AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

CINCINNATI -- Next Sunday's Bengals-Steelers game will be in prime time.

The NFL announced during halftime of Sunday's night's Seahawks-Cardinals game that next Sunday's game between the AFC North rivals will have an 8:30 p.m. ET kickoff at Heinz Field. It will be broadcast by NBC.

The game had been originally scheduled for 1 p.m. ET, but was subject to being flexed into the night slot because of the NFL's rules about late-season scheduling. Typically, games are flexed in Week 17 if postseason implications are on the line.

It was a bit of a surprise announcement, considering the Bengals could actually end their playoff mystery Monday night when they host the Denver Broncos on ESPN. With a victory, Cincinnati would be in. With a loss, the Bengals must win next week at Pittsburgh in order to reach the postseason for a franchise-record fourth straight year. The Bengals could still sneak in with two losses, but it would need help from others.

The Steelers clinched a playoff spot Sunday afternoon by beating Kansas City 20-12.

If the Bengals win Monday's game over the Broncos, they still could play for a division title. Currently, Cincinnati leads the AFC North, but only by a half game by virtue of its Week 6 tie with Carolina.

Coming six days after the Bengals' game against the Broncos, this will be Cincinnati's fourth prime-time game this season. It went 0-2 in the first two, losing in blowout fashion to New England (43-17) and Cleveland (24-3). Since 2011, the year quarterback Andy Dalton became starter, the Bengals are 2-6 in prime time. Factor in an 0-3 record in the playoffs since then and their "big-game" record drops to 2-9.

Pittsburgh won the teams' Week 14 meeting in Cincinnati 42-21, bolstered by 25 unanswered fourth-quarter points.
CINCINNATI -- If Peyton Manning ends up playing for the Denver Broncos on Monday night, the Cincinnati Bengals could be without one of their best weapons for combating him.

Lamur
Lamur
Although he practiced Saturday morning for the first time this week, linebacker Emmanuel Lamur was listed later in the day as doubtful on the Bengals' final injury report of the week.

He could be a game-time decision.

"He's made a lot of progress," coach Marvin Lewis said. "With the extra day this week, obviously that helps a lot."

Lamur had an extra day early in the week to rest his sore hamstring, and he will have time even early Monday to get it treated several hours before the game if need be.

"It wasn't real severe, and we shut him down right away," Lewis said of the injury.

Lamur was run from last Sunday's 30-0 win against the Browns because of the issue.

If Lamur is ruled unable to play, the Bengals likely will use a combination of backups Marquis Flowers, Chris Carter and Nico Johnson at the "Sam" linebacker position he occupies in the base defense. When Cincinnati shifts into nickel packages as it likely will do often against the Broncos' multi-receiver and tight end sets, safety Taylor Mays likely will come off the bench and shift into Lamur's role as the cover linebacker. Despite playing the "Sam" in base, it has been Lamur's responsibility to defend tight ends in passing situations this season.

Last season, with Lamur out for the season, Mays moved down into a linebacker role. He was covering tight ends in a similar capacity before suffering his own season-ending shoulder injury in Week 8.

In addition to watching Lamur, eyes will be on Manning before Monday's game, too. After fighting through a thigh injury and an illness this week, the quarterback was listed as questionable on the Broncos' Saturday injury report.

Here is Cincinnati's full injury report*:

DOUBTFUL
WR James Wright (knee)
LB Lamur (hamstring)

QUESTIONABLE
QB AJ McCarron (illness)

PROBABLE
WR Brandon Tate (illness)
OL Mike Pollak (knee)
CB Dre Kirkpatrick (Achilles)
DE Carlos Dunlap (calf)
TE Jermaine Gresham (toe)
DE Margus Hunt (ankle)
CB Terence Newman (ankle)
OT Marshall Newhouse (illness)

Receiver A.J. Green was taken off the injury report. He's healthy after dealing with an illness this week.
CINCINNATI -- It's late December, meaning it must be time for the yearly tradition Andrew Whitworth has grown far too accustomed to.

When the Pro Bowl teams are announced Tuesday night, the Cincinnati Bengals left tackle may not hear his name called. If that indeed happens, it will be just the latest in a series of times when the deserving Whitworth has been snubbed.

And that's a shame.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Whitworth
Darron Cummings/Associated PressAndrew Whitworth has basically been inpenetrable for the Cincinnati Bengals this season.
At 33, Whitworth has arguably had his best season and has done so by accomplishing feats the majority of other tackles could only dream of doing.

But the days when rejection from the all-star game might bug him are long past.

"I'm used to that," Whitworth said earlier this week. "I don't know how many tackles haven't given up a sack all season, but I doubt it's many. But hey, I don't worry about that. I know all the guys who will be on it."

He wasn't in the top 10 of the Pro Bowl fan vote that closed Wednesday. The Browns' Joe Thomas led all offensive tackle vote-getters with nearly 343,000 votes. San Francisco's Joe Staley was the 10th tackle on the ballot with 118,050.

Still, there's a chance Whitworth could earn his second Pro Bowl selection through coach and player voting.

Whitworth wasn't Cincinnati's only top-10 snub. Punter Kevin Huber, who has been first or second in net punting average all season, wasn't in the fans' top 10. The only Bengal who was a top-10 fan selection was punt returner Adam Jones. He finished sixth in the fan balloting.

According to Pro Football Focus, Whitworth is one of four offensive tackles who haven't allowed a sack all season. Thomas and Staley have permitted one and four sacks, respectively. The other eight top-10 vote-getters have allowed a combined 26, an average of 3.3 per player.

Per PFF, Whitworth hasn't allowed a single pressure in eight games this season. On 463 pass-block snaps, he's given up just nine pressures, giving him a 98.7 pass-blocking efficiency rating, the highest in the NFL. Thomas isn't far behind with a 98.1 efficiency rating.

"I can't say enough about him and what he means," Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said of Whitworth. "He's having fun and he's really taking the mentality of leadership with that group."

According to Whitworth, health has been the key this season. After experiencing knee pain parts of the last two seasons and struggling with figuring how to address it, he began this season feeling better than he recently had.

"It's just a night and day world from playing on one leg like I did for two seasons," he said. "I get to explode, I can do what I want to do, and I can really pull anything out of the bag every week. I'm a lot more confident, and not really cocky -- I respect everybody I'm playing -- but I don't have a fear of anybody that's lining up across from me."

Even the player who will be paired against Whitworth on Monday night, Denver Broncos LB DeMarcus Ware, can see that.

"When you think about tackles, they'll say another name [first]," said Ware, who played against Whitworth often in college. "Usually they don't say him, but he's one of those guys that needs to be put in that echelon with the top tackles in the league."

Stop the run to stop Peyton Manning

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
3:00
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CINCINNATI -- It's the most odd formula for beating a quarterback the caliber of the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning, but it may be the Cincinnati Bengals' best hope for claiming a crucial 10th and playoff-clinching win.

The Bengals believe if they can stop the run and force Manning to pass, they will have a chance Monday night when the teams meet at Paul Brown Stadium.

An utterly absurd concept, right?

Maybe not.

"[That's] crazy to say with the quarterback they have," safety George Iloka said, "but you don't want them to have the running game and the passing game going."

It's all about forcing the Broncos into having a one-dimensional offense. If the Bengals can get the Broncos to pick an aspect of the game to lean on early, it could bode well for the home team by the end of the night.

With the way things have been going of late for Denver, it makes sense the Bengals would want to make the Broncos rely on their passing attack -- as bizarre as that might sound. One reason why? Because, across the past three games, Manning hasn't passed as well as he did in the first 11.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Manning has averaged 15.7 fewer passing attempts in the past three games than in the first 11. He also has thrown for 128.5 yards per game less in the past three weeks than he had at earlier points this season.

Manning's accuracy has been an issue, too, particularly overthrows and under-throws. Per Stats & Information, his off-target passing percentage skyrocketed in recent weeks from 16 percent across the first 11 games to 27 percent in the past three. That accounts for the second-worst off-target passing percentage in the league across that stretch. Only Colin Kaepernick's 33 percent is worse.

The veteran quarterback also has had problems inside the opposing 20. After leading the league in red-zone completion percentage, touchdown passes and total QBR in his first 11 games, he ranks outside the top-20 qualified signal-callers in those same categories the past three games.

Inside the red zone, his completion percentage has nosedived from 77.8 percent the first 11 games to 42.1 percent in the last three. Also, after averaging two red-zone touchdowns a game in the first 11, Manning has averaged just 0.3 in the last three. Part of those drop-offs could be attributed to tight end Julius Thomas missing three games due to an ankle injury and getting used in a limited capacity last week against San Diego.

While the Broncos' passing numbers have gone down, their rushing numbers have soared. Since Week 12, they lead the league in rushes (148) and rushing yards (659). Running back C.J. Anderson has been the ground game's spark, gaining more than 160 yards in two of the four games in that stretch. That's yet another compelling reason why the Bengals must focus on shutting down the run early.

"You stop the run in November and December, it puts your team in a good position," Iloka said.

Hey, it did work last week against the Browns. After rushing 52 times in a 21-point win over the Bengals in November, Cleveland could only muster 53 yards on 17 carries in last week's 30-0 Cincinnati win. The game plan: stop the run to stop Johnny Manziel.

Do the same thing this week, and maybe, just maybe, the Bengals can beat Manning for the first time in his career.
CINCINNATI -- It was Russell Bodine's knack for physicality that impressed Cincinnati Bengals coaches during the pre-draft process last winter and spring.

Bodine
 Film of his blocking ability in college at North Carolina, along with his impressive strength (he led all players at last year's combine with 42 bench reps) impressed the Bengals.

When they made him a fourth-round pick in May, they envisioned having him for games like Monday night's.

Although they are facing the No. 2 rushing defense in the league, it's clear the Bengals still would like to run the football when the Denver Broncos come to town for ESPN's "Monday Night Football" 2014 finale. Any success they have could hinge on Bodine and how physically he plays against one of the league's toughest and largest defensive tackle matchups.

"Terrance Knighton is 'Man Mountain Dean,'" Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said, comparing the Broncos' 330-pound interior lineman to a famed 1930s wrestler of similar size.

Knighton may not get the widespread praise from national media that pass-rushing tackles like Geno Atkins receive, but that doesn't mean he isn't respected by his peers. Bengals rookie running back Jeremy Hill wants to avoid tangling with Knighton as much as possible. That's why he believes the Bengals' rushing success will fall on Bodine's shoulders.

"The run game is going to [predicate] on how he blocks Knighton," Hill said. "If he can get him blocked up and we can get everybody else on to the second level, up on their linebackers, there are some holes to be had in there. But if [Knighton] is having a game, you're not going to get any rushing yards."

Part of the issue is that Knighton's massive size and strength makes running backs avoid going directly up the middle if they can help it. They'd rather find holes along the outer edge. But the problem with doing that against Denver is that the Broncos' outside linebackers and defensive ends, long lauded for their pass-rush ability, are pretty good against the run, too.

When those edge defenders can seal off the outside, a running back gets forced back into the inside. That's when Knighton is there to swallow him up.

"People look at these guys as pass rushers, but they're also very disruptive in the run game with their athleticism and ability," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said. "They're going to make you earn things."

So, why is all of this important? And why is Bodine the lineman worth focusing on?

Because it has been behind him that the Bengals' rushing offense has primarily operated. Of the 1,824 rushing yards the Bengals have, 72.4 percent have come between the tackles. A separate 27.5 percent have gone specifically behind Bodine. The interior run has, quite simply, been a hallmark of Cincinnati's ground game.

All season the Bengals feel good about Bodine, and this week they are confident he's up to the task of beating back Knighton.

"He's what we hoped he would be: a really, really tough, physical guy that's going to do nothing but grow and continue to get better and be like the top centers in the league, we hope -- the [Eric] Woodses and Alex Macks, and these guys who have excelled," Lewis said. "They're big guys, physical guys. You like to be around that, and that's what you want in the center of your football team."

Broncos vs. Bengals preview

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
8:00
AM ET
video
When: 8:30 p.m. ET Monday Where: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati TV: ESPN

Peyton Manning is good. Under the lights, the Cincinnati Bengals are not.

But if the Bengals have plans of joining the Denver Broncos as a playoff-bound team, they will have to overcome the future Hall of Fame quarterback and put to rest their atrocious recent prime-time showing.

Since 2011, the year Andy Dalton became its starting quarterback, Cincinnati is 2-9 in nationally televised playoff games and night games on Monday, Thursday and Sunday nights.

Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey are here to preview this week's "Monday Night Football" game:

Harvey: Manning is 8-0 against the Bengals, including a 3-0 mark against them in December. He has thrown 10 touchdowns and no interceptions against them in December. For the Bengals to have any hope of stopping him, what are two things their defense must do?

Legwold: As an opposing defensive coach told me this season, "I don't know why anybody needs to list the stats for him; let's just assume they're good against everybody and go from there." Manning has won at least eight games against 10 different teams in his career. And defensively, the formula is not complicated, yet difficult to do. Defenses who succeed against him generally create some kind of consistent pressure in the middle of the field -- they win the A gaps -- keeping him from setting his feet, and they don't give him room to climb the pocket to step into his throws. Those defenses also limit the Broncos' ability to use their variety of crossing routes. They play physically against the Broncos' receivers and limit yards after the catch because they tackle well. Not rocket science, but difficult to do because the Broncos are creative in play design. Manning delivers the ball quickly and consistently makes defenses pay for sending extra rushers (game video shows Manning had five completions this past weekend against the Chargers' blitz for 111 yards and a touchdown). So, a defense has to get all of that done largely by rushing four players, and it can't miss assignments behind that rush.

Defending a rookie in his first NFL start is one thing, and the Bengals did well in a 30-0 win against the Cleveland Browns with Johnny Manziel behind center last week, but how do you expect them to defend Manning?

Harvey: You just summed it up perfectly, Leggy. I'll add this. A defense can best stop Manning by sending a standard four-man rush and hope and pray the coverage downfield holds up. Last week, in fact, this was exactly what allowed the Bengals to bully Manziel. Only twice did they send blitzes on the mobile young quarterback. The rest of the time, they did exactly what you prescribed: They attacked the A gaps with great interior pressure from the line and forced Manziel to roll to his right. Obviously, Manning isn't rolling anywhere, but the Bengals have to hope Geno Atkins is up to pushing back the line the way he has finally started doing in recent weeks. With the Bengals also expected to use a lot of nickel defense to counter the Broncos' multi-receiver and tight end looks, don't be surprised if defensive end Wallace Gilberry goes inside to give some extra athleticism to the interior rush.

Jeff, it seems like over the past seven weeks, running back C.J. Anderson has exploded onto the scene for Denver. First, why did it take so long to get him involved in the run game, and second, what did Buffalo do so well to hold him in check two weeks ago?

Legwold: During the Broncos' offseason work, especially in minicamp, there was some thought around the team that Anderson's spot was pretty tenuous and that he might not make the roster because he had tried to bulk up a bit and looked sluggish. Anderson showed up to training camp leaner and looked far better, but Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman had already pushed their way in front of him. Anderson had routinely flashed in practice and in his limited game work, at least enough to stay in the mix, and when injuries forced the Broncos to hand him the ball, he showed patience and vision as a runner -- perhaps more than they thought he had -- and he almost always made the first defender miss or powered through the attempted tackle. If you're looking for a play that got everybody's attention, it was his 51-yard catch-and-run touchdown in Oakland when he made a one-handed grab on a screen pass -- a play Manning said he thought was "going to be a 1- or 2-yard loss" -- and five different Raiders had a chance to bring Anderson down and did not. In terms of Buffalo's plan, it was a sound group that was assignment-disciplined and tackled well; defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has faced Manning plenty over the years because of Schwartz's time with the Titans. The Bills came into the game against the Broncos leading the league in sacks, and they didn't sack Manning in the game. Anderson did pound the ball into the end zone three times, but his 2.8 yards per carry were the lowest since he became starter.

The Bengals are one of six teams averaging more than 30 rushing attempts per game this season; the Broncos are No. 2 in run defense. Do you think the Bengals will still try to pound away some to limit the Broncos' possessions, or because they believe they will be able to make some running room?

Harvey: One of the Bengals' most recent additions is NFL Players Association president Eric Winston, an offensive tackle who, before coming to Cincinnati three weeks ago, spent six seasons with the Texans and one with the Chiefs. He had an up-close look at Manning twice a season during the Texans' AFC South games when the quarterback still played for the Colts, and saw him twice in Kansas City in 2012. This week, Winston said those teams' mindset against Manning always involved running. So yes, I believe the run should, and will, be the Bengals' approach. Besides, Jeremy Hill has been running well in the past six weeks, topping 140 yards three times in that span. His hard running and guard Kevin Zeitler's constant pulling made for a nightmare day for Cleveland's defense. Also, I noticed that of the four times this season when teams have run 25 or more times against Denver, they beat the Broncos three times. To me, Cincinnati's best hope of winning is to run well, run often, get a late lead, and play keep-away from Manning.

Jeff, I'm sure the Broncos' many pass-rushers will be hounding Dalton all night, but why has Denver's front seven been so good against the run?

Legwold: Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton is -- even nationally, perhaps -- an undervalued player when it comes to what he means to the Broncos' run defense. He's disruptive, ties up blockers and doesn't get turned in the hole. He stays square and takes away run lanes. The Broncos also have plenty of team speed across the front and pursue the ball well. Even their pass-rushers, like DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, are disciplined in their run fits. Ware especially has shown himself to be reliable in how he sets the edge, and as a result, offenses haven't been able to run the ball to the inside shoulders of Ware and Miller because they play with some vision as they move up the field. That wasn't always the case earlier in Miller's career, when offenses would catch him at times being a little too aggressive as he tried to get upfield. The Broncos have tackled well for the most part, too. They have helped themselves with good work on first down, as well. Offenses are routinely facing second-and-8 or third-and-7, and that takes those offenses out of any rhythm to run. For example, the Chargers ran the ball 10 times on first down last Sunday. Only one of the runs went for more than five yards -- an 11-yard run by Branden Oliver early in the fourth quarter -- and six went for three or fewer yards.

Few players take as much heat for their prime-time and/or postseason performance as Dalton. Is there significantly more pressure on him in this one given it is the "Monday Night Football" regular-season finale and the Bengals need the win to keep the inside track for a shot at the division title?

Harvey: It's more of the latter, Jeff. The pressure will be raised on Dalton this week because the Bengals simply have to get it done. Though there is an outside shot they will sneak into the playoffs as an AFC wild card if they lose the next two games, they would do themselves so many favors if they won at least one. The finale at Pittsburgh next week won't be a cakewalk, either. The heat Dalton has taken is real and deserved. It seems like he's mostly great at 1 p.m. on Sunday afternoons. But turn on the lights and he's not. From a personal standpoint, Dalton wants to make up for his last nationally televised outing. The Bengals lost to Cleveland 24-3 in a Thursday night game last month in which Dalton registered a 2.0 passer rating.

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CINCINNATI -- In their first practice of the week, the Cincinnati Bengals got tight end Jermaine Gresham back from a toe injury that forced him to miss last Sunday's game at Cleveland.

Gresham was in and out of practice last week after picking up the injury in one of the week's workouts. He tested out the toe before Sunday's game and, for the most part, looked pretty good. But he apparently didn't feel good enough.

He told coaches and trainers he was in too much pain and was thus declared inactive.

On Thursday, he not only was active, but he participated fully alongside defensive end Margus Hunt and cornerback Terence Newman. Hunt returned after missing four weeks with an ankle injury. He was injured in the Week 11 game at New Orleans and was quickly placed into a walking boot and crutches. Newman practiced after also being inactive last Sunday due to his own ankle injury.

Of concern Thursday was the absence of A.J. Green. The Pro Bowl receiver was sent home after the Bengals' morning walk-through because of an illness. It is believed he'll be OK to practice Friday, and his status for Monday night's game against the Denver Broncos isn't in doubt.

While there doesn't appear to be any issue with Green this week, the same can't be said just yet about linebacker Emmanuel Lamur and receiver James Wright. Neither practiced, but they did participate in rehab and conditioning exercises on the side of the practice fields. This was only the second time Wright has gone through rehab drills in the nearly three weeks he has missed with a knee injury. It's a promising sign that he could be activated this week if the Bengals are comfortable with the injury's progress.

Lamur hurt his hamstring in the second half of the 30-0 win over the Browns on Sunday.

Here is the complete Thursday injury report:

DID NOT PRACTICE
WR A.J. Green (illness)
LB Emmanuel Lamur (hamstring)
WR James Wright (knee)
OL Mike Pollak (knee)

LIMITED PRACTICE PARTICIPATION
CB Dre Kirkpatrick (Achilles)
DE Carlos Dunlap (calf)

FULL PRACTICE PARTICIPATION
DE Margus Hunt (ankle)
CB Terence Newman (ankle)
TE Jermaine Gresham (toe)
CINCINNATI -- It would be unwise for the Cincinnati Bengals to out-think themselves this week and give up on the run.

It must be said that there is no reason to believe they will do such a thing Monday night when they host the Denver Broncos on ESPN, but you never can be so sure.

If coaches ever do entertain the thought this week of going away from what worked so well in Cincinnati's 30-0 victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, here's some sage advice.

Don't.

This is coming from the Bengals themselves, who believe the best way to keep winning challenging games this month is by keeping the ball on the ground.

"We've been a team that, honestly, the running game has put us in the situation we've been in this year, and we need to continue to believe in it and let it be a part of who we are," veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said.

There's evidence of the run game's success as well.

"As we've grown throughout the year, the running game has continued to evolve," Whitworth said. "We are getting better and better at it and more efficient at it."

Indeed, they are. The link above shows just how much more efficient the Bengals have been since Week 9, when rookie Jeremy Hill first earned starting duties at running back when Giovani Bernard missed three straight games because of injuries. Even in the recent weeks, when Bernard has been healthy, the Bengals have continued to feed the ball to Hill. This past Sunday, receiving his first start with Bernard also in the rotation, Hill gained 148 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries in the Bengals' victory over the Browns.

It was the third time in six games he had gained more than 140 yards.

As the Bengals welcome the league's No. 2 rushing defense to Paul Brown Stadium on Monday, another veteran offensive tackle, Eric Winston thinks the rushing emphasis ought to carry over into this week.

"More so than anything, it has to be a mindset. It has to be a thought and the way you carry yourself," Winston said. "Knowing what we did Sunday has to be who we are and not just a week-to-week thing. It has to be the badge you wear every week. That's when we're at our best. Even when I wasn't here, you noticed that this offense is at its best when it's running the ball effectively.

Hill
"If that's who we're going to be, then that's who we need to be every week."

Part of the reason teams don't fare well on the ground against the Broncos is because Denver often is so far ahead that opposing offenses reject the run to pass their way back into games.

After three quarters, the Broncos' points margin is plus-117, third-highest in the league behind the Packers and Patriots. It's no surprise they are among the four teams that have allowed the fewest fourth-quarter rushes this season, averaging less than 5.4.

Overall, Denver has allowed 21 carries per game. The Bengals are averaging 30.4. In the Broncos' three losses, each opposing team rushed more than 25 times.

If the Bengals can run the ball early and get a lead, or at least keep it tight by halftime, they had better stay on the ground.
CINCINNATI -- Three days after being the only running back in the league to rush for more than 100 yards in Week 15, Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Week on Wednesday morning.

The rookie was recognized for his 148-yard, two-touchdown performance in Sunday's 30-0 Bengals road win over the Cleveland Browns.

Hill
Earlier last week, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson told Hill and fellow running back Giovani Bernard he wanted to change up the backfield roles. For now, Bernard was no longer the starter. As he set the game plan for the Browns, Jackson wanted Hill to be the feature back as the Bengals attempted to force the run.

Bernard had a strong game, too, rushing 15 times for 79 yards. Overall, the Bengals picked up 244 yards on the ground.

But it was Hill's performance that was clearly the highlight of the game. It came five weeks after he told reporters he didn't think the Browns were a very good team following Cleveland's 24-3 win in Cincinnati. It was his belief that the Bengals simply hurt themselves that night and that they truly were better than the Browns.

He said nothing along those lines after Sunday's game. Instead, he let his play do the talking.

In the first half alone, he rushed for 103 yards on 16 carries, and collected all 36 yards on the Bengals' second scoring drive of the game. According to Pro Football Focus, he forced five missed tackles, and 87 of his 148 yards came after contact.

This is the second weekly honor Hill has earned. The night of the first game against the Browns, the NFL announced that he had earned Rookie of the Week honors for his 152-yard outing in a Week 9 win over the Jaguars.

As far as player of the week honors, this is the first time this season a Bengal has earned such recognition. The previous time was last December, when quarterback Andy Dalton was named the AFC's Offensive Player of the Week after a Week 14 win over Indianapolis. Dalton also earned player of the month honors for October last season.

Hill has 877 yards rushing, and is on pace for 1,002. He would be the team's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2012, when BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for 1,094.

QB snapshot: Andy Dalton

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
1:00
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A quick observation of quarterback Andy Dalton and how he played in the Cincinnati Bengals' 30-0 win over the Cleveland Browns in Week 15:

Dalton
Dalton
There's just something about the Browns, apparently. In his last four starts against them, Dalton has played some of the worst games of his last two seasons. In none of those outings has he had a Total QBR higher than the 20s. In case you didn't know, the highest possible QBR score is 100.0.

Sunday's 27.3 QBR was the product of Dalton's 14-for-24, 117-yard, no-touchdown, one-interception performance that got completely overshadowed by rookie running back Jeremy Hill's 148-yard showing. Had it not been for Hill's play, the Bengals might have been scuffling for offensive scores. Dalton just wasn't getting the job done as they tried to move the ball through the air.

Dalton struggled particularly with throwing downfield, often tossing the ball in directions opposite from where his receivers broke as they tried to get separation from Browns defensive backs. Whenever A.J. Green would open to his outside for a long throw, Dalton would throw inside. When another receiver might break inside, Dalton would throw well outside of him and out of the reach of the defensive back. Miscommunication was a major issue in the deep passing game.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Dalton was 2-for-11 when attempting passes that traveled 10 yards or more in the air. He's had only one worse completion percentage on passes of that distance this season: his 2-for-12 showing in the November meeting with the Browns.

For Dalton, there's just something about playing Cleveland, it seems.
CINCINNATI -- Among the several good talkers in the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room, Jeremy Hill has established himself as one of the top go-to players on the team for a quote on just about anything.

It's because the rookie running back knows how to paint a vivid, well-thought-out picture when responding to interviewers' questions. Even the most mundane of inquiries seldom seem to stump him.

So it was slightly jarring for reporters last Friday when Hill, after a week of working out or traipsing around the Bengals' facility in places other than the locker room when the team had player availability, said he wasn't talking. Approached Friday morning, minutes before availability for the week would be closed, he politely declined interview requests.

"I tried to stay off social media this week," the normally frequent Twitter poster said an hour after Sunday afternoon's 30-0 trouncing of the Browns. "I tried not to talk to media. I just didn't want to get too involved in this stuff this week. I just wanted to go out there, set the tempo, get our run game going and take the pressure off Andy [Dalton]."

Fair enough.

The extra focus must have paid off because Hill had a 25-carry, 148-yard, two-touchdown day that helped fuel the Bengals' rout. The first four plays of the game were all Hill runs, a clear early sign Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson wanted to give Cleveland a heavy dose of its bigger-bodied back.

You have to credit coaching for both the enhanced focus, and the effective game plan.

It's just like how you have to credit coaching for getting defensive players so angered about facing the Johnny Manziel hype machine that they were hellbent on embarrassing the rookie quarterback in his first career start. As much needling as the Bengals did internally to get the defense up for the task, they also happened to draw up a great scheme that hinged on scaling back the blitz, and getting defensive linemen into the backfield often.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bengals only blitzed on two of Manziel's 28 dropbacks.

That was a coaching decision from defensive coordinator Paul Guenther -- one that paid off handsomely.

Another reason why you have to put this win on the coaches? Because during a hectic week that was marked by controversy, criticism and untimely familial deaths, the staff repeatedly told players to relax and trust in the plan crafted for them.

"I told our guys during the week that we don't have pressure," head coach Marvin Lewis said. "We just have to go play. Knowing your responsibilities and how to get out and execute it, those are the things we have to do."

What they have to do now is simple. With the regular season drawing to a close and a playoff berth within reach, Bengals players these next two weeks just have to recycle the exact same work they put in last week and the exact same execution they had Sunday.

"We were talking about that on the sideline," defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "They gave us a great game plan. So the game was easy. That's where the game was won -- Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. [Sunday] was just the reward for going out and executing."
CLEVELAND -- Mike Nugent just had to get a few kicks off his toe.

Last Wednesday, while his teammates went home after a long day of practice, meetings and treatment, the Cincinnati Bengals kicker was on the field inside Paul Brown Stadium, joined by his wife, his brother and his sister-in-law.

With the sun down, team president Mike Brown had requested the lights to the stadium be turned on at Nugent's behest.

Nugent
For the first time since dealing with the unexpected death of his father, the kicker simply had to do what he does best: blasting footballs into the sky.

Daniel Nugent was 66.

"Most of it was just me thinking, 'I need to hit 20 to 30 balls, just to get some in,'" Mike Nugent, a Centerville, Ohio, native said Sunday afternoon following the Bengals' 30-0 road win over the Cleveland Browns. "At the end of the day, the kicker's the closer. We need to get points if we don't get the ball in the end zone. I didn't want to kick [last] Sunday vs. Pittsburgh and not again until [this Sunday].

"It's a lot for me to get out there and kick some balls, but I also wanted my coaches to know, 'Hey, I'm still playing. Everything's going to be fine.'"

Everything was.

In addition to the Bengals' physical play on defense and their trouncing on offense, Mike Nugent was 3-for-3 on field goal attempts. Since his 36-yard miss at the end of overtime 10 games ago, he hasn't missed. He's now 11-for-11 since his wide-right kick ended the Panthers game in a 37-all tie.

Of everything Mike Nugent heard following the miss, nothing had as much impact as the 14 words he heard from his father.

"Hey, you have been down before," Daniel Nugent told his son. "The next kick is the one that matters."

Daniel Nugent played college ball at Wisconsin and Dayton. His son played at Ohio State before embarking on a 10-year professional career that has taken him to four NFL cities, including the one closest to home. A Bengal since 2010, Mike Nugent has been playing less than an hour from where he grew up. He spent Monday and Tuesday with his family before his late-night kicking session Wednesday.

Mike Nugent didn't practice with the Bengals all week, returning home for a five-and-a-half-hour visitation ceremony for his father Thursday. The funeral was Friday.

"People are incredible and my coach has been, too," Nugent said. "The Cincinnati organization has been unbelievable this week in letting me be with my family."

Special-teams coordinator Darrin Simmons waited until the end of the game, after Nugent's final kickoff with about 20 seconds remaining, to show him a picture of Daniel Nugent that he had alongside his play-calling sheets.

There was more heartache for the Bengals early in the week. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's father also died.

"We haven't ever done much as far as giving out a game ball, but Mike Nugent got one," head coach Marvin Lewis said. "We all had to put our arms around each other and come out here. We knew how important it was and how much our loved ones that we lost would want this game to be for them. That meant the most to everybody."
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CLEVELAND -- This one was for the nationally televised embarrassment at Paul Brown Stadium last month.

It was for all the reporters and talking heads who spent more time this week talking about Johnny Manziel and a host of comments involving him -- both controversial and not -- than the men charged to defend him.

It was for the Nugent family, and the Jackson one, too.

It was for the playoffs.

While the rest of the NFL spent the past seven days discussing the various ways the Cleveland Browns might be motivated to beat their bitter rivals to the south, very little was said about what might be driving the Cincinnati Bengals as they sought a key late-season AFC North victory.

Turns out, they had a lot more boiling underneath the surface than was initially apparent.

Playing loose, yet aggressive and with the exact physicality that long has been a hallmark of play in the AFC North, the Bengals exacted revenge, silenced critics and maintained a slim division lead. In their most complete win of the season, a 30-0 road blowout, it was evident how downright dominant they can be.

Credit a meeting in Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's office for making it possible.

A day after they had been informed Jackson's father died, running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill were called into the coach's office Wednesday. He told them he was changing up the running back rotation. Bernard was no longer the starter. The second-year rusher was being replaced by the bigger, slightly more physical Hill.

The rookie didn't disappoint.

"Once Hue let me know what my role was going to be and how much the team was going to depend on me this week, I really took it on myself to really embellish that and really take that in and really just take advantage of it," Hill said. "I knew we were going to have to run the football to be successful."

The Bengals ran 45 times for 244 yards in a performance that mimicked the Brown's 52-carry performance in a 24-3 win against the Bengals on a Thursday night in Cincinnati last month. Hill was the bell cow Sunday, gaining 148 yards on 25 carries. The game's first drive was marked by his six carries, including a 2-yard touchdown run.

"The defense fed off that," offensive guard Kevin Zeitler said.

Cincinnati forced a three-and-out on the Browns' ensuing possession. The one after that, Bengals defensive end Wallace Gilberry got quickly in the backfield and brought down Manziel for the first of many stops on the rookie quarterback behind the line of scrimmage. In his first career start, Manziel had trouble avoiding striped helmets.

"This ain't college. This is the NFL," defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "You don't have college kids chasing you. You've got some grown men that have kids and who are out here trying to feed their families. It's a lot faster than college."

Along with their solid offensive and defensive performance, the Bengals also got a perfect 3-for-3 day from kicker Mike Nugent, who was given the game ball. The 10-year veteran played for the first time since the sudden death of his father, Daniel, last Monday.

As the Bengals prepare for a Monday night matchup with Denver, it's important they hold on to their identity as a truly physical football team. It simply is who they must be.
CLEVELAND -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 30-0 win over the Cleveland Browns:
  • Hill
    Powder-toss diss: At the end of his 2-yard touchdown run in the first quarter Sunday, Bengals running back Jeremy Hill broke into one of his patented touchdown dances. Earlier this year, he has performed the popular "Shmoney" dance, and even did his own rendition of the "Ickey Shuffle," named after former Bengals back Ickey Woods, who made the dance famous in the Bengals' 1988 AFC championship run. This time, he broke into a "Whip" dance before adding a move that mirrored LeBron James' pregame powder toss. Hill didn't finish the Cleveland Cavaliers star's move, though, knocking the "powder" down with a hand. After the game, Hill was told James had been in attendance. It didn't faze him. "I'm actually a Lakers fan," he said. "I'm a Kobe [Bryant] guy."
  • Hill evokes Bell: One week after Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell torched the Bengals for 185 yards on the ground, Hill did his best rendition of his rival rusher. More than any trait Bell possesses, patience arguably is his best one. Many of Hill's 148 yards came after he showcased his own patience running through the line. "We watched a cut-up on him a few weeks ago," Hill said of Bell. "We kind of stole a few more moves from him, just being patient like that. A lot of guys just get the ball and just run downhill and just run into people. But sometimes, you've just really got to set up your blocks. ... It's just being patient and hitting it when you find that crease."
  • Mocking money signs: Bengals defenders weren't the only ones doing Johnny Manziel's "money sign" this weekend in Cleveland. A couple of Bengals said Browns fans were flashing the signs at them as they walked around town while going to dinner Saturday night. Linebacker Rey Maualuga, who was flagged for taunting after flashing Manziel's sign in the quarterback's face after a deflection, said he didn't respond to the fans. "Whatever we would have said to them that night won't change the facts or change the outcome of the game," Maualuga said at his locker. "Just let it go in one ear and out the other. Eat dinner and just make sure to walk out of there as fast as you can before some crazy things go on."

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