Practice Participation
C Kyle Cook (foot)
CB Chris Crocker (knee)
TE Tyler Eifert (neck)
DE Wallace Gilberry (concussion)
WR A.J. Green (knee)
TE Jermaine Gresham (hamsting)
LB Vincent Rey (ankle)
OT Andre Smith (ankle)
OL Andrew Whitworth (ankle)

All-AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
10:00
AM ET
NFC Teams: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A trio of defensive stars, two Pro Bowl offensive players and an injured specialist comprised the Cincinnati Bengals' six selections to the ESPN.com All-AFC North team that was released Thursday. The four reporters who cover the teams in the division made the picks.

Linebacker Vontaze Burfict, the NFL's leading regular-season tackler, was joined by defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson on the defensive side of the all-division team. They were all part of a unit that finished the year ranked third in total defense, and one that was second in the league in limiting third-down conversions. Last Friday, Burfict was named to his first Pro Bowl as an inside linebacker. The second-year player, who was originally signed as an undrafted rookie, finished the regular season with 171 tackles, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and an interception. Dunlap recorded a career-high 58 tackles and had 7.5 sacks. Johnson, who could be heading toward free agency in the coming weeks, had a career-high 56 tackles and led the league with eight batted balls at the line of scrimmage.

Cincinnati's offensive selections were led by receiver A.J. Green. He was selected to the team after catching a career-high 98 passes for another career-high 1,426 yards. He finished just 15 yards shy of a franchise record. He was joined on the all-division team by offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth, who made it as a left tackle. Across the last five games, Whitworth shuffled between left tackle and left guard as injuries depleted the Bengals' offensive line. Particularly, it was left guard Clint Boling's ACL injury against the Chargers in Week 13 that caused the shifting to occur.

Another injured Bengal was included on the All-AFC North team. Punter Kevin Huber, who had an average net of 40.5 yards before a season-ending jaw injury in Week 15, made it as the division's top punter. He had punts of 75 and 70 yards this season ahead of the blindside hit against the Steelers that broke his jaw. The NFL later said a flag should have been thrown for the hit, but since one wasn't, Huber and his coverage team allowed their only punt return touchdown of the season.

Despite winning the AFC North, the Bengals were outpaced on the all-division team by the Browns and Ravens. Both teams had seven players selected. Like the Bengals, the Steelers also had six. One of Pittsburgh's selections, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, made it when the Bengals' Andy Dalton didn't. Dalton had more wins, yards, touchdowns and a higher QBR than any other quarterback in the division. He also finished the season setting a pair of Bengals records. In addition to Dalton, a case for inclusion could have been made for rookie running back Giovani Bernard, receiver Marvin Jones, defensive tackle Domata Peko and cornerback Adam Jones.

CINCINNATI -- Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green headlined a lengthy list of players who missed the Cincinnati Bengals' practice Wednesday, as preparations for Sunday's AFC wild-card game against San Diego officially began.

Green
The wideout suffered a knee injury in last week's regular-season finale against Baltimore. He also was one of six offensive starters who missed Wednesday's workout, and one of eight total players who didn't go through the first practice of the week.

Along with Green, offensive linemen Anthony Collins, Andre Smith, Andrew Whitworth and Kyle Cook didn't practice. Neither did tight end Tyler Eifert, cornerback Terence Newman and defensive end Wallace Gilberry.

There isn't a prognosis for how long any of the players will be out of practice, or if any will miss Sunday's game. The outlook appears strong, however, for most of them. The major question marks revolve around Eifert (still recovering from a neck issue caused by a stinger), Gilberry (suffered a concussion last weekend), and Newman (trying to rebound from a knee injury that kept him out nearly all of December).

Newman told reporters Wednesday that whenever he does return from the MCL sprain that kept him sidelined since Week 15, he'll feel "refreshed." He also felt optimistic that he wouldn't show any signs of rust when he returned.

"I played what, three months, was off three weeks?" Newman said, speaking to reporters for the first time since he suffered the injury at the end of the Week 14 game against the Indianapolis Colts. "I'll be all right. Not to mention the 11 years I have under my belt."

The veteran cornerback has been replaced the past three weeks by second-year player Dre Kirkpatrick, who had two interceptions in relief last week. He returned one of them 21 yards for a game-icing touchdown.

Cook's injury could be somewhat concerning. He left in the first half of last week's game with a foot injury that forced him into a boot and on crutches Monday. He declined to speak with reporters that day, but on Wednesday, he was walking around the locker room under his own power.

Along with the aforementioned group, linebacker Vincent Rey and tight end Jermaine Gresham practiced in a limited capacity. Gresham and Eifert were among the Bengals' inactive players last weekend.

Here's the full Wednesday injury report:

Did Not Practice
OT Anthony Collins (ankle)
C Kyle Cook (foot)
TE Tyler Eifert (neck)
DE Wallace Gilberry (concussion)
WR A.J. Green (knee)
CB Terence Newman (knee)
OT Andre Smith (ankle)
OL Andrew Whitworth (ankle)

Limited Practice Participation
TE Jermaine Gresham (hamstring)
LB Vincent Rey (ankle)

Quick Take: Chargers at Bengals

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
11:00
PM ET
Three things to know about Sunday's San Diego Chargers-Cincinnati Bengals playoff game at Paul Brown Stadium:

1. Haven't we been here before? The Bengals and Chargers will meet for the second time in 35 days. This time around, San Diego will be the team making the cross-country trip. In the teams' Dec. 1 meeting, the Bengals staved off the rallying Chargers by returning to the best run-pass balance they had in weeks. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for 92 yards and a touchdown in the 17-10 win, and rookie Giovani Bernard added 57 rushing yards. As the pair led a 164-yard rushing attack, quarterback Andy Dalton threw for 190 yards. This also marks the first playoff game between the teams since 1981, when the Bengals hosted the Chargers at old Riverfront Stadium in the second-coldest NFL game ever played. In what was nicknamed the "Freezer Bowl," temperatures that day dipped to minus-9 and the wind chill was minus-59. Temperatures are expected to hover around 40 degrees next week.

2. Rivers can wing it: Cincinnati will brace for Philip Rivers' powerful right arm. He entered this weekend's games with the league's third-highest QBR and ranked in the top 10 for passing yards. A true pocket quarterback, his prolific passing stats are a credit to his playmaking receivers, including rookie Keenan Allen and tight end Antonio Gates. The key to solving Rivers is pressure. In the first meeting, the Bengals sacked him twice. They've been doing a solid job of getting after other quarterbacks of late, too. Against Joe Flacco on Sunday, Cincinnati had a pair of sacks and three interceptions.

3. Ground-and-pound Part 2? The key to the Bengals' success in the first meeting was their dedication to the ground game. Since then, the Bengals have rushed for more than 150 yards just one other time -- the next week against Indianapolis. It was after the Chargers win that offensive tackle Anthony Collins mentioned how the offensive line set a goal each week of helping open enough holes so the ball carriers can reach the 150-yard milestone. Among the reasons for Cincinnati's success in that game was the movement of Andrew Whitworth from left tackle to left guard. He replaced Clint Boling, who went down with an ACL tear. With Whitworth moved, Collins came off the bench and took his old tackle spot. That same line rotation has been used since, but it underwent serious tweaks Sunday, when multiple Bengals came in and out with injuries.

Pro Bowl selections: Bengals

December, 27, 2013
12/27/13
9:10
PM ET
CINCINNATI -- Cell phones have played an integral role in Vontaze Burfict's self-described "father-son" relationship with Marvin Lewis.

If it wasn't for them, Burfict might not be with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Of all the phone conversations the football player and the football coach have had in the last two years, though, few have hit Burfict like the one Friday afternoon. It caused him to cry. None have carried the same heavy weight of validation as that particular call.

He officially was no longer the same so-called lazy, overweight, fallen college superstar that so many had considered him. He was now an all-star.

"It brought tears to my eyes when I got off the phone," Burfict said, referencing one of his latest phone conversations with the man who decided to take a gamble on him. "All that hard work that I've put in, and it's getting noticed."

Burfict has, of course, done the heaviest lifting. But you have to credit Lewis for the fact that people are now paying attention to the hard-hitting linebacker. If it wasn't for Lewis' stubbornness about getting Burfict on the field when injuries hit the linebacker corps last year, this chapter in Burfict's life may never have been written. At the very least, it would have been delayed.

Although the NFL formally named Burfict a Pro Bowl invitee during a Friday night show on NFL Network, the second-year standout originally found out he had earned the trip to Honolulu earlier in the day when Lewis called. Burfict was joined as a selection to the "unconferenced" all-star game by Bengals receiver A.J. Green, who was tabbed to the Pro Bowl for a third time in his three-year career.

Burfict and Green are joined by left offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth and quarterback Andy Dalton. Whitworth was named the third alternative at left tackle, and Dalton is the seventh alternate at quarterback. Pro Bowl alternates are added to the roster when replacements are needed due to injuries or for other reasons. Burfict and Green, for example, hope they'll need alternates since the Jan. 26 Pro Bowl is being played one week before the Super Bowl. Players whose teams reach the Super Bowl naturally would not be participating in the Pro Bowl.

"Everyone knows what an exceptional player A.J. continues to be, and we kind of expect him to be in the game, but it's very gratifying to see Vontaze recognized for the fine season he's had," Lewis said.

It was amazing that Burfict in the weeks leading to the selection that wasn't doing better in Pro Bowl fan voting.

Just last week he told reporters that he wasn't thinking about the Pro Bowl and that he didn't think it was a goal to aspire to, unless his whole team could go with him. The same day he made those comments, it was revealed that the league's leading tackler ranked 10th in fan voting at his position. If you consider he has led the NFL in tackles most of the season and has forced a fumble, recovered two, intercepted a pass and scored a defensive touchdown, you can better understand my bewilderment.

Whether the broader national audience has truly grasped Burfict's impact on his defense or not doesn't really matter to him. What does matter is the fact that when scouts and draft experts were shunning him last March and April, his phone was still ringing.

Marvin Lewis kept calling.

"That's the reason why I pretty much became a Bengal," Burfict said. "He was pretty much the only person who kept reaching out and who kept talking to me and who kept me motivated and telling me to keep my head up and stuff like that."

Eventually, the draft came and went and Burfict, once projected an early-round pick, wasn't claimed. Sure, there were issues in his background -- past marijuana usage, clashing with his college coach, issues with Personal Foul penalties, coming to the Combine overweight -- that contributed to teams passing on him. But he only wanted a chance.

"After the fifth round, I just wanted to at least hear my name called and see my name at the bottom [of the television screen] or get a phone call from a coach," Burfict said. "I was kind of heartbroken that day, but I'm happy that I'm here and am a Bengal. I've got people that care about me around the stadium. That's why I play so hard on Sundays."

It's that style of play that makes Burfict worthy of his first Pro Bowl honor. But if it wasn't for Lewis' insistence on building a relationship with the young linebacker, perhaps none of this would have ever happened.

Click here for the complete Pro Bowl roster.

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