NFL Nation: Giovani Bernard

A look at a few Cincinnati Bengals offensive players who have made strong impressions through the first five practices of training camp:

Andy Dalton: The team's top signal-caller was praised by offensive coordinator Hue Jackson on Monday for beginning to make strides with his decision-making. He's seemed to have better velocity and accuracy on some of his deeper passes, too.

Giovani Bernard: So far, he's picked up where he left off last season, serving as the dynamic playmaker in the Bengals' offense. Cincinnati plans to use him in a greater variety of ways this season. Look for him to run a bit more and catch passes both from the backfield and after having been split-out wide or placed into the slot.

Jeremy Hill: Pass-blocking was among Hill's greatest traits as a college back at LSU. When the Bengals first incorporated those drills Sunday, he performed well, holding off linebacker Vincent Rey in blitz pickup. The rookie still appears in line to play the role of No. 2 back behind Bernard.

A.J. Green: He's been to the Pro Bowl every year of his career. Aside from a very rare drop in goal-line work Monday, he's looked well on his way to receiving a fourth selection to the all-star game.

Mohamed Sanu: With Marvin Jones out through the first five practices, Sanu has had more opportunities to prove himself as one of the "three amigos," the group he referenced Monday that includes him, Green and Jones. Sanu wasn't happy with his production last season and hopes to use his versatility as a receiver, passer and rusher to help ignite the Bengals' offense.

Brandon Tate: While much of the chatter surrounding Tate's apparent spot on the roster bubble has revolved around his lack of receptions with the Bengals (he has 14 in his three seasons in Cincinnati), he has tried during camp to prove he's more than just a kick returner. Once on Monday, he drew rookie Victor Hampton into the middle of the end zone before breaking off and peeling in the opposite direction, where he easily caught a touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone. Veteran moves like that will help him keep his spot on the roster as a receiver.

James Wright: Another player whose receiving numbers were down last year, the rookie has been among the biggest head-turners in camp. The seventh-round draft pick is fighting for a roster spot, and has so far done well in that regard. The ball has very seldom hit the ground when thrown in his direction. Cobi Hamilton also had a strong Monday, adding some intrigue to this battle for one of the final receiver spots.

Tyler Eifert: Much like Sanu who has taken advantage of Jones' absence, Eifert has benefited from Jermaine Gresham's training camp injury. As the current No. 1 pass-catching tight end, Eifert has been among Dalton's top targets so far.

Marshall Newhouse: It's not so much that Newhouse has played incredibly well or anything, but he's worth highlighting since he is getting a number of snaps in place of injured left tackle Andrew Whitworth. The increased reps in Cincinnati's offense will only be a positive for the veteran swing tackle who was added in free agency this offseason.

Trey Hopkins: The undrafted free agent has had his share of reps, as well, giving reason to believe he has the best chance of making the team of all the undrafted free-agent linemen the Bengals signed.

Russell Bodine: The rookie continues getting practice time just as he did in the spring. He still needs to hone his snapping ability after a miscue earlier this week.

Bengals Camp Report: Day 5

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

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

"That joker," fellow back Giovani Bernard said, "he's a good player."

Bernard apparently considers Burkhead to be so good, Bernard has made it his mission to copy one aspect of Burkhead's game in particular. That's right, Cincinnati's do-everything starting running back who was in the running for the NFL's Rookie of the Year Award last season wants to emulate the backup who might not even make the team this training camp.

"It's just his effort," Bernard said. "You can't teach that. That's something you kind of have to have in yourself."

[+] EnlargeRex Burkhead
AP Photo/Al BehrmanRunning back Rex Burkhead has the type of attitude Bengals coaches love to see.
Routinely in practices you will see Burkhead finish runs or catches 30, 40, even 50 yards beyond where the whistle blew and the play ended. That is the effort Bernard has been slightly envious of. It is the same effort Jackson has been quick to point out when he re-watches practice film, and it is the effort other coaches referenced when they brought up the mantra of the minicamp and organized team activity portion of the offseason: "finish."

Back in June when organized team activities were winding down, receivers coach James Urban told just how much "finishing" had been stressed as the team started implementing Jackson's new offensive scheme.

"There was a lot of talk about finish," Urban said. "Talking about doing things down the field. Most of these guys have been with me, been with us, for the last four years or so. So they know what to expect, and we've done great things. So how do you get their attention? We get their attention by overemphasizing finishing, overemphasizing getting off the ball and getting out of the huddle and getting set."

Jackson said Burkhead was a great example of that.

"I can always in the meetings point to something he's doing that's giving us a chance to have success," Jackson said. "It's every day. There's not a day that goes by. And that's what matters to me: that guys are playing hard, finishing and taking care of business. He does that, there's no question about that."

There is also no question that as he enters his second season, Burkhead finds himself mired in one of the more intriguing position battles of the Bengals' training camp which begins Thursday. He's fighting for the team's third or fourth running back spot with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Cedric Peerman, James Wilder Jr. and Nikita Whitlock. The universal belief is that the Bengals likely will end up using Bernard and rookie Jeremy Hill as their top two running backs, and that Peerman's more expansive special teams background and experience makes him an ideal candidate for the No. 3 spot. That would mean Burkhead and Green-Ellis will be dueling for the other roster spot as Wilder and Whitlock likely duke it out for a possible practice-squad job.

Burkhead has played the various scenarios in his head. He has a strong understanding of what is at stake for him right now. He knows he's not the fastest back on the team, and he knows he might not be the most powerful. But he still believes he has what it takes to stick with the club.

"I love the competition," Burkhead said. "I feel like it brings out the best in me and helps me improve as a player. So whenever my opportunity comes, I'll be ready for it because I've already been practicing at that level. This competition, it makes us all better. It makes the team better and that's what wins you championships, is having that high level of competitiveness around you."

Burkhead didn't contribute statistically to the Bengals' division championship last season. Declared inactive for all but one game, he was primarily a practice body. But he was a practice body that still commanded attention.

"This game, it's tough. It's tough to win, it's tough to score. It comes down to inches," Burkhead said. "That's what finishing plays is. Hopefully I can set that example, and if I can help someone do that, too, that's what I'm going to do."

So far, he's at least rubbed off on Bernard.

"It's effort like that that Coach Hue really sees and that he wants the whole offense to follow," Bernard said.

Burkhead, 24, wasn't the only one Jackson singled out regularly in his practice-film review sessions with the offense. Veterans like 32-year-old Pro Bowl offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth showcased some of what Jackson has been pleading for since he took over as offensive coordinator in January.

Bernard said Jackson showed a couple of times where Whitworth was running downfield on routine practice plays to block for receivers.

"If all the linemen could do that, if all the running backs could do that, if all the receivers could do that, the quarterbacks could do that, that'll show and it'll prove to everybody how much better we really are," Bernard said.

As camp opens, stay on the lookout for how well effort translates to roster spots and offensive identity.
Now that we've explored how the Cincinnati Bengals might spread passes to receivers under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, let's take a look at how they might coordinate touches for their running backs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


These guys aren't going anywhere. The punter, kicker and long snapper will make the team.
Two years ago the Washington Redskins had one of the most potent running games in the NFL, a mix of conventional and new school with the zone read option. It worked. They led the NFL in rushing yards, were second in yards per carry and gained more first downs than any team courtesy of the run.

It wasn’t just the zone read. While the Redskins averaged 6.18 yards per carry with that tactic, they still averaged 4.94 yards on their 401 traditional runs. That average alone was topped by only three other teams. The zone read helped, but so, too, did Alfred Morris being an excellent fit in the outside zone running scheme.

As he improved his tracks on runs, the Redskins’ run game flourished even more. Morris’ ability to plant and cut and make the first defender miss meant the run game would work even minus the zone read aspect.

Last season, the Redskins ranked third in the NFL in yards per rush (4.78). They averaged 5.33 yards on zone read carries and 4.65 on traditional runs; the latter number would have left them tied for third.

Here’s the point: The run game has worked the past two years, with or without the zone read option. That’s a big reason why offensive coordinator Sean McVay said shortly after getting his new position that “the run game will be very similar.”

The offseason moves suggest that’s the case. The Redskins added a bigger player at left guard in Shawn Lauvao, but he moves well -- after the Redskins signed him, multiple Browns sources said he’d be a good fit in the outside zone game. Lauvao might not be a great guard, but he’s bigger than Kory Lichtensteiger, now at center, by a good 20 pounds. Lichtensteiger moves better than former center Will Montgomery but is not as strong.

Meanwhile, the two linemen they drafted, guard Spencer Long and tackle Morgan Moses, both can move. The problem for Moses is that in college he was inconsistent getting to linebackers in the run game. It’s yet another area he must improve before he’s truly ready to start. Long, nearly 10 pounds heavier than starting right guard Chris Chester, spent a lot of time pulling at Nebraska but he also plays with strength. The Redskins definitely left yards on the field in the run game last season, sometimes because the backside blockers failed to get their men and other times because Morris needed to make a stronger cut down the field.

On paper, bigger should also equal more ability to play smash mouth when needed, adding more versatility to the ground game. But I’m not sold that Lauvao, for example, is as strong in that sort of situation. That’s not what he showed in Cleveland (whether at the line or when reaching linebackers).

Redskins coach Jay Gruden did not have the run game in Cincinnati that he’ll have in Washington. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a bubble player for the Bengals this season; he carried the ball a combined 498 times the past two seasons. Gruden opted for a mix, with Giovani Bernard receiving 170 carries in 2013, in part because he had no one such as Morris.

Meanwhile, the Redskins actually led the NFL in rushing versus seven-man fronts (275 times for an NFL-best 1,332 yards).

Perhaps Gruden’s influence will result in more carries against five- and six-man fronts. The Bengals had 51 more such plays than Washington a year ago, a function of formation and likely also game situations. Then again, two years ago the Redskins had more runs against those fronts than Cincinnati.

But with DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Andre Roberts and tight end Jordan Reed, Gruden has more weapons in the pass game as well. Which, of course, could lead to more spread formations -- and runs against even more favorable fronts.

Meanwhile, Roy Helu can catch the ball and perhaps he’ll run better out of a shotgun spread formation than in the outside zone. But I can’t imagine him in a Giovani Bernard role; the Bengals’ back had 226 touches from scrimmage last season. Though Helu averaged 4.4 yards per carry, he’s not a move-the-chains runner (eight carries against an eight-man front resulted in a total of 14 yards). Even against seven-man fronts Helu averaged 4.06 yards, which is fine but is much less than Morris (4.96, with an NFL-best 937 rushing yards against that type of front).

The point? Helu will be able to handle the third-down duties again, but there’s little reason to take a whole lot away from Morris. And rookie Lache Seastrunk has a lot to prove -- as a third-down back in particular -- before being ready for anything other than pinch-hitting duty as a runner. But he’s a potentially good fit in the spread. Chris Thompson is, too, but size and durability remain two big issues for him.

Do not assume the Redskins will see fewer eight-man boxes compared to last season. In 2013, Morris only ran 44 times against an eight-man box, which was six fewer times than he did so as a rookie. So it’s not a given he’ll pile up more yards because of fewer eight-man boxes. But given the success of the past two years and that Gruden wants to keep it mostly the same, there’s also no reason to think Morris or the Redskins’ run game will suddenly drop off. That is, unless Gruden falls too much in love with the weapons at receiver.
John TaylorUSA TODAY Sports
We have a winner. The voters selected John Taylor's game-winning TD catch in the 49ers' win over Cincinnati in Super Bowl XXIII as the Bengals' most memorable play and I question their selection.

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

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


Which is the most memorable play in Bengals' history?


Discuss (Total votes: 30,879)

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

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

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

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

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

Bengals' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
If the Cincinnati Bengals are going to continue their recent run of success in the next three seasons, they will have to accomplish a number of things.

It's a monumental task to pick just one.

So much of the Bengals' immediate future hinges on what happens at the quarterback position, either later this offseason or during or after this coming regular season. For now, Andy Dalton remains the starting quarterback, even while the team tries to negotiate a contract extension with him and his agent. Little ground has been covered in the talks. It is becoming apparent that the more time passes without a new deal the more Dalton may be content playing out the 2014 season and trying to do enough to earn a second-contract salary that competes with the league's elite passers.

Let's pretend Dalton is still a Bengal over the next two or three seasons.

If he is, the Bengals' biggest key to success will be to keep a bevy of playmakers around him. As we saw countless times last season -- and should see in 2014 -- Dalton's receivers and running backs are good enough to routinely bail the offense out of challenging circumstances. Running back Giovani Bernard will be looking for a new contract after next season and should get it if he continues to showcase the type of agility and speed that made him such a weapon as a rookie in 2013. Having the bigger Jeremy Hill paired with Bernard will help give the offense balance not only in the running game but also in the short passing game. Receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones also need to be around to catch passes. Green should still be in a Bengals uniform in two years if not three.

If Dalton is no longer a Bengal in the next two or three seasons, Cincinnati must continue building a top-10 defense that can play alongside AJ McCarron. The 2014 draft pick is currently the apparent heir at quarterback and would start if Dalton is gone next offseason. Much like the defense helped carry Dalton through his first two years in Cincinnati, the unit would have to do the same for McCarron.
CINCINNATI -- The mandatory minicamp portion of the Cincinnati Bengals' offseason has come to an end, meaning summer is well within view.

Following three voluntary organized team activity practices next week, the Bengals are off until July 24, when they take to Paul Brown Stadium's practice fields for the start of training camp. The only day next week media are permitted to watch the team practice is Monday. After that day, we won't see all 90 players on a field together until training camp.

That makes Thursday's final minicamp practice an important last step in springtime football.

Here are a few brief observations from the workout:
  • As they continue experimenting with offense and defense combinations, the Bengals shuffled players around all practice. Linemen who had been getting some run with the second- and third-team units were practicing with the first-teamers. The same went for reserve running backs and receivers, who were taking handoffs and catching passes from starting quarterback Andy Dalton. It was the coaches' chance to see which backup players could shine with the first-teamers, and which starters could play alongside which backups. It's all part of the tinkering that goes on in June.
  • That said, undrafted free agent Trey Hopkins was among those backup players who got some playing time with the first-team offense. The offensive lineman played both left tackle and left guard during the practice. Running backs Cedric Peerman, Rex Burkhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis also were among those who played with the first-team units. Since rookie Jeremy Hill was drafted, Green-Ellis has slid from running with the first team alongside Giovani Bernard, to the lower quadrant of the backfield depth chart. On defense, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was one of the backups who mixed in with the first-teamers on both sides of the ball.
  • Like we mentioned Wednesday, rookie quarterback AJ McCarron has been cleared to throw after dealing with "arm tightness" during the first two weeks of OTAs. He threw a little bit more and threw deeper passes Thursday. One of his best of the day was about a 15-yard comeback route to Cobi Hamilton, who broke sharply away from his defender thanks to a quick cut. McCarron also was picked off late in the practice when the Bengals were going through a two-minute drill. Safety Shawn Williams jumped a short throw.
  • Finally, after missing Wednesday's practice, Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth was back Thursday, getting his normal reps.
CINCINNATI -- The Bengals begin the mandatory phase of their offseason practices Tuesday morning when they host the first of three consecutive minicamp practices at Paul Brown Stadium.

Each player on the team is required to be in attendance for the minicamp sessions that last until Thursday morning. The arrival of minicamp in Cincinnati signals the start of the second half of the practice portion of their offseason calendar. After this week, the Bengals revert back to the voluntary organized team activity (OTA) model of practice for three days. After that, they'll break for the summer.

Training camp starts July 24.

As the mandatory minicamp -- all of which will be open to media -- gets going this week, here are five things to watch for:

1. Will Gresham be there? Through the first two weeks of OTAs, tight end Jermaine Gresham has been a noticeable absence. He didn't participate in either of the two practices that were open to media, and he wasn't even seen around the stadium in any other capacity those two days, either. Coach Marvin Lewis said last week that Gresham was in Cincinnati, though, and that he was rehabbing from an injury the coach said wouldn't keep him out of training camp. At this point, Gresham's absence is a mystery. We'll perhaps get a few more definitive answers during the minicamp. If any do come, don't expect them to come from the often media shy Gresham. It bears noting that he has been around the locker room during other voluntary workouts this offseason. He just has yet to be seen by reporters since OTAs began. Will Tuesday by that day? We shall see.

2. Will Still be there? Presumably, defensive tackle Devon Still will be in attendance for the minicamp after missing OTAs to deal with a personal issue last week. Along with Gresham, Still was a noticeable absence when media viewed an open OTA session last Tuesday. He revealed in a post to social media later in the week that he and his family learned his young daughter has cancer. Earlier this week, he tweeted a photo showing he's shaved his head to support his daughter who will go through chemotherapy. Although injured for much of the latter half of last season, Still was and continues to be a key piece to the Bengals' defensive line depth chart. Assuming Geno Atkins returns during training camp from his ACL injury, Still and Brandon Thompson are right now the first two defensive tackles off the bench behind Atkins and Domata Peko.

3. RB rotation getting set? We are still about three months from the start of the regular season, but it appears we may be getting a general idea of what the Bengals' backfield may look like this fall. Giovani Bernard has been moved into a more prominent role, although the Bengals are expected to continue with the committee approach to delegating carries and receptions. Alongside him often during the two open OTAs was rookie Jeremy Hill, the team's prized second-round pick who promises to be a key piece in the backfield as veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis enters the final year on his current deal. Speaking of Green-Ellis, the Bengals have been adamant in their belief a roster spot remains for the 28-year-old, but Hill's arrival hasn't made it easy to justify Green-Ellis' future in Cincinnati. As the Bengals go through this week, it still will be interesting to see how the running back rotations shake out. Will Green-Ellis stay in the mix? Or is Hill starting to push past him?

4. Making tempo a priority. Offensively, the Bengals' charge this offseason has been to adopt coordinator Hue Jackson's tweaked scheme that includes a quicker tempo and a faster pace. His goal has been to get his players to come out of the huddle quickly so they can get to the line of scrimmage much earlier in the play clock, effectively allowing them to run more plays in a drive and game. It's been an offensive priority, but we haven't been able to gauge how much of a priority it's been for the defense, too. Overall, practices seem to be conducted at a faster speed than they were last season, particularly during 11-on-11 drills when the defense is shifting fronts, moving around constantly, and the offense is making pre-play calls to counter. Jackson isn't the only coordinator trying to spice up his unit. It appears Paul Guenther has done the same with the defense. The minicamp should show a little more of that.

5. Grooming the rookies. The Bengals have eight draft picks and 11 undrafted free agents they still are trying to both groom and assess before the season begins. Many of the evaluations will be done in training camp, but coaches are looking right now to see how well the first-year players can adapt to the coaching and new playbooks. A foundation for late July is being at this time, and these three practices can go a long way toward giving the Bengals a better idea of who the young players they just brought on are. Among the rookies who will be scrutinized the next few months, cornerback Darqueze Dennard may top the list. While Hill's place in the backfield is beginning to take shape, the first-round pick Dennard has a more difficult obstacle to overcome to play; he has several veterans ahead of him. Already, though, Dennard has gotten his share of early instruction and played with both the first- and second-team defenses in open OTAs.
CINCINNATI -- Beach balls, bright-colored summertime shirts, sunglasses, boat shoes and Giovani Bernard.

For more than four hours Friday afternoon, the Cincinnati Bengals' second-year running back and the aforementioned props were in the top floor of an old west side Cincinnati building as he went through a photo shoot for the company he's endorsing, energy drink Vita Coco.

At the tail end of a year full of firsts, it was his first ad campaign for the fairly young company. Being part of a personal milestone easily could have made the young Bernard reflective.

[+] EnlargeGiovani Bernard
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsGiovani Bernard scored eight TDs for the Bengals as a rookie and rushed for 695 yards.
But much of what the 22-year-old discussed with in between set changes and shutter flashes had to do with the future. Admittedly proud of his first season in the league, he was instead focused on looking ahead.

Call it a running back's intuition.

Like a back constantly looking for the next level of defenders and the next hole to run through, Bernard peered ahead to what he felt was in store for himself and the Bengals' offense when the season finally rolls around. His biggest goal for Year 2? To break bigger runs.

"If you're a running back, you always want to be able to have explosive runs," Bernard said. "Maybe not so much just the 10-yard runs or 15-yard runs or the 20.

"I want to be able to break the 50s, 60s and 70s. And who knows? Maybe the 80s and 90s. Things like that take hard work and dedication. That's really where your skills come into play is on those explosive runs."

No doubt he possesses the quickness and agility to make such runs happen, but they also will take sound blocking from offensive linemen, the right play calls from offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and the right moment. He believes if he can do a better job of picking his moments this season, he will have the long runs that eluded him last season.

No longer a first-year player, he has no doubts that he will be able to create more opportunities for explosive plays this fall.

"Your rookie year you don't want to take too many chances, so you get what you can, you get the yardage you can and you live on the next play," Bernard said. "This year, I'll take a few more chances. A lot of people talk about the Miami run [last season]. That was a chance that I took. But that was a run where, I don't do that often."

Bernard's longest run of 2013 was arguably his most memorable in a year full of highlight-reel worthy jukes, jumps and sprints. At Miami on Halloween night, he scored on a game-tying 35-yard touchdown run that had it all. He broke a tackle practically as soon as he was handed the ball, spun suddenly several yards behind the line of scrimmage, stepped over another tackle attempt, turned a corner on the opposite side of the field and weaved through defenders -- with quarterback Andy Dalton among those blocking for him -- before flipping into the end zone.

A Fort Lauderdale, Florida, native, Bernard has heard often about the run from friends and strangers alike whenever he is back in South Florida. Although the Bengals ultimately lost the game, the play offered a glimpse into what he believes he can do when he takes a chance or two.

The play was so awe-inspiring that in late January, we ranked it fifth on a breakdown of the top 10 plays from the season.

Including that play, Bernard had runs of 20 or more yards only three times last season. As a receiver, he gained 20 or more yards on nine different receptions. His longest catch was a 41-yarder against Minnesota in Week 16. Much like they did in 2013, the Bengals will turn to Bernard often in the passing game in 2014. Along with catching screens out of the backfield and picking up yards after the catch, he will be put in the slot and asked to catch passes deeper downfield. That is just one way Jackson plans on using Bernard's speed in space to exploit opposing defenses.

Back to breaking bigger runs. Bernard said he had a number of tricks up his sleeve that can help him get more long runs. Among them?

"Maybe on a deep run I can cut back a little and do things like that," Bernard said. "But that's all I'll tell you. I won't put too many of my secrets out there."

Secrets or not, the NFL that knew little about Bernard this time last year certainly knows who he is now. Even the energy-drink world is starting to know his face. He thinks that in order to extend his brand further, he would be best served to collect all the explosive runs he can.
CINCINNATI -- He's more than a year removed from being in a classroom at the University of North Carolina, and he's still about a year short of graduating, but one of the school's most well-recognized recent attendees spoke out Friday about the on-going academic fraud scandal that took another ugly turn early in the day.

"It stinks," current Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard said. "It definitely stinks because people think, 'Oh, all you do in [that] school is sit there and cheat.'"

Bernard's comments came after he was asked about an ESPN "Outside the Lines" report from Friday morning. In the report, Rashad McCants, the second-leading scorer on UNC's national championship 2004-05 men's basketball team, said tutors wrote his term papers and that despite going to class about half his time at UNC, he remained able to play largely because he took bogus classes designed to keep athletes academically eligible.

McCants added that head basketball coach Roy Williams knew about the "paper-class" system at UNC. So-called paper classes didn't require students to go to class. Students instead were required to submit only one term paper to receive a grade.

Williams denied McCants' assertions in a statement Friday.

"I strongly disagree with what Rashad has said. In no way did I know about or do anything close to what he says and I think the players whom I have coached over the years will agree with me. I have spent 63 years on this earth trying to do things the right way and the picture he portrays is not fair to the university or me."

Bernard, a former Tar Heels football player who left school about two years before his scholarship expired, admitted he knew little about the school's now storied academic fraud scandal, but he was adamant in defense of players he said did work the right way.

"That's what bothers me is that just because of two or three people or whatever, it almost puts a stigma out there that everybody from UNC that graduated didn't do anything," Bernard said to during a break at a photo shoot for a product he's newly endorsing, energy drink Vita Coco. "Obviously that doesn't always feel good because you worked hard. I know how hard I worked when I was there."

Daily class attendance and late-night studying were Bernard's norm, he said.

"If people knew me and understood the type of student that I was, like how long I would stay up trying to study for anatomy tests or physiology tests, they would not think one bit that I was cheating," Bernard said. "The thing that I always understood was that if you wanted to learn, you're going to do it the right way. The guys that didn't want to do it were always the guys that sat in the back of the classroom, didn't want to do anything and expected everything to come to them. Because of those guys, they made everything for the rest of us who were sitting in the front of the class trying to get an education, trying to get our degree ... it just kind of in a way ruins it for everybody."

Bernard left UNC after the 2012 football season. In April 2013, the Bengals drafted him with one of two second-round picks. As a rookie last season, he played an integral role in their offense, which ranked 10th overall. Cincinnati drafted his former college teammate, center Russell Bodine, in the fourth round of last month's draft.

The running back said his plan is to finish his degree requirements next summer when he enrolls in online classes.
CINCINNATI -- For the second time in as many weeks Jermaine Gresham's absence headlined one of the Cincinnati Bengals' voluntary organized team activities.

As you'll read here, injuries and absences weren't the only events worth mentioning from Tuesday's practice.

Here is a rundown of seven observations from the open session:

[+] EnlargeDarqueze Dennard
Al Behrman/AP PhotoBengals' first-round pick Darqueze Dennard sees plenty of action on the field during Tuesday's OTAs.
1. Dennard gets work. Rookie cornerback Darqueze Dennard, the Bengals' first-round pick, got his share of action with the first-team defense playing the slot cornerback position early in the practice. He also got his share of snaps at the right cornerback position, playing on the outside with second-teamers such as fellow cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. If you recall, Kirkpatrick told reporters last month that he hoped the Bengals would draft a cornerback in the first round because he felt that with Leon Hall, Adam Jones and Terence Newman getting up in age, it was time the cornerback group got younger. His hope is that he and Dennard can form a solid tandem for years to come. It's clear the learning still is taking place for Dennard. Coaches were in his ears often, talking to him after many of the first-team plays.

2. Hill and Bernard a tandem? Speaking of duos, the Bengals may already have one at running back with second-year player Giovani Bernard and rookie Jeremy Hill. When the Bengals picked Hill in the second round, it seemed they were committing to making him not only part of their backfield of the long-term future, but also to using him in their immediate plans, as well. It's clear after the first two open OTAs that they are trying to see whether he'll be ready to be used regularly this fall. So far, Hill has gotten his share of hand-offs with the first-team unit alongside Bernard. The two have been in the backfield at the same time, in addition to trading roles as the lone back in single-back sets that get called. It's left veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis a little bit out of the starting picture. Green-Ellis has gotten his opportunities to work in Cincinnati's running back rotation, one that includes Rex Burkhead and Cedric Peerman, but it's clear Hill and Bernard are trending toward being the top tandem in the Bengals' backfield.

3. D-line rotations. Cincinnati's defensive line will get its share of tweaks and looks all throughout this OTA season as Geno Atkins continues rehabbing from an ACL tear. Those rotations include figuring out exactly where the large group of defensive ends will go, and determining which of them will have duties as defensive-tackle pass-rushers in nickel defenses. It appears Carlos Dunlap, the end who had been playing on the left side, might end up getting real action at right end this year. Second-year lineman Margus Hunt likely would take his spot on the left side. Wallace Gilberry could rotate with Hunt at left end, with rookie Will Clarke potentially doing the same with Dunlap on the right side. In nickel situations, Gilberry has fit on the interior of the line often in practices, just as he did at times last season. In truth, though, multiple ends could rotate into playing on the interior. Hunt and Clarke most specifically have backgrounds playing there.

4. Keep a close eye ... on the Bengals' offense this fall. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has alluded to them in the past, but don't be surprised if the Bengals incorporate a few trick plays next season. They certainly have the capability with all the playmakers they have, but the added luxury of having a player as versatile as Mohamed Sanu helps. The receiver is a former quarterback who still throws accurate, tight passes. He's also athletic enough to be a threat to run or pass if he gets the ball behind the line of scrimmage. It's quite possible Jackson uses him and others for a host of unique reasons as he starts injecting some life and big-play capability into the Bengals' scheme.

5. Slow movers. Jackson was none too pleased once during practice when he shouted to players about breaking the huddle too slowly. This is only worth mentioning because tempo and pacing are two things he and others have harped on all offseason as Cincinnati's offense gets tweaked. Jackson wants the Bengals to break their huddles quickly so they can get to the line, dissect the defense, make any changes, and get the ball snapped early in the play clock. In that sense, it's not a true no-huddle, but it will operate at a pace that requires the play to come in quickly from the sideline and relayed even faster. Jackson hopes to limit the amount of times he has to call out a slow-moving huddle.

6. Burden practices. The newest Bengal, Cincinnati-area product Chandler Burden, practiced Tuesday. He had just cleared a physical and was signed earlier in the morning. The offensive lineman can be used at either tackle or guard. His addition comes at the same time center/guard Mike Pollak has missed time during OTAs with an unspecified injury.

7. Green in midseason form? The NFL's official Twitter account tweeted a picture Tuesday afternoon of receiver A.J. Green leaping high and catching a pass (see below). The photo tagged Green's handle and said he was "already in midseason form." It may have been easy to see that from the picture, but it was pretty evident just by watching the way he was going for passes that Green was practicing at a high level. He looked like an elite receiver at times, running through routes and catching difficult passes he could have otherwise let sail on by in a voluntary workout. He jumped at least three times for passes, including through defenders at least once.
CINCINNATI -- The pick: Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU.

My take: The Bengals were sitting comfortably when the 55th overall pick went on the clock Friday night. There were a slew of highly talented players whom they could have taken with their various needs. Good running backs were available, offensive linemen were available, defensive ends were available, safeties were available and linebackers were, too. So they could have gone virtually anywhere. With the Bengals moving to a more physical offense under newly promoted offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, the Bengals were smart to take a running back in the second round. In Hill, they get a big, bruising ball-carrier who can push the pile as well as make defenders miss. He is also a solid receiving threat out of the backfield, too.

Hill's addition could soon spell the end for BenJarvus Green-Ellis' time in Cincinnati. Green-Ellis split carries with Giovani Bernard last season but didn't perform as well as the Bengals had hoped. If Green-Ellis does reach chopping-block status -- and Jackson made it clear that "right now" Green-Ellis is still an option in the backfield -- he would provide the Bengals a cap savings of $2.5 million this season.

No Hyde: The Bengals had a chance to take Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde with the 55th pick, but they went with a player whom many fans weren't expecting. The Bengals liked Hyde according to Jackson and running backs coach Kyle Caskey in a post-pick news conference, but Hill's selection was in part the product of his playing in a pro-style offense and a conference as competitive as the SEC.

What's next? Now that the Bengals have addressed one offensive need, they ought to turn their focus in the third round to either defensive line or quarterback. They still need a defensive end to help fill former end Michael Johnson's shoes. Johnson signed with Tampa Bay in free agency back in March. The Bengals are also in need of offensive line help and could take a player at center, guard or tackle.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers hosted Baylor running back Lache Seastrunk for a visit earlier this week, and while that position isn’t a pressing need they figure to address it later in the draft.

The Steelers should be able to find a back who can help them and complement Le’Veon Bell and newly signed LeGarrette Blount given how much the value of that position has slipped.

The first running back in the 2013 draft wasn’t taken until the second round -- the Bengals started a run on them when they selected North Carolina’s Giovani Bernard -- and players at that position could be pushed down even further in this year’s draft.

“Every year there’s third- to sixth-round running backs that are outstanding backs and this year [that is the case] more than any other because there’s not many teams now that really need a running back,” ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “There’s three to five [teams] maybe that could take one within the first four rounds.”

That prediction bodes well for the Steelers, who are unlikely to take a running back before the fifth round given the other holes they have to fill with their first four picks.

The Steelers are likely to target a speedy, shifty player at the position since they have a pair of big backs in Bell and Blount.

One back whom Kiper really likes is Kent State’s Dri Archer, though he could be gone before the Steelers draft a running back.

Archer ran the fastest 40-yard dash time (4.26 seconds) at the NFL scouting combine and Kiper ranks the 5-foot-8, 173-pounder as the fourth-best running back in the draft despite questions about his size.

Archer had 854 rushing and receiving yards combined last season for Kent State and scored 11 touchdowns, and his speed and versatility would allow the team that drafts the scatback to create mismatches for him.

“Dri Archer could be Darren Sproles in the third round,” Kiper said.