AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

CINCINNATI -- Late in Monday afternoon's practice, on one goal-line exercise, quarterback Andy Dalton stepped up in the pocket, then stepped back, rolled to his right away from more pressure, and threw the ball to an empty space well beyond the back corner of the end zone.

The play resulted in an incompletion. And his offensive coordinator couldn't have been happier.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
AP PhotoAndy Dalton has worked on becoming a smarter quarterback during the offseason.
"Good, Andy. Good job," Hue Jackson shouted as Dalton jogged back to the huddle.

Indeed, it was good recognition by the Cincinnati Bengals' long-embattled quarterback who has struggled in the past with deciding in similar scenarios of good defensive coverage and pressure whether he wants to tuck the ball and run, take a sack, throw it away or still try to complete the pass.

More often than not, his instinct in the past was to make the play work anyway. The end result of those decisions? Typically wobbly passes that fluttered into the hands of a defensive back who greedily picked off the pass that shouldn't have been attempted. A number of Dalton's 20 interceptions last season came when he tried to force a pass.

So for much of the offseason, Jackson made sure Dalton understood his decision-making had to improve.

"It was a huge emphasis," Jackson said. "First, one, it's what I believe in. It's what our staff believes in. But two, it's truly what the essence of playing quarterback is about: making sure you don't have negative plays for your team. You've got to do a great job of carrying everybody under your hand. When you've got the ball in your hand, it's just about making a good decision. He's worked his tail off at doing that."

One of the more telling comments Jackson made during a post-practice huddle with reporters was that he wanted Dalton to realize that his decision-making doesn't only impact the offense. It can impact the entire team.

"You've got to protect the offensive football team and our entire football team with the ball," Jackson said. "He's starting to understand that. The guy had 33 touchdowns last year. But if we can get him to where when those opportunities come that are not there, to get him to be good with the ball, then great things can happen with this football team."

On the first day of training camp Dalton accepted responsibility for what he felt was his role in the Bengals' 27-10 loss to the Chargers in January's wild-card playoff loss. He was right to do that, just as he was at other times the past seven months. He had three costly turnovers in the game. All in the second half, he lost a fumble and threw a pair of interceptions. The Bengals' four-point halftime deficit ballooned after the turnovers, and eventually the game was out of hand.

It's film of that game that has Jackson wanting to see more of the heady Dalton who threw that pass away Monday.

"That was outstanding," Jackson said. "That's what I'm looking for. My goal, my thing with him, is to get us to the next down with the ball. It's not always about throwing a touchdown pass.

"Sometimes we're going to play good defenses and they're going to do things that stop us. And when they do, we have to be a smart football unit to make sure we're making proper decisions. Which sometimes, you've just got to say, 'Uncle,' and throw it away. It might mean taking a sack. It might mean whatever those things are. But just get us to the next down with the ball and we'll have a chance."

Bengals Camp Report: Day 5

July, 28, 2014
Jul 28
6:30
PM ET
CINCINNATI -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Cincinnati Bengals training camp:


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

Dunlap
Now Carlos Dunlap believes it's his turn.

The Cincinnati Bengals' fifth-year defensive end said before training camp practice Monday that he would like to join Atkins and Burfict as the next Cincinnati defender to reach the Pro Bowl.

"Most definitely, that's been one of my personal goals: to get out there with those guys," Dunlap said, responding to a question about the Pro Bowl.

Dunlap's motivations for making it to the game were inflamed further in January by defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, who sent him a text message from Hawaii. Guenther was there as one of Burfict's guests. His message to Dunlap? It's time you get out here, too.

"He saw the guys that were out there, so for him to feel like I should have been out there, it just tells me that I need to put the work in and everything else will fall into place," Dunlap said.

Since 2006, Burfict and Atkins have been the only Bengals defenders selected to the Pro Bowl. Atkins played in the game in 2011 and 2012, and the former undrafted free-agent Burfict capped off his second season by reaching it for the first time last year. Before Atkins, the last Bengals defender to be selected to the Pro Bowl was cornerback Deltha O'Neal, who participated in the 2005 season's game.

"The Pro Bowl is based off numbers and fan support," Dunlap said. "We've got a good, strong fan base in Cincinnati here, so now I just have to go out and produce and put up the numbers."

Last season, Dunlap had career highs in tackles (58) and sacks (7.5). He tied for the team sack lead with Wallace Gilberry. Dunlap also forced four fumbles, matching a career high set in 2012.
Examining the Cincinnati Bengals' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (3)
The Bengals were content with having just two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster last season, but expect them to take three this year. McCarron would be the odd man out, but since they drafted him this year and made him a de facto heir apparent to the position in case something happens with Dalton in the next few seasons, they probably won't cut him or place him on the practice squad. In Campbell, the Bengals also get a tried and true veteran who could step in if Dalton's play is unsatisfactory, or if he gets hurt.

RUNNING BACKS (5)

This grouping includes Charles at H-back, meaning the Bengals are more likely to take four true running backs. I'd argue that neither Burkhead, Peerman nor Charles is a lock right now to make the team, but there are compelling reasons for each being part of the 53-man roster. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and James Wilder Jr. also have real chances to be part of the full roster. Although his carries have been limited early in training camp, Green-Ellis still has made the most of the few he has had. Multiple times on runs over the weekend, you could hear teammates shouting their support as he carried balls into the second and third levels of the defense.

RECEIVERS (5)

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

So far, Tate has been among the most sound and steady receivers of camp. He's had several noteworthy catches and has been praised by coaches for his route-running. Hamilton has been less impressive, dropping or bobbling mutliple passes.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

Gresham is entering a contract year, and expectations have never been higher for him. To meet them, he'll have to first overcome a back injury that has prevented him from practicing so far. Along with Gresham, Eifert and Smith should be part of the main roster. Kevin Brock and Ryan Hewitt also are competing for spots at the position.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)

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

DEFENSIVE LINE (9)

The only player on this list who wasn't on last year's 53-man roster is Will Clarke. The rookie was drafted in the third round in May. He effectively takes the roster spot of Michael Johnson, who signed with Tampa Bay in the offseason. This may be the most set group on the team. Another name to watch, though, is 360-pound LaKendrick Ross. The defensive tackle was added nearly two weeks ago and could give the Bengals an added run-stopping presence in certain situations. He hasn't played much football, though, so coaches have a tall task teaching him schemes and concepts, and reaffirming fundamentals.

LINEBACKERS (6)

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

CORNERBACKS (6)

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

SAFETIES (4)

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

SPECIALISTS (3)

These guys aren't going anywhere. The punter, kicker and long snapper will make the team.
CINCINNATI -- BenJarvus Green-Ellis' future with the Cincinnati Bengals first appeared in doubt back in early May when the Bengals drafted running back Jeremy Hill out of LSU.

The rookie is bigger than Green-Ellis. He's faster and clearly younger, too. His legs have several years left in them. Not the one or two Green-Ellis' presumably have remaining.

Green-Ellis
Such evidence, it would seem, suggests the writing is on the wall for Green-Ellis.

But the Bengals aren't yet making plain any assertions of that sort, as they continue to believe there remains a place on the team for the 29-year-old known throughout the league for his dependable hands. Running back coach Kyle Caskey relayed such sentiments Sunday afternoon when he reaffirmed his commitment to the back who is anchoring the team's training camp backfield battle.

"Benny is still one of our guys and Benny is still getting the same amount of reps that Benny's always gotten," Caskey said. "Nothing's been taken away from Benny."

Caskey's comments come after Green-Ellis was moved from his first-team duties last season to the second- and third-team units during minicamp and organized team activities. He's begun training camp behind Hill and starter Giovani Bernard, and doesn't appear poised to emerge from their shadows any time soon.

Backups Cedric Peerman and Rex Burkhead have been among the backs getting repetitions with Green-Ellis below Bernard and Hill. One or both could threaten to take the veteran's spot.

Just four days into camp, it's tough to tell whether either will end up doing that. Actually, if Green-Ellis' spot on the roster came down to popular player opinion, it would appear that he would be overwhelmingly kept. Few players receive the type of support from the players standing on the sidelines than Green-Ellis has gotten so far.

Whenever he cuts back on an inside run or catches a screen pass out of the backfield, a steady stream of "Attaboy, Benny" erupts from the side. It's clear the veteran is liked and respected by his peers on both sides of the ball.

"He's a pro's pro," Caskey said. "He helps lead our young guys, and he helps bring them on. He does everything you ask him to do. He's been playing for a long time for a reason. He'll continue to play."

Ahead of his second NFL season, Bernard said during the offseason that he admired Green-Ellis.

"To have somebody like Benny who not only played here, but who played in New England and who plays the game the way he does, who understands it the way he does, you can learn a lot from somebody like that," Bernard said. "And I did. I continue to ask him questions.

"Whether he is here or not, I will still ask him questions. That's a person I'm going to rely on. That's a person I'm going to lean on because he understands the game very well."

Much of the knock on Green-Ellis this offseason came after his production declined last season. After averaging 3.9 yards per carry his first season with the Bengals in 2012, he rushed for just 3.4 yards per carry last year. He also saw his receptions plummet from 22 in 2012 to four last year. Also, after not having a fumble through his first four seasons, he now has five in his last two.

Production decreases aren't among the Bengals' chief concerns right now, though. They simply want to see how well he fits into their running back rotation through this camp. If he fits to their liking, he will make the team.

If he doesn't make the team this year or gets let go at the end of 2014 or sometime after, the Bengals just hope younger backs like Bernard truly have been taking notes.

"He won't play forever. Nobody does," Caskey said. "But he can pass on his [leadership] traits to Gio. And Gio can pass them on to Jeremy. And Jeremy can pass those on to the next guy or whatever the case may be."

Green-Ellis' task for now is to stockpile as many lessons as he can, and to teach them for years to come, not days.

Bengals Camp Report: Day 4

July, 27, 2014
Jul 27
6:35
PM ET
CINCINNATI -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Cincinnati Bengals training camp:
  • The most anticipated activity of the weekend, Sunday's previously scheduled Oklahoma drill, was scrapped at the last minute by head coach Marvin Lewis, in part due to an overabundance of caution. "We know who 35-40 of our players are going to be," he said to reporters after Sunday's practice. "Let's make sure those 35 or 40, we give them every opportunity to get to Baltimore in one piece." The Bengals open the regular season at the Ravens on Sept. 7. On Saturday, a few players and coaches expressed mixed feelings about the physically demanding, collision-focused drill. Linebacker Rey Maualuga said he wasn't sure what the exercise had to do with football. Lewis backed his sentiments slightly, adding Sunday afternoon that the Bengals "got the same thing out of" the Oklahoma-less practice.
  • Rookie running back Jeremy Hill was among the players who did wish to participate in the drill. He said he and some of his offensive teammates were getting tired of some of the trash talking their defensive counterparts were doing. "Those guys have been yapping all week," Hill said. "But that bravado is what allows them to play better. I'm glad we have a defense that plays with swagger and plays fast." Instead of mixing in the Oklahoma drills, the Bengals incorporated a few half-line and blitz pickup/receiver-blocking exercises that allowed the fully padded players to get some contact. On the blitz pickup drills Hill was part of, he won both times he was paired with linebacker Vincent Rey. Those were two noteworthy plays in an afternoon that also saw him run aggressively as he slipped in and out of holes on some of the first inside runs the Bengals have worked on in this training camp.
  • Another running back, Rex Burkhead, had what I'd consider the feel-good play of the day. After getting knocked down during one of the aforementioned interior 11-on-11 runs and getting trapped underneath the dogpile, he got right up, bounced outside and sprinted another 20 yards downfield. It was the type of hustle play that can turn heads and earn the kind of brownie points a player on the fringe of the 53-man roster needs. You can read more about Burkhead's knack for finishing practice plays off here.
  • The actual play of the day came late in the practice when backup cornerback R.J. Stanford disrupted what looked like a sure long first-down catch for receiver Cobi Hamilton. On the play, quarterback Andy Dalton waited for Hamilton to race past Stanford on the post route and lobbed a deep pass over the middle that had the right amount of air underneath it. As Hamilton got in position to catch it, Stanford jumped and swung his arm at the last moment, forcing a break-up as Hamilton hit the turf without what previously looked like an easy reception.
  • Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was the only addition to Cincinnati's group of injured. He didn't participate in the practice after coming out in the middle of Saturday's session due to an apparent hamstring injury. It's not expected to be a serious ailment that will keep him out for too long. Corner Leon Hall was back into the mix in most coverage drills as fellow veteran Terence Newman received a day off from that part of the practice. The Bengals are slowly trying to ease Hall back into full action after his Achilles tear last year. Rookie Darqueze Dennard has benefited from more reps as a result.
CINCINNATI -- As the Cincinnati Bengals get going with Day 4 of training camp Sunday, here are three items we're going to be watching:

Full pads come on. For the first time this training camp, the Bengals will put on shoulder pads and padded practice pants as they step up the contact. It's a new phase of the camp and should step up the energy, intensity and excitement level on the practice fields. Rookies and veterans alike look forward to this day because they can finally hit again. As linebacker Vincent Rey said, "Football is movement and contact. Let's get some contact in."

Oklahoma Drill Day. Few contact-focused exercises are as entertaining in training camp as the Oklahoma drill. In it, a defender tries to beat a blocker and wrap up a ball carrier who is handed the ball from the quarterback. Some players like it, some players hate it. There's a similar split among coaches, too, with all hoping they come out of such drills healthy. It'll be interesting to see which players win which matchups.

Weather a factor? Well, the weathermen got it wrong Saturday. Reports had indicated storms might be a factor during the afternoon. Instead, they rolled through with a vengeance after nightfall. The forecast for Sunday afternoon is much less favorable, according to the National Weather Service. Hail, tornadoes and severe winds could roll through this part of the Ohio River Valley around midday. The threat of severe weather diminishes as the afternoon goes on, but at the very least, the Bengals could get wet ball work as they practice on a potentially wet field. It's worth watching the weather all afternoon because the Bengals don't have an indoor practice facility and would be forced to wait until any severe threats pass. Practice is slated to begin at 3 p.m. ET.

Bengals Camp Report: Day 3

July, 26, 2014
Jul 26
6:15
PM ET
CINCINNATI -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the Cincinnati Bengals' training camp:
  • Offense was the big story for the Bengals through the first two days of training camp, but on Saturday, defense stole the headlines. Cornerbacks Adam Jones and Darqueze Dennard had a few key pass breakups and interceptions in a practice that hinged largely on third-down play. Jones rebounded after giving up a few receptions in one-on-one drills with receivers. By the end of the 11-on-11 portion of practice, he was stopping most everything that came his direction. Arguably his most noteworthy pass breakup occurred off a play-action fake from quarterback Andy Dalton. As Dalton threw off his back leg and hung a deep pass to A.J. Green, Jones turned and jumped in the path of the ball, knocking it down. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said Jones has played with good technique through the first three days. He added that veteran Terence Newman has as well. "It's good for our younger guys to see how they play and how they're out here competing every snap."
  • One of those younger players, the rookie Dennard, had the play of the day when he dove full length for a Dalton pass that flew wide of its mark. It was hard to tell whether Dalton threw the pass to the wrong spot or if the receiver ran the wrong route, but Dennard, playing in the familiar lockdown style that was his hallmark at Michigan State, saw the ball heading toward the sideline even as the receiver didn't. Players and fans both reacted favorably to the pickoff. "Saturday] was the first day we could play press-man on the receiver, and that's what he did at Michigan State, so he's back in his comfort zone doing what he does. He's just got to continue to get better and work on his technique, and going against good receivers every day will help him."
  • One of the cornerbacks who did not take part in the live offense vs. defense portions of the workout was Leon Hall. The veteran is still rebounding from an Achilles tear that ended his 2013 season in Week 7. It was out of an abundance of caution that the Bengals held him out of most of the practice, even though he still participated in position-specific drills early in the session. Although he's fully recovered from the serious injury, the staff still wants to ease him back into action.
  • Along with Hall, the Bengals are taking a similar slow approach with offensive linemen Clint Boling and Mike Pollak. The left guards are rotating days on and off for the foreseeable future. After Boling started at the position Thursday, Pollak took his share of snaps Friday. Keeping with the rotation, Boling claimed the starting reps at the spot Saturday. Both still dressed in the shoulder pads-and-shorts attire the rest of the team sported as the full-gear acclimation period begins to slow down. The team will be in full pads Sunday.
  • The Bengals had two injuries during Saturday's practice. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick pulled up, holding his right hamstring, after using good coverage to prevent Green from catching a pass from Dalton off a deep go route. Kirkpatrick was stretched out but didn't return to practice. Defensive tackle LaKendrick Ross had a minor injury as well, jogging off the field at one point for treatment. He ended up returning and finishing the practice.
CINCINNATI -- Rey Maualuga had just gotten up from a 16-minute, 28-second interview with a trio of reporters when fellow Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Brandon Joiner approached with a question.

The 27-year-old Maualuga knew exactly what his younger teammate needed help with. He stopped his stride across the mostly empty locker room, bent his body into a defensive stance and started pointing and speaking linebacker jargon with Joiner who nodded eagerly along.

[+] EnlargeVontaze Burfict
AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziBengals linebacker Rey Maualuga is attempting to rebound after seeing his production slip in 2013.
It was the very type of teaching lesson Maualuga had detailed moments before when he gabbed with the reporters. Ahead of what could very well be his final training camp with the Bengals, the veteran defender made it clear that while he's going to fight hard for a spot on the 53-man roster, he's still going to give advice to any of the players he's competing against who want to listen.

"I'm just out there to teach," Maualuga said. "So I'm doing whatever I can do to help the younger guys know how to line up and help them out with their playbook. Because eventually, we've got 12 linebackers and we're not going to keep all 12. If I can help someone be the best player in this short amount of time to do their job, then I can feel good about that."

Among the hottest offseason Bengals topics this spring and summer have been questions revolving around Maualuga's status as the team's starting middle linebacker. Several of the weekend mailbags that appeared on ESPN.com's Bengals blog the past few months were filled with fan inquiries about Maualuga, and whether he could be replaced by Vincent Rey, a veteran backup who played well in relief of Maualuga when he was injured three games last year.

Rey's 30 tackles, three sacks and one interception in those three games caught the fans' attention. Calls for him to take over the first-string "Mike" linebacker duties began and haven't ceased since, even as Rey starts camp as one of the top backups at all three linebacker positions. Those calls came at the same time Maualuga's production was waning. He finished with 47 fewer tackles in 2013 than he had in 2012, and miscues like his ill-timed personal foul penalty in the opener at Chicago last year combined to put him on the fans' bad side. That penalty ended any hope the Bengals had at putting together a final-minute comeback drive that might have won the game.

As for Rey, the backup said he's not concerned so much with trying to be the starter at any of the spots he plays. He just wants to get on the field, whether that's from off the bench or as a starter in specific situations like third-down or goal-line defense, much like he was last year.

"The honest truth is that for me it's more about getting on the field," Rey said. "And the thing is, you never know when you'll get on the field. That's the tougher position for me. I embrace it. I never know. I may be on the field at this position, or that position. I'm going to be ready. Whenever my name's called, I'm going to be ready."

That was Maualuga's approach when he arrived as a second-round draft pick from Southern Cal in 2009. He just wanted to play and learn from the players above him.

At the time, that meant hanging on to former "Sam" linebacker Rashad Jeanty's every word. It meant listening to all of former "Mike" linebacker Dhani Jones' pearls of wisdom, like the following that remain at the forefront of his mind.

"Coach Zim [former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer] asked Dhani, 'Why haven't you missed a practice since you've been here?'" Maualuga recounted. "He said, 'I'm afraid to lose my job.'"

After four seasons with the Bengals and six more in the NFL, Jones did in fact lose his job -- to Maualuga. When Maualuga opened the 2011 season at middle linebacker, he did so in place of the elder linebacker who wasn't re-signed after the 2010 season and soon after retired.

Reminded of how he became the Bengals' "Mike" linebacker, Maualuga paused and nervously grinned as the irony settled in.

"It's only due time until someone comes and takes my spot," he said. "I'm going to put up a fight, though."

He knows that fight might not be enough. Although there is much with respect to his position battle that he can control, the ultimate decision rests in the coaches' hands.

"My family's here. I want to be here," Maualuga said. "But there's a lot of great linebackers on this roster. We can't keep everybody.

"If I don't make it, I still know that I gave it my all and hopefully another team will be out there to pick me up."
CINCINNATI -- The Lombardi Trophy has taken up residence in the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room during this training camp.

OK, let's rephrase that.

Printed on the fronts of T-shirts and plastered into an image that occasionally flashes on the television screens mounted atop the wall posts inside the Bengals' locker room, representations of the Lombardi Trophy have been visible. The actual trophy has never seen Paul Brown Stadium, although the Bengals hope to change that this year.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Iloka
AP Photo/Tom UhlmanGeorge Iloka, No. 43, said the Bengals' defense wants to stay aggressive but cut down on penalties.
In their quest to win the franchise's first Super Bowl this year, the theme for the Bengals' camp this summer is comprised of two words: "smart" and "fast." Printed on the T-shirts and emblazoned on the same image of the trophy that flashes on the TV screens are those words, along with a series of claw marks. When it comes to making Cincinnati's team this year, coaches want to stress the words "smart" and "fast."

On defense, they want to stress another one -- "bullies."

When I asked third-year safety George Iloka what the defense wanted to be known as this season, he brought up a statement defensive coordinator Paul Guenther made during a meeting at the start of training camp. Clearly, Iloka was paying attention.

"We want to be smart bullies," he said.

That philosophy fits with the overall theme of the camp, but what exactly is a smart bully?

"Our mentality is to go out there and play aggressive and physical, but we've got to be smart," Iloka said. "We've got to know when to take chances. We've got to know if it's third-and-1, we've got to know if it's fourth-and-1, we've got to know if we're backed up that they're going to try to give you a hard count. Little things like that. You don't want to be too aggressive where you're hurting yourself."

It's an important fact to stress because at times last season the Bengals did let their aggression get the best of them.

They ranked 11th in the league in defensive penalties last season, incurring 41 infractions. While that number might not be astronomically high, the yards they were penalized for in all three phases were. Flagged for 1,000 total yards, the Bengals ranked fifth in overall penalty yards in 2013. When it came specifically to the defense, the most egregious violations seemed to come at inopportune moments (is there really a good time to draw a penalty, though?).

Linebacker Rey Maualuga's body slam of a Bears offensive lineman just after a third-down stop late in the fourth quarter of the season opener was costly. Had Maualuga kept his wits and not thrown down the lineman, the Bengals' third-down stop would have led to a punt. Out of timeouts and with a little more than a minute left in a game in which they trailed by a field goal, the Bengals had just enough time to get a good return and set up a possible comeback that could have ended in a Week 1 win.

Instead, after Maualuga's 15-yard penalty, the Bears went through a series of kneeldowns the Bengals were helpless to prevent because they didn't have any timeouts. Cincinnati lost 24-21.

"You want to cut down on penalties. You want to cut down on mistakes. But it's not even those things," Iloka said. "Let's say it's third-and-4 and all week we've practiced that this team in this formation is going to run a seam route. Why are you going to be overaggressive and jump the out route? Just be a smart bully. You're smart, and when the time comes to make the hit ... you bully them and you make the play."

While Guenther didn't use the term "smart bullies" at a kickoff luncheon earlier this week in Cincinnati, he made it clear that he was looking for that kind of play as he begins his first year as a coordinator.

"I like how passionate they are, how smart they are and how flexible they can be," Guenther said. "I'm really hammering home being a smart football team."

Will being smart and fast bullies be enough for the Bengals to finally obtain their goal? Iloka thinks so; as long as he and his teammates avoid the complacency that can come with having a top-3 defense like they did last year.

"Until we're No. 1, there's always room for improvement," he said. "Since I've been here the defense has been one of the strong points of this team. We really emphasize it. We just want to go up. Obviously [ranking third] wasn't good enough because we didn't win the Super Bowl. The defense has room for improvement. Turnovers, third downs, you name it. We can always get better."

Bengals Camp Report: Day 2

July, 25, 2014
Jul 25
7:30
PM ET
CINCINNATI -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the Cincinnati Bengals' training camp:
  • Dalton
    Dalton
    We're only two days into training camp, but already the Bengals are showing a few wrinkles that could find their way into the offense when camp breaks at the end of August. On Thursday, they incorporated a no-huddle offense. It seemed that very rarely did they get a play called from a huddle before executing it. While the no-huddle was evident again for parts of Friday's practice, it wasn't the only recent addition made to offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's new scheme. The Bengals also worked on shovel passes at times during the workout, slipping the quick screens to their backs in the middle of the field. Few around the team are talking about what all the no-huddle is all about. Believe me, myself and others have tried to get folks talking. At the very least, the up-tempo pacing will have the benefit of helping the defense prepare for the number of no-huddle schemes it will face this season, even if the Bengals seldom run it offensively in games themselves.
  • After a relatively clean first day with few drops and no fumbles or botched snaps, the Bengals were slightly messier Friday. Twice they fumbled. Once running back Giovani Bernard and quarterback Andy Dalton had trouble with an exchange during an offense-only drill. Later, during an 11-on-11 exercise, Bernard couldn't hold on to a low pitch from quarterback Jason Campbell. There also was one false start in the full-team drills. Offensive tackle Will Svitek moved early. Even with those miscues, both the offense and defense had their positive highlights. Cornerbacks Adam Jones and Terence Newman were among those who broke up their share of passes after getting burned for a couple catches from A.J. Green the day before. Green took his revenge, though, beating Newman on one reception off an out route.
  • Speaking of coverage, once during an 11-on-11 drill I noticed that outside linebacker Emmanuel Lamur was split out wide, lined up against tight end Tyler Eifert who was set up like a receiver. Just like the Bengals will do with Bernard, they might at times move Eifert outside. It will provide just another dimension to what we're beginning to see could be a more dynamic and more expansive offense than before. In the meantime, it could make for good practice for Lamur, who will be charged with covering pass-catching tight ends like New Orleans' Jimmy Graham later this season. Lamur's experience as a safety in college also makes him an ideal candidate to play such coverage positions.
  • Another interesting offensive development revolved around the flip-flopping that linemen Clint Boling and Mike Pollak will be doing for at least some part of camp. After Boling practiced Thursday at left guard, Pollak played there Friday, giving Boling the day off. Presumably, Pollak will be getting Saturday off while Boling will practice again. According to Pollak, the changes are the coaches' way of attempting to keep the linemen fresh. Both are coming off knee injuries and are still slowly easing their way back into the regular flow of things.
  • And yes, you read that correctly: Pollak played left guard. All offseason the expectation has been for him to battle rookie Russell Bodine for playing time at center. Pollak said he has no idea if those plans have changed. He told me after practice: "I was told to play guard [Friday]. So that's what I'm going to do. If they tell me to play another position, then I'll do that. I'm kind of in the dark. ... Things can change. All I can do is get back on the field healthy 100 percent."
CINCINNATI -- Even though it is still early on the Cincinnati Bengals' preseason calendar, coach Marvin Lewis still has reason to believe defensive end Margus Hunt will make exponential growth as he begins his second season in the NFL.

"It's been that thus far," Lewis said during his first training camp news conference Friday afternoon.

[+] EnlargeMargus Hunt
AP Photo/Joe RobbinsMargus Hunt, who saw action in a Bengals' preseason game last season, says he's more prepared for his season in the league.
After unofficially "redshirting" as a rookie last season, the foreign-born lineman who entered the league having played just two years of college football has grown comfortable enough with the concepts of his position at this level that Lewis believes he'll play this season much the way a wily veteran would: loose and free.

"He's one of the [young] guys that I would write down on that list to see them out there and playing -- really playing," Lewis added. "Now that he knows what to do, he can play carefree and pin his ears back and go. He can play faster."

Hunt mentioned at times this offseason how much more he felt he belonged in the Bengals' system.

"I did a lot better than I did last year," Hunt said as organized team activities ended late last month. "I'm a lot more comfortable with the plays and the situations and that kind of stuff. It's a good feeling."

From the moment the Bengals learned for certain in March that defensive end Michael Johnson was signing with the Buccaneers as a free agent, it became clear Hunt's learning curve had to speed up slightly. His progression from scout squad defender to weekly regular would need to occur instantly. His whole purpose for being selected in the second round of the 2013 draft was coming to fruition. With Johnson now out of the picture, the baton had been passed. It was time for Hunt to step up.

But he's not the only one. Hunt will be spending all of this camp proving he belongs in the starting rotation, as well as in multiple sub-packages the Bengals will be installing throughout the next few weeks. For now, he'll continue sharing time with Wallace Gilberry at the position as the Bengals put those rotations into motion.

Part of what Lewis believes has helped Hunt, and will continue to help other second-year players such as Giovani Bernard, Rex Burkhead, Tyler Eifert and Tanner Hawkinson among others, is the fact that they now all know exactly what's required of them as pro players.

"They know what's going on; what's expected of them," Lewis said. "[They know] what training camp is like, what the offseason is like, how the preseason games unfold. When you take some of the anxiety of those things away, you're able to focus better."
CINCINNATI -- As the Cincinnati Bengals get going with Day 2 of training camp Friday, here are three items we're going to be keeping an eye out for:

Marvin Lewis addresses media. At noon ET, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis sits down for his first news conference of training camp. He'll be asked about his impressions of Day 1 and likely will share his thoughts on where his offense and defense need to progress for the next five or so weeks. One thing he won't address? Quarterback Andy Dalton's contract. He said as much Tuesday at the team's preseason kickoff luncheon. He's done discussing that matter until the extension gets done. It's worth adding that just before Lewis' news conference, players will speak with media in the locker room beginning at 11:15 a.m. ET.

Cornerbacks and coverage. It was clear Thursday was all about the receivers and tight ends. Dalton's throwing mechanics and his well-placed passes both deep and short were a hot topic of conversation during the practice. I'll be paying a lot of attention to the defense on Day 2. It will be interesting to see how the cornerbacks respond to the strong showing A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and Mohamed Sanu, among others, had Thursday.

Return watch. One player who may very well be battling for a roster spot these next few weeks is return man Brandon Tate. The receiver who has just 14 catches in the 48 games he's played the past three seasons has primarily been used in return situations. The big question is, are there enough spots on a very deep team for a player who will be used almost exclusively as a kick returner? He spent the 2013 season working as the lead punt returner also, but only after cornerback Adam Jones was kept off special teams because of a bevy of injuries to the secondary. This year, with a deep -- and for now, healthier -- defensive backfield, Jones will be back in his old No. 1 punt returner role. Where will that leave Tate? For now, he'll have to impress on both special teams and offense.

Bengals Camp Report: Day 1

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
7:50
PM ET
CINCINNATI -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the Cincinnati Bengals' training camp:


  • It was hard not to notice how efficient starting quarterback Andy Dalton was Thursday as he connected with a number of his receivers during the Bengals' first day of camp. While the short and intermediate routes impressed at times, it was his work with the deep ball that caused the estimated 1,200 fans on hand to "ooh" and "ahh" at times. Few receptions drew applause from onlookers like the bomb Dalton completed late in practice to receiver A.J. Green. Thrown approximately 50 yards on the fly, Green settled underneath the pass just before crossing the goal line. Like he had done often during the day, he got behind the secondary for the unimpeded catch. This time, it was Adam Jones who was beat. Green said after practice that much of his focus this offseason has revolved around improving his deep-ball relationship with Dalton. "It starts with me being able to run my routes consistently and knowing where I need to be for him to place the ball," Green said. "I feel like with [new offensive coordinator] Hue [Jackson] it's all detail. It's going to be right here in this spot and that's where [Dalton] is going to put the ball."
  • Green wasn't the only one snagging passes from Dalton. Receiver Mohamed Sanu, getting a lot of attention with No. 2 wideout Marvin Jones shelved with an injury, had a few "hands" receptions that featured him snaring the ball out of the air just before his defender could make a play on it. One of those catches came early in the workout when he beat a corner deep and jumped high for a ball that Dalton lobbed to a spot on the sideline where only Sanu could make the play. It certainly appears early in camp that the time Dalton spent working on his mechanics with throwing coach Tom House in Southern California this summer have paid off. Then again, maybe we should all remember what Jackson said about the quarterback after practice: "It's only Day 1." While pleased with Dalton's afternoon, he's still exercising some patience.
  • Patience is exactly what has gotten cornerback Leon Hall through the past three seasons. He missed most of the 2011 season because of an Achilles tear, and missed more than half of last season because of one. After being sidelined all spring, he was back on the field for the first time Thursday. About overcoming his latest injury, he said: "Mentally, it's easier the second time. Not even close. I mean, the first time going into my goal was to come back for training camp, and I felt I could achieve that goal, but obviously I was going into it blind. I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know what to do as opposed to this second time."
  • Fellow veteran defensive tackle Geno Atkins also dealt with a season-ending injury last season. Unlike Hall, though, he was unable to return in time for Thursday's practice. He joined Jones and others in rehab exercises as he continues trying to get past the ACL tear that had him miss half of last season. With fellow tackle Devon Still also injured, Atkins was replaced on the line's interior by Brandon Thompson.
  • Back to the Bengals' passing game. With Jermaine Gresham nursing a back injury, fellow tight end Tyler Eifert will have a chance this preseason to do something he didn't do most of the spring: play. He said his springtime shoulder injury was fully healed. Like Green and Sanu, he had a few attention-grabbing receptions Thursday.

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