NFL Nation: Nate Clements

Quick Take: 49ers at Falcons

January, 13, 2013
1/13/13
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Five things to know about the San Francisco 49ers' matchup against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday in the Georgia Dome:

1. Same thing all over again? At least on paper, this matchup looks awfully similar to the one Atlanta won against Seattle on Sunday. Like the Seahawks, the 49ers have a young quarterback in Colin Kaepernick who can run out of the read option and a strong defense. The last time the Falcons and 49ers played, the game ended in a very similar way to the victory against the Seahawks -- with a decisive last minute field goal. In Week 4 of the 2010 season, San Francisco defensive back Nate Clements had a late interception of Matt Ryan. If Clements simply went down, the 49ers would have been able to run out the clock. But Clements attempted to return the interception and Atlanta receiver Roddy White made a great hustle play. White chased down Clements and stripped the ball. Guard Harvey Dahl recovered and Ryan led a quick drive that ended with Matt Bryant kicking a 43-yard field goal for the win.

2. New territory: The Falcons, who came into the league in 1966, are going to the NFC Championship Game for only the third time in franchise history. They won it in the 1998 season and lost it in the 2004 season. This will be the first time the Falcons have hosted an NFC Championship Game. That could weigh heavily in Atlanta’s favor. Since the arrival of coach Mike Smith in 2008, the Falcons are 34-8 in the Georgia Dome (regular season and postseason).

3. It's up to the O-line: One of the biggest keys to the game will be Atlanta’s offensive line. The Falcons did a great job protecting Ryan against the Seahawks. He wasn’t sacked while attempting 35 passes. But the 49ers thrive on their pass rush and it’s a big part of the reason why they’re in the NFC Championship Game. In their divisional round victory against Green Bay, the 49ers put Aaron Rodgers under duress or sacked him on 11 of his 43 dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In those situations, Rodgers completed just two of nine passes for 13 yards.

4. Pounding on the ground: Atlanta’s running game, which struggled through most of the regular season, might be coming together at the right time. The Falcons rushed for 167 yards against the Seahawks, with Michael Turner leading the way with 98 yards on 14 carries. The Falcons had 88 rush yards after contact. The Falcons had 76 rush yards after contact in the first half, which is the most Atlanta has had in an opening half in the last four seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

5. Opening the airways: The improved play from the running game might mean more play-action passing against San Francisco. Against Seattle, play action worked very well. Ryan was eight of 12 for 87 yards and three touchdowns when using play action.
Injuries will force the Bengals to go with three cornerbacks Sunday at Jacksonville.

Four cornerbacks -- Leon Hall (hamstring), Nate Clements (calf), Jason Allen (thigh) and Dre Kirkpatrick (knee) -- are among the seven inactives. That means the Bengals will go with Terence Newman and Adam Jones as the starting cornerbacks. Chris Lewis-Harris, who was signed from the practice squad, is the third corner. Cincinnati could go with recently re-signed safety Chris Crocker as the nickel corner.

The banged-up Cincinnati secondary faces Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who ranks 30th in the league with 468 yards passing. His 5.9 yards per attempt is 31st.

Here are the Bengals' inactives: CB Leon Hall, CB Nate Clements, CB Jason Allen, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, RB Bernard Scott, LB Roddrick Muckelroy and WR Ryan Whalen.
The Bengals are down to two healthy cornerbacks heading into Sunday's game at the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Nate Clements (calf), Leon Hall (hamstring), Jason Allen (thigh) and Dre Kirkpatrick (knee) have not practiced all week. Hall, who is listed as questionable, is the one who has the best chance of playing. Kirkpatrick is out again, and Clements and Allen are doubtful.

Asked how not practicing affects his availability Sunday, Hall told the Cincinnati Enquirer, “We’ll see. Not necessarily. I think we’re still going to take it day by day and probably do the same thing that I did last week.”

If all the injured cornerbacks are inactive, the Bengals will have two corners: Terence Newman and Adam Jones. Chris Crocker, the team's starting strong safety last season, was re-signed Thursday and could play nickel back for the Bengals.

The Bengals are fortunate that they're playing the Jaguars on Sunday. Jacksonville is the 31st-ranked passing team in the NFL, averaging 147 yards passing per game.

Bengals-Jaguars injury report

September, 28, 2012
9/28/12
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Injury report for Bengals-Jaguars game on Sunday:

BENGALS

OUT: CB Dre Kirkpatrick (knee). DOUBTFUL: CB Nate Clements (calf), CB Jason Allen (thigh). QUESTIONABLE: C Jeff Faine (hamstring), CB Leon Hall (hamstring), LB Roddrick Muckelroy (illness) and RB Bernard Scott (ankle). PROBABLE: DE Carlos Dunlap (knee), DE Michael Johnson (foot), FS Reggie Nelson (shoulder), OT Andrew Whitworth (knee).

JAGUARS

OUT: LB Daryl Smith (groin), DE George Selvie (knee). PROBABLE: DT Tyson Alualu (not injury related), OL Eben Britton (ankle), RB Rashad Jennings (knee), DE Austen Lane (foot), C Brad Meester (not injury related), RB Montell Owens (concussion), WR Laurent Robinson (concusion), CB Kevin Rutland (concussion).

Final Word: AFC North

September, 28, 2012
9/28/12
1:30
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 4:

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
AP Photo/Alex BrandonAndy Dalton has the fourth-highest passer rating in the league after three weeks of play.
No sophomore slump: Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton is on quite a tear in his second season in the NFL. In going against Jacksonville and the league's 21st-ranked pass defense this Sunday, Dalton is shooting for his third straight game with 300 yards passing. In his previous two games, he has completed 74 percent of his passes (43 of 58) with six touchdowns and two interceptions. Dalton leads the league with a 158.3 passer rating in the fourth quarter, which happens to be the perfect passer rating. He is having a much better start than Carolina's Cam Newton, last year's NFL offensive rookie of the year.

Getting the defense on track: There will be reason to start worrying about the Bengals' defense if it continues its decline at Jacksonville. Cincinnati, a top-10 defense in points and yards allowed a year ago, is giving up 34 points and 416.7 yards per game. The Bengals get a chance to right themselves against the Jaguars, who are averaging 17.3 points per game. Only two teams (Dallas and Philadelphia) have scored fewer through three games this year.

Green's encore: Wide receiver A.J. Green has been a model of consistency in terms of catches. He has at least five receptions in his first five games of the season. His challenge Sunday is following up his 183-yard performance from a week ago. Last season, Green averaged 57.7 yards receiving in the games following a 100-yard performance. He ranks second in the NFL in receiving yards per game (103.7) and is tied for eighth in the league in receptions (21).

Interception drought: The Bengals are one of three teams who have not intercepted a pass this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. This has been an ongoing problem for Cincinnati. The Bengals only picked off 10 passes last season, which was tied for sixth-fewest in the NFL. It could be difficult to get one Sunday. Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert hasn't been intercepted this season (79 pass attempts). Plus, cornerbacks Leon Hall (hamstring) and Nate Clements (calf) are battling injuries and won't be at full strength if they play.

Bounce back for the running back: BenJarvus Green-Ellis is disappointed that he fumbled Sunday, the first time that has happened in his five-year career. He had gone 589 touches without coughing up the ball. One of the reasons that Cincinnati chose not to re-sign Cedric Benson was his fumbling problems late last season. Green-Ellis can redeem himself against the Jaguars, who are giving up 154.3 yards on the ground per game. Where Green-Ellis does most of his damage is in the red zone. He has scored 13 rushing touchdowns in his last 19 games.

How you feeling? Redskins-Bengals

September, 23, 2012
9/23/12
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LANDOVER, Md. -- As the Washington Redskins prepare to take on the Cincinnati Bengals in their home opener here today at 1 p.m. ET, here's one reason for Redskins fans to feel good and one reason for concern.

Feeling good: In spite of the losses of defensive end Adam Carriker and outside linebacker Brian Orakpo to season-ending injuries, the Redskins ought to be able to get pressure on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton today. Washington has depth on the line to cover for the Carriker loss, and they like the potential of Rob Jackson and Chris Wilson to help fill the Orakpo void. But even if they're going to need time to adjust, Cincinnati doesn't offer the stiffest first test. The Bengals have struggled in pass protection this year, and Dalton isn't the most mobile of quarterbacks. The Redskins' defense needs to create pressure up front due to concerns in the secondary, and they should be able to rely on that formula to their benefit today, even without those two key players.

Cause for concern: The Bengals' defensive weak spot is in the secondary, where corners Leon Hall and Nate Clements have struggled in the early going. But the Redskins are not at full strength in their wide receiver corps, and the likely absence of top wideout Pierre Garcon will limit Robert Griffin III's ability to beat Cincinnati deep. If the Bengals can keep the Redskins in a short-yardage offensive game plan, the advantage swings their way, especially with defensive end Carlos Dunlap likely returning from injury to play in this game.

Bengals' corners face another young QB

September, 21, 2012
9/21/12
11:43
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A week after giving up 322 yards passing to Cleveland's Brandon Weeden, the Bengals' cornerbacks face another rookie first-round quarterback in Robert Griffin III on Sunday.

Two games into the regular season, Leon Hall hasn't looked the same since injuring his Achilles last year, and Nate Clements (32 years old) and Terence Newman (34) have looked old. The Bengals' defense ranks 29th in completion percentage (71 percent), 29th in passing yards allowed (308.5), and 30th in passing first downs (31).

Last season, Cincinnati allowed only one team -- Seattle -- to throw for 300 yards. This season, both opponents (the Ravens and Browns) have topped that mark.

"It's just doing our jobs, being where we need to [be] all the time, being consistent," coach Marvin Lewis said. "We're pressing a little bit, and it showed."

Big plays allowed have always been a problem for the Bengals, and it's something that Lewis has tried to stress to his defense. The Bengals have given up 11 pass plays of more than 20 yards. Only the Saints, Bears and Buccaneers have allowed more.

The Bengals have to be wary of RG3's arm. His 9.6 yards per attempt leads the NFL.

Cincinnati's pass defense will get a boost if Carlos Dunlap returns after missing the first two games with a knee injury. He has 14 sacks in 24 career games.
Joe Flacco and A.J. Green Getty ImagesBaltimore's Joe Flacco, left, and Cincinnati's A.J. Green could hold the keys to victory Monday.
Thanks to Marvin Lewis, the Cincinnati Bengals match up pretty well against the Baltimore Ravens.

Even though the Ravens have been a perennial playoff team, Lewis, the Ravens’ defensive coordinator from 1996-2001, builds his Bengals roster to counter his division rival. Because he helped hand-pick several of the top defensive players who have helped make the Ravens one of the best defenses in the league, the Bengals usually know they can give the Ravens a game.

Since 2006, this competitive series has had only two games in which the margin of difference was bigger than 10 points. In fact, Lewis has a 10-8 lifetime record against the Ravens. Since John Harbaugh arrived in Baltimore in 2008, he’s won five out of eight against the Bengals.

Here’s what to watch for in this competitive Monday night game:

Baltimore Ravens

1. Will the Ravens have a pass-rush? The loss of linebacker Terrell Suggs was huge for the Ravens. His Achilles tendon injury has created an Achilles’ heel for their defense. They need a pass-rush. This goes beyond replacing Suggs’ 14 sacks. During the preseason, the Ravens didn’t show they were consistently getting to the quarterback. Second-round linebacker Courtney Upshaw is still getting his feel for the NFL and might offer some hope. The pressure will fall on Paul Kruger, who takes over Suggs’ spot. The Ravens are blessed with good coverage cornerbacks, which might allow them to try some blitzes.

2. More will fall on the arm of Joe Flacco: Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron plans to let Flacco take more leadership on the field and let him use more no-huddle. Though the Ravens don’t plan to abandon the run, they will be running an offense with a quicker tempo. Normally, the Bengals play the Ravens to low-scoring games in which both teams often end up scoring in the teens. Last season, offense became more of a factor. The Ravens won, 31-24, and 24-16. Flacco would love to get three or four touchdown drives against the Bengals.

3. More speed at wide receiver: One of the reasons the Bengals and Lewis keep the scores low against the Ravens is because the Bengals use plenty of man-to-man schemes. In the past, the Ravens didn’t have a lot of speed at wide receiver. This year they have speed. Torrey Smith, in his second season, is now a complete receiver with speed instead of only being a deep threat in his rookie year. Jacoby Jones adds a sub-4.4 threat. LaQuan Williams is fast. Watch to see if the Ravens receivers can win the battle against the Bengals cornerbacks.

4. Are the Ravens solid up front? The Ravens are fielding one of the oldest offensive lines in football. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie is 32. Guard Bobbie Williams is 35. Center Matt Birk is 36. One of the keys to the running game is how Williams and Birk do against defensive tackle Geno Atkins. If Atkins’ quickness beats the aging legs of Birk and Williams, the Ravens might have trouble running the football up the middle. They might also be vulnerable to inside blitzes.

5. Will Ray Rice’s role change? Rice has carried the Ravens offense for years, but the subtle changes in this year’s offense could adjust his role. First, will the no-huddle limit some of the runs Rice could make? Second, if the Ravens have problems in the middle of the line, will he have to bounce more plays to the outside? Rice is a threat running and receiving, but the new emphasis on throwing the ball could make him more of a threat through the air.

Cincinnati Bengals:

1. Problems in the middle of the Bengals offensive line: The Bengals lost guard Travelle Wharton and center Kyle Cook for the season, and they have to make do with Clint Boling at left guard and Jeff Faine at center. Faine is an established NFL veteran, but he sometimes has trouble against big 3-4 defensive tackles. How he handles Terrence Cody, Haloti Ngata and Ma'ake Kemoeatu could be the key to the game for the Bengals. If the pocket collapses in the middle of the field, it could be a tough day for quarterback Andy Dalton.

2. Establishing the man-to-man matchups: Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is a master of matching up his cornerbacks against receivers. He has plenty of options. Nate Clements and Leon Hall are the starters, but at his disposal is longtime Cowboys cornerback Terence Newman, Adam “PacMan” Jones, and Jason Allen.

3. Making sure Taylor Mays has a good game: Taylor Mays won the strong safety job, so this will be his most extensive playing time as he enters his third year in the league. Mays has cornerback speed and is a big hitter, but he is still raw at the position. The Ravens will try to challenge him by sending tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta in his direction. Flacco will also try to get him out of position with play-action fakes that could free up Torrey Smith for some deep completions.

4. Establishing a running game: The Bengals had a solid running back with Cedric Benson. Now, the BenJarvus Green-Ellis era begins. Green-Ellis is a smart player who doesn’t fumble, but he has yet to prove he can be an every-down back week in, week out. The Bengals still have a young quarterback in Dalton, so it would be nice if he could count on Green-Ellis getting 16 to 18 carries a week.

5. Sorting out the receiving corps: Everyone knows A.J. Green has established himself as one of the best young receivers in football. Tight end Jermaine Gresham is a big-play tight end. But the Bengals have revamped everything behind him. Andrew Hawkins takes over as the slot receiver. Brandon Tate is the starter at wide receiver for now, but third-round pick Mohamed Sanu is an intriguing prospect. With defenses figuring to double Green, Dalton has to see who can establish themselves as dependable pass-catching options.

RodgersWatch: Speed? Still got it

September, 7, 2012
9/07/12
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Two years ago, we noted that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers had established himself as one of the better running quarterbacks in the NFL. Of course, that was when he was 26 years old and midway through his third season as a starter.

Now 28 and entering his fifth year at the Packers' helm, Rodgers would be excused for backing off the scrambles and focusing on pocket passing. But based on the 2012 preseason, as well as some extensive comments on the subject this week, it appears Rodgers has prepared himself to continue taking off whenever he sees open turf.

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
David Stluka/AP ImagesPackers QB Aaron Rodgers said he worked on becoming more flexible during the offseason to help improve his mobility.
He scrambled eight times for 76 yards in three games this summer, including two touchdowns against the Cincinnati Bengals. Speaking during his ESPN 540 radio show , Rodgers said he spent the offseason focusing on "my foot speed, my endurance and my strength" through greater flexibility.

"I want to be able to move around a little bit better out there," Rodgers said, "and I thought flexibility would be a good way to do that. So I focused on that a lot."

Among other things, Rodgers said he spent 20-30 minutes stretching after workouts. I'll let him explain the rest because, frankly, I'm not sure I fully understand the details myself.

"I did a lot of posture stuff with my workouts," he said, "making sure that I was doing more pulls for my back then pushes for my chest. Because whether you're an athlete or not, a lot of people internally rotate their shoulders which decreases your flexibility in your shoulder if you're a thrower.

"Or when you're sitting at a desk most of the days you're going to have your shoulders internally rotate. So to combat that, I'm doing more exercises to open up my chest and pull my shoulders back. It increases the flexibility on your shoulder and takes stress off of it. So those are some of the things I thought about."

Since becoming the Packers' starter in 2008, Rodgers has scored more rushing touchdowns (16) than any other quarterback. Over that span, via the database at pro-football-reference.com, he ranks second in rushing yards by a quarterback (1,136). What's amazing is the Packers only occasionally call runs for him the way the Carolina Panthers might for Cam Newton or the Atlanta Falcons did for a younger Michael Vick. Most of Rodgers' production is what he calls "reactionary." He's quick to recognize when a combination of man-to-man defense and deep routes will force defenders to run away from him with their backs turned. He also tries to keep what he called a "pass-first mentality outside of the pocket." In essence, he wants to avoid tucking the ball away because the threat of a pass -- even if he is a yard or two past the line of scrimmage -- can give him an advantage in the open field.

"The defensive guy isn't looking over at the sticks…," Rodgers said, "so I want to make sure that it looks like I at least have the ability to throw the football because that's going to keep them away from me a little bit more."

Still, even as he approaches middle age in football terms, Rodgers demonstrated this summer that he still has the raw speed and athletic ability to run past presumably faster defenders. Against the Bengals, he broke the pocket at the 12-yard line and simply ran around Bengals cornerback Nate Clements to the end zone. (Video here courtesy NFL.com.)

"[That] was fun for me because I spent a lot of time working on my athletic ability this offseason," he said. "My speed, my stamina, my quickness, and I felt like I kind of separated a little bit from the corner."

Someday, opposing defensive coordinators will be able to remove Rodgers' scrambling tendencies from their Packers game-day check list. It won't be in 2012, however.
CINCINNATI -- The Bengals' focus this year isn't on battling history. They're quite aware of the franchise's failure to put together back-to-back winning seasons since 1981-82, even though only five players on the current roster were alive at that time.

Coming off a surprising 9-7 season and a trip to the playoffs, Cincinnati has its sights set straight ahead. Way ahead. The players walk around the locker room with shirts that read "DNO." It means Destination: New Orleans, the site of this season's Super Bowl.

"Our guys know that there is more beyond just qualifying for the playoffs," coach Marvin Lewis said. "We all experienced the Houston game and knew what the flight back felt like."

Seven months after that playoff loss in Houston, the Bengals have put together one of the best teams in Lewis' 10 years in Cincinnati. Quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green are entering their second seasons as the foundation of the offense. The defense, which ranked No. 1 at one point last season before finishing seventh overall, returns all but two starters.

On paper, this team should produce another winning season, contend for the division title and return to the playoffs. But can this franchise deliver consistency for the first time in three decades?

"I can say all I want to right now. But, to be quite honest, until that first snap on Monday night, we’ll never know," said cornerback Leon Hall, who was on the 2010 team that finished 4-12 after winning the division the previous season. "I’m confident in the team that we have that we can have back-to-back winning seasons and get to the playoffs. But there are a lot of teams that look like an All-Star team, and they don’t do very well. Nobody is walking around like they own everything around here. I think we’re still a humble team, and we work pretty hard."

THREE HOT ISSUES

Armon Binns
AP Photo/Al BehrmanArmon Binns may not be the most physically gifted receiver on the Bengals' roster, but he could be a starter on opening day.
1. Who's the No. 2 wide receiver? Dalton doesn't think there will be one receiver who will start opposite Green. He envisions a receiver-by-committee setup with Brandon Tate, Armon Binns and Mohamed Sanu. Tate had an impressive offseason, which is why he's listed atop the depth chart. Binns, a practice squad player from a year ago, has the size at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds. Sanu, a rookie third-round pick, has the most intriguing upside.

"Right now, the way they’ve performed, I have no reservation whatsoever of anybody coming in there," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. "My play calling won’t alter one bit if Sanu, Armon or Tate is out there."

Although Tate has become the early favorite and Sanu is probably the future at this spot, don't be surprised if Binns is the starter for the season opener at Baltimore. Binns lacks the flash of Jerome Simpson, last year's No. 2 target, but he's a much more reliable route runner. Regardless, tight end Jermaine Gresham will be the No. 2 target behind Green.

2. Uncertainty in the secondary. A run of injuries and the unexpected release of strong safety Chris Crocker has made the secondary the biggest question mark on a defense that finished ninth in points allowed last season. Only cornerback Leon Hall and free safety Reggie Nelson are guaranteed spots. The other starter at cornerback has been determined by who's healthy. Nate Clements (abdominal strain), Dre Kirkpatrick (leg), Adam Jones (hamstring), Jason Allen (undisclosed), Brandon Ghee (wrist) and Shaun Prater (knee) all have missed time in training camp.

The Bengals are trying both Taylor Mays and Jeromy Miles at strong safety, but neither has distinguished himself in the offseason or training camp. Perhaps that's the reason Cincinnati has given Clements, a 12-year cornerback, some reps at safety. Moving Clements would allow the Bengals to get their top four defensive backs on the field. The Bengals believe Terence Newman, who was pushed out of Dallas after nine seasons, still has some productive years left at cornerback. Newman has ties with defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who was Newman's coordinator in his first four seasons with the Cowboys.

3. Will Dalton suffer a sophomore slump? Dalton and Cam Newton became the first rookie quarterbacks to reach the Pro Bowl since Vince Young in 2006. Young followed up that season with 17 interceptions the next year, causing some to wonder whether Dalton will stumble in his second season as well.

"You definitely hear it. If you turn on the TV, everybody is talking about me and Cam and is there going to be a sophomore slump," Dalton said. "I don’t see that happening. For me, I feel like it’s the second year and you’ve got that year of experience. You know what’s going on. You should be even better going into Year 2. That’s how I’m treating it."

It hasn't been the smoothest offseason for Dalton. He spent most of the spring defending his arm strength and then struggled for the first couple of days in training camp. Dalton has turned it around in camp, where he has been connecting on some deep shots downfield to prove his point. "I wouldn’t be a starting quarterback if my arm strength was such an issue," he said.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The Bengals are a much better team than the one that shockingly made the playoffs last season. Few teams had a better draft and free-agency period than Cincinnati. Although the Bengals didn't make a big-money splash, they upgraded several key positions.

The biggest improvement should come in the running game, which ranked 27th last season in yards per carry. Instead of re-signing Cedric Benson, Cincinnati added former Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who provides more dependability (no fumbles in his four-year NFL career) and a much-needed punch in the red zone. (His 24 rushing touchdowns over the past two seasons led New England.) The Bengals addressed the guard position, which was their weakest spot, by drafting Kevin Zeitler in the first round and signing Panthers free agent Travelle Wharton.

Cincinnati brought in defensive depth by adding former first-round picks in free agency: Terence Newman, Jason Allen and Jamaal Anderson. "We took opportunity to get good veteran players who fit what we do and fit to our guys," Lewis said. This doesn't even take into account that Dalton and Green enjoyed their first full offseason with the team this year and that defensive end Carlos Dunlap is primed for a breakout season.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The Bengals went 0-7 against playoff teams last season, which prompted skepticism in their turnaround. Cincinnati has to beat the Ravens and Steelers to win the division, and that's been a major obstacle the past two seasons. The Bengals have lost seven straight to Baltimore and Pittsburgh, scoring a meager 14.1 points per game during that skid.

"Last year, we were in every game we played against them except for that one game against Pittsburgh [a 35-7 loss in December]," Dalton said. "For me, I know I turned the ball over a couple of times that hurt us, but we were close. This is one of the toughest divisions in football. We have to play our best each week."

In four games against Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Dalton had an 0-4 record with four touchdowns and five interceptions. Against the rest of the NFL, he was 9-3 with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

OBSERVATION DECK

    Carlos Dunlap
    AP Photo/Al BehrmanAfter an impressive training camp, Carlos Dunlap could be an every-down player this season.
  • I've visited Baltimore, Cleveland and Cincinnati, and Dunlap has been the most dominant defensive player in practice. He spent as much time in the backfield as Cincinnati's running backs. As long as he continues to be this explosive, Dunlap will achieve his goal of being an every-down player this year.
  • Hall has looked impressive in coming back from a season-ending Achilles injury. He is not hesitant making sudden cuts on the field, which was apparent when he covered the slot receiver. Trusting the Achilles is usually a big mental hurdle to overcome.
  • When Green-Ellis gets the ball, he rarely cuts to the outside. He thrives on being a tough, inside-the-tackles runner. But the most impressive part of his game has been his pass protection.
  • Defensive tackle Geno Atkins, aka Geno Sacks in the locker room, was limited this week in camp after limping off the field Tuesday. It's not considered serious, but he's the one player in the front seven that Cincinnati can't afford to lose. Atkins, whose 7.5 sacks were tied for the best among all NFL interior linemen, is special in his ability to collapse the pocket.
  • The Bengals believe that Rey Maualuga struggled in his first season as an NFL middle linebacker because he wanted to be too much like Dhani Jones. "In Dhani’s case, he was so smart. He knew every single person’s job," Maualuga said. "[Zimmer] told me that he didn’t want me to be Dhani or Ray Lewis. I tend to worry about other people’s responsibilities instead of worry about myself."
  • The Bengals' offensive linemen certainly make an impression when they break the huddle. Every starter is at least 6-foot-3 and 315 pounds.
  • Backup running back Bernard Scott was expected to be involved in a running back-by-committee situation this season, but he's been sidelined by a hand injury. That will allow special-teamer Cedric Peerman to get a lot of carries in the first couple of preseason games.
  • Andrew Hawkins, who is the top slot receiver on the team, isn't comfortable being a returner. "I’m a work in progress. I’m new to it," he said. "The more reps you get, the better you get at everything." The safer option seems to be Tate, last year's returner, especially if he comes up short in the battle to be the team's No. 2 wide receiver.
  • Jordan Shipley, who is behind Hawkins as the slot receiver, doesn't appear to have enough burst to get separation from defenders in man coverage. Coming off season-ending knee surgery, Shipley is best at finding soft spots in zone defenses. He needs a strong preseason to get off the bubble.
  • The Bengals' coaching staff is extremely high on undrafted rookie linebacker Vontaze Burfict, the one-time first-round prospect. Playing at a much lighter weight than he did at Arizona State, Burfict is always around the ball in camp.
CINCINNATI -- The Bengals' competition at strong safety was expected to be a battle between Taylor Mays and Jeromy Miles. But there was another player seeing time at that spot during Wednesday's practice -- veteran cornerback Nate Clements.

It's unknown whether this is an experiment or if the Bengals are thinking of starting Clements at safety. The Bengals definitely want to see what Clements looks like at that spot because he split his snaps on the first-team defense at cornerback and safety.

This could be a way of extending the career of the 32-year-old Clements, who is a strong tackler. It would allow the Bengals a chance of getting their five best defensive backs on the field. The Bengals have been looking for a strong safety since releasing Chris Crocker in early April.

Clements, who has played 12 seasons at cornerback, said it's not up to him that he's in the mix to be a starting safety. Asked if he was comfortable at safety, Clements said after practice, "As long as I'm on the field, I'm comfortable."

When Clements moved back to safety, the Bengals used Adam Jones and Terence Newman at corner, while Leon Hall covered the slot. While Clements said it's different to play safety, it's not a major adjustment for him.

"Whatever coach wants me to do and asks me to do, I have to make sure as a player that I know my responsibilities and know all the positions," he said. "As a cornerback, I learned early on to study all the positions in the defensive secondary so I would know where my help is and when I'm able to take that calculated risk. The difference is now I'm playing the positions."

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has done this move before. When he was the defensive coordinator for the Ravens, he switched Rod Woodson from cornerback to safety. Woodson went on to go to four Pro Bowls at safety.

Clements is in the final year of a two-year, $10.5 million contract.
Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. broke down the top six needs remaining Insider for each of the AFC North teams. You'll need an Insider subscription to view the entire post, but here's a glimpse of the top three needs:

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Horton's top three needs: Cornerback, guard and safety.

Horton on cornerback: The starters in 2011 were Leon Hall, who will be coming off an Achilles injury, and 32-year-old Nate Clements. When Hall went down, Adam Jones filled in, but none of these three make you comfortable in man coverage. Newly acquired free agent Jason Allen will help, but there is a lot of work to be done here.

Hensley's comment: I wouldn't put cornerback as the top need because the Bengals added Allen and re-signed Jones. Allen is an upgrade over Kelly Jennings. Guard is the bigger concern. If the season started today, the Bengals' starting right guard would either be Otis Hudson, Clint Boling or Anthony Collins (who would shift over from tackle).

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Horton's top three needs: Quarterback, wide receiver and running back.

Horton on quarterback: Right now, their options at QB are starter Colt McCoy and veteran backup Seneca Wallace, but nobody expects it to stay that way. With two first-round draft picks, they will almost surely pick a QB with one of them.

Hensley's comment: You could make a strong argument that quarterback, wide receiver or running back should rank as the No. 1 need. My top need for Cleveland is right tackle. The Browns can at least start McCoy, Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi and Montario Hardesty at those other positions. Right tackle was a weak spot for the Browns last season with Tony Pashos and Artis Hicks, both of whom are now gone. The Browns' starting right tackle at this point is Oniel Cousins, a third-round bust from Baltimore.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Horton's three needs: Inside linebacker, left guard and safety.

Horton on inside linebacker: The Ray Lewis era will be ending soon, and the Ravens need to find his replacement. Jameel McClain was re-signed, and he can play inside or outside, but a three-down linebacker who can play solid pass defense is sorely needed.

Hensley's comment: Left guard is the biggest need on the team, and it's not even close. The Ravens couldn't keep Ben Grubbs and failed to sign Evan Mathis. The fallback option is Jah Reid, a backup offensive tackle last season. Going from a Pro Bowl guard (Grubbs) to a converted tackle (Reid) is a major step down.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Horton's top three needs: Offensive tackle/guard, nose tackle and running back.

Horton on offensive tackle/guard: Center Maurkice Pouncey is the only stable starter on this unit. Veteran tackle Max Starks is coming off an ACL injury and T Willie Colon can't stay healthy, though the coaches hope he can get through a full season at RT with young Marcus Gilbert moving from RT to LT. There is also a big hole at left guard. The Steelers need to get at least one, and maybe two, starters up front.

Hensley's comment: You can't really disagree with this assessment. Left guard Doug Legursky is a backup who performed admirably when Chris Kemoeatu was benched. Gilbert has a good chance of succeeding on the left side, but it's hard to depend on Colon at right tackle with his injury history. The Steelers' options are limited because there is no depth. Jonathan Scott, who has struggled mightily, is the top backup at tackle, and there's no reserves at guard with Trai Essex (free agent) and Jamon Meredith (not tendered as a restricted free agent) off on the roster.

AFC North free-agency assessment

March, 29, 2012
3/29/12
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AFC Assessments: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Cincinnati Bengals

Key additions: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, S Reggie Nelson, G Travelle Wharton, CB Jason Allen, CB Adam Jones, DE Jamaal Anderson, DE Derrick Harvey

Key losses: DE Frostee Rucker (Browns), G Nate Livings (Cowboys), G Mike McGlynn (Colts), DE Jonathan Fanene (Patriots), WR Andre Caldwell (Broncos)

Grade after first wave of free agency: B. The Bengals were the most active team in the division and they should have been. Cincinnati entered free agency with over $50 million in salary-cap space, which was more than the rest of the AFC North combined. The Bengals upgraded at running back and left guard while bringing back their top free-agent priority in safety Reggie Nelson. The biggest knock against the Bengals is they didn't make a splash by signing a high-profile free agent like guard Ben Grubbs or wide receiver Robert Meachem.

The prize of the Bengals' signings is running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who is an improvement over Cedric Benson. Green-Ellis isn't known for breaking long gains, but he is a force in the red zone and has never fumbled in the NFL. Wharton is a step up from Nate Livings at left guard because he is a strong run-blocker who will open holes inside. The biggest losses came on the defensive line, where Cincinnati will miss Frostee Rucker on run defense and Jonathan Fanene in the pass rush.

What’s next: The Bengals can still close the gap between the Ravens and Steelers because they have two first-round picks in the draft (No. 17 overall, which came from Oakland in the Carson Palmer trade, and No. 21). Even with the signing of Wharton, Cincinnati needs a right guard and could have a shot at the top interior offensive lineman coming out of college. Stanford's David DeCastro is one of the safest picks in the draft and would start immediately for the Bengals.

The second first-round pick could be used on a wide receiver or a cornerback. The Bengals surprisingly didn't add a free-agent wide receiver to pair with A.J. Green. Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill or Baylor's Kendall Wright should be available in the bottom third of the draft. Another need is cornerback because Cincinnati could use an eventual replacement for Nate Clements, who is entering his 12th season. Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick, the second-best corner in the draft, has a chance of sliding to the Bengals.

Cleveland Browns

Key additions: DE Frostee Rucker, LB D'Qwell Jackson, CB Dimitri Patterson, DE Juqua Parker

Key losses: RB Peyton Hillis (Chiefs), S Mike Adams (Broncos), G Eric Steinbach, OT Tony Pashos

Grade after first wave of free agency: C. Browns president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert said they were building this team through the draft and they weren't joking. The Browns desperately needed to improve at quarterback, wide receiver and right guard. But Cleveland's offense came out of the initial wave of free agency empty-handed. Blame the Washington Redskins. The Browns attempted to move up in the draft to take Robert Griffin III, and the Rams instead traded the second overall pick to the Redskins. Cleveland reportedly pursued wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan, and both took high-priced deals from Washington.

The Browns provided more help to the defense in free agency. Frostee Rucker will make an impact in stopping the run, which was the biggest weakness on the NFL's 10th-ranked defense. Juqua Parker, who has 31.5 sacks over the past six seasons, will team with Jabaal Sheard to give Cleveland a strong rush coming off both edges. The Browns didn't try to keep Peyton Hillis and Mike Adams from going elsewhere.

What’s next: Offense, offense and offense. Did I mention offense? The Browns need a quarterback but there's no one worthy of the fourth overall pick. Cleveland could trade down to select Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill or wait until the second round for Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden. The big decision comes if the Browns stay put at No. 4. Cleveland's choices are Alabama running back Trent Richardson or Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon. The Browns could use either one because they don't have a starting running back or a No. 1 wide receiver.

Cleveland has a second first-round pick as a result of last year's trade with the Atlanta Falcons. The Browns need to target a wide receiver (if they don't take one earlier in the first round), right tackle or outside linebacker with the 22nd overall pick. Baylor receiver Wright, Mississippi offensive tackle Bobby Massie and Nebraska outside linebacker Lavonte David have been linked to Cleveland.

Baltimore Ravens

Key additions: C Matt Birk, ILB Jameel McClain, OLB Brendon Ayanbadejo, CB Corey Graham, S Sean Considine

Key losses: G Ben Grubbs (Saints), OLB Jarret Johnson (Chargers), DE Cory Redding (Colts) and CB Domonique Foxworth

Grade after first wave of free agency: D. The Ravens lost three starters (Ben Grubbs, Jarret Johnson and Cory Redding) from last season's AFC North champion team and have yet to add anyone to replace them. It was a a rough start to free agency for Baltimore, which didn't sign any of its first three visits (guard Evan Mathis, defensive end Mark Anderson and receiver-returner Ted Ginn Jr.). The toughest part of free agency was when the Ravens failed to sign Mathis, who re-signed with the Eagles, after Baltimore had just lost Grubbs.

Baltimore was able to keep two free-agent starters, Matt Birk and Jameel McClain, and boost a struggling special-teams group that allowed three touchdowns last season. The Ravens signed Cory Graham, a Pro Bowl special-teams player from the Bears; Brendon Ayanbadejo, a three-time Pro Bowl special teams standout; and Sean Considine, who played special teams for three seasons under John Harbaugh in Philadelphia.

What’s next: The Ravens' biggest need is at left guard, but there might not be one that warrants being taken at No. 29. Wisconsin center-guard Peter Konz's stock has slipped recently even though he can guard right away before switching to center in future seasons. It's hard to pin down a player for Baltimore, which can go in a lot of different directions in the first round.

The Ravens could take the best wide receiver available (especially if he's a returner) because they need a third target who can eventually take Anquan Boldin's starting spot. They could take a safety because Ed Reed turns 34 at the start of the season and Bernard Pollard is a free agent next year. And they could take an offensive tackle because they don't have a reliable backup and Bryant McKinnie is a free agent in 2013.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Key additions: None

Key losses: CB William Gay (Cardinals), LB James Farrior, NT Chris Hoke, G Chris Kemoeatu, DE Aaron Smith, WR Hines Ward

Grade after first wave of free agency: D. It's been a quiet free-agency period so far for the Steelers. Then again, it's usually quiet for the Steelers at this point in the offseason. The only team that consistently does less than the Steelers in free agency is the Green Bay Packers.

The Steelers avoided a failing grade because they've only lost two starters from last season's playoff team. James Farrior was cut in the team's salary-cap purge, and William Gay left as an unrestricted free agent. What Pittsburgh really lost in trimming $25 million to get under the cap was veteran depth and leadership. Injuries would force young players to step up into starting roles.

What’s next: There are question marks at running back, guard, inside linebacker, nose tackle and cornerback. Despite all of those needs, the consensus has been Pittsburgh will draft Alabama inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower if he's available at No. 24. He has a great combination of size and speed and excelled in a 3-4 defense in college. It seems like Hightower would be the perfect fit for Pittsburgh.

There's no chance that Memphis' Dontari Poe falls to the Steelers, but there some quality nose tackles in the draft. Those who should be available after the first round are: BYU's Loni Fangupo (second round), Washington's Alameda Ta'amu (third round) and Alabama's Josh Chapman (fourth round). The Steelers likely will become active later in free agency, especially in retaining their own players. Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, running back Mewelde Moore and quarterbacks Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch could potentially return to the team.
The Bengals decided to keep Adam "Pacman" Jones and his baggage, reaching an agreement with often-troubled cornerback, according to ESPN's John Clayton.

This comes as a surprise, even though there were reports that the Bengals and Jones had been talking.

Jones
Off the field, Jones' latest run-in with the law --he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct in January -- will be reviewed by the NFL, which could impose a suspension now that he has signed with a team.

On the field, the lasting impression of Jones was getting beat on a double move by Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson for a 40-yard touchdown in last season's playoff loss.

So why are the Bengals re-signing Jones? In their mind, he is better than the other options available, like free agent Terence Newman from the Cowboys. Jones was actually solid in the regular season when he replaced injured Leon Hall for seven starts. According to Pro Football Focus, Jones allowed 16 receptions in eight games in 2011.

The Bengals have taken a proactive approach in addressing a cornerback group that has Hall coming off a season-ending Achilles injury and Nate Clements entering his 12th season. Cincinnati also signed Texans free agent Jason Allen and could draft another corner in the first round. The addition of Jones likely means the Bengals won't re-sign Kelly Jennings.

Jones, 28, has been repeatedly arrested during his NFL career. He missed the entire 2007 season with the first of two suspensions from the league.

The Tennessee Titans traded Jones to Dallas before the 2008 draft. An alcohol-related altercation with a bodyguard that the Cowboys assigned to him led to another six-game suspension.

He was out of the NFL for a year before the Bengals gave him the two-year deal in 2010.
The San Francisco 49ers realized a terrific return on investment by signing Carlos Rogers to a one-year deal in free agency last offseason.

Rogers put together a Pro Bowl season, positioning himself for a big payday.

The 49ers now have options. They could sign the 30-year-old corner at a premium price. They could seek another bargain at the position. They could try to sign Rogers once the market settles, provided he remains unsigned. They could identify younger talent at the position and proceed accordingly.

The team has already signed former Denver Broncos starter Perrish Cox to a two-year deal. Initial reports are linking the 49ers to former Kansas City cornerback Brandon Carr and Detroit Lions corner Eric Wright in free agency.

It's early and I would caution against making assumptions prematurely. I'll be watching to see how much money the 49ers invest in the position. Their current leadership released Nate Clements and the fat contract Clements signed as a free agent years earlier. That same leadership gave former starter Shawntae Spencer permission to seek a trade. The 49ers used 2011 third- and seventh-round choices on corners.

NFC West teams face a long list of top quarterbacks in 2012. The 49ers are scheduled to go against Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning and Drew Brees.

Purely from a football standpoint, they would likely be best off with Rogers. That doesn't necessarily make him the best value.

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