NFL Nation: Marvin Jones

BALTIMORE -- When the Cincinnati Bengals waived Christo Bilukidi and moved Onterio McCalebb off the practice squad Saturday, it seemed a clear sign that cornerback Darqueze Dennard would end up missing the first regular-season game he could play.

Dennard indeed will miss that contest, shelved Sunday with a hip injury.

The rookie was among the seven Bengals inactives. He was joined by a group of other injured players who didn't take part in many of this week's practices. Like Dennard, rookie receiver James Wright was limited much of the week with a concussion he suffered in the Bengals' Week 3 preseason win at Arizona. Dennard's injury goes back a week prior, when he hurt his hip on the only play he participated in during the Bengals' Week 2 preseason loss to the Jets.

Along with Dennard and Wright, the Bengals also declared inactive injured running back Rex Burkhead (knee) and hurt receiver Marvin Jones (foot). Linebacker Sean Porter, a special-teams addition to the 53-man roster, has been dealing with a hamstring issue the last two weeks. He was limited in practice this week and also was declared inactive as a result.

Offensive lineman T.J. Johnson and defensive end Will Clarke's inactive listings aren't injury related. They fell victim to being down on the depth chart at their respective positions.

Perhaps the most intriguing inactive listing of the late morning was the Ravens' inclusion of cornerback Lardarius Webb. The defensive back has a lower-back injury. With Webb out, Bengals receiver A.J. Green could have a big day Sunday. The Ravens could adjust their secondary by moving rookie safety Terrence Brooks into Webb's position or to some other cornerback spot while shifting around the remaining cornerback group.

Cincinnati won't have to do that with Dennard out. Veterans Leon Hall, Adam Jones and Terence Newman and third-year player Dre Kirkpatrick will be playing. McCalebb isn't expected to play at corner. Instead, he will take Dennard's place on various special-teams coverage units.

Here is the complete list of Bengals inactives:

CB Darqueze Dennard
RB Rex Burkhead
LB Sean Porter
OL T.J. Johnson
WR Marvin Jones
WR James Wright
DE Will Clarke
The Baltimore Ravens are hurting at cornerback. This is not a news flash.

[+] EnlargeJosh Gordon
AP Photo/Mark DuncanThe Ravens have had success containing Browns receiver Josh Gordon. His year-long suspension is further relief for Baltimore's banged-up secondary.
What might help the Ravens early in the season is that opposing teams won't be at full strength at wide receiver, either.

The year-long suspension of Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon is just another break for the Ravens. Baltimore's banged-up secondary won't have to cover Cincinnati Bengals receiver Marvin Jones in the season opener because he's expected to miss the season's first four weeks with a broken foot.

The big blow is the Browns losing Gordon, the NFL's leading receiver last year. The Ravens have held Gordon in check, limiting him to six catches for 98 yards and no touchdowns in three games. Still, the Browns rely heavily on Gordon. Last year, Browns quarterbacks threw nine touchdowns and two interceptions when targeting Gordon, and they threw 17 touchdowns and 18 interceptions when targeting others.

When the Ravens play the Browns this season, they just have to worry about defending Miles Austin, Nate Burleson and Andrew Hawkins on the outside. These three receivers combined for 75 catches and one touchdown in 2013, which is less than what Gordon produced alone (87 catches and nine touchdowns ).

In comparison, the Ravens have had more trouble containing the Bengals' Jones, who has 11 catches and two touchdowns against them in four games. The Bengals, of course, still have starting wide receivers A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu.

It doesn't look as if the Ravens will catch any breaks from the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 2. If the Steelers decide to suspend either of their running backs (Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount face charges over marijuana possession), they'll probably only miss the season opener against the Browns, according to ESPN.com Steelers reporter Scott Brown.

Some may suggest the Ravens got their biggest break when running back Ray Rice was suspended only two games for his alleged domestic violence incident. When the Ravens play the Browns in Week 3, Rice will be coming off suspension while Gordon will be in the early stages of his year-long absence.

W2W4: Cincinnati Bengals

August, 16, 2014
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The Cincinnati Bengals (0-1) and the New York Jets (1-0) play their second game of the preseason at 7 p.m. ET Saturday night at Paul Brown Stadium.

1. Preseason payback? Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson told his team's website last weekend that he and his teammates "owe" the Bengals for the 49-9 loss they were handed in Cincinnati last October. Richardson felt that no other offense dominated the Jets' defense quite like the Bengals did last season. So even though he'll only be on the field for a few first-half plays, Richardson still wants the Bengals to know that his team is better than it showed last regular season. The Bengals are embracing Richardson's challenge, saying they are glad to face an opponent who will play with a little passion and energy in the preseason. It's very rare teams for teams to display that passion, as players, for the most part, try to tiptoe through the preseason without getting injured.

2. Life without Marvin. The Bengals will play Saturday for the first time since news came this week that receiver Marvin Jones needed surgery to help heal a bone broken during last Saturday's in-stadium practice. This actually will be the second preseason game the Bengals will have had without him after he took last week's game off while making his slow return from an ankle injury that caused him to miss part of training camp. A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu already were expected to fill Jones' shoes, but who else will? Keep an eye out for Brandon Tate, Dane Sanzenbacher, Ryan Whalen, James Wright, Cobi Hamilton and Colin Lockett. All will try to showcase their playmaking ability, even though Tate, Sanzenbacher, Wright and Hamilton stand the best odds of filling Jones' shoes until he returns Oct. 5 against the Patriots.

3. Better tackling. Cincinnati's tackling efforts left a lot to be desired last week at Kansas City. Among the topics coach Marvin Lewis was quickest to highlight following the preseason opener was his team's lack of good, fundamental tackling. It cost the Bengals at times on defense, and really hurt them on special teams. Last week's game was the first time any of the players had tackled live since last season. Lewis and special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons are hoping those tackling concerns clear up this week.
CINCINNATI -- It was a simple message.

"Let's go."

When Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson met with receiver Mohamed Sanu in the days after the team first learned it would be without Marvin Jones, those were the only two words he said to the young player.

Sanu, once the No. 3 receiver on the roster, knew exactly what they meant. With Jones injured until October and out of the receiving rotation, Sanu's time had come to attempt to be the best pass-catcher on the team.

The best? Yes.

"I get surprised where people reacted after I made the statement I wanted Marvin to surpass A.J. [Green] a while ago, but it's because they all need to compete," Jackson said. "I wanted Sanu to surpass Marvin, too."

Jackson's philosophy: Keep the pressure high on his top skill players and they'll compete better than they did before. He doesn't just say "no one's job is safe." He actually believes it.

Apparently, the philosophy has been working. Sanu has taken advantage of Jones' absence this preseason, working almost exclusively as the No. 2 receiver in practice alongside Green, the player who continues to get his usual No. 1 receiver reps and looks. In addition to catching, Sanu has been impressive passing and running both on reverses off the edge and out of the backfield as a Wildcat quarterback. Cincinnati won't be looking for him to solely run gadget plays this season, but the Bengals are hopeful he'll continue turning heads when they do.

"He's been all over the place -- outside, inside, moving around -- and he's really done a good job for us," quarterback Andy Dalton said.

Sanu told Jackson when the offseason began that he wanted to come back a different player. In Jackson's eyes, "he's done that."

"It's just the consistency of production in the way he plays," Jackson said. "He plays like a true starter. Not that he didn't a year ago. I just know what I expect our guys to do, and see just what he's done. He blocks, he catches, he runs, he can do it all. We'll try to use some of his vast skills and let him showcase his talents and abilities this year."

The Bengals will get another chance to see those talents and abilities in a live game scenario when they take on the Jets on Saturday night at Paul Brown Stadium.

"I'm going to step up that much more to fill Marvin's shows," Sanu said. "That's to just keep doing what I'm doing. Keep playing and keep being consistent. That's pretty much it. I can't see what's going on in the future, but I know what I can handle and I know what I can control, and that's putting my effort in and doing whatever I can to make this team better."

He won't be alone, he adds.

As the Bengals have been saying all week, with Jones now sidelined through the first three regular-season games because of foot surgery, it's time receivers like Brandon Tate, Dane Sanzenbacher and James Wright fill the void left by the player who was the second-leading receiver last year.

"It's a 'next man up' mentality," receivers coach James Urban said. "That's what we've always had. ... You push them out there and see if we can get the best guys out there that can help us win football games."

You do all that, Jackson said, and then add, "Let's go."

Bengals Camp Report: Day 12

August, 9, 2014
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CINCINNATI -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Cincinnati Bengals training camp:
  • Paul Brown Stadium was loud Saturday afternoon, and the noise had little to do with the estimated 7,000 who were scattered among parts of its lower bowl. For the first time this training camp the Bengals piped in audio, blaring across their loudspeakers gameday sounds like thousands of screaming fans. Done primarily to get the Bengals to figure out snap calls and to work on silent snap counts, the noise came in the first practice after the Bengals lost 41-39 to the Kansas City Chiefs in a preseason-opening game at the always loud Arrowhead Stadium. An illegal procedure penalty in the game could have been attributed to the volume. During Saturday's practice, the Bengals committed only one infraction. It came when defensive end Robert Geathers jumped offside.
  • Andy Dalton played only one series at Kansas City, but in it the quarterback looked about as good as the Bengals could have hoped. He went 3-for-5 with 71 passing yards, including a 53-yard hookup with receiver A.J. Green for a first down in the middle of the field. The reception was a clear sign that Dalton has made strides since last season. Early in Saturday's practice, though, he didn't look quite as sharp as he has all throughout camp. He wasn't as accurate in the first couple of drills, sometimes overthrowing his receivers. One explanation might have to do with pacing and tempo. In a pads and shorts workout, perhaps his body was still operating at a game pace when his receivers weren't. Regardless of what caused him to be a little out of sync early, Dalton corrected his issues by the end of practice.
  • Three of his pass-catchers got involved in their first true, 11-on-11 team drills of camp. Receivers Marvin Jones and Ryan Whalen practiced in the team drills for the first time after spending Monday and Tuesday's practices -- the last two before the preseason game -- going through limited 7-on-7 and position-specific exercises. Both practiced Monday for the first time after entering the year on the Bengals' injury lists. Along with them, tight end Jermaine Gresham also got his first team action of camp with the first team. He spent last week's practices training with the backup units as he returned from a back injury.
  • Speaking of Gresham, he probably got the practice time he received because fellow tight ends Tyler Eifert and Alex Smith didn't work out. Neither were dressed Saturday, joining offensive tackle Andre Smith (concussion protocol), linebacker J.K. Schaffer (concussion protocol) and linebacker Sean Porter (knee) as players who didn't practice. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who has been slow with his rehab, was dressed, although he still didn't participate in any team drills. Neither did veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, who is still easing back from a calf injury.
  • Among the situations the Bengals worked on were red-zone drills, and ones that began with the offense backed up into its own end zone. One of those plays included the loudest contact of the day, when fullback Nikita Whitlock and safety Shawn Williams met at the line of scrimmage on a Whitlock block. The two created a loud crunch with their pads that had linebackers standing on the sidelines squealing with glee.
  • Up next: The Bengals will take Sunday off before resuming practice at 5:30 p.m. Monday. They'll leave Paul Brown Stadium for the only time this training camp, practicing about an hour north in Dayton, Ohio, at West Carrollton High School. The practice is free and open to the public.

Bengals clear five to practice

August, 4, 2014
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CINCINNATI -- Five Cincinnati Bengals were cleared to return to practice by the team's medical staff Monday.

All five participated in some capacity.

Receiver Marvin Jones, offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth and receiver Ryan Whalen were limited to participating in primarily position-specific drills. Jones did take part in some seven-on-seven work, but was not part of the 11-on-11 exercises the Bengals went through.

Tight end Jermaine Gresham and defensive tackle Zach Minter, however, did participate in full-squad activities. Gresham mostly worked with the second- and third-team units. His diving catch at the goal line during a red zone segment was the team's final play of the workout.

Four of the five began training camp on the active physically unable to perform list. Only Jones began on the active non-football injury list for an ankle ailment he wanted to make sure was 100 percent healthy before he practiced again.

"It went well," Jones said. "As the days go on, I'll get more and more out there. It's just good to get the pads on and to get the helmet on again."

He said he wasn't expecting to play Thursday when the Bengals open the preseason at Kansas City.

Only three players continue to have some injury designation. Quarterback AJ McCarron remains on the non-football injury list with a shoulder issue, and offensive tackle Andre Smith and linebacker J.K. Schaffer are still under concussion protocol.
CINCINNATI -- James Urban took off his sunglasses, put them on the top of his Cincinnati Bengals hat and looked his interviewer squarely in the eye.

[+] EnlargeMohamed Sanu
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesThe Bengals want to make sure they don't spread receiver Mohamed Sanu, left, too thin as they did last season.
On the final day of the Bengals' organized team activities earlier this month, the receivers coach was all business. He admitted he messed up. He didn't handle one of his best playmakers properly last season and felt bad about it.

"Mo's a good football player," Urban said, referring to wideout Mohamed Sanu. "I asked too much of him last year. I spread him thin. It's sort of the old thing where too much of a good thing is just as good as not enough.

"That's a shame on me."

Urban has vowed to make up for it by re-expanding Sanu's role.

In 2013, Sanu shouldered the shame of being a second-year receiver who failed to produce in ways he had as a rookie. He caught only two touchdown passes despite appearing in nearly double the games he saw his first season. In his nine appearances in 2012, Sanu caught four touchdown passes. It seemed evident that he would be a good No. 2 receiver to pair with A.J. Green for years to come.

Then came the mixing and matching and tweaking of Sanu's role at the start of last season, followed by Marvin Jones' somewhat unexpected emergence from Week 8 on.

Sanu became old news. With 10 touchdowns, Jones was doing the scoring. Sanu was simply catching a standard slant in the slot here or a run-of-the-mill out route along the sideline there. His effectiveness had been diminished, and before Urban or anyone else could realize it, the season was over.

"He bounced around and played three different positions -- really four different positions -- and on any given play, we bounced him around and asked him to do tons," Urban said. "He got spread thin."

Sanu became slower and less explosive than the Bengals knew he could be, and than it appears he now is. Urban said he thinks Sanu was faster this spring. The wideout said he wasn't sure.

As a result of Sanu's lack of explosiveness, the Bengals were shy about putting him in the scenarios in which he thrived the year prior. Once Jones started playing well, Sanu's climb became significantly steeper. The new model was working. It made little sense to go backward.

Urban's takeaway from Sanu's all-but-lost year? Better watch practice and game repetitions to make sure his receivers aren't getting overworked. Urban spoke glowingly, for example, about Green insisting on wanting to push when coaches needed him to pull back. That resulted in Urban physically charting each of Green's snaps during OTAs and minicamp.

"All these things I talk about as far as watching reps and making sure he's fresh with A.J., I've got to do the same thing with Mo," Urban said. "I've got to do it with Marvin. I've got to do it with everybody. If they're going to run the way we ask them to run and do the things we ask them to do, I've got to keep my eye on it. And I didn't do that last year. That's a shame on me."

One of new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's biggest changes in the Bengals' West Coast system will be a stepped-up tempo. Players are going to be required to get plays in faster and sprint up to the line of scrimmage. The object is to have little standing-around time and to get into a rhythm a less-conditioned defense theoretically won't be able to match.

"They've embraced what we're doing," Urban said. "There was a lot of talk about finish [during the spring practices]. 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."

Sanu believes the offense will be more of an attack-first scheme.

"We want to set the tone and set the tempo. It's about us controlling the game," Sanu said. "Never let the defense control the game. We've got to be able to control the game and handle those situations the way we want to handle them."

As far as Sanu is concerned, setting the tone and tempo could mean having him catch passes out of the slot, running free on reverses, pitching back a double reverse or lining up under center and deciding whether to pass or run.

The former high school quarterback had his share of trick plays in college. He threw four touchdown passes at Rutgers while also setting Big East records as a receiver. During his rookie year in the NFL, he hit Green in stride on a 73-yard touchdown pass that came on a play fake. Last season, Sanu completed a 25-yard pass to running back Giovani Bernard before catching a 6-yard TD pass from Andy Dalton three plays later.

"It just keeps them off balance and keeps them on their toes," Sanu said. "When we're able to do that, you never know where it's coming. We could run the ball, run the ball, run the ball because we've got great running backs and a great quarterback who can put the ball anywhere, and we have a great bunch of receivers who can catch it. So you have to keep them on their toes and pull out those trick plays when we need it."

Cincinnati will have some trickery this year, and it looks like Sanu will be a big part of it.
With so many toys at Jay Gruden's disposal in Robert Griffin III, Pierre Garcon, Andre Roberts, Jordan Reed and DeSean Jackson, how does Alfred Morris fit in offense?

Morris
In his three years as the Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator, Gruden had two 1,000-yard rushers in Cedric Benson (1,067 in 2011) and BenJarvus Green-Ellis (1,094 in 2012). The Bengals ran for 1,788 yards, 1,745 yards and 1,755 yards in Gruden’s three years as coordinator.

But he also had A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Andrew Hawkins and Mohamed Sanu at receiver. In the playoff loss to the San Diego Chargers, he got pass-happy.

“Jay sees the offense through the eyes of the quarterback, and having played the position, he has a great deal of respect for the position,” said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said at the NFL owners meetings in this Washington Post story. “He’ll say these guys are the luckiest guys because he would’ve given his right arm – left arm, I guess – to have the opportunity to be an NFL quarterback. So, he really is conscientious of that. He really has things unfold through the eyes of the quarterback."

Because he sees things as a quarterback, will he rely more on the passing game? It has been an argument used against Jason Garrett for his years as the playcaller with the Dallas Cowboys. Sean Payton was a quarterback and he leans more to the pass with the New Orleans Saints.

It’s only natural.

But Morris offers Gruden a better running back than what he had in Cincinnati. He rushed for 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns as a rookie in 2012. He followed that up with 1,275 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013.

Was it a function of Mike Shanahan’s scheme and the coach’s ability to find running backs anywhere and everywhere?

The NFL is a passing league these days, but Gruden can’t get away from Morris and become too pass-happy if the Redskins want to be successful.
CINCINNATI -- While he waits on a bigger pay day in the near future, Vontaze Burfict picked up big additional bucks this season, according to the NFL's annual report on performance-based pay.

The league released the report's findings Monday, showing the Cincinnati Bengals linebacker as one of 11 players who earned an extra $250,000 or more in compensation for the 2013 season. The report said Burfict earned $315,847.69 in performance-based pay for his second season. Only Bears offensive tackle Jordan Mills had more performance-based pay last year, bringing in $318,243.96.

Burfict had a similarly strong earning year as a rookie, too, leading the league with about $299,000 in performance-based pay that year.

The secondary compensation system is designed for players whose playing time ended up being much higher than what their salary would have originally paid. Late-round draft picks and undrafted free agents who became starters tend to earn the most in performance-based pay because their base salaries are usually very low.

Burfict, an undrafted free agent from Arizona State, had a base salary of $390,000 in 2012. He had a base salary of $480,000 in 2013. Injuries forced Burfict into the starting rotation his rookie season, when he went on to lead the team with 127 tackles. Not only did he lead the team in tackles during his Pro Bowl 2013 season, but he led the league and set a franchise record with 171.

Cincinnati's next-highest earning player on last season's performance-based pay scale was safety George Iloka, who received more than $281,000. Receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones received an additional $159,000 and $156,000, respectively.

The extra cash Burfict made could be a precursor of what's to come in the coming months or year. The linebacker will become a restricted free agent at the end of next season. It's quite clear the Bengals would like to make him part of their free agency plans this year, either re-signing him this offseason or at some point early in the 2014 regular season. The timing of Burfict's next contract could be impacted by the timing of quarterback Andy Dalton's second deal. Owner and president Mike Brown has already made it clear that Dalton is the piece the team is looking to shore up first and foremost. He, too, will be a free agent after next year.

Experts' take: Free agency

February, 21, 2014
Feb 21
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The Redskins haven't done a lot of shopping the past two years, but with at least $30 million in cap space there's a good chance they'll do some next month. A really good chance. This isn't an in-depth look at free agency but rather a general question on free agency from our two experts -- former NFL executive, player and scout Louis Riddick (now an ESPN NFL Insider) and former NFL and college scout Matt Williamson (now ESPN's NFL scout). Yes, this is the final installment, but there will be some leftover items from my conversations with the experts.

Are there any free agents you like -- or would stay away from?

Matt Williamson: I like Jairus Byrd and T.J. Ward. I think Washington's going to spend. It feels like Dan Snyder has had his purse strings clamped down and I bet he overspends. I would not overspend on Eric Decker. While [Jay Gruden] was in Cincinnati, he had A.J. Green, but they were continually trying to find that No. 2 receiver, like [Mohamed] Sanu and [Marvin] Jones and Jones grabbed it. That's the position they want to feature more. I think Decker is an OK No. 2, but I would not give a ton of money to him no matter what. I don't trust Hakeem Nicks. I kind of like Jeremy Maclin. He could be a bargain. Golden Tate would be a nice addition, but like most guys coming off a Super Bowl win, someone will spend too much on him. But he'd be a good player to add. Kenny Britt? No.

[+] EnlargeGreg Hardy
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneGreg Hardy could be the one true difference-maker in this year's free-agency class.
People don't talk enough about Alterraun Verner. He's come into his own; he's really feisty, really quick. There are a ton of big name corners out there and he might be the best of the group. T.J. Ward is much better than people realize; he's more of an in-the-box safety. One guy who would be a decent pickup is [safety] Antoine Bethea. He would be an upgrade and I don't think you'll have to give him a ton of money. He's solid. [Carolina's] Mike Mitchell had a decent year. Byrd is what you want. He's an Earl Thomas type and he reads the quarterback quickly. He doesn't waste any steps. He'd be a home run for them but I bet he stays.

Louis Riddick: There's only one free agent that in the first 24 hours I'd be trying to get on my team provided everything else checked out and that's Greg Hardy. His skill set and makeup and his competitiveness could potentially transcend scheme. He's a wrecker inside and out; he can play tackle and end. He's the only guy in this class I'd be trying to sign right out of the gate. He's a 4-3 end, but you can run a 3-4 configuration with 4-3 personnel. Ideally you'd like to copy what they have him do in Carolina.

All the rest of the guys I'd be leery of and very careful of. There's a perception that free agency is an immediate fix despite so many free-agent transactions that have blown up on people over the past 10 years. I've been a part of a bunch of them. Players at this point in their career have formed their thoughts and habits and priorities, both as players and people and I don't know if a personnel department takes the time to really think about how to incorporate free agents into their program and how much time needs to be spent on it, just as how they discuss it for college players. They get them into their program and get them to buy into their program and adopt your program as your own. Free agents are more stubborn. They feel they've done it all and have all the answers and, especially if they're high priced you'll meet resistance. They'll tell you how to do it instead of them listening how you want it done. The best is if you have a prior relationship with a player, either as an administrator or a coach or the scheme is similar to one he's run before or has ties to the area where your team is and really wants to be there and would have a great off-field situation so he'd be happy and can be more productive. All those things need to be considered. I don't know if it's considered enough. That's why there's only one guy who I think would cause me to worry a lot less than the others and that's Hardy.

In case you missed it
Monday's take: Brian Orakpo
Tuesday's take: Jim Haslett
Wednesday's take:Robert Griffin III
Thursday's take: Kirk Cousins
video 
Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final power ranking: 7
Preseason power ranking: 9

Biggest surprise: Giovani Bernard. When the Bengals drafted Bernard in the second round of April's NFL draft, there was a belief that -- in time -- he would be the answer to the franchise's long-documented playmaking troubles. It had been decades since the Bengals had a dynamic player who had fans buzzing the instant he touched the football. That's who Bernard was this season. While the hope was that the shifty, speedy ball carrier would be an adequate counter to BenJarvus Green-Ellis' bruising style, few anticipated just how much he would take over. He had more than 1,200 total yards to go along with eight touchdowns. He was tied for second in scores among rookie running backs. Also a surprise? Bernard's ball insecurity. After fumbling just once in the regular season, he was stripped near the goal line on a pivotal reception late in the first half of Sunday's AFC playoff loss.

Biggest disappointment: The entire team. Once again, the Bengals couldn't close out a playoff appearance with a playoff win, thereby extending their postseason victory drought to 23 years. They had a real chance to snap that streak this year, too. The talent was there. The coaching, for the most part, was there. The schemes were there. The buzz was there. The internal confidence seemed to be there, as well. But when the lights got bright and the stage got big again, the Bengals, like so many times before, simply couldn't get it done. Even though they went 11-5 and won the AFC North, this was supposed to be a Super Bowl season, not another one-and-done year.

Biggest need: Aggressive postseason play calling. For the third consecutive playoff game, the Bengals ran the ball significantly fewer times than their preseason average. Yes, late in games when a team is trailing by wide margins, it has to pass. But Cincinnati was only down four at the start of the third quarter in Sunday's game against a team it had been successful running against in the previous six quarters (the Bengals and Chargers had met just 35 days before). The Bengals got too conservative too early, and it arguably cost them the game. Other than that, they still have the pieces in place for true success. Even with possible losses in free agency or in the coaching ranks, they have the talent to be great next year. They just need to make sure they stay aggressive and hungry when they get back in the playoffs.

Team MVP: Vontaze Burfict. The linebacker led the league in tackles with 171, and contributed to a series of turnovers throughout the year. A fearless defender who rarely took plays off, Burfict's passion spilled over into the rest of the defense. While others may have been more vocal than the second-year linebacker, he was the unquestioned on-field leader of the NFL's No. 3 defensive unit. Not only did he call plays, but he was part of virtually every one, it seemed.

CINCINNATI -- In a room packed with reporters late Sunday afternoon, 10 silent seconds ticked by between the time Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis ended his opening postgame comments and was asked his first question.

"Is this your toughest day as a coach?" a local television reporter finally ventured.

"Tough day," Lewis said. "Yeah it is. Tough day. It's disappointing."

[+] EnlargeBengals
Pat Lovell/USA TODAY SportsMarvin Lewis is now in the final year of his 2011 extension.
There have now been five days like this one in Lewis' 11-year tenure as the Bengals' leader. Five times he has been to the playoffs, and five times he's exited with a first-round defeat.

On most teams, such a string of misfortunes would lead to firings, scheme changes and head rolls. Put it this way about the Bengals: Some changes should and likely will come this offseason, but don't expect any to result in a head-coaching vacancy.

Why? Think back to Jan. 4, 2011.

In the days leading up to that date, it looked a lot like Lewis was about to be booted after going 4-12 the previous regular season. But Bengals owner Mike Brown caught his fans and those covering the team off guard, completely reversing course and announcing in a news conference that Lewis was being retained and extended as head coach. It was his way of giving Lewis a blank slate, and a brand new opportunity to build the program the way he wanted in hopes of getting it back to the playoffs, and back, and back. Lewis' latest contract expires after the 2014 season.

Thanks to a strong draft that year and in the years since, Lewis has done exactly what Brown expected. He's made consecutive trips to the postseason. Three straight, in fact; an accomplishment no other coach had been able to reach in the 45 years the franchise has existed. For that alone, he has the respect and support of his owner.

Lewis isn't going anywhere ... for now.

When asked what on the team needed to change in the wake of the string of playoff losses -- which actually stretch all the way back to the 1990 season -- receiver Marvin Jones stated it perfectly.

"The only thing that needs to change is us just winning the game," Jones said. "That's pretty much it. Taking advantage of our opportunities. The games that we lost, we didn't take advantage of our opportunities."

Other Bengals shared that perspective.

"It is what it is," rookie running back Giovani Bernard said. "Doesn't matter what the year is, you're losing in the first round. It's always disappointing."

What may make this particular exit more disappointing than others Lewis has had was the fact that this year's group finally had the roster that the coaching staff had been trying for so long to assemble. An already good defense was even more talented than it had been in recent years. The offensive line finished the regular season as arguably one of the league's best statistically. Playmakers like Jones, Bernard, A.J. Green and BenJarvus Green-Ellis gave the Bengals a multi-pronged offensive attack that proved difficult to defend often this year, particularly at home.

Cincinnati had something special, it seemed.

"The type of players we have, the high-character players we have, we wanted special things for them this year," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. "They worked so hard toward that goal.

"We just have to live with another tough experience and hopefully grow from it."

After three straight playoff losses, the Bengals are finding there's plenty of room left to grow. With Lewis and quarterback Andy Dalton possibly in contract years next season, the only question to ask now is: Do the Bengals still have time to grow?

We'll know for sure in about 365 days.
CINCINNATI -- About 1 p.m. ET on Thursday, just as the Cincinnati Bengals were escaping the windy, snowy conditions that blanketed the day's practice inside Paul Brown Stadium, temperature gauges across the city began dipping sharply into the low 20s.

About the same time, some 2,100 miles away, San Diego was having a typically San Diego day. Sunny skies and 75-degree temperatures covered the area under the golden Southern California sun.

The San Diego Chargers might want to bottle up that warmth, because when they travel to the Ohio Valley for an AFC playoff game against the Bengals on Sunday, they won't be feeling it. Instead, they'll be exposed to the same conditions the Bengals saw Thursday.

[+] EnlargePaul Brown Stadium
AP Photo/Scott BoehmDealing with winter weather is a fact of life at Paul Brown Stadium, something the Bengals hope plays to their advantage on Sunday.
The Bengals believe their experience practicing and playing in it is a key advantage.

"Oh yes, it's a big difference," Bengals defensive end Wallace Gilberry said when asked about the impact weather can have on a team. "Cold-weather teams play well in cold weather. You get a team like Miami or San Diego -- from a place where the weather's always nice -- in this 20-degree weather, it's a big difference on your body."

According to the National Weather Service, snow and freezing rain are in the forecast for Cincinnati on Sunday, as are steadily falling temperatures that will get as low as 7 degrees by that night. It will be the third time this season the Bengals have played a game that saw temperatures remain below 40. They are 1-1 in those games.

On Dec. 8, the Bengals battled through freezing rain and a pregame delay brought on by a snow shower to beat the Colts, 42-28. A week later, they played in 15-degree temperatures in a 30-20 loss at Pittsburgh.

In the days leading up to Cincinnati's game against Indianapolis, coach Marvin Lewis coined a new term, "Bengal weather," to describe the bitterly cold conditions his team was about to play in that weekend. It was his way of acknowledging the harsh weather that can become an added element in games that take place at AFC North stadiums. Much like it is in Cincinnati, the weather in Cleveland, Baltimore and Pittsburgh can be particularly unpleasant in winter for teams that don't practice in it as often as teams in this division do.

"That's part of us. That's part of our toughness," Lewis said then about playing in cold weather. "It's just the way we're put together."

Before Bengals fans start prematurely celebrating a win this Sunday, though, be reminded of this simple fact: even though the Chargers don't practice in weather like what they'll see this weekend, they've still played in it before, and played well.

"It can be an advantage [for us] but at the same time, they went up to Denver," Bengals receiver Marvin Jones said.

San Diego traveled to Denver and knocked off the Broncos on a Thursday night last month in 35-degree temperatures. The week before the Bengals beat them in San Diego on Dec. 1, the Chargers also braved temperatures of 25 degrees and below to claim an overtime road win against Kansas City. Quarterback Philip Rivers is 5-3 in his career in games in which it was 35 degrees or lower at kickoff.

So, maybe it's not much of an advantage after all.

Either way, the Bengals still plan on treating their "Bengal weather" as if it is a sort of 13th man.

"We're used to it," Gilberry said. "There is no bubble [indoor practice facility]. When it rains, sleets or snows, we're working. We love it because come game day, it's normal to us. It's not like we have to prepare for it. It's normal."

At times, the Bengals do use a bubble. When Lewis sees fit, the team is bused some two miles north of downtown to the University of Cincinnati, where it practices inside the school's indoor bubble. The Bengals have used the facility twice this season. With temperatures expected to touch single-digits Friday morning, there is a chance they end up there later in the day in order to keep players from getting sick.

Whether they practice in it or not Friday, the Bengals are embracing playing in the harrowing conditions this weekend.

"That's just our territory," Jones said.

Defense proves it can carry Bengals

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
10:15
PM ET
CINCINNATI -- Frustrated, Marvin Jones was about ready to put his head in his hands and disappear from the 62,000-plus who had just filed into Paul Brown Stadium.

His teammates on the Cincinnati Bengals' defense wouldn't have let him do that even if he really tried.

Just 18 seconds into Sunday afternoon's game, the Bengals receiver had a pass snatched from him as he and quarterback Andy Dalton tried to catch the Baltimore Ravens off guard on a first-play "Go route" down the far sideline. As Jones jogged off the field after the interception, he heard from defenders intent on helping him make up for the miscue.

"Hey, you're all right," some of them said. "We got this," others added.

They sure did get it. Even with the Ravens beginning a drive at the Cincinnati 21 and coming within yards of snatching the game's early momentum with a touchdown, the Bengals' defense rose up the way it has countless times before this season. Held to just one yard on the drive, the Ravens entered the red zone and were denied a touchdown. For the sixth time in 12 red-zone tries on Cincinnati's home turf this season, the Bengals didn't let an opponent cross the goal line.

By the end of Sunday's game, a 34-17 victory, the Bengals defenders went on to prevent their 21st red zone touchdown in 41 total tries this season.

"That's our job regardless of where the team gets the ball. It's to go out and stop them," defensive end Michael Johnson said. "We can't worry about how they got it there. We just got to focus on doing our job as hard as we can and taking care of our business."

That mentality has helped Cincinnati's defense pick up its offense this year. It's a comforting fact for the Bengals as they prepare to host the San Diego Chargers next weekend in the opening round of the playoffs.

"The saying may be cliche, but defenses do win championships," cornerback Chris Crocker said.

That's exactly why he didn't flinch when asked which unit was the strength of the team.

"It would have to be the defense," Crocker said. "We've played really well all year. Regardless of the situations, we just stuck together and played our butts off. It didn't matter what the score said. If we were down, or if we were up, we just kept playing all year."

Cincinnati's back-to-back red zone drives that ended in Ravens field goals at the start of the game were prime examples of the type of play that Crocker proudly boasted. Thanks in part to interceptions on the Bengals' first two offensive drives, the defense was slapped with the unenviable task of not only holding for one field goal, but holding for two before 13 minutes had passed.

Very easily, the Bengals could have been down 14-0 at the first-quarter break. But thanks to the two defensive stands and a subsequent four-play Bengals drive that ended on a 53-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open A.J. Green, they went to the second quarter leading, 7-6.

"Just to have a defense like what we have, it's a blessing," said Jones, who later made up for his lost interception with a one-handed grab. "There's a lot of times we feed off of [the defense]. If we get started slow and they go and they get their shutouts and their stops, then we're like, 'OK, let's go. Now it's our turn.'"

While Bengals defenders like Crocker are also confident in the "explosive" nature of a Cincinnati offense that scored 40 or more points four times at home this season, they are comforted in knowing their defense can be the team's postseason difference-maker.

Around the time the Bengals found out they had received a postseason berth last week, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer told his players to take a look at the top of the league rankings in total defense.

"He said, 'If you look at the teams going into the playoffs, our defense is one of the best out there,'" defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "Like they say, 'defenses win championships.'"

Entering Sunday night's Eagles-Cowboys game, the Bengals ranked third in the league in total defense. The other top-5 teams also reached the playoffs, but are from the NFC. The next-highest AFC defense that made the playoffs was ranked 19th.

Upon Further Review: Bengals Week 16

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
9:00
AM ET
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
Dalton
lastname
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.

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