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Cincinnati Bengals

Sizing up Frank Pollack’s crew

Russell Heltman

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CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 10: Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (14) calls a play during the NFL game against the Baltimore Ravens and the Cincinnati Bengals on September 10th 2017, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, OH. The Ravens defeated the Bengals 20-0. (Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire)

Training Camp in the NFL is an optimistic time.

Every team across the league has high hopes for the year that haven’t been squashed by the trials of a regular season. In the case of the 2017 Cincinnati Bengals, optimism surrounded just about every aspect of the team except… the offensive line.

Arguably the worst group in the league and easily a bottom-five unit, last year’s offensive line made it nearly impossible for the team to score points. The group didn’t have one player graded average or better by Pro Football Focus. It wasn’t a surprise either, every fan and analyst that watched the team at camp prepared for a long year.

Fast forward 365 days and a lot has changed for this position group: Russell Bodine out, Billy Price in, Cedric Ogbuehi out, Cordy Glenn in. All while the right tackle position remains unclaimed. This is a group in flux and they’ve tasked the mastermind of the Dallas Cowboys offensive line to put it together. I made my way out to training camp on Monday to see what kind of effect the new faces and Frank Pollack’s coaching are having on this group.

I want to preface this less than ideal assessment with a positive, Carl Lawson, Geno Atkins, and the rest of the front seven are going to take a big leap in 2018. That being said, the offensive line struggled on Monday.

Of the roughly 20 passing plays the Bengals ran in 11-on-11, only five left the quarterback with a clean pocket. Now there were a handful of plays you can chalk up as coverage pressure but it still wasn’t pretty. Plus, you’ll be surprised to see one of these players starting: LT Cordy Glenn, LG Clint Boling, C Billy Price, RG Trey Hopkins, RT Bobby Hart.

That’s right, the guy cast aside by the New York Giants and one of the lowest graded tackles in the league last year was the Bengals starting right tackle on their tenth day of camp. He didn’t look the part either, giving up a sack and two pressures in 11-on-11. This tells me two things: Jake Fisher and Ogbuehi aren’t proving themselves and this team still has no clue who will start in Indianapolis. Despite not seeing Fisher take snaps with the first team, I still think he has a solid shot at the job, we haven’t seen him fully round into form following heart problems.

It’s only the tenth day of camp so Pollack and Co. still have some time to figure out the answer on that side. Plus, the only teams that have played a real football game this year are Baltimore and Chicago. Preseason performance will provide the bulk of the answers but nothing they showed me in pass protection makes me optimistic.

Be prepared for another season of gun-shy Andy Dalton.

Enough with the negatives, Pollack has brought a new mentality and nastiness to this crew. A lot of Paul Alexander’s techniques were reactionary, while Pollack has clearly been preaching aggression. It already seems to be helping what was the second-worst rushing attack in the league. Joe Mixon and Mark Walton got the majority of the reps on Monday and looked dynamic behind Pollack’s crew. Expect to see a lot of these same blocking concepts this season:

The line communicated well, blocked downhill, opened up some highways in the process, and there weren’t any fumbled snaps between Dalton and Price. With a dynamic backfield trio and a fresh blocking mentality, the Bengals should heed the advice of our fearless leader James Rapien and ride a smash-mouth identity into the playoffs.

This offensive line is definitely better than they were on August, 8th 2017 but they still have a long way to go if they want to contend for the Lombardi Trophy. The road starts Thursday against the Chicago Bears.

A Cincinnati sports fan since before he could walk, Russ grew up in Anderson Township and currently attends Ohio University where he is pursuing a degree in Broadcast Journalism. Aside from cheering on all of the lovable losers in Cincinnati, Russ is an avid golfer and diehard Charlotte Hornets fan. When he's not breaking down the Bengals on 97 WATH you can find his analysis and thoughts on everything Orange and Black right here.

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Cincinnati Bengals

Grading the Bengals victory in Dallas

Russell Heltman

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The Cincinnati Bengals are undefeated halfway through the 2018 preseason slate but if the 2017 Browns taught us anything it’s that victories before September matter a lot less than the performances that go into them. With that being said it was a victorious night for the orange and black but it was rarely pretty, time to assess their performance in each phase of the game.

Offense: C-

It was an ugly night on offense for Cincinnati, The starters basically no-showed in the first half and here’s how each drive looked before they headed to the locker room: Punt, Punt, Punt, Fumble, Punt, Interception.

All in all the first-team offense put together two drives with no first downs and 10 total yards.

That’s enough to put any team down three scores early in a regular season game and plenty of those struggles were linked to the offensive line. The left side looked decent with Clint Boling and Cordy Glenn proving they can be trusted with backside pressure. Outside of that, it was pretty rough, Bobby Hart started the game at right tackle and was shredded by Pro Bowl end Demarcus Lawrence. Cedric Ogbuehi was even worse as his replacement, allowing a sack to Taco Charlton even though he was called for a hold on the play.

As for right guard and center, Trey Hopkins didn’t make any egregious mistakes and contributed as the center on a 14-play, 92-yard TD drive in the third quarter. The argument could be made for him to be the backup center over T.J. Johnson.

Rookie center Billy Price on the other hand still has a lot of work to do, some of it looks like rookie mistakes but that is now two games into his career where he’s looked a little lost. The former Buckeye isn’t quite where we need him to be three weeks from Indianapolis. Right now Joe Mixon is averaging 2.4 yards per carry in the preseason, don’t expect that to get much better without improvement up front.

On a positive note, Jeff Driskel looked competent and collected in the second half. The Florida product went 10-of-16, for 116 yards and 1 interception but he led the Bengals longest drive of the night highlighted by this gem to John Ross.

The Bengals got the win and scored 21 points but still have a long, long way to go on the offensive line.

Defense: A

I fully expect this group to be the heart and soul of the 2018 Cincinnati Bengals.

They were absolutely dominant in Dallas, especially on the defensive line where they picked up five sacks including this power rush from Jordan Willis.

Sam Hubbard, Nick Vigil, and Carl Lawson tallied a sack and highlighted this crew’s biggest strengths: depth and versatility. Teryl Austin has the luxury of a talented front seven that isn’t reliant on one or two players but on the machine as a whole. The Cowboys could never get into a rhythm offensively because Cincinnati consistently won the first two seconds of each play. Andrew Billings was a big part of that equation, he got pressure on the inside all night and all but cemented a starting spot alongside Geno Atkins.

Pair this group with another deep crew in the cornerback room and all of those issues I mentioned above might not matter if the defense only allows 13 points on a regular basis.

As for the last line of defense, rookie Jessie Bates III got some first-team reps in place of George Iloka and looked the part, Austin has talked about running more three-safety looks all offseason and Bates III is making that game plan look more likely each week.

The offense might not be ready but this defense, despite missing Vontaze Burfict, looks ready to pounce on Andrew Luck in week one.

Special Teams: B+

This was arguably the Jonathan Brown game.

The soccer convert out of Louisville had never kicked a field goal at any level before coming to the NFL and now he has put the pressure on incumbent kicker Randy Bullock. Brown went 2-for-2 on field goal tries including a 55-yard field in the third quarter, that would have tied the Bengals regular season record set by Mike Nugent.

Marvin Lewis came out after the game and said Bullock is still the guy, which isn’t big news, he did go 18-of-20 for the Bengals last season, but keep an eye on Brown over the last two preseason games. Cincinnati let a young kicker go last year who is shaping up to be pretty special.

As far as the return game goes, Darius Phillips will be returning his fair share of kicks for the Bengals this season. he flashed serious game-breaking ability last night, finishing with three returns for 96 total yards. Making it pretty clear how he left Western Michigan as the NCAA’s all-time leader in return touchdowns.

Phillips can slide in alongside Alex Erickson this season and form one of the most dynamic return duos in the NFL. The Cowboys put together a couple of nice kickoff returns but Cincinnati’s unit won the night in the end.

The Bengals were edged out in one phase while dominating the other two and that often leads to victories in the NFL. We will see if they can link all three together next week in Buffalo.

 

For more quick-hit thoughts on the Bengals follow me on Twitter: @russheltman11

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Cincinnati Bengals

Players are buying into Bill Lazor’s offense

James Rapien

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The Bengals finished dead last in total offense last season. Yes, the 0-16 Browns finished ahead of them. So did the Colts, who played all 16 games without quarterback Andrew Luck. If you love offense, then you probably didn’t enjoy watching the Bengals last season. They scored less than 10 points in five games and didn’t reach the end zone until week three.

The offense hit rock bottom in 2017, but they don’t expect that trend to continue. Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor led a complete overhaul of an offensive that had been in place since Andy Dalton and A.J. Green were drafted in 2011. Sure, they made some tweaks over the past seven seasons, but nothing like this. Lazor rebuilt an offense that needed it desperately and the players are buying in.

“I like it. It’s different terminology, numbers and stuff like that,” Alex Erickson said. “It’s obviously challenging in the beginning, but we’ve had minicamp and OTA’s to really learn it. It’s allowed us to really progress this training camp.”

Erickson hasn’t played on a winning Bengals team. He beat out Brandon Tate for a roster spot in 2016, after going undrafted. The former Wisconsin Badger is one of the many weapons that Lazor has in his arsenal. Did he design a system that will put the skill players in the best position to succeed? That’s a question that cannot be answered until actual games start, but it’s been asked since Lazor was named offensive coordinator.

The Bengals used high draft picks on skill players over the past three seasons. They drafted a wide receiver in the top ten, a running back in the second round and multiple wide receivers in rounds two through four. They have former pro bowler Tyler Eifert, a talented running back like Giovani Bernard and a top five wide receiver in Green. Did Lazor design a system that will get the most out of a young, but talented offense? Third-year wide receiver Tyler Boyd loves the depth this team has.

“We got fresh guys out there. Guys that are hungry,” Boyd said. “Guys that are willing and dying to get out there on the field and make plays. Every guy wants the best out of each other. We do a great job of motivating each other, grinding hard and competing with one another. We all have a great friendship. We’re all cool and we’re all real tight. We all want everyone to play a part. We don’t want it to just be me and A.J. all of the time. We are able to get me and A.J. a break or get two fresh guys in there and continue what we were doing. It makes it a lot easier for the offense to improve from last year.”

That unselfishness is important to have, even on a team that finished dead last in total offense last season. There are a lot of mouths to feed. From Joe Mixon and Bernard, to Eifert and Tyler Kroft, who are both in contract years. Boyd is eager to prove last year was a mere speed bump, in what will be a successful career in Cincinnati. Former ninth overall pick John Ross not only wants to move past last season, he wants to show people that the Bengals made the right decision when they drafted him in 2017. Instead of worrying about their own touches, it seems like the offense is more worried about being successful.

Fans got their first glimpse of Lazor’s new offense last Thursday at Paul Brown Stadium. The first-team offense scored two touchdowns on three drives. Dalton completed six passes to five different players. They were nearly perfect, outside of an interception that occurred when Ross fell down on a route. The Bengals are buying into Lazor’s system and the skill players are excited about their potential.

“You look at the depth at each and every position. To me, it’s absolutely insane,” tight end C.J. Uzomah said. “It’s not fair – how much skill we have. The offensive line is protecting well. When we’re able to establish the run early, I think that opens everything else up.”

The Bengals will need to be better on the ground this season. They averaged 3.6 yards-per-carry last year and finished next to last in the NFL in total rushing yards with 1,366. Detroit was last with 1,221. If this team is going to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2015, they’re going to need their rushing attack to take a significant step forward. The offensive line is expected to be better with the additions of Cordy Glenn, Billy Price and Bobby Hart. Improvement up front will give Lazor a chance to show he can properly utilize two dynamic and versatile running backs in Mixon and Bernard.

And while the Bengals offense may begin with the ground game, it certainly won’t end there. They have made a concerted effort to throw the ball downfield in training camp. That makes sense when you have Green, Ross and other young players who are capable of making huge plays. Rookie Auden Tate has been impressive and so has second-year wide receiver Josh Malone.

They have shown their potential throughout training camp. Don’t look now, but this offense may complete a 180-degree turnaround from where they were a year ago.

 

For more on Bengals training camp, listen to today’s Locked on Bengals podcast:

 

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Cincinnati Bengals

A Year in the Life of the Bengals – 2015

Andrew Dunn

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When I started this journey through time six months ago, this was the season I was most looking forward to talking about – as well as the one I most dreaded.  The 2015 Bengals are to the city of Cincinnati’s football dreams what the 2012 Reds are to their baseball dreams… a huge blown opportunity.  In 2015, Tyler Eifert managed to stay healthy for most of the season and proved how dominant he could be, the AFC North was down overall, the defense had some truly remarkable studs, and Andy Dalton was well on his way to being in the MVP conversation.  This piece will feature more than you’ve gotten before – and by that, I mean I’ve got some hot takes and insights I’ve been waiting a long time to get off my chest.

But before we get into the good stuff (plus my thoughts that I’m sure you’re not caring about), we flash back just three short years ago to when American Pharaoh became the first race horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win the Triple Crown.  Jurassic World would have been the leader atop movie boards had the Star Wars brand not been re-launched with Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  And this also was the year when Disney banned all selfie sticks from their parks, thus preventing the younger generation from taking selfies from slightly higher angles.

And here we go — let’s dive right in here.  The 2015 NFL Draft was not one that had a great impact on this particular version of the Bengals, but had lasting effects the team is still recovering from even here in 2018.  Cincinnati took offensive tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher in the first two rounds as left tackle Andrew Whitworth’s contract began to come upon its expiration date.  Other notable picks include Tyler Kroft in round three and Josh Shaw in round four.  So, yeah, when Kroft is the star of that group, you know it wasn’t a great draft.

No offense to Kroft, who was great as a filler for Eifert last season, but that’s just the problem.  You drafted two guys meant to sure up the offensive line, only to find that your only mild hit from the draft was your backup tight end.

This aside, the Bengals got off to a hot start to the season with a dominating 33-13 victory over the Oakland Raiders, complete with two scores each for Jeremy Hill and Tyler Eifert.  This trend would continue for the team, as they rolled to an 8-0 start — a streak that included wins over the mighty Seahawks and in Pittsburgh.

And on a weird Thursday night in November – the only game I attended in 2015 – the Bengals stopped clicking for a night.  The offense struggled and wound up losing a battle to TJ Yates and the Houston Texans, 10-6, furthering the belief that this version of the Bengals can’t get it done in primetime.

Let’s jump ahead four weeks to December 13 – the Bengals were 10-2 and quarterback Andy Dalton was having, by far, his best season in stripes, even being included in MVP conversations.  And just like that, the season as this team knew it began to crumble.  Andy threw an interception to Steelers’ defensive end Stephon Tuitt to end the Bengals first offensive drive, and ended up breaking his thumb in his effort to tackle the big man.  That prompted second-year quarterback A.J. McCarron to enter the game – he was basically a rookie after being shelved for the entirety of his rookie season in 2014.

The Bengals did lose, 33-20, despite a valiant effort from McCarron, who threw for 280 yards and two scores.  Two weeks later, Cincinnati found themselves at Mile High Stadium in Denver to face the Broncos on Monday Night Football in a game that would see the winner clinch a first round bye in the playoffs.  The battle was a good one, as the Bengals took the Von Miller-led Broncos to overtime, but lost 20-17.  They ended the season 12-4, winning the AFC North and earning the AFC’s third-seed – this setup a battle with the rival Pittsburgh Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium.

January 9, 2016 marks the worst day in Cincinnati sports – and it my mind, it isn’t close.  Sure, the aforementioned collapse of the 2012 Reds was horrible, the recent shortcomings of Cincinnati and Xavier basketball was disheartening, and the many losses of the Marvin Lewis era had their letdowns.  But how this game played out and ended is a situation that will forever live in infamy.

I’ll run through the first three quarters, as there isn’t much to discuss – the Steelers ended the third quarter with a 15-0 lead, the result of three field goals from Chris Boswell and a Martavis Bryant touchdown (failed two-pointer, if you’re doing the math at home, made the score 15-0).

But, early in the fourth, Jeremy Hill scored from one-yard out, and with 5:12 left on the clock, kicker Mike Nugent hit a 36-yarder to pull within five.  And finally, after three quarters of offensive mediocrity, the offense scored again with 1:50 left in the game behind a 25-yard touchdown toss from McCarron to AJ Green.  Finally, with just 1:30 remaining, deep in his own territory, Steelers’ backup quarterback Landry Jones threw an interception into the waiting arms of Vontaze Burfict, which should’ve ended the drought in Cincinnati.

And my, oh my, how quickly things can turn.

Jeremy Hill turned right around and allowed himself to be stripped of the ball on the first play from scrimmage of the drive, turning the ball back into the Steelers’ hands.  Injured Ben Roethlisberger re-entered the game, his shoulder really not allowing him to do nearly what he would normally be capable of.  He managed to get the team to midfield before chaos ensued.  Burfict lost his cool, and on a pass across the middle to star receiver Antonio Brown, lowered his head in an effort to ram Brown.  That drew a 15-yard flag.  Arguments between Burfict and Steelers’ linebackers coach Joey Porter ensued, which caused Adam Jones to charge in and bump a referee… 15 more yards.

And of course, the fourth of the Steelers’ killer B’s put the nail in the Bengals coffin with a chip shot field goal with 14 seconds left.  The Bengals lost 18-16.

Alright, here goes a little personal venting and I’ll get pack to professionalism.  The Martavis Bryant somersaulting touchdown in the third quarter was one of the most egregious calls I remember seeing.  The ball was clearly moving around as he pinned it to his thigh, and I’ll forever make the argument that not only did he not get two feet down, he didn’t get even one down with full control.  The Shazier hit that sent Giovani Bernard to the sidelines in the third quarter was also a joke – he clearly lowered the crown of his helmet and jolted Bernard upwards.  Where was the penalty on Porter for entering the field of play?  Where is the criticism of Mike Munchak yanking Reggie Nelson’s hair?  And finally, I recall the entire Jim Nantz-led broadcast seeming to be very pro-Steelers, reaching to tear down the Bengals at every turn.  It’s all irritating, to say the least.  I recall staring dumbfounded at my television screen without blinking for the next 30-40 minutes following the game’s conclusion, unable to force myself to go to bed.

Now then, two things I’ll never understand about this game.  On that ill-fated final drive, why would you not force Big Ben to throw deep?  Let him do it, his arm was at half strength at best.  And of course, how… how… HOW do you fumble the ball with under two minutes left deep in opponent’s territory?  I would have been more satisfied with Hill laying down at the line if he wasn’t going to wrap both arms around the rock like it was his child.

Well, sadly, it all happened, the game was lost, and here we are.  Onto our stats portion of the piece…

Just how good was Andy this season?  He had thrown (through 12 games) for 3,250 yards, 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions before his injury.  McCarron was no slouch, as he collected 854 yards and six touchdowns with just two interceptions in his three starts (plus three quarters in the game in which Dalton was hurt).

The running game proved to be something of a struggle, at least as it came to Jeremy Hill.  He continued his downward spiral, only managing 794 yards on the ground with a subpar 3.6 yards per carry, but he did score 11 times as the team’s goalline back.  Gio Bernard touted a much more impressive 4.7 yards per carry, racking up 730 yards on the ground and 472 receiving yards – unfortunately, scoring was a struggle for him, as he only found the endzone twice.

Of course, the receiving game had a few beneficiaries of Andy’s success – star wideout A.J. Green caught 86 passes for 1,297 yards and 10 touchdowns.  Tight end Tyler Eifert had an incredible bounceback season after missing basically all of 2014 – he reeled in a league-leading 13 touchdowns, even having missed three games.  Marvin Jones also had himself an impressive bounceback season with 65 catches for 816 yards and four touchdowns.

On the surface, the defense seemed to struggle as they allowed some high scoring games, but there were some serious stars on this unit.  Linebacker Vincent Rey recorded 95 tackles, a sack and a pick, while Burfict – having only been in 10 games – notched 74 tackles, a sack and two interceptions.  Reggie Nelson was a stud in the secondary as he had eight interceptions and two fumble recoveries.  And finally, the Bengals were a terror on the front four, as Carlos Dunlap recorded 13.5 sacks, with Geno Atkins adding 11 more of his own.

Here’s what the worst part of this season was – we went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, and unfortunately, we’re still sort of in the doldrums of the lows.  We’ve got two weeks left of our journey and they will ultimately be recaps of a team we’re about to see kick off in a few short weeks.  We’ll be seeing the formation of this Bengals unit and explore what will be coming this season.

 

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