AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals are desperate to change the mostly bad vibes that exist around them this week.

It seems they have been thinking a few good vibrations would help.

For the first time since Marvin Lewis became head coach 12 years ago, the Bengals played music at the start of practice Thursday afternoon, in an apparent act of trying to keep the players loose in the middle of what has been arguably the most challenging week of the season.

Last Sunday, the Bengals dropped a game 27-0 at Indianapolis in which their offense failed to cross midfield for more than 48 minutes, and one in which they converted just one third down. The loss came on the heels of another loss that was followed up by a tie. The 0-2-1 record since the Bengals' Week 4 bye has made their undefeated 3-0 start look like an aberration.

They are focused this week on proving that it wasn't.

One way they have attempted to do that was to put players at ease by blasting music from Cincinnati radio station 101.1 "The Wiz" FM over a set of speakers set up on the field. The speakers normally are brought out during weeks the Bengals are going on the road to simulate crowd noise. On this day, four days before their home game against the Baltimore Ravens, the Bengals had music coming from the speakers.

During the half-hour corridor when practice was open, several songs played. The most notable were Beyonce's "Partition," "Latch," from Disclosure and Sam Smith, and T.I.'s "All about the money."

As the tunes blared across the practice fields during stretching and position-specific drills, several players were seen nodding their heads and bouncing. They certainly looked looser than they have been all week.

Earlier this week, in an interview with ESPN.com, defensive end Wallace Gilberry said he's felt like the fun had been zapped from the team since its winless streak began.

"We're not having fun," Gilberry said. "Guys are trying too much, and when you're trying too much, it causes tension -- not within the group, but tension in what you're doing. We've just got to get back to having fun. Having fun and flying around and just making plays."
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When the season ends, this Sunday's game between the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals could be viewed as the turning point for both teams, as well as the AFC North race.

If the Ravens win, it will be the kind of feather-in-their-cap victory that can allow them to not only put a little distance between themselves and the rest of the division, but prove they can win on the road in an always difficult place to play. If the Bengals win and start rattling off a string of subsequent victories, this game could be viewed as the linchpin moment to their season. It would be the week their string of disappointment ended, and the victories returned.

So this isn't any ordinary midseason showdown. This is a high-stakes Week 8 game that could have many playoff implications riding on it.

ESPN's Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey are here to help you get ready for Sunday in this week's preview:

Coley Harvey: How are the Ravens viewing this game, Jamison? What type of message could they send the rest of the division if they jump out to a 6-2 start with a win in Cincy?

Jamison Hensley: In many ways, this is a statement game for the Ravens. They've been dominant in recent weeks, winning by an average margin of 27 points in their past three victories. But they've roughed up teams in the weak NFC South. The Ravens will officially declare themselves the team to beat in the AFC North if they can knock off the defending division champions on their home field. There is also the payback factor for the Ravens. Quarterback Joe Flacco has already talked about the team having something to prove against the Bengals. Not only did the Ravens lose to the Bengals in the season opener, but they have repeatedly struggled in Paul Brown Stadium. Flacco has a career 2-4 mark in Cincinnati, and the Ravens haven't won there since 2011. So, a victory would erase some bad memories for the Ravens as well as deliver another crushing blow to a reeling division rival.

Coley, the Bengals haven't won a game in a month, but the season hasn't reached the halfway point yet. Is it too dramatic to classify this as a "must win" for Cincinnati?

Harvey: Not at all, Jamison. I'd argue this is a must-win game. You mentioned it yourself: right now, the Bengals are reeling. After having so much success the past three regular seasons -- not to mention the success they had winning the first three games this season -- they're having trouble comprehending what the past three weeks means about their team. They have two losses to two really good teams (New England and Indianapolis), but earned that tie in a game against one of those NFC South foes you mentioned earlier (Carolina). To redefine themselves, the Bengals "must" earn a win. Also, there's the division race at stake. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap was quick to point that out as motivation following the 27-0 blowout at Indianapolis on Sunday. The Bengals want to be in first place again. Also, they want to extend their 12-game streak of being undefeated at home.

Flacco was under a lot of duress in this year's first meeting between these teams, particularly in the final minutes. What type of pressure is on the Ravens' offensive line to protect better in this game, particularly on the left edge, where Eugene Monroe might end up missing more time?

Hensley: The big question for the Ravens is whether the left side of their offensive line returns. Monroe, the left tackle, and left guard Kelechi Osemele, both of whom are dealing with knee injuries, haven't been on the field together since Week 3. That being said, one of the biggest improvements this season has been their pass protection. Since getting sacked three times by the Bengals, Flacco has been sacked only five times in the past six games. That's a major turnaround from last season, when Flacco was sacked a career-worst 48 times. Under offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, Flacco has gotten rid of the ball quicker and the receivers have done a good job of getting better separation. Still, it all starts with the offensive line, and the Ravens have had some breakdowns with rookies James Hurst and John Urschel filling in on the left side. They need Osemele and Monroe when facing a Bengals defense that has 14 sacks in the teams' past five meetings.

On the other side of the ball, the Ravens' pass rush is hitting its stride right now. The Ravens have recorded 10 sacks and 24 quarterback hits over the past two games. Can the Bengals slow down the likes of Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil? And how has Andy Dalton handled pressure this season?

Harvey: Dalton actually has handled pressure, at least in the form of blitzes, fairly well this season, so I'll say yes, the Bengals can slow down Dumervil and Suggs. Dalton's best career numbers versus the blitz have come this season in the form of his career-high 62.5 QBR when teams send additional rushers from the upper levels. While he has only three touchdown passes against the blitz, including the pivotal go-ahead, 77-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green in the fourth quarter of the season opener at Baltimore, he most notably has just one interception. That pickoff happened after his arm was hit by a blitzing linebacker as he threw, causing the deep pass to flutter right into a defensive back's hands. In last week's game against the Colts, Dalton handled the blitz OK, but he had Colts linemen in his face all afternoon. With his receivers struggling to get separation, he was unable to set up quick enough passes. For the first time, he looked awful against standard pressure.

Jamison, if you had to put your finger on one reason as to why the Ravens have been able to play so well since losing the opener, what would you pick?

Hensley: It's the Ravens' ability to get off to fast starts. In their past five wins, they have outscored teams 96-17 in the first half. In their two losses, they've been outscored 21-3 before halftime. It was a sluggish start that caused the Ravens to drop that season opener against Cincinnati. The Ravens trailed 15-0 after two quarters and were shut out for the first 42 minutes, 40 seconds. When the Ravens trail early, they tend to get out of their balanced attack and throw the ball more than they would like. When the Ravens get a lead, this is a team that can protect it because of a strong running game and the stingiest defense in the NFL. It's certainly a proven formula. The Ravens are 49-10 when scoring first in John Harbaugh's seven years as head coach.

Another area where the Ravens have improved is their run game. The Bengals have gone the opposite direction, going from the fifth best run defense to No. 30. Will the Bengals be able to slow down the ground game Sunday?

Harvey: That's a question you, me, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther and thousands of Bengals fans would like to know the answer to. It's hard to say there's been any one reason as to why the Bengals have struggled defending the run lately. Early in the season, they were gashed by occasional long carries from quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Jake Locker, but those had minimal impact on the outcome of those games. A week after the Bengals' bye, though, Patriots running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen rushed for 203 combined yards to pace a 220-yard rushing attack. The next week, it was quarterback Cam Newton who picked up 107 yards, mostly off the read-option. This past week, the Colts' Ahmad Bradshaw and Trent Richardson, of all running backs, made the Bengals pay with a 177-yard total performance. Cincinnati's biggest issues of late have involved knowing rush-lane assignments, having an inordinate amount of missed tackles (29 the past three games, per Pro Football Focus) and being without linebacker Vontaze Burfict consistently. He's finished only one game this season.

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The Film Don't Lie: Bengals

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
11:00
AM ET
A weekly look at what the Bengals must fix:

Oh, how the Cincinnati Bengals long for the days earlier this season when their week-to-week fixes were considerably minor. That's not the case after Sunday's disaster at Indianapolis. Following their 27-0 loss to the Colts, there are a host of issues they have to work through going into this Sunday's game at Paul Brown Stadium against the Baltimore Ravens.

With help from offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, here is a list of items the offense has to tweak and change and adjust within the next five days. For the purposes of this post, we aren't going to focus on any of those. One other simple, seemingly easy fix the Bengals can make this week is to be better offensively on first down. By getting off to a good start at the beginning of drives, a team can set itself up for a more favorable outcome by the end of it.

Third downs were the bane of the Bengals' existence Sunday, as they converted just one of their 13 tries. The main reason they had such difficulty with those conversions was because 10 of the 13 third downs came on third-and-7 or longer scenarios. When a team has that far to go to get a first down, it typically doesn't bode well for their chances of converting. How were the Bengals consistently getting stuck in that position? Because on six of the 14 drives they had in the game, they either didn't gain a yard or went backward on first down. Such poor starts to drives hurt them when it was time to convert on third down.

Here's another reason the Bengals need shorter third downs. This season, they have converted 62 percent of their third downs with 4 or fewer yards to go, and haven't allowed a sack or turnover in those scenarios. They have converted just 30 percent of their third downs with 5 or more yards to go, allowing three sacks and throwing two interceptions.

There are fixes the Bengals need to make on defense, too, but they could help their defense by keeping it off the field. They can do that by having bigger gains on first down, making it easier to convert shorter third downs.

CINCINNATI -- Chicken Little doesn't have a locker inside Paul Brown Stadium.

At least, according to two Cincinnati Bengals veterans he doesn't.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
AP Photo/AJ MastDespite a dismal-seeming record of 3-2-1, Andy Dalton and the Bengals still have 10 games to play.
The sky isn't falling inside the Bengals' locker room, team stalwarts Andrew Whitworth and Domata Peko said Monday, even though they are well aware that outside the comforts of their four walls, the perception is that it is.

"It's not the end of the world, guys," Peko said, smiling as he looked directly into a local news camera after answering a series of questions about the Bengals' 27-0 loss at Indianapolis on Sunday. "We'll be all right."

Peko was sending a message to panicked Bengals fans nervous about what the team's two-loss, one-tie showing the past three weeks might portend.

"I told a lot of guys, 'come on, we'll be all right,'" Peko said. "We've got 10 games left. Let's just take it one game at a time."

Whitworth encouraged his teammates to remain patient.

"If you are playing NFL football and you are panicking, then you are not going to be in this league for very long," Whitworth said. "You have an opportunity every week in the NFL to win. That's been proven more often this year than any. One place is not safe for the whole year."

As much as Whitworth hopes words like those may prove comforting to his teammates, for most Bengals fans they don't change the fact the team is now 3-2-1 after bolting out to a 3-0 start that had NFL analysts and fans alike believing this was the year the Bengals finally made it back to the Super Bowl. After 26 years, they would finally get their third chance to win the Lombardi Trophy, many believed.

But an arrhythmic, out-of-sync offense, a tired, inconsistent defense, and one missed field goal have combined to make the Bengals look like a shell of their former selves, and to put Who Dey Nation on alert. The masses weren't happy with Sunday's no-show performance by the offense, and they are roiling about what could be next this weekend when the Bengals host the Ravens.

Baltimore, 5-1 since losing to the Bengals in the season opener at M&T Bank Stadium, currently sits atop the AFC North. A win and the Bengals can reclaim their top spot, as well as control any possible late-season tiebreakers by sweeping the Ravens.

"As high as you were through the first three games and as low as you are through these last three, you have to be ready the next week to have your opportunity," Whitworth said. "If you are not ready then you are going to miss it, and you won't be around for long. This team has to find ways to get ready for this next opportunity, this next run. That's all this league is about. It's about going on runs, it's about making plays. We need to be prepared to do that."

Mid- and late-season runs have played key roles in the Bengals' three straight playoff appearances the past three seasons. In 2011, they won five in a row in October and early November. In 2012, they bounced back from four consecutive losses to win four straight. They ended that season going on a 7-1 run across November and December. Last season, respective four-game and three-game winning streaks powered the 11-5 finish.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Cincinnati Bengals now find themselves at a crossroads.

This is the time when a group like theirs is at its most fragile. It's when fingers might start getting pointed as answers are sought and sources of blame desired.

Dark days like the ones the Bengals are in also could be when players start mentally checking out, focusing instead on ways they can just get through what has started shaping up to be a more difficult season than any of them could have anticipated.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsThe Bengals' offense had a tough time finding a rhythm in Sunday's loss to the Colts.
This is the time when a team can begin fracturing and completely break apart.

But according to the few Bengals who spoke to reporters following Sunday afternoon's 27-0 road shutout at the hands of the Colts, there is no disaster in Cincinnati. There are no reasons to believe the team will start to fold, they said.

"I wouldn't say 'crisis,'" defensive end Carlos Dunlap said when asked if the team was beginning to feel that way following three straight winless performances. "We still can be on top of our division if we beat Baltimore. That's the biggest goal in mind right now, beside playing the way we had been playing."

If the Ravens lose next week, they'll fall to 2-2 in the division, while the Bengals would be 2-0.

Until recently, the Bengals had been playing well.

Cincinnati went 3-0 to start the year and looked like a true Super Bowl contender. It had weathered the storm of a few injuries, but seemed poised to still go on a long run.

And then came the bye.

Since the Bengals' Week 4 bye, they haven't been the same. They've gone 0-2-1 and have been outplayed both offensively and defensively. They haven't looked remotely close to being in the rhythm they were in when the season began. Instead, they look disjointed. The injuries that have amassed in recent weeks appear to be having a very real impact, regardless of what some players may say.

Despite all that, though, the Bengals contend their focus -- even on a day when a loss like this "hurts," as coach Marvin Lewis said -- is on next Sunday's game at home against Baltimore. It's only the Bengals' second division game of the year, and their last against the Ravens following the season-opening 23-16 win in the first week of September.

"We've got to circle the wagons, that's the thing," Lewis said. "We are who we are. We've got what we've got. We've got to get together and we've got to figure out a way to continue to ride and go back and be a fundamentally sound, attacking football team again and get on it and go. This one's over, we've got to put it behind us. We'll learn a lot from this football game and it will be something that will be something that will help us grow."

Quarterback Andy Dalton said it's on the leaders of the team to ensure the team's focus remains on the end goals: a division championship and a Super Bowl trophy.

"We are definitely going to do whatever it takes to get that point across," Dalton said. "This team is too talented and we have so much going for us. We can't waste any opportunities. It will be talked about this week. There will be plenty of room for improvement, so we just have to watch the tape and do whatever we can to correct it and move on."
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton dropped back 42 times Sunday afternoon against the Indianapolis Colts' aggressive, feisty and relentless pressure-focused defense.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
AP Photo/AJ MastAndy Dalton and the Bengals only notched one of 13 third downs against Indianapolis.
On those 42 dropbacks, he attempted 38 passes.

Of those attempts, nine of the balls that left Dalton's right hand were either batted down at the line of scrimmage or broken up downfield by a member of the Colts' secondary.

More than half those deflected passes came on third downs, scenarios Cincinnati successfully converted just once out of 13 tries. Far too often those failed third downs left Dalton and the Bengals with the same empty feeling. Far too often Dalton, the Bengals' newly paid multimillion-dollar quarterback, walked back to the sideline with a puzzled look on his face.

It was a look that suggested confusion and bewilderment; two emotions that had seldom been evident this season from any player in offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's scheme.

"We got beat in every part of it offensively," Dalton said. "We were terrible on third down and so you put that together and you get a game like we had [Sunday].

"We felt like we had a good plan coming in, but at the end of the day, you have to execute it."

The Bengals had trouble executing for myriad reasons, chief among them: the constant attack the offensive line received. The unit was unable to prevent a barrage of pressures from a Colts' defense that has thrived with that style of play. Entering Sunday's game, Indianapolis had sent five or more pass-rushers on 86 plays this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That's 20 plays more than the league average of 66 in which defenses have sent five or more players to rush quarterbacks.

Along with the Colts' pressure, Cincinnati's receivers weren't able to get open quickly enough for Dalton to try to find them without forcing passes. When his passes weren't getting deflected, they often were shorter screens, still thrown with an Indianapolis defender lurking nearby. How short were Dalton's passes? Per passing attempt, the Bengals averaged 3.3 yards.

"They played man-to-man and they were able to disrupt us in our routes and disrupt the timing of everything," Mohamed Sanu said. "They weren't very handsy or anything. They just played really well in coverage."

The five pass break-ups the Colts had on third down were a strong indication of just how tight of coverage they were playing. When it mattered most, they weren't allowing the Bengals to get anything.

By converting only one of 13 third downs, the Bengals put their defense in a bind, too. Unable to sustain drives, Cincinnati's offense contributed to its defense being on the field for almost 40 minutes of the 60-minute game. Again, the team wasn't in sync.

Sanu believed the Bengals' third-down woes actually started before the offense even got in those situations. Difficulty generating yards on first and second down put the Bengals in too many third-and-long situations, he said. On 10 of Cincinnati's 13 third downs, the Bengals needed more than six yards to get a first down.

"It's kind of tough when you don't get positive yards on first down. We can't start that way," Sanu said. "You've got to get positive yards to stay within our game plan and be able to execute it."


INDIANAPOLIS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 27-0 loss to the Indianapolis Colts:

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Looking for the "next man up": One of the more common phrases you'll hear from players on a Marvin Lewis-coached team is "next man up." Whenever the Bengals have injuries, they make it their mission to make sure whoever comes in for downed starters keeps the team playing at the exact level it was before. But it's easy to assume that as more reserves hit the field, drop-offs will come. Veteran Terence Newman was one of many Bengals who rejected that assumption Sunday. "When someone goes out, somebody has to step up," he said. "It's an opportunity for them to show what they can do and display their talents. That's the way you have to look at it as a guy who goes in the football game. It's a chance to show what you can do. You've just got to shine in that moment." In addition to the several other injuries the Bengals had entering the game, they lost stars Vontaze Burfict and Leon Hall in the game.

"We are who we are": Lewis almost channeled his inner Dennis Green during his postgame news conference. But instead of saying the Colts were who he thought they were, Lewis said: "We are who we are. We got what we got and we got to get together, and we've got to figure out a way to continue to right it and go back and be fundamentally sound and become an attacking football again and get on it and go. This one's over. We've got to put it behind us."

Burfict teaches: Minutes after the shutout, Burfict was in the middle of a football conversation with backup linebacker Vincent Rey. The two, in postgame dress clothes, chatted in neighboring lockers. It appeared Burfict was doing what he often does: teaching. Once Burfict left the game, Rey received the helmet with the team's microphone, and he was the defender charged with making play calls. When healthy, Burfict is the team's regular playcaller.

Rapid Reaction: Cincinnati Bengals

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
4:12
PM ET

INDIANAPOLIS -- A few thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 27-0 loss to the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium:

What it means: It has been a real Jekyll and Hyde type of season for a team that started off 2014 looking like it might be booking a trip to Arizona for the Super Bowl. After the promising 3-0 start that had some -- including myself -- ranking the Bengals the No. 1 team in the NFL, they have gone winless in their past three games. A pair of losses and a tie have made them look like a dramatically different team than the one that took the field at the beginning of the season. Aside from the changes in record, the most drastic changes for the Bengals have been in the form of defensive play and third-down play on offense. Injuries in recent weeks to key players also have ransacked the entire team, making it even more difficult for Cincinnati to establish fluid game plans. This was Cincinnati's first shutout loss since Week 17 of 2009.

Stock watch: The stock in the Bengals' offense took a nose dive this week. Although the Bengals had issues on that side of the ball two weeks ago when they mustered only 17 points in the 26-point loss at New England, those issues paled in comparison to what Cincinnati showed this week on the road in Indianapolis. After seemingly getting their offense back on track in last week's 37-37 overtime tie with Carolina, the Bengals had no answers for the Colts. They went 1-for-13 on third down and only twice advanced the ball past the 50-yard line. While the Bengals got the ball into goal-line territory on that drive, they couldn't move the ball into the end zone. With just one third-down conversion, they averaged just 3.9 plays per drive.

Time-of-possession losers: In addition to losing Sunday's game, the Bengals lost the time-of-possession battle. A large part of why they did was they couldn't get their offense to generate third-down conversions. Their defense was on the field for a whopping 39:43. They lost the time-of-possession margin by more than 19 minutes, the biggest margin they've had this season.

Game ball: There's no need to even entertain the thought of awarding a game ball to anyone who had anything to do with the offensive side of the ball in Sunday's game. Defensively, however, defensive end Carlos Dunlap and cornerback Adam Jones were among those who could have earned consideration. Both recovered fumbles in the game. Dunlap also had a sack, and Jones had two pass breakups. Still, the Bengals' game ball deserves to go to punter Kevin Huber, who had a career-high 11 punts. He averaged 50.7 yards with a long of 63. He also had three punts inside the 20 and would have had another had one of his gunners not slid into the end zone as he downed a ball near the 1. Instead, Huber ended up with his first touchback of the year.

What's next: Cincinnati's last two road trips haven't fared well. The Bengals have been outscored 70-17 in those games. Maybe they'll be able to put those problems behind them these next three weeks, as they start a three-game stretch of games at Paul Brown Stadium. Up next for the 3-2-1 Bengals is division rival Baltimore. The Bengals beat the Ravens 23-16 on the road in Week 1. It was their only win outside of Cincinnati this season. The Bengals also are hopeful to get receiver A.J. Green back from a toe injury next week.
INDIANAPOLIS -- We've known for a week that Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green would miss the Cincinnati Bengals' game this week at Indianapolis, but it is now official.

The fourth-year wideout was on Cincinnati's list of inactives for the Bengals' 1 p.m. ET game Sunday against the Colts. It will be the second straight game Green has missed. He also missed all but six plays of the Bengals' Week 2 game against the Falcons.

Green
In Green's place will be Mohamed Sanu, the third-year receiver who has caught 13 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns as Green's replacement so far this season. Overall, Sanu has caught a team-high 27 passes for 354 yards and three touchdowns this season. He's expected to continue to be the Bengals' top receiving threat without the superstar Green, who has been trying to battle through a toe injury since the season opener.

Green initially picked up the injury to his right big toe during the first quarter of the Bengals' Week 1 win over the Ravens. He fought through the injury and finished the game before shutting it down just six plays into the next contest.

He's hopeful to return next week when the Bengals host the Ravens.

Along with Green, the Bengals also are without linebackers Rey Maualuga and Emmanuel Lamur. They had been expected to sit this week after suffering injuries in the fourth quarter of last week's tie with the Panthers. Maualuga has a serious left hamstring injury that coach Marvin Lewis anticipates will keep him out a few weeks. Lamur's shoulder issue doesn't appear to be as serious, and the team is hoping he'll return next week.

Maualuga will be replaced by second-year player Jayson DiManche, and Lamur will be replaced by Vincent Rey.

While Green, Maualuga and Lamur were deactivated, the two players who were signed this week to help absorb their losses were activated. Receiver Greg Little and linebacker Nico Johnson were part of the 46-man gameday roster, but neither is expected to play. They simply haven't had enough time to digest their respective playbooks. Little and Johnson will only see action if the Bengals are placed into emergency scenarios that call upon one or both having to play.

Here is the full list of inactives for Sunday's game:

Bengals inactives
WR A.J. Green
LB Rey Maualuga
LB Emmanuel Lamur
DT Brandon Thompson
CB Chris Lewis-Harris
OT Tanner Hawkinson
DE Will Clarke

Colts inactives
CB Darius Butler
LB Victor Butler
OG Lance Louis
OL Khaled Holmes
OT Jamon Meredith
DT Kelcy Quarles
DT Arthur Jones
CINCINNATI -- We've written a fair amount this week about the Cincinnati Bengals' inability to stop the run the last two weeks, both from running backs and quarterbacks.

But what about stopping the pass?

The Bengals certainly can't forget to do that, either.

Just like they have the last two games, in particular, the Bengals this week will have their hands full trying to slow down an offense that features a good group of tight ends, and multiple playmaking receivers, including a young wideout who has progressed faster than many expected.

There's a reason the Indianapolis Colts have the NFL's No. 1 total offense, and that reason doesn't only include quarterback Andrew Luck.

Luck's pass-catchers, namely Hakeem Nicks, Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener, have had as large a role in that top ranking as anything else. Hilton and Wayne are among the top 15 in the league in receptions and receiving yards. Among tight ends, Allen and Fleener are among the top 13 in yards per reception and touchdowns.

Combine all of that with a decent enough running game and Luck's ability to create plays and you get an efficient and seemingly well-oiled offense.

Part of the reason Luck has had such success passing this season is because he's doing better with deep balls. After having a completion rating of 37.2 on passes at least 15 yards downfield in 2012-13, Luck has completed such deep throws at a 56.4 percent clip this year. His total QBR also has increased on throws that have traveled at least 15 yards. The first two years of Luck's career his QBR on such throws was 75.2. His QBR on them this season is 99.2.

Another benefit for Luck? Wayne's sure-handed play. Entering this week the receiver led all players in the league with the most targets without a drop. He has 54 ahead of Sunday's game.

As for Hilton, the third-year player is having the best year of his young career. One glance at his statistics shows where he has experienced growth each season. This ESPN The Magazine graphic from Thursday demonstrates where his catches per game, yards per game, catch percentage and receptions per routes run have all increased incrementally each year to this point in the season. It also demonstrates where his drop percentage has gone down incrementally each year to this point in the season.

If there is a candidate in the NFL for breakout player of the year, Hilton could very well be it.

Fleener and Allen have caused their own headaches for opposing defenses and could do the same against the Bengals. Expect both to field their share of attention from Cincinnati, following the Bengals' issues covering Rob Gronkowski and Greg Olsen the last two weeks. Gronkowski had six catches for 100 yards and a touchdown two weeks ago, and Olsen had six catches for 62 yards and a score.

"We've got to do a better job, no question," Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said about the coverage versus tight ends.

His job will be a little more difficult this week, too, with cover linebacker Emmanuel Lamur out with a shoulder injury. It means the Bengals may be forced to go into nickel packages regularly and use safety Taylor Mays to line up in man coverage with Fleener or Allen. Other linebackers also will be forced into helping stop Indianapolis' largest playmakers.
CINCINNATI -- The NFL confirmed Friday that Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict has been fined $25,000 for the ankle twists that Carolina Panthers players took exception to this week.

Burfict
Officially, the league termed the twists -- which weren't penalized in the game -- as unnecessary roughness "violations."

ESPN's Ed Werder reported this week that a fine was coming for Burfict, and ESPN's Adam Caplan also reported the linebacker has planned to appeal the decision.

On two occasions, in the third and fourth quarters of last week's 37-37 overtime tie with the Panthers, the Pro Bowl linebacker was caught by cameras turning the ankles of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and tight end Greg Olsen at the end of plays, after they had been whistled dead. The one on Newton turned heads because the quarterback has been recovering all season from offseason ankle surgery.

Olsen was the most adamant of Panthers players who spoke about the incidents. He said Monday that he believed the league should suspend Burfict for his actions. Werder reported that in addition to the fine, the NFL has cautioned Burfict that the next time he has any post-whistle activity like the ankle twisting, he will have to sit down and meet with league officials to discuss his on-field conduct.

This isn't the first time Burfict has been fined. He was fined three times last season after a series of incidents. Twice in one game he was fined after getting flagged for hitting a defenseless player, and then striking an opposing player in the groin. Much like this situation with the Panthers, the latter incident in that game wasn't seen by officials, so he wasn't penalized at the time. The league later reviewed it, though, and docked him $21,000 for the infraction.

To date, Burfict, who signed a multimillion-dollar extension just before the season, has been fined $77,000, including this latest fine, assuming it doesn't get overturned by the appeal.

The NFL said he wasn't fined for any other infractions in Sunday's game, even though he had three actual penalties in the game, each of the personal foul variety. No other Bengals were fined from Sunday's game.
CINCINNATI -- Kevin Zeitler has practiced for two straight days.

That's more practice time than he's had with teammates in more than a month, meaning signs are good that the Cincinnati Bengals right guard will play Sunday at Indianapolis.

Zeitler
"It felt good [Wednesday] and it still feels good today," Zeitler said, referring to his right calf, just before Thursday afternoon's practice.

Zeitler has been bugged by the calf since Sept. 14, when he hurt it blocking for Giovani Bernard on a goal-line touchdown run against the Falcons. The injury didn't require surgery, but he was on crutches for several days and went through a long rest and rehab process.

On Thursday, Zeitler was simply trying to see how well the leg responded to getting worked out on back-to-back days. It was the second consecutive practice he participated in full capacity.

"If I can get through that practice completely healthy," Zeitler said, "that'll be just reassuring. It's just getting back with everyone and getting all those habits that I took all of training camp to develop before taking the last four weeks off."

Before getting hurt, Zeitler had started strong. He was good in the running game and slightly better protecting the pass. Pro Football Focus gave him positive grades in both the games he played in, giving him a plus-1.9 overall grade in the half he played against Atlanta.

Zeitler's focus this training camp was to "get back to what I know I can do." He said he was a little dismayed by what he believed was a struggle-filled season in 2013, and get back to building from a strong rookie season in 2011. To do that, he's going to have to get his muscles trained to doing what they had been before the injury.

"I thought I was doing well the first one-and-a-half games, but now that you've been off for like four weeks, some of that muscle memory disappears," Zeitler said. "It's just a matter of getting your body to do what it knows how to do again."

Below are a few other players who are hopeful to play Sunday. Here's a look at Thursday's injury report:

Did not practice
WR A.J. Green (toe)
LB Emmanuel Lamur (shoulder)
LB Rey Maualuga (hamstring)
OG Clint Boling (veteran's day off)
OT Andrew Whitworth (veteran's day off)
DT Brandon Thompson (knee)

Limited practice participation
S George Iloka (groin)
OT Andre Smith (shoulder)
DE Wallace Gilberry (eye)

Full practice participation
OG Kevin Zeitler (calf)
CINCINNATI -- Wallace Gilberry was rushing from the quarterback's left side, just as he typically does.

Only this time, on the opening play of the Carolina Panthers' final drive of regulation Sunday, he got more tangled up with the offensive lineman blocking him than he normally might.

Panthers left tackle Byron Bell had gotten a hold of the front of Gilberry's jersey and started riding his hands up toward the Cincinnati Bengals defensive end's helmet while they were engaged. With one quick, upward motion, Bell's hands forced Gilberry's helmet off his head. At virtually the exact same moment, Panthers right tackle Nate Chandler came over to help on the block. When he did, his helmet struck Gilberry's exposed head.

Gilberry
Gilberry instantly fell face down onto the turf.

When he tried to open his eyes from there, he saw blood pouring onto the ground but had no idea why.

"You look down and all you see is blood, and you're trying to figure out where it's coming from," Gilberry said.

Once the play ended and trainers raced onto the field, they noticed the blood coming from in and above Gilberry's left eye. Chandler's helmet had opened a cut above the eye, and vessels in the eye itself began bursting. When he was helped to his feet and walked off the field holding a piece of gauze on the cut, the top of Gilberry's orange jersey had been stained the same crimson color that suddenly appeared on the gloves he was wearing.

Despite that sight, amazingly, Gilberry ended up back in the game minutes later.

"Once I got it cleaned out and they stopped the blood from flowing, I was able to come back in the game," Gilberry said. "That was a good thing. The doctors did a real good job stopping the flow of the blood and getting me back on the field."

Although there still was some swelling around the eye Wednesday, it had considerably decreased by Thursday when Gilberry addressed reporters about the injury. He said he was just thankful doctors didn't foresee him having any major long-term issues with it.

"The most important thing," Gilberry said, "was making sure the cornea wasn't scratched and there weren't any abrasions in the back of my eyeball. That's the important thing. All the tests came back good.

"I am thankful I can see out of it. Thankful it wasn't worse than it looks."

Gilberry said Chandler came up to him on the field and apologized about the inadvertent headbutt. "All I can do is take his word on it," Gilberry said.

It doesn't appear the injury will keep him out of Sunday's game at Indianapolis. After missing Wednesday's practice, Gilberry was inside Paul Brown Stadium on Thursday working out with his teammates. As he has all season, he sported the black visor in the middle of his facemask. He said that was about the only way he can ensure his eye is protected from being poked or hit or anything else while it continues to fully heal. Doctors told Gilberry it may take a week or two for the redness in his eye to completely dissipate and for the eye to look normal again.

Gilberry has been an important part of the Bengals' defense this season. Even though their fledgling pass rush hasn't been effective overall this season, they still need him to help put pressure on Colts quarterback Andrew Luck this weekend.

Through five games, Gilberry has 19 tackles and 1.5 sacks this season.
CINCINNATI -- It came as little surprise, but the Cincinnati Bengals were once again without Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green when practice resumed Wednesday.

The fourth-year wideout didn't even make it on the field during the open portion of the day's workout.

He was spotted briefly walking through the Bengals' locker room, though, where he made a beeline for the training room. In the few seconds he was in the locker room, he wasn't seen wearing the black boot on his right foot that he had previously worn. He was wearing the boot before Sunday's game against Carolina and had it on last Friday, one day after seeing an area foot specialist.

Green has been dealing with an injury to his right big toe since the first week of the season, but he aggravated it last Wednesday as the Bengals practiced for the first time for the Panthers. He barely made it out of the stretching period before getting carted off the practice fields and back into the stadium for evaluation. As a result, he didn't play against the Panthers. Mohamed Sanu took his place, catching 10 passes for 120 yards and a touchdown.

Just after Sunday's game, ESPN's Bob Holtzman reported that Green told him he didn't anticipate playing this Sunday when the Bengals travel to Indianapolis. He had been told to expect to be off his foot for two weeks.

Along with Green, the Bengals also were without linebackers Rey Maualuga and Emmanuel Lamur, who suffered serious injuries in the 37-37 overtime tie. Maualuga has a left hamstring injury that was so bad he needed to be carted off the sideline in the fourth quarter Sunday. It's likely he will miss multiple weeks.

Lamur also left the game in the fourth quarter after picking up a left shoulder injury. He had worn a sling Sunday and Monday, but he wasn't wearing one Wednesday when both the locker room and practice were open.

The Bengals did see two previously injured players practice fully Wednesday. Running back Giovani Bernard, who had a right shoulder issue following a hard shot from Luke Kuechly that forced him briefly out of Sunday's game, practiced without limitation. Bernard was apparently so healthy that he didn't even end up on the injury report. Also practicing fully was right guard Kevin Zeitler. The starting lineman was hurt in Week 2 but appears poised to make a return this week depending on how his leg holds up in practices.

Here's Cincinnati's full injury report:

OUT
WR Marvin Jones (ankle -- went on IR Tuesday)

DID NOT PRACTICE
WR A.J. Green (toe)
LB Rey Maualuga (hamstring)
LB Emmanuel Lamur (shoulder)
DT Brandon Thompson (knee)
OT Andrew Whitworth (veteran's day off)
OL Mike Pollak (knee)
DE Wallace Gilberry (eye)

LIMITED PRACTICE PARTICIPATION
S George Iloka (groin)
OT Andre Smith (shoulder)

FULL PRACTICE PARTICIPATION
OG Kevin Zeitler (calf)

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