NFL Nation: Kevin Huber

It only took a matter of minutes for A.J. Green to come off the board during Wednesday night's Pro Bowl draft.

Taken with the third overall pick, the Cincinnati Bengals receiver was drafted by the Pro Bowl team that will be coached by former Minnesota Vikings Hall of Fame receiver and current ESPN analyst Cris Carter. Green was the first non-quarterback taken, and the second player selected by Irvin and player-captains, Antonio Brown and J.J. Watt. Brown and Watt were named captains of the team Tuesday.

Green was the only Bengals player actually picked in the draft, as the other four Pro Bowl selections were assigned to their teams as part of this second year of the "unconferenced" format. Before Wednesday's draft, players either were voted or named as alternates to one single Pro Bowl team that was subsequently separated into two teams with the draft.

To help keep Sunday night's all-star game in Arizona fair, certain players were assigned to each team.

In the Bengals' case, quarterback Andy Dalton was assigned to Carter's team with Green, while punter Kevin Huber and defensive tackle Geno Atkins were assigned to the other team coached by Hall of Famer Michael Irvin. It means if Atkins and Dalton are on the field at the same time, the lineman actually could sack his quarterback.

Atkins only had three sacks this season after coming off an ACL tear last year. By all accounts, physically, he was fully healthy all year. He had 12.5 sacks in the last complete season he played before this year, 2012.

Dalton threw for 3,398 yards and 19 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in 2014. Green, who was voted to the Pro Bowl with Huber, caught 69 passes and set career-lows with 1,041 yards and six touchdowns. Hurt off and on, Green missed parts of five games. Huber ranked fourth this season in net punting, but he led the league in percentage of punts inside both the 10- and 5-yard lines.

This is Green's fourth Pro Bowl, Atkins' third, Dalton's second and Huber's first.
» Pro Bowl analysis: AFC | NFC » Complete roster

SELECTIONS

A.J. Green, fourth Pro Bowl selection: Injuries have made it a difficult year for Green, who missed parts of five games because of them. For that reason, his selection is a little puzzling. It seems likely that his name alone carried him through this season's picks. He has now been a Pro Bowl selection each year of his career. It's possible a four-game stretch across November and early December may have helped his cause, too. He caught 33 passes for 529 yards in those contests. While he leads the Bengals in receptions (61), receiving yards (959) and receiving touchdowns (six) despite the injuries, he also ranks far down his position's statistical lists. Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown has double the catches Green does, and 23 players have more receiving yards.

Who he beat out: Green beat out Emmanuel Sanders, Jeremy Maclin and Randall Cobb for the roster spot.

Kevin Huber, first Pro Bowl selection: It made sense that Huber was selected. It would have been a travesty if he hadn't been. That's because all season, he's hovered in the top 5 in gross and net punting averages. If his current averages hold through Sunday's regular-season finale at Pittsburgh, Huber would break single-season franchise records he already holds. He's also the club record-holder in career gross average (44.6) and net average (39.7).

Who he beat out: Huber beat St. Louis' Johnny Hekker, New Orleans' Thomas Morstead and Baltimore's Sam Koch.

SNUBS

Andrew Whitworth, OT. A good case could be made that this was the biggest snub of this year's Pro Bowl voting process. But, as was written last weekend, it was expected. Whitworth has been an almost annual snub. Only once has been voted to the all-star game. Arguably, though, he's played even better since his 2012 selection. This season could go down as the best of his career. Fully healthy all year, Whitworth hasn't allowed quarterback Andy Dalton to be sacked, one of five tackles to have accomplished that feat. He's also only permitted nine quarterback pressures all season, according to Pro Football Focus. Consider this, too: in eight of his 15 games, he has allowed zero pressures. In Week 16 alone, 55 tackles allowed at least one pressure. Whitworth's 98.6 PFF pass-block efficiency rating also is the highest among tackles.

Who he should have beaten: The entire offensive-tackle field. The metrics and PFF grades back it up. There was no better offensive tackle in the league this season than Whitworth.

Kevin Zeitler, OG. Like Whitworth, Zeitler suffered from the media black hole that exists around Cincinnati. Few people outside the city know who they are. Injuries also could have factored in this case, as calf issues kept Zeitler out of four games. Still, he had one of the best seasons of any guard when he played. His 98.4 PFF pass-block efficiency grade ranked fourth among them. It was just 0.4 points behind leader Josh Sitton from Green Bay.

Who he should have beaten: New Orleans' Jahri Evans and San Francisco's Mike Iupati.

Adam Jones, PR. There were a couple potential Bengals special teams snubs, including Dre Kirkpatrick, who might have been a good option for the general specialist position. He had a knack of helping Huber down punts inside the 10 as the team's lead gunner. Jones' snub was more noticeable because of how well he performed as a punt returner all year. At one point, he led the league in punt return average. Among players with 15 or more punt returns at the end of Week 16, he ranks fifth with 11.9 yards per return. Although he doesn't have a punt return touchdown, he did have returns of 45, 21 and 19 yards this season. He also had a streak that spanned nine seasons halted when he fair caught a punt for the first time in 96 tries. It is hard to argue against the selections of Darren Sproles (two punt-return touchdowns) and Devin Hester, though.

Who he should have beaten: Hester.
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CINCINNATI -- Ben Roethlisberger surveyed the defense and told himself not to believe what the Cincinnati Bengals were showing.

That is why the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback stuck with the pass play that offensive coordinator Todd Haley called even though he had the option of changing it to a run.

And it was exactly the kind of derring-do that coach Mike Tomlin wanted to see from his quarterback, even with the Steelers backed up on their own 6-yard line at a critical juncture of the AFC North game.

“We just were not going to live in our fears today,” Tomlin said. “We needed to be aggressive and create some splash. It worked out for us.”

Did it ever.

Martavis Bryant blew past Bengals cornerback Leon Hall, and Roethlisberger hit the rookie wide receiver in stride for the longest play (94 yards) in a game that was full of them.

The second-longest pass play in Steelers history propelled Pittsburgh to the 42-21 win that only added intrigue to the most compelling division in the NFL.

It came after punter Kevin Huber pinned the Steelers inside their 10-yard line with just under nine minutes left to play in a 28-21 game.

Bryant, who had gone from rookie sensation to just plain rookie in the Steelers’ previous two games, caught Hall looking for the run, and he ran a simple go route. Strong safety George Iloka had strayed too far to the middle of the field to do anything but join Hall in a futile chase of Bryant.

“I knew it was coming,” Bryant said with a grin. “It was just a perfect call.”

Tomlin called it “Football 101.”

“[Defenses] are usually aggressive when you’re backed up and they want to keep you backed up,” Tomlin said after the win that allowed the Steelers to keep pace with the Baltimore Ravens and put them percentage points behind the Bengals in the AFC North. “Opportunities are usually there. It’s more about whether you are willing to take the risk.”

Roethlisberger took the risk even after the Bengals cornerbacks played off the Steelers receivers and their safeties stayed back before the snap.

Roethlisberger called Cincinnati’s bluff, and after a play-action fake that left Hall flat-footed and moved Iloka too far out of position for the strong safety to provide any help, Bryant made the easy catch-and-run that defined their offensive explosion after a scoreless first quarter.

“I didn’t quite believe that the safety was not going to come down [in run support],” Roethlisberger said. “Either I got lucky or saw something right.”

There were plenty of smiles in the Steelers’ locker room after their most impressive road win of the season. There was some sandbagging, too.

Antonio Brown, who had yet another 100-yard receiving game, was asked how teams know that the ball is going to him and running back Le'Veon Bell and can’t stop either, and the two-time Pro Bowler smiled.

“Luck,” he said.

The Bengals know better.

They also can attest that if the Steelers’ other skill players take advantage of their opportunities, as Bryant did with an exclamation point, that Pittsburgh’s offense could be the difference in a division that is a three-team race with three weeks to play.

“They get the headlines and do a lot for us,” Tomlin said of Brown and Bell, “but the other guys step up and answer the bell when their number is called. That creates a level playing field for Brown and Bell to both continue doing what they need to do.”
CINCINNATI -- If Cincinnati Bengals fans needed a reminder Monday who their team was playing this week, all they had to do was look at punter Kevin Huber's Twitter timeline.

That afternoon, as players voluntarily showed up to Paul Brown Stadium to get treatment and to work out one day after returning home from a 14-13 win at Tampa Bay, Huber tweeted a photo from inside the equipment room.


In the foreground are three stand-alone face guards, each of which are typically found attached to the helmets of linemen and linebackers. Punters really have no need for such heavy-duty protection.

But then again, it isn't often that punters break their jaws after high, hard blindside hits from linebackers who had been sprinting full speed toward them.

Exactly 354 days ago, Huber had that happen to him.

"I remember getting hit, being on the ground, the doctors rushing out," Huber said earlier this week as a horde of local media asked to him relive the moment the Steelers' Terence Garvin knocked him out of the teams' previous meeting last December in Pittsburgh. "I remember I didn't feel good."

It was late in the first quarter of the Steelers' eventual 30-20 win when Huber lofted a short 38-yard punt that split the middle of the field. Alone in space as Pittsburgh returner Antonio Brown fielded the punt and started running straight ahead, an unsuspecting Huber had no idea he was in Garvin's crosshairs. The blocker was looking for bodies to clear and lanes to open. From where he stood, it appeared Huber would be in Brown's way.

So he ran hard and lit Huber up. No flags hit the field.

As Brown eased by the blown-up Huber and finished off his 67-yard return with a touchdown, Bengals trainers started rushing out to the punter. After several minutes of evaluation, Huber emerged. Face bloody, a packet of crimson-stained gauze filled Huber's mouth as he jogged off the field and toward the Bengals' locker room. Little did the Cincinnati native know at that moment, but his season was over.

With Pittsburgh coming to town Sunday, Huber contends he isn't seeking revenge.

"Get revenge on him? I didn't think about it, no," Huber said. "He made a football play and he hit me. He hit me a little too high, but it is what it is. You can't do anything about it."

NFL officials later acknowledged that officials should have flagged Garvin for a personal foul for hitting a defenseless player. At the time, the gesture meant little to Huber, who was forced into a neck brace for a few weeks and to drink his meals for several days. It also backed up his preparation time this offseason by a month.

Since the injury, though, Huber has had arguably the best punting performances of his career. He leads the league in percentage of punts inside the 10 and the 5, and he ranks second in net punting average to Indianapolis' Pat McAfee.

Huber has only allowed two return touchdowns in his career. Brown has both, leading Huber to this conclusion: Keep the ball out the middle of the field.

"One of the phases of punting is getting good placement," Huber said. "I didn't do that. I kind of put our coverage guys in a bind. So I need to get good placement, just like any other returner we've faced, and just give our guys the best chance to get down there and make a play."
CINCINNATI -- Let's go ahead and give an answer to the question in the headline above because it's a simple one.

Opportunity and fearlessness are why Cincinnati Bengals defensive back Adam Jones is leading the NFL in both punt and kick return average.

For the first time since an impromptu appearance in the 2012 playoffs, Jones finally has been given consistent chances to return kickoffs, and he's taking full advantage. With those chances he's doing exactly what he does when returning punts: desperately trying to pick up yards regardless of where he catches the ball on the field.

[+] EnlargeAdam Jones
Patrick Semansky/Associated PressAdam Jones is leading the NFL in both punt (15.8) and kick return (32.8) average this season.
"I'm just glad he's on our team and not a team we have to play," Bengals punter Kevin Huber said.

Among qualifying players, Jones tops the punt-returning list with a 15.8-yards-per-return average. He ranks first in kickoff returns, taking the ball out an average of 32.8 yards. He very nearly had a return for touchdown on his first kick return of the season when he was pulled down from behind just three yards from the end zone on a 97-yard return that gave the Bengals a necessary spark in their 37-37 overtime tie with the Panthers.

Special-teams coordinator Darrin Simmons this week admitted to being stingy with giving Jones kick-return chances earlier this season.

"He's earned more shots," Simmons said. "Situations dictate sometimes we put him in there. I probably should have put him in there earlier on kickoff returns. I needed to feel confident how he was going to react to what he was going to do when he was in there."

Simmons' early-season hesitance stemmed from belief in his other kick returner, Brandon Tate. With the thought that receiver Marvin Jones would return from a preseason foot injury by Week 5 or 6, the Bengals felt OK with giving Tate as many return chances as they could. They thought they could get by all season without having to keep him too fresh for his own receiving duties.

But when Marvin Jones was formally placed on season-ending injured reserve Oct. 14, two days after the tie with the Panthers, it became evident that Tate's offensive responsibilities were about to grow. With Pro Bowler A.J. Green also nursing a toe injury, Tate's plate needed to be cleared. That was especially the case considering the relative health the Bengals' cornerbacks had. So opportunities presented themselves for Jones to play more on special teams.

Since his kick-return debut five weeks ago, Jones has returned 10 kicks. He's now one of 22 players in the NFL with double-digit returns, including Tate, who has 12. But only three of Tate's have come since the Week 6 game against Carolina.

In addition to his league-leading kick-return average, Jones' also is better at producing strong starting field position for his offense than any player with 10 or more returns. The Bengals have an average of 66.1 yards to go -- meaning they start around their own 34 -- when beginning a drive after a Jones kick return or touchback. That's about nine yards closer than the league average of 75.4 yards. It's also better than Tate's average starting field position of 78.4 yards to go after a return or touchback.

"He runs with a purpose. He's fearless," Huber said. "He's just got a good knack for finding the hole, hitting the hole hard, avoiding tacklers. He's a shifty guy. He's always been like that. He can make guys miss.

For evidence of Jones' fearlessness, consider this: He still hasn't fair caught a punt since Nov. 16, 2006, when he played for Tennessee. That's a stretch of 89 returns without a fair catch.

If Jones leads in both punt and kick return average all season, he'll accomplish a feat the NFL hasn't seen since 1991, when Detroit's Mel Gray led the league in both categories.

All-AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

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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.

Upon Further Review: Bengals Week 16

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CINCINNATI -- An examination of four hot issues from the Cincinnati Bengals' 42-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings:

Mind-boggling Bernard: Bengals running back Giovani Bernard did it again. He wowed all those watching with yet another dazzling, tackle-breaking, defender-avoiding run. On one third-quarter run after the catch, he completely confounded the Vikings as he cut, spun, shook, stiff-armed and danced his way to a 41-yard gain off a short screen that began near midfield. On the next play, Mohamed Sanu's touchdown catch gave Cincinnati a 28-point second-half lead. In all, five Vikings missed tackles on Bernard's run that included a spin move, two jump-cuts and a stiff-arm. The play was reminiscent of a fourth-quarter 35-yard touchdown run Bernard had against the Dolphins on Halloween. That play was completed with a flip into the end zone. Asked Sunday what he said to Bernard after the latest run, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden smiled and said: "He should have scored." Bernard was wrestled down at the Minnesota 7.

Dalton
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Bernard
Playmakers: Bernard wasn't the only Bengal with a head-turning play. Cincinnati's receivers got in on the act as well. It started with Marvin Jones' diving catch out of bounds and continued with Andrew Hawkins' leaping grab deep in Vikings territory to set up another score. At one point, the Bengals appeared in such a quarterback-receiver rhythm that anything thrown within a 15-yard radius of a particular pass-catcher was going to get caught. Quarterback Andy Dalton's completion percentage reflected that fact, too. He completed more than 70 percent of his passes for the fifth time this season. Along with those receptions, the Bengals had a quirky interception. As cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick went up to defend one pass -- he appeared to make contact with the receiver worthy of pass interference -- the ball hit his helmet and bounced in the sky. Safety George Iloka, who fell and was on his back, reached his hands out as the ball was falling. It fell right into his lap for his first career interception. It was one of three picks for the Bengals on Sunday.

Forty times four club: Thanks in large part to Dalton's four-touchdown, 366-yard passing effort, the Bengals hit the 40-point mark for a fourth consecutive home game. They also scored 42 points in the previous home game against the Indianapolis Colts. They scored 41 against the Cleveland Browns the home game before that, and hit 49 against the Jets a game before that. In most of those other games, Cincinnati had a better run-pass average than it had Sunday. On 37 total carries, the Bengals picked up only 81 yards for a 2.19 average. They didn't need to stay on the ground, though. An injury-depleted Vikings secondary had enough soft zones for Dalton to routinely find open receivers.

Powell does enough: When Kevin Huber was placed on injured reserve Tuesday following a hit that broke his jaw and cracked vertebrae in his neck, the Bengals were simply looking for a replacement who could do a good enough job. Shawn Powell may not have been exceptional Sunday, but he was strong. Of his four punts, only one was returned. That return only happened because the ball drifted into the middle of the field. With the rest of the punts booted toward the sideline, returner Marcus Sherels couldn't break away. Overall, the Bengals' special-teams units didn't play their best Sunday, but Powell kept field position mostly in Cincinnati's favor.
Jennings/DaltonGetty ImagesCan Greg Jennings and the Vikings help spoil the playoff hopes of Andy Dalton and the Bengals?
The Minnesota Vikings and Cincinnati Bengals are two teams headed in completely opposite directions.

For the Vikings, the 2013 season has been a difficult one, defined mostly by a quarterbacking carousel and the lack of wins because of it. As for the Bengals, the year has been a mostly good one. With home wins over the Packers and Patriots, and road victories against the Lions and Chargers, the Bengals have looked for much of the year like a team poised for a longer postseason run than the past two years. Cincinnati's 2011 and 2012 seasons ended with first-round playoff losses.

If the 9-5 Bengals are even going to get to this postseason this year, though, they first have to bounce back from a Sunday night loss at Pittsburgh and beat the four-win Vikings. Such a win isn't a guarantee. Minnesota has embraced the role of postseason spoiler, rolling NFC East-leading Philadelphia last weekend.

To break down the contest, ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey teamed up for this edition of Double Coverage. As this week's visitor, we'll start with Ben:

Ben Goessling: Andy Dalton was one of the Vikings' options at QB when they drafted Christian Ponder in 2011. The Vikings seem to have given up on Ponder, and while Dalton has been better, it's hard to tell whether he's going to be the answer in Cincinnati long-term. How do the Bengals feel about his progress?

Coley Harvey: It certainly appears that for now the Bengals feel comfortable with Dalton moving forward. Despite calls at times this season from some groups of angry fans, the Bengals have remained firm in their support of him. No matter how poorly Dalton played, they weren't shopping for another quarterback, and they weren't trying to give backup Josh Johnson any shared playing time. In short, they were committed to seeing Dalton through the year. And why not? Although he has had some struggles this season, Dalton has still shown that he can handle the duties of being a starting quarterback. He was the AFC's offensive player of the month for October, and had three consecutive 300-yard passing games during one stretch. If Dalton can't get the Bengals past the first round of the playoffs, it will be interesting to see whether the sides discuss a contract extension, with the 2014 season his last on his current contract.

To your broader point, Ben, that 2011 quarterback class certainly hasn't been all that amazing.

Speaking of progressing quarterbacks, it seems like Matt Cassel has given the Vikings some semblance of offensive success in games he's appeared in this season. Why didn't Minnesota stick with him sooner?

Goessling: That's been the big question all season here, and on Sunday, coach Leslie Frazier finally gave those of us in the media a hint of what we'd expected all along. He said the Vikings always liked Cassel, but had to go through the "process" a little bit, and unfortunately weren't able to win games in the meantime. The "process" I believe he's referring to is the act of evaluating Christian Ponder to a point where the Vikings could be absolutely sure he wasn't the answer at the position. When Josh Freeman got inserted into the mix -- and both Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman said the Vikings planned to play Freeman soon -- that complicated things even more. The biggest thing Cassel had working against him was his age (31), and the Vikings didn't necessarily see him as the long-term guy. The question will be whether the quarterback tryouts wind up costing Frazier his job, but now that Cassel's starting, maybe Frazier will be able to make a case to keep his job by showing he can win when he has a competent quarterback.

The Vikings have struggled all year with small, shifty running backs. How do you expect Giovani Bernard to fare against them Sunday?

Harvey: If the Vikings have struggled with those types of backs, then they could be in serious trouble Sunday, Ben. Bernard has been the five-tool player the Bengals thought they were drafting earlier this year and more. Not only can he hit the edge hard on pitches and outside runs, but he has enough power in his smaller body to hit the middle of a defensive line hard and keep going. His most important trait, though, may be what he's able to do as a receiver. You'll see the Bengals use him fairly regularly in the screen game. If the blocking sets up right on those plays, he won't just go for 5 or 6 additional yards. He typically will break off another 10, 15, 20 or more yards after the catch. Once the rookie gets in space, it's like he hits a fourth and fifth gear.

Having said all of that, I do believe he and the more between-the-tackles running BenJarvus Green-Ellis will be keys to the game. If they get going, the Bengals have a chance to showcase the balanced offense that has been coming on of late.

Minnesota has obviously had one of the NFL's best rushing attacks the past seven seasons because of Adrian Peterson. Matt Asiata did a great job of getting to the end zone last week. What kind of challenge do you think he poses the Bengals if he ends up playing in place of Peterson?

Goessling: Not much of one, based on what we saw last week. Asiata averaged less than 2 yards a carry, and while he runs hard between the tackles, he doesn't offer much else; he doesn't break tackles the way Toby Gerhart can, and Peterson's gifts are obviously on a different level from either of those guys. I think Peterson will play, though; he wanted it known last week that he could have gone, and Frazier said after the game that he expected Peterson would be back. The guy prides himself on his pain tolerance, and as hard as he pushed to play last week, I'd be really surprised if he's not in there Sunday.

Assuming he plays, how tough a matchup is this for Peterson? The Bengals have been one of the NFL's best teams against the run this year. What's made them so effective there?

Harvey: It won't be an easy one for Peterson. This Bengals' defense prides itself on playing physically, emotionally and flowing quickly to the football, particularly when it's on the ground. If this were a normal week, I might contend that as good as Cincinnati's run defense has been that Peterson might still end up surprising them and have a big day. This isn't a normal week, though. The Bengals are coming off a loss that had many questioning their heart and attitude, and they also happen to be playing this game at home. There's something about Paul Brown Stadium this season. Opponents have struggled, and the Bengals have fed off the crowd's energy. Cincinnati is 6-0 at home this season, and the defense is a big reason. If linebacker James Harrison (concussion) doesn't play, that could take away a key piece of the Bengals' run defense.

Cincinnati lost punter Kevin Huber to a season-ending injury last week and is bringing along his replacement, Shawn Powell, this week. He'll be kicking to Minnesota's Marcus Sherels. How dynamic is Sherels, Ben? His numbers seem so-so for most of the season, but he does have a return for touchdown.

Goessling: I think you summed it up nicely there, Coley. Sherels did have the punt return touchdown, but his numbers otherwise have been just OK. The thing the Vikings like about him is that he doesn't make mistakes. He fumbled a punt earlier this year, but he's typically very sure-handed and makes good decisions about when to call for a fair catch. He doesn't get them in trouble by taking unnecessary chances, and special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer is a big fan of his partly because of his decision-making skills. But watch out, though. The Vikings are trying to find ways to get Cordarrelle Patterson the ball now that teams have stopped kicking to him, and Frazier mentioned they could give him a look on punt returns. If that happens, the Vikings will have a completely different kind of threat back there on punts.

One of the hot NFL topics in recent days centers on the blindside hit that Cincinnati Bengals punter Kevin Huber took from the Pittsburgh Steelers' Terence Garvin. Huber suffered a broken jaw and cracked vertebrae, injuries that ended his season. ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi has studied the play and considered what might be done to avoid similar situations in the future, and he offers his analysis:

"I do believe there was a foul on the play [even though it wasn’t called]. The crown of Garvin’s helmet made contact with the chin/neck area, so yes, I believe a penalty should have been called. If Garvin used his shoulder and lowered his target area, that would have been a legal block.

[+] EnlargeKevin Huber and Terence Garvin
Jason Bridge/USA TODAY SportsTedy Bruschi agrees with the NFL's head of officials that punters are defenseless, and thinks there should be a rule exempting specialists from contact.
"What interested me was the explanation given by NFL Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino on [the] NFL Network, when he said that punters are defenseless throughout the down. When you initially think about that – a player being defenseless throughout the down and not being subject to the same types of hits as others – some might consider it ridiculous. But I believe Blandino is correct. The majority of kickers and punters don’t have the same strength, speed and abilities as the other 21 players on the field. I would even stretch it to say, ‘All specialists are in that category – punters, kickers, holders, long-snappers.’ They provide a special skill that has to be executed for certain special-teams plays to be run. They train differently. They work out differently.

"A part of me believes that if you're on the field you should be subject to the same risks as every other player. However, I recognize how the game is progressing with player safety and how that is so important for the future of the NFL.

"Thus, what I think should happen is this: Specialists should be required to wear a different color jersey – a neutral color – and players will know that certain color jersey can’t be touched. Wearing that jersey, specialists then surrender their right to participate in the down once their act is executed. So, for example, after Huber punts the ball he has no right to make a tackle, he’s eliminated from the play.

"Blandino is right – these players are defenseless throughout the down. I played with kicker Adam Vinatieri and saw him run down Herschel Walker, but it’s rare for a kicker to have that type of toughness. Sure, you see some punters and kickers making tackles. Usually they are the last line of defense. It can be argued that even when they do make the tackle it looks awkward and they are still putting themselves at risk. The best way to protect them is to take them out of the equation completely and introduce the neutral jersey.

"All players know the neutral jersey because it’s used across the NFL in practices. You see it with quarterbacks or players coming back from an injury, they come out wearing a red jersey and there is a different tempo used for that player. On plays where there is potential for a high-impact collision, other players are trained to yield to that jersey. So it’s already in the psyche of players because it’s used around the league in practices. It now needs to be used in game situations, protecting specialists from violent collisions against linebackers, defensive ends, fullbacks and others who are trying to keep their own jobs by making crushing blocks that often injure or end seasons for specialists."
CINCINNATI -- Marvin Lewis thinks there has been more than enough talk this week about the violent play at Pittsburgh last weekend that sidelined his punter for the remainder of the season.

Whether or not the blindside hit was clean is no longer of any consequence to the Cincinnati Bengals' coach. He thinks it's time the world moves on from discussing the play and focuses on other things. Namely, Sunday's game between the Bengals and Minnesota Vikings.

With a postseason berth still on the line and the Bengals needing to win their last two games, his mind has already drifted elsewhere. As it very well should.

[+] EnlargeKevin Huber and Terence Garvin
Jason Bridge/USA TODAY SportsThe Bengals have been mum about the hit that ended punter Kevin Huber's season. Coach Marvin Lewis, for one, wants to move on.
But why should the rest of ours? We still have five days to write about and talk about Cincinnati's next contest. There are still several elements of the shot heard 'round the Ohio Valley that deserve to be debated. Particularly this one: Were the Bengals right to not retaliate after Steelers special-teamer Terence Garvin sent Bengals punter Kevin Huber to the hospital with a devastating hit?

I say they were.

Some of you probably do not share that sentiment. That's OK. I can understand why.

Football, at its foundation, is a violent sport. It's about hitting and colliding and blocking and pushing. For some, it's the ultimate test of machismo. (How hard can I hit you and how quickly will you pick yourself up?) In that vein, it's also a sport that hinges on teamwork. (Will you help me up and have my back if I get knocked down?)

It's the part about helping that some Bengals fans have had a problem with the last couple of days.

In the time since Huber was bloodied and broken by Garvin's helmet-to-face-mask hit in the first quarter of Sunday night's 30-20 loss at Pittsburgh, there have been questions about why the Bengals didn't jump to Huber's defense at any point during the rest of the game. There are those who wanted to see a Steeler get popped high on a tackle or an off-ball block. Others have wondered why Bengals offensive linemen didn't dive low at the knees of Steelers linebackers. Still others are wondering why the Bengals haven't said much about the hit in the days since.

We'll answer those concerns in reverse order.

For starters, the Bengals haven't said much because, aside from social media, they haven't really had the forum to say anything. Even though Lewis spoke with reporters Tuesday, players have been off limits since Sunday. And immediately after the game, none took the bait when asked to discuss any anger they felt when they saw Huber lying on the ground in obvious pain.

The closest reporters could come to getting the Bengals to share those feelings was when kicker Mike Nugent was asked about being angry after the play.

"Honestly, I didn't see the hit," said Nugent, who ended up punting in place of Huber for the rest of the game. "I was watching the ball the whole time. I wish I could comment more on it, but I have to see it on film. It makes you wonder, though, how someone breaks their jaw. It had to be a pretty high hit."

The Bengals' locker room will be open for the first time this week late Wednesday morning, and presumably after film study.

As for reasons the Bengals didn't retaliate, how's this -- they were trailing 21-0 at the time, and as much as their thoughts might have been with Huber, they also needed to focus on overcoming the massive deficit.

Eventually, their defense started holding and the offense got rolling. The comeback bid wasn't enough in the end, though.

Yes, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati will meet again. It won't happen until next season, the same time Huber makes his return. Even if Garvin isn't playing for the Steelers then, the Bengals probably will see him at some point. Even if there are years that separate them from facing him again, you can be sure that some current Bengals will remember his hit.

In different days, those Bengals may have actively sought ways to get back at him. But in this NFL, one that preaches the value of player safety and player integrity, don't expect the old-school retaliation you may want. Fines are too steep.

The only retaliatory option the Bengals have is to just do what they set out to do before the season began: win the division and win the Super Bowl. In this league, the sweetest revenge is playing when everyone else is at home watching.

Terence Garvin likely to be fined by NFL

December, 16, 2013
12/16/13
4:45
PM ET
PITTSBURGH -- After watching countless replays of Terence Garvin's crushing block on Bengals punter Kevin Huber, I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Steelers linebacker will be fined by the NFL.

That is not to say there isn’t some gray on the play in which Antonio Brown scored on a 67-yard punt return.

Garvin lined up Huber in the chest before hitting him and appeared to make a good, if ferocious, block. But when Garvin finished his block the crown of his helmet hit Huber’s chin, leaving the latter with a broken jaw and a serious neck injury, according to ESPN NFL Insider Chris Mortensen.

Punters are not protected from hits if they try to make a tackle as Huber clearly did. But they are afforded the same protection as other players who are deemed defenseless and cannot be hit above the shoulders.

It is close as to whether Garvin violated that rule or simply made a textbook block on a player who probably should have been more aware of where he was on the field -- or what position he put himself in when he gave chase to Brown.

But a league that has made improving player safety a top priority is going to err on the side of caution, which is why Garvin should expect some mail from the NFL this week.

Upon Further Review: Steelers Week 15

December, 16, 2013
12/16/13
11:15
AM ET
A review of four hot issues from the Pittsburgh Steelers' 30-20 win against the Cincinnati Bengals:

[+] EnlargeAntonio Brown
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThrough 14 games this season, Antonio Brown is averaging 13.8 yards per reception for the Steelers.
Roethlisberger, Brown shine again: And then there were two. The Steelers' MVP award, which the players will vote on shortly, is down to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and receiver Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger continues to have the finest statistical season of his career, already establishing a new Steelers record for completions in a season (340). Roethlisberger, who completed 80 percent of his passes against the Bengals, needs 414 passing yards in the final two games to break the Steelers' single-season record, which he holds. Brown, meanwhile, became the first player in the NFL since 2001 with at least five catches and 50 receiving yards in each of his team's first 14 games, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The fourth-year veteran also joined Hines Ward as the only players in Steelers history to catch at least 95 passes in a season. Flip a coin between Roethlisberger and Brown, who won the Steelers' MVP award in 2011. It is that close between the two players.

Was it legal? Brown gave the Steelers a commanding three-touchdown lead with his 67-yard punt return near the end of the first quarter, and a devastating block by rookie linebacker Terence Garvin helped spring him. Garvin demolished Kevin Huber with a block that left the Bengals punter with a fractured jaw, and the NFL will determine whether the blindside hit violated the rule on crack-back blocks that it instituted in 2009, a season after Ward broke Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers' jaw with a block that happened behind the play. Garvin did not get flagged on the play, and he said the block was a legal one. "I thought I hit him pretty square, right in his chest. Nobody said anything to me about it," Garvin said. "I saw AB about to break and I really just wanted to finish up and help him get all the way out."

A different look: Garvin, who made the Steelers as an undrafted free agent, has worked his way into the Steelers' nickel defense. Garvin, who played safety at West Virginia, replaced Vince Williams when the Steelers went to their nickel package against the Bengals. The Steelers used the nickel extensively against Cincinnati, allowing Troy Polamalu to play safety more than he has in recent games. "My shoulders are pretty fresh," Polamalu said after he recorded five tackles and forced a fumble. The Steelers sustained a couple of injuries on defense, most notable a calf injury that sidelined outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley early in the game. Woodley missed three games earlier this season with a calf injury. The seventh-year veteran hurt his other calf against the Bengals. Cornerback Ike Taylor sustained a rib injury, but he said after the game that he is fine.

Big Ben blitzes Bengals: The offensive line allowed just one sack, and gave Roethlisberger enough time to pick apart the Bengals when they didn't blitz him. Roethlisberger completed 17 of 20 passes when the Bengals rushed four or fewer players, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Andy Dalton, by comparison, completed just 14 of 28 passes when the Steelers didn't blitz the Bengals quarterback. The one thing that didn't sit well with Roethlisberger after he improved to 14-6 lifetime against the Bengals: The Steelers had to settle for three Shaun Suisham field goals, including twice after they had driven inside Cincinnati's 10-yard line. "I'm disappointed because I thought we could have been better in the red zone," Roethlisberger said. "We could have put seven points on the board a couple of times."

Upon Further Review: Bengals Week 15

December, 16, 2013
12/16/13
9:00
AM ET
PITTSBURGH -- An examination of four hot issues from the Cincinnati Bengals' 30-20 loss to the Steelers:

Huber's hit: On Cincinnati's final punt of the opening period, Bengals punter Kevin Huber was blindsided by Pittsburgh's Terence Garvin on a hit that left the kicker motionless on the ground a few moments, and that ultimately led him to have his jaw wired shut before he left Pittsburgh. On the play the NFL is expected to review this week, Huber broke his jaw, and likely ended his season. After the game, Bengals kicker Mike Nugent, who relieved Huber and punted for the first time since high school, said he was saddened by the sight of the hit.

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lastname
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Slow start hurts run: That tackle wasn't the only thing that went wrong for Huber on Sunday night. During his first punt attempt of the game, he fumbled a wide snap near his own end zone and had nowhere to run as the Steelers gave chase. He didn't even have time to recover and get off an emergency rugby kick or sprint to the back of the end zone for a safety. Instead, he was tackled into the end zone and downed at the 1-yard line. A play later, the Steelers scored their first touchdown of the game. It was the first of three hiccups on special teams that had a hand in a 21-0 deficit the Bengals had a tough time climbing out from. The hole was so deep that Cincinnati really couldn't run the ball like it had hoped, and was forced to go to the air to try to quickly make up yards and scores. After going beyond the 150-yard rushing mark the previous two games, the Bengals were held to just 57 yards on the ground against Pittsburgh. Had they been able to run a little more regularly, they may have had a more balanced offensive attack, similar to the one they showed against San Diego and Indianapolis.

Dink, dunk, win: Eventually, the Bengals were able to get their passing game going, and they did so by throwing a lot of short underneath routes to receivers. Slants and screens were key components in their comeback bid that brought the wide early deficit to within a two-point conversion of being a one-score game with nearly six minutes remaining in the game. The dink-and-dunk style of passing was ripped from the Steelers' playbook. That's precisely the way they moved the ball on a Bengals defense that simply wasn't getting pressure on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and was back on its heels often in the play-action and short-route game. Roethlisberger was 20-for-25 for 191 yards overall. Half of his passes came on balls that traveled 10 yards or fewer in the air. He was 10-for-14 on such passes.

Miscues abound for defense: The Bengals believe one of the reasons Roethlisberger had that type of success was because they dealt with occasional bouts of miscommunication. Defensive end Michael Johnson said that was the case on a few plays, including the 12-yard touchdown pass Roethlisberger completed to Antonio Brown in the first quarter. On that play, only two Bengals rushed the passer and nine dropped in coverage. Johnson intimated that there should have been more rushers. Along with those communication issues, the Bengals also missed several tackles. They weren't happy with those, particularly after spending the week trying to correct more tackling issues that cropped up against the Colts last week.

Rapid Reaction: Cincinnati Bengals

December, 15, 2013
12/15/13
11:38
PM ET

PITTSBURGH -- A few thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 30-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

What it means: Much of the Bengals' focus this season had to do with proving themselves to the rest of the football universe. As a team that has spent much of its history in the lower tier of the AFC, the Bengals entered this season with the belief that many others doubt them, and they even carried that thought with them into this week when a third straight postseason berth was on the line. But in actuality, there were few who doubted the Bengals this past week. There was an overwhelming belief by pundits that they might actually be a force once the postseason began. When the New England Patriots lost to the Miami Dolphins earlier in the day, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Cincinnati would win and retain the No. 2 seeding the Patriots' loss was about to give them. All the Bengals had to do was win. But that didn't happen. They didn't even show up at Heinz Field, and now, like before, the Bengals still have to rely on help from others in order to script their postseason story. With a win, they would have fully controlled their fate.

Stock watch: Offensive line -- falling. Cincinnati's offensive line has been rather solid all season, consistently ranking among the best in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. The group didn't look quite as strong Sunday, as the Steelers were getting consistent pressure on quarterback Andy Dalton. Most of the pressure came in the first two quarters. It eased a bit in the second half as Pittsburgh was trying to protect the lead and wasn't rushing Dalton quite as regularly. What also helped Dalton was the fact he and his receivers became more committed to running quick-strike screen and slant routes that didn't give the pass rush much time to develop. The early pressure led to Dalton being sacked in the first half for the first time since Nov. 10 at Baltimore. It was the only sack the Bengals' line allowed.

Injuries pile up: Injuries have ravaged the Bengals all year, and they hit them even harder in this game. With Dre Kirkpatrick starting at cornerback in place of veteran Terence Newman, the Bengals already were down one of their top defenders. Late in the first half, though, they also lost linebacker James Harrison. The former Steeler was run from the game with a concussion in the same quarter that Cincinnati punter Kevin Huber left with a fractured jaw.

Green short of 100: Bengals receiver A.J. Green was seven yards short of 100. He hasn't gone beyond the 100-yard mark since that same Nov. 10 game when Dalton was previously sacked. He had a chance to do that on the Bengals' last drive, though, but he didn't catch up to a Dalton deep pass.

What's next? The Bengals will try to get back on track next weekend when they return home and host the Minnesota Vikings in the first of two regular-season games left at Paul Brown Stadium. Minnesota blew past Philadelphia on Sunday, 48-30.

W2W4: Colts at Bengals

December, 7, 2013
12/07/13
4:00
PM ET
CINCINNATI -- If you plan on watching Sunday's game between the Cincinnati Bengals andIndianapolis Colts game, prepare to be glued to your television set.

It should certainly be a riveting and entertaining afternoon.



Both teams are hungry not only for playoff spots but also desire elite playoff seedings. If the season were to end today, the Colts would waltz into the postseason with the No. 3 seed, hosting Baltimore. The Bengals would have the No. 4 seed and would welcome the Kansas City Chiefs to Cincinnati.

Since 3 is considered better than 4 with these types of things, I think you know which seed the teams want the most. A win and Cincinnati can snatch No. 3 from the Colts and retain a tiebreak in the event one is needed later on this season.

The postseason push alone is good enough reason to park yourself in front of this game. But add to the fact these teams are following similar paths with a pair of young quarterbacks and are equally desperate for Super Bowl bids, and you should get a tightly contested battle. Since the cities are so close -- Indianapolis is only about an hour and a half away from Cincinnati -- both teams' fan bases ought to be well represented in sold-out Paul Brown Stadium.

Are you pumped up? Are you ready for the game yet? As you keep psyching yourself up, take a look at these items to watch for Sunday:

Weather factor: Although the drive is a short one, the idea of traveling in a soggy, slushy wintry mix might not appeal to some Colts fans who leave home the morning of the game. All week, meteorologists have predicted harrowing conditions for the weekend that include anything from ice, freezing rain, sleet and snow. Any and all of it is scheduled to hit downtown Cincinnati around noon, one hour before kickoff. Fortunately for players on both teams, the Bengals play on forgiving field turf and shouldn't have the difficulty with footing as if they were playing on grass. Still, with a potentially slick, tough-to-throw ball, the elements won't be favorable and could cause both teams to reject the pass in an effort to move the ball on the ground.

Ground-and-pound? What a segue. Mother Nature may not be the only reason why the Bengals, at least, will be sticking with their running game. After putting up 164 yards rushing against San Diego last week in sunny, 70-degree weather, the Bengals learned that they do indeed have what it takes to run the ball and to execute a more balanced offensive scheme. Veteran rusher BenJarvus Green-Ellis headed the attack, picking up 92 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. Rookie Giovani Bernard contributed another 57 yards on 14 carries. It marked just the third time all year that Cincinnati had amassed more than 150 yards in a game. Since Andy Dalton became the starting quarterback three seasons ago, the Bengals are 8-1 in games in which they rush for more than 150 yards. As they go against the NFL's 29th-best rushing defense, expect the Bengals to pick up where they left off a week ago.

Fleeing Luck: Another strong segue. In addition to the running the Bengals' backs should be doing, look for Colts quarterback Andrew Luck to do his own share of tucking and going. Much like Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler, Luck has a penchant for running for first downs when the pocket around him breaks down or his receivers aren't able to break away from the defenders covering them quickly enough. Among quarterbacks, he ranks seventh in the league with 304 yards rushing on his 48 carries. He's not merely an elusive quarterback trying to avoid getting hit, either. Of quarterbacks with more than 30 rushes this season, Luck ranks second in the league in yards after contact. No, it's not much, but he averages 1.56 yards after contact per run. Only Minnesota's Christian Ponder -- who comes to Cincinnati in two weeks -- has a higher average at 1.88 yards after contact per run. So in addition to respecting Luck's big arm, the Bengals have to acknowledge his feet, too.

Special teams key: Might as well close with one more solid segue. Speaking of feet, Bengals punter Kevin Huber has been among the most valuable players on the team this season. His net punting average of 41.56 yards per kick ranks fifth in the league and only one player has a longer punt than he does this season. Huber's 75-yarder in the first half of last week's game helped set the tone for a game that saw the Bengals enjoy great offensive and defensive field position. This week, Huber, Bengals kicker Mike Nugent and Indianapolis specialists Adam Vinatieri and Pat McAfee could also be victims of the treacherous weather. Colder temperatures mean harder balls. The harder they are, the tougher it is to get good distance on kicks. Getting good hangtime and proper angles will be of utmost importance to Huber and McAfee.

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