AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

CINCINNATI -- It was a year ago Friday night that Geno Atkins suffered the injury that ended his 2013 season and began the long road to recovery that only now seems to be ending.

Atkins
On Halloween Night in Miami Gardens, Florida, mere miles from Atkins' native Pembroke Pines, the Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle tore his ACL while chasing after Dolphins running back Lamar Miller as he cut back into the middle of the field. As Atkins and other Bengals converged for the tackle on the 4-yard gain, he became trapped underneath the pile. He took his helmet off instantly.

Atkins' season was over. Surgery was forthcoming. Only one thought could enter his mind: next year.

Since "next year" began nearly two months ago, Atkins hasn't been the same player he was before the injury. He's been less explosive off the line of scrimmage and hasn't been as productive statistically. His tackle numbers have been slightly down and his sack figures even lower.

But lately, he's given the Bengals a glimmer of hope in his future.

Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said Monday that he thought Atkins played his best game of the season last Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens. He had four tackles, a sack and a forced fumble that came when he broke through the offensive line and forced the ball loose just after the running back had been handed it.

He was looking like the Atkins of old.

The sack was his first fully-credited sack of the season. He had a half-sack the game before against the Colts that was only awarded to him days after the game. One year ago Friday, playing in his ninth game of the 2013 season, Atkins already had six sacks.

It might be quite the endeavor to get Atkins back to where he was, but the Bengals are hoping he can build from his performances the last two weeks.

"He has the quickness and the penetration and the things that Geno does," head coach Marvin Lewis said. "The more opportunity we have to get him into passing situations, the more opportunities of plays he's going to be able to make as a pass-rusher."
CINCINNATI -- Amid concerns that Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard's string of injuries are a matter of him taking on a more significant workload than before, we turned to ESPN Stats & Information for help comparing his second year to his rookie season.

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Bernard
A quick glance at Bernard's 2014 numbers show that perceptions are meeting reality. He has indeed touched the ball more so far this season than he did at this point last year.

But is that what's causing the injuries? Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson says no.

"I know because of his size and whatnot, people say that, but I don't believe that's the case," Jackson said. "The things where he was nicked up didn't come from taking too much. It just came from somebody tackling him and hitting him in the right spot."

Let's review the three injuries Bernard has suffered in the last three games:
  • Against the Panthers on Oct. 12, Bernard was said to have had a right shoulder injury after taking a hard hit early in the fourth quarter from Carolina linebacker and Cincinnati native Luke Kuechly. Bernard left briefly and ended up returning to finish the overtime game. Although the injury was termed a "shoulder" injury, trainers were seen working on an area near Bernard's shoulder that was closer to his collarbone. He also grabbed that same area as soon as he tried to get up from Kuechly's hit.
  • Against Indianapolis on Oct. 19, Bernard received bruised ribs when he was blindsided by Colts defensive back Vontae Davis on a screen that Indianapolis read before it developed. Two plays later, he was lit up again when he took a shot to his back on a different screen route. After both hits, Bernard bounced back and finished the game.
  • Against Baltimore last week, he didn't return when he suffered a hip injury in the fourth quarter. He hasn't practiced all week and has been listed on the injury report as having hip and clavicle injuries.

Back to Bernard's workload. What about it has increased?

Almost everything.

He has more carries, targets, routes, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and a higher rushing average than he did after seven games last season. He also has been on the field more. He also has, from a percentage standpoint, slightly more carries between the tackles this season compared to last year.

Does any of it explain Bernard's sudden propensity for injury? At this still fairly early stage of the season, no. Later in the year, though, if these statistical trends keep up and Bernard's production slips, a real case could be made that wear and tear have slowed him down.

For now, perhaps Jackson is right? Maybe Bernard has simply been a victim of good, hard tackles at inopportune times.
CINCINNATI -- Giovani Bernard might soon miss the first game of his career.

The second-year Cincinnati Bengals running back missed his second straight practice Thursday afternoon. Like Wednesday, he didn't make it on the practice fields while his teammates worked out.

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Bernard
Hill
He hasn't been officially ruled out for Sunday's game against Jacksonville, but if Bernard doesn't practice Friday, expect to see him shelved. Very seldom will head coach Marvin Lewis' players play on Sundays without at least practicing on Fridays.

Don't try to convince Bernard's backfield mate that he's done for this weekend, though. Rookie running back Jeremy Hill said Thursday that he anticipated seeing Bernard on the field this weekend.

"Gio will be ready to go. He's a tough guy," Hill said. "I expect him to be out there. If he is, he is. If he's not, he's not. I'm preparing like I'm the No. 1 guy, like I do every week. If I happen to be that, then so be it. If not, I'll continue to do what I've been doing."

Hill would take over as the Bengals' primary running back. Cedric Peerman and Rex Burkhead likely would get carries alongside him.

"I feel good that if it happened that way that [Hill] would go in there and do the job," offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said about Hill possibly having a larger role.

Hill has just 50 carries this season, an average of 7.1 per game. He's rushed for 195 yards and has three touchdowns. Bernard has 446 yards on 109 carries. He also has five rushing scores.

Bernard suffered a hip injury in the fourth quarter of last week's 27-24 win against the Ravens. He left the game after a 4-yard first-down run. He went down rather abruptly before getting rolled over by his tackler from his belly to his back.

In addition to the hip injury, he also has been out this week with an injured clavicle. He hurt a shoulder at the end of an awkward tackle two weeks ago in the overtime tie with the Panthers. Seven days later, he hurt his ribs following a hard shot from Colts cornerback Vontae Davis on a screen pass.

Jackson said he didn't think Bernard's injuries were the result of putting a larger workload on his smaller frame.

"I know because of his size and whatnot people say that, but I don't believe that's the case," Jackson said. "The things where he was nicked up didn't come from taking too much. It just came from somebody tackling him and hitting him in the right spot."

Here is a look at the Bengals' complete Thursday injury report:

OUT
LB Vontaze Burfict (knee)

DID NOT PRACTICE
RB Giovani Bernard (hip/clavicle)
LB Rey Maualuga (hamstring)
DT Geno Atkins (veteran's day off)
CB Darqueze Dennard (hamstring)
OG Kevin Zeitler (calf)

LIMITED PRACTICE PARTICIPATION
DT Domata Peko (toe -- did not practice Wednesday)
WR A.J. Green (toe)
CB Terence Newman (back)
OT Andre Smith (knee)

FULL PRACTICE PARTICIPATION
OL Mike Pollak (knee)
DE Carlos Dunlap (illness)
DT Brandon Thompson (knee)
LB Jayson DiManche (shoulder)
CINCINNATI -- As a former first-round pick, the wait to enter the Cincinnati Bengals' starting cornerback rotation has been long and, at times, frustrating for Dre Kirkpatrick.

Kirkpatrick
 He certainly didn't believe when he was drafted that by the middle of his third season that he still would be fighting to climb the defensive depth chart. By this point, he thought he would be fending off challengers who were competing to take playing time from him.

"Coach [Marvin Lewis] knows I'm ready. I work hard every day," Kirkpatrick said. "It's a mental thing when it comes to that. Sitting back, just preparing. Trying to be ready for the game. Coach knows I'm ready. I'm ready. I just have to continue to be patient. Hopefully when my time comes I go out there and do what I have to do."

But the fact is, he probably wasn't going to see much action the first few years of his career. Veterans Terence Newman, Leon Hall and Adam Jones played well the past two seasons, despite occasional injuries. Hamstring and knee problems briefly sidelined Newman and Jones last year, while Hall only played the first half of the season because of a torn Achilles.

Those injuries caused Kirkpatrick's playing time to increase last season, but this year he hasn't had much reason to play. The vets are all healthy and playing some of their best ball. At 36, Newman appears in a career renaissance. Jones' pesky play has prevented most receivers from burning him deep. Only Steve Smith has that honor, getting past on a go route in the season opener.

How can a benched Kirkpatrick keep his wits? By continuing to soak up information from his older peers and to execute when he does play.

"I just continue to learn from those guys," Kirkpatrick said. "It's always going to be frustrating when you want to play. I've never really had to just sit. But it's a respect thing, also. Those guys are very good at what they do. Hopefully, I can be here 10 years, 12 years and a younger guy may be saying that about me."

Kirkpatrick has appeared on defense in all but two games. He received his most action in the Week 3 blowout over the Titans when he was on the field for 12 plays. Last week against Baltimore, he relieved Newman for three plays, even helping on a third-quarter pass defense. In all, he has five tackles on defense.

Where Kirkpatrick has made his biggest impact is on special teams. As one of two first-round picks at gunner -- fellow cornerback Darqueze Dennard plays opposite Kirkpatrick -- he's been a key part of punter Kevin Huber's strong season. Kirkpatrick has four special teams tackles this season and routinely has been the first Bengal downfield at the end of Huber's punts. As a result of getting down so quickly, Kirkpatrick has both corralled returners almost immediately and downed several punts deep in opposing territory.

Across two games, Huber had consecutive punts downed at the opposing 4-, 1- and 2-yard lines. Against Tennessee alone, he had three stop inside the 10. Kirkpatrick downed one and Dennard had a tackle on another.

"Coming up in college, it's all about a role," Kirkpatrick said. "Here, you're learning that you can make game-changing plays with little adjustments. That's one of the things that [the veteran corners] are very good at, and one of the things I'm learning and Darqueze is going to learn.

"I'm in a room full of smart guys and you can learn a lot from them."

For now, that's all Kirkpatrick can do: keep learning and keep waiting.
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So begins the Jacksonville Jaguars' gauntlet.

One week after a two-touchdown defeat to their in-state rival Miami Dolphins, the Jaguars on Sunday begin a treacherous three-game stretch of their schedule against a trio of teams with winning records -- and that all look like prime postseason candidates.

Up first, the Cincinnati Bengals, an organization that found itself at a unique crossroads late in last Sunday's game against Baltimore. Down four with less than four minutes remaining in a division game, the Bengals needed quarterback Andy Dalton to take them on a miracle comeback drive. He did. If he hadn't, the Bengals likely would have lost and fallen to last in the AFC North.

Instead, they're back in first.

ESPN's Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey are here to preview this matchup:

Coley Harvey: Mike, Jags QB Blake Bortles has four pick-sixes this year to go along with his 12 overall interceptions. How much of his growth hinges on how well he can take pressure? Many of his struggles have come against blitzes, and you have to think Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther wants to expose that.

Michael DiRocco: Bortles has struggled against the blitz. Though he is completing nearly 60 percent of his throws against five or more rushers, he has thrown five interceptions, has thrown no touchdown passes and has been sacked nine times. His Total QBR is a paltry 2.8 against five or more rushers. This isn't confined to just Bortles, though, because nearly every rookie QB will struggle against pressure. However, the Jaguars need to see improvement over the final eight games. His decision-making has to be better, and the one thing offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch wants to see is Bortles not continue to make the same mistakes. There are going to be interceptions because it's part of the learning process, and it's also because Bortles has a bit of gunslinger in him and likes to take chances. That's partly why he leads the NFL with 12 interceptions. Fisch would like to see that number drop to six over the season's second half. It's a rough process, but the only way Bortles can grow is to go through it. It would be a problem if he wasn't better in the second half of the season than he was in the first half.

Coley, A.J. Green says he expects to play against the Jaguars. More than quarterback Andy Dalton, is Green the key to the Bengals' offensive success, not only this week but going forward?

Harvey: To be honest, Mike, he isn't. Yes, Green is a Pro Bowler and he is a talented player and having him will bring added life to this offense, but we can't overlook the fact this unit has played well without him this season. Green has missed parts of four games this season because of a nagging big-toe injury, and in his place the Bengals have just rolled out a strong group of receivers, running backs and tight ends. Mohamed Sanu has been the most direct replacement for Green, catching 21 passes for 383 yards and a touchdown in Green's absence. Since Sanu has served as a runner on reverses, and passed balls in addition to catching them, he has racked up 460 yards of total offense in relief of Green. That's good enough for 31.3 percent of the Bengals' entire offensive production in the games Green has missed. Even if Green returns, expect Sanu to factor in similar ways this week and on down the line. Still, it can't be disputed that Green's potential addition this weekend will help any offensive success Cincinnati has.

Mike, Jacksonville's defense currently ranks as the best in the league in red zone territory. What happens when the Jags get pinned deep that allows them to prevent giving up touchdowns?

DiRocco: The Jaguars' defensive line, notably tackles Sen'Derrick Marks and Roy Miller, has played well all season, but especially in the red zone. Teams are averaging just 2.08 yards per rush against the Jaguars in the red zone. In addition, the Jaguars have allowed teams to convert just 27.3 percent of third-down plays in the red zone, which is fifth in the league. They've also intercepted two passes in the end zone. What's funny is the Jaguars have given up six touchdown passes of 20 or more yards, which shows the secondary has been more susceptible to getting beat deep than having trouble in the red zone. The pass rush has helped in the red zone, too. The Jaguars' 25 sacks are tied with Minnesota for second in the NFL behind Buffalo (28).

Which is the real Bengals' defense: the one that held opponents to 11 points per game in the first three games or the unit that gave up 35.7 points over the next three games?

Harvey: If I had a good answer for that one, Mike, head coach Marvin Lewis, Guenther and the rest of the defensive staff might try to find a job for me. Seriously, it's been one of the most perplexing issues of this season for the Bengals. They came out strong the first three weeks, stopping the run and just outmuscling each of the teams they played. Not only did it look like the Bengals were as good under Guenther as they were under the venerable Mike Zimmer, but they looked better. And then came the bye week. A Week 4, early-season interruption derailed the Bengals, and it appeared to hit the defense the hardest. In the first three games after the bye, they were outscored 107-54. Two of the teams, the Patriots and Colts, picked up more than 500 total yards. All three rushed for more than 100.

I'd say the real Bengals' defense is somewhere in the middle of the fast start and the atrocious post-bye follows. Now that players are starting to get healthy again, I'm thinking it might be closer to the unit we saw at the start of the season.

What has Denard Robinson's past two games meant to the balance of Jacksonville's offense, Mike?

DiRocco: The Jaguars' passing offense is dependent on play-action for it to be effective, and until the past two weeks, the play-action fake really meant nothing to opposing defenses. Through the first six games, the Jaguars averaged 69.5 yards per game rushing. In the past two, they've averaged 180.5 yards per game. Most of that has come from Robinson, who has run for 235 yards and one touchdown. He's doing a much better job of running tough: breaking tackles, running through arm tackles, moving the pile forward and falling ahead for an extra yard. It's no coincidence that the Jaguars' first victory came in a game in which Robinson rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown. Had Bortles not thrown two pick-sixes last week against Miami, the Jaguars probably would have won that game, too -- and Robinson had 108 yards rushing. If Robinson can continue to be effective running the ball, that will allow Fisch to take some pressure off Bortles.

Geno Atkins looked very good against Baltimore. Is he all the way back from the ACL tear, and what kind of impact does he have on the defense?

Harvey: I'd say Atkins is back from the season-ending ACL injury he suffered exactly one year ago Friday, Mike. As you mentioned, he played quite well against the Ravens. Guenther called it Atkins' best performance of the season, and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagreed. Atkins played faster, with more explosion and a bit of his old fire in that game. He had two tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble that came when he was one step into the backfield before the ball carrier had time to decide which way he was going to run. It's safe to say after six virtually unproductive games that he's finally all the way back.

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CINCINNATI -- A.J. Green participated in the Cincinnati Bengals' practice Wednesday afternoon, fulfilling comments he made to ESPN's Bob Holtzman after Sunday's game.

It was the first time the Pro Bowler practiced in nearly a month.

"I feel good," Green said after practice. "We're going to do a little bit [Thursday] and see how it goes."

Green
It appears more promising he will play Sunday. If he does, don't expect Green to cut short any snap opportunities this week against Jacksonville in favor of getting more healthy for next Thursday's quick turnaround against Cleveland.

"I'm not going to take any kind of approach," Green said. "I'm just going to play as hard as I can and see what happens."

During the open portion of Wednesday's workouts, Green went through position-specific drills with other receivers and went through a series of routes. He didn't seem to favor the right big toe injury that has bugged him since the season opener.

His last Wednesday workout didn't go well. Minutes after the Bengals stopped stretching in their first practice the week Carolina visited in Week 6, he threw down his helmet and slammed his right shoe to the turf before getting on a cart and riding back into the stadium. He had aggravated the toe injury.

A day later, Green saw a foot specialist in Cincinnati who prescribed him to avoid playing for two weeks. Seven days after that evaluation, he traveled to North Carolina to another foot specialist who told him the same thing.

As a result, Green has missed the last three games. In his place, third-year wideout Mohamed Sanu has emerged. The player who was slated to be Cincinnati's third receiver entering the season has caught 21 passes for 383 yards and a touchdown in the three-plus games Green has missed. In addition to the three recent contests he didn't play, Green also was sidelined for all but six plays of the Bengals' Week 2 win over Atlanta.

Green has been told to expect playing with a measure of pain the rest of the season. At this point, it's about managing that pain and figuring out ways to protect his foot to give him adequate relief while playing through the ailment.

With respect to stabilizing the toe when he plays, Green said he wasn't changing anything. He said trainers may tape his foot up a little different, but otherwise he wasn't going to wear different shoes or place inserts in his shoes for additional cushioning. A report last week indicated he might be getting new specially made cleats from Nike.

It's been a difficult few weeks waiting for the effects of the injury to subside. Green has been wanting to get back on the field from the moment he left practice four Wednesdays ago.

"In the back of my mind it's like that, but I've got to take care of my body," he said. "I've got a long career ahead of me and I don't want anything lingering on and be something serious when I could have just rested and made it feel better."

In addition to Green, injured right offensive guard Kevin Zeitler (calf) and linebacker Rey Maualuga didn't practice but were part of rehab and conditioning drills on the side of the Bengals' practice fields. It's the first time Maualuga has been able to work out during practice since suffering a nasty left hamstring injury in the fourth quarter of the tie with the Panthers three weeks ago.

Tight end Tyler Eifert also didn't practice, although he is eligible after ending his stint on the short-term injured reserve last week. He dislocated his right elbow diving for extra yards in the season opener. Running back Giovani Bernard wasn't even at practice after suffering a right hip injury Sunday.
CINCINNATI -- At this still relatively early stage in the season, it appears Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has been coming through on one of his top offseason objectives.

[+] EnlargeGiovani Bernard
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThrough seven games, Giovani Bernard leads the Bengals in rushing yards with 446 and TDs with 5.
The Bengals, statistics show, are indeed putting more of an emphasis on the running game than what they may have placed upon it in recent seasons.

Given the current perception of the Bengals' rushing offense, it might be difficult to believe that's the case. It might also be difficult to believe, but the Bengals are running the ball slightly more effectively through seven games than they did at the same stage the past two seasons.

Cincinnati's most significant rushing improvement has come with the volume of rushing touchdowns it has had. Already this season, the Bengals have 10 rushing scores. They had five through seven games last year, and four at this same point two seasons ago. This season, Giovani Bernard has five, rookie Jeremy Hill has three, and quarterback Andy Dalton added two more Sunday when he dove into the end zone on a pair of 1-yard quarterback sneaks.

If you look at the 10 scoring plays, you'll see that all but one of them came in goal-to-go situations. Bernard's 89-yard touchdown run against Carolina three weeks ago was the lone outlier.

Aside from the touchdowns, the Bengals have run for more yards, slightly better than average, and with cleaner play than they had in 2012 and 2013. After seven games, they lost two fumbles in each season. This season, the Bengals haven't been credited with a fumble in the rushing game, although Dalton did lose a fumble Sunday when he was chased down while trying to get out of the pocket on a passing play that went negatively.

It may not seem like the Bengals have been running the ball better than in the past because it always seems like ball carriers aren't getting much of an opportunity to get going. Defensive players have been all over the backfield this season, none more than the Indianapolis Colts who were mainstays back there two weeks ago. On six of the Bengals' eight first-half rushes in that game, their running backs were first hit either at or behind the line of scrimmage.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bengals this season are averaging just 1.95 yards before contact. That's the worst average they've had through eight weeks since 2006, the year the statistic was first tracked. As a result, the Bengals' 2.01 yards after contact this year is the highest figure they have had in that category since the same season.

With respect to the 3.96 rushing average the Bengals currently have, that's their highest per-carry mark after eight weeks since 2009, when they averaged 4.34 yards a carry. Only two other Marvin Lewis-coached Bengals teams (2005, 2009) have had higher rushing averages through eight weeks.

It's actually quite amazing the 2014 Bengals rushers have accomplished what they have on the ground considering how comparatively bad the blocking has been for them. Part of the reason so many defenders have lived in the backfield this season is because the Bengals have, for the most part, been porous up front in run-blocking. Pro Football Focus has given this season's Bengals their worst run-blocking grade since 2007, the year it started tracking the advanced stat.

They are currently at a minus-4.3 run-blocking grade from PFF. For a frame of reference, they were at plus-32.6 at the end of last season. That was the 10th-best in the league.

This is all to suggest that the Bengals' running game really isn't performing as badly as it is perceived to. Still, this also all shows just how far that phase of the offense still has yet to go.

The Film Don't Lie: Bengals

October, 28, 2014
Oct 28
11:00
AM ET
A weekly look at what the Cincinnati Bengals must fix:

It's starting to reach broken-record status on this one, but the most glaring issue the Bengals continue to have is the one pertaining to a lackluster rush defense. Ahead of Sunday's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Bengals must finally start addressing the problems they have had stopping opposing ball carriers. It would be beyond troubling if this trend continues against the NFL's 25th-ranked rushing offense.

In the past five games, in particular, the Bengals have had trouble keeping opposing teams to under 100 yards rushing. The Ravens kept that streak alive when they collected 107 yards on the ground in Cincinnati's 27-24 win. The two-man tandem of Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro sparked Baltimore's productive day on the ground. Forsett rushed 17 times for 68 yards. Taliaferro had only 27 yards on seven carries, but he had a pair of rushing touchdowns near the Bengals' goal line. Twice he sprinted through holes barely touched for easy 8- and 10-yard scores.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Cincinnati is tied with five teams for the third-highest number of rushing touchdowns allowed this season at eight. All eight of the rushing scores the Bengals have allowed have come inside the red zone. Only the Falcons, at 13, have allowed more rushing scores inside their own 20.

Since their Week 3 win against Tennessee, the Bengals have allowed an average of 158.8 yards per game on the ground. Across that same stretch, the league has allowed an average of 110.3 yards per game.

Perhaps the Bengals will get a break this week, though. They should get one of their top run-stopping defensive linemen back when reserve tackle Brandon Thompson returns from a knee injury that has kept him out since Week 2. The Bengals also are facing a Jaguars offense that, paced by Denard Robinson, is averaging just 97.3 yards per game on the ground entering this week's game. Again, if the Bengals struggle with them, it could be a sign that their rushing defense has very grave issues.
CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther was pleased with what he saw from defensive tackle Geno Atkins against Baltimore.

"[Sunday] was probably his best game so far," Guenther said.

Atkins
That's it. That's all you need to read here. If his boss is convinced Atkins played his best game, then you should be, too.

OK, seriously. Don't stop reading. Of course you shouldn't just take Guenther at his word. You deserve to see his bold proclamation backed up with some factual evidence, right?

Actually, it might not be that bold of a proclamation. A simple eyeball test of Atkins' performance in Sunday's 27-24 win over the Ravens would reveal that he did indeed play his best game of the season. He was aggressive in pursuit and relentless in pressure as he recorded his best stat line of the season: four tackles, one sack and a forced fumble. Pro Football Focus also credited him with three quarterback hurries. Only Wallace Gilberry and Carlos Dunlap had three or more hurries for the Bengals on Sunday.

Aside from tackles, he had no other statistics next to his name in the first six games.

"He played pretty good in the run game, he had a couple of good pressures," Guenther said. "So he's coming along."

It's anybody's guess as to why the Pro Bowl lineman, who has appeared in each game, has been slow to get going this season. A mostly quiet man who prefers to keep to himself, Atkins doesn't say much in the locker room; not to his fellow linemen, not to other teammates, not to reporters. You'll have better luck getting into Fort Knox than prying an answer out of Atkins about why he has been slow to return to form this season.

Maybe it's mental. Perhaps he's been a little hesitant about bursting through single blockers and double-teams as he starts getting used to the fact that he is now playing on a surgically repaired knee? Or it could all be physical. Maybe until Sunday his body -- legs and lungs -- just had not gotten used to playing with the knee?

Maybe.

It was a year ago this Friday when Atkins tore his ACL while trying to record a tackle during a game at Miami. Days later, he had the knee surgically fixed. By training camp, he was cleared for full participation, although he took his time getting all the way back, going slowly until the regular-season started.

Some eight weeks later, he finally showed flashes of the old Atkins the Bengals have been desperate to see all season.

On average, Atkins is playing 47.1 snaps per game. At 73.6 snaps per game, the Bengals are outpacing the rest of the league in the amount of time their defense is on the field, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

For percentage purposes, Atkins has been part of 64 percent of Cincinnati's defensive snaps. By comparison, throughout his career, Atkins has been on the field for 56.5 percent of the snaps the Bengals have played since 2010. That includes the six games he missed last year, and the time he spent as a reserve as a rookie.

Atkins' 47.1 snaps per game this season are nine plays shy of what the entire Dallas Cowboys defense averaged entering Monday night's game.

The Bengals weren't shy about using Atkins earlier this season, and if he keeps playing like he did Sunday, they shouldn't be from now on.

"He has the quickness and the penetration and the things that Geno does," head coach Marvin Lewis said. "The more opportunity we have to get him into passing situations, the more opportunities of plays he's going to be able to make as a pass-rusher."
CINCINNATI -- It's clear the Cincinnati Bengals believe in Andy Dalton.

Jones
Otherwise, they wouldn't have felt comfortable with the quarterback leading an 80-yard comeback drive late in the fourth quarter. And they wouldn't have allowed him to check into a quarterback sneak on arguably the most pivotal play of the game: a fourth-and-goal from the Ravens' 1.

Once Dalton realized the Ravens' defense wasn't lined up in a way favorable to the previous play call, he switched it up and put the onus of a win or loss on his shoulders.

He stepped up and showed why he's the Bengals' fearless 26-year-old leader.

His dive into the end zone with a little extra nudge from left tackle Andrew Whitworth was the eventual game-winning touchdown with 57 seconds left. The 27-24 score would hold up after a key defensive stop, and after the game Dalton received a meaningful vote of confidence from a veteran.

Asked about his belief in Dalton, cornerback Adam Jones implored others to share his faith.

"I believe in Andy -- 100 million-dollar man -- you better believe in him," Jones said, referencing the $115 million contract extension Dalton signed in the preseason. "I heard him say it before they went out on the field: 'Let's go out and win this thing.' So I take my hat off to Andy. He played good."

Jones acknowledged Dalton's more glaring miscues, a lost fumble and interception on successive drives earlier in the fourth quarter, but he thought the quarterback rallied well.

"To you guys who keep criticizing him, I know you're going to say something, but he answered," Jones said. "He went back and won the game."
videoCINCINNATI -- Yes, the Cincinnati Bengals are now 4-2-1 and have a measure of momentum thanks in large part to quarterback Andy Dalton's 1-yard sneak into the end zone entering the game's final minute.

But they very easily could be 3-3-1 had it not been for a penalty that at least one Bengal considered "a great call."

With 32 seconds left on the game clock -- 25 seconds after Dalton fell forward for what would be the game-winning score -- Ravens receiver Steve Smith and Bengals safety George Iloka made contact near Cincinnati's sideline as a long pass from Joe Flacco closed in on Smith's hands.

After getting separation from Iloka, Smith jumped and caught the pass before sprinting away from desperate Bengals tackle attempts, and into the end zone. In lightning-quick fashion, he had just answered the Bengals' touchdown with one of his own. He propelled Baltimore forward with a go-ahead score that snatched the air out of Paul Brown Stadium. A mix of shock, fear, awe and anger started to fill the stands as fans let loose a chorus of boos.

They were interrupted.

There, sitting on the ground not far from Iloka was a late-thrown flag from the official closest to the play. He had seen why Smith was able to go up for the ball uncontested, even though Iloka was right there on him after dropping down from Cover 2 on Smith's vertical route.

"He had two hands on my chest. He knocked me off," Iloka said. "You can't do that. I was getting ready for a jump ball. I'm 6-3, about 220 [pounds]. I was like, 'There ain't no way he's going to out-jump me for the ball.' He knocked me off."

That's apparently what the referee saw as the smaller-in-stature Smith got free for the reception.

"Ultimately, you hope you don't allow plays like that to dictate the determination of a win or loss," Smith said. "So, it happens. I'm not disappointed, not upset, not frustrated, just exhausted and looking forward to the opportunity to play next week."

The Ravens go to Pittsburgh on Sunday night.

If Iloka were grading officials, it's safe to say he would be giving the one who threw the flag in question bonus points.

"You know how they do their grading sheets and grade the refs, they better give him a double-plus on that one," Iloka said. "That was a great call. It takes guts to make that call.

"You've got to jump straight up, is what we were told in the offseason. I can't prohibit the receiver from jumping for it and he can't prohibit me. That's what I felt, and that's what the ref felt, and he called it."

After the penalty, the Ravens were backed up to their own 10 on third-and-20. In four-down territory, they were unable to convert a first down on the next two plays and turned the ball over to the Bengals who had one kneel-down to preserve the 27-24 win.
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CINCINNATI -- Just before leaving Paul Brown Stadium late Sunday afternoon, Hue Jackson walked past a pair of reporters in a brightly lit stadium hallway.

"Sometimes, they aren't going to be pretty, are they?" the offensive coordinator asked rhetorically, referencing the Cincinnati Bengals' 27-24 victory over AFC North foe Baltimore.

The same could be said about his quarterback's day.

Andy Dalton didn't have the cleanest performance of his career Sunday. With a 21-for-28, 266-yard, two-rushing-touchdown performance, he was significantly better than he was in last Sunday's shutout at Indianapolis. But he still wasn't as sharp overall as he has been at other times this year. He took two sacks and was part of two turnovers when he forced the ball, making questionable decisions.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
AP Photo/Michael ConroyAndy Dalton made the right reads down the stretch against the Ravens.
When the game clock read 3:59 to go in the fourth quarter, though, none of that was important. At that time, he was in need of having a season-changing moment. The hour for Dalton to help justify his $115 million worth had arrived.

Down 24-20, he needed to take his offense 80 yards downfield for a touchdown.

As the Bengals readied for what appeared their final drive of the game, they needed him to simply manage the offense. The goal was to have a drive that ate the right amount of clock, but one that didn't drag rhythmically. With the Bengals having nearly the length of the field to travel, everyone in the stadium knew Dalton had to throw the ball.

After two incomplete passes started the drive, Dalton had given his doubters ammunition.

That's when Dalton turned to Mohamed Sanu.

On third-and-10, Dalton threw deep toward Sanu, who adjusted his route to confound safety Terrence Brooks. Instead of sprinting past Brooks on a go route, Sanu instead cut back inside as the ball came down a little short. Awkwardly jumping for it, Sanu caught the pass and collected a few more yards before getting wrestled down 53 yards downfield.

"I knew Andy would look my way, and I knew I had to make a big play," said Sanu, filling in for a third straight game for Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green.

What started as an ugly drive suddenly looked promising. When Greg Little three plays later caught a first-down pass that put the Bengals on Baltimore's 6-yard line, hope reached its zenith. Cincinnati's game and season was not lost yet.

With a clear understanding of the crossroads he and the Bengals encountered on the drive, Dalton four plays later put the offense on his shoulders. As the Bengals faced fourth-and-goal at the 1, he changed orders at the line. Doing so put the Ravens in "exactly the look we wanted to get," Dalton said.

At the snap, he dove for the end zone.

And made it.

His third successful sneak of the game might have turned the Bengals' season around. Had he been denied, the Bengals would have lost and fell to 3-3-1, denied a win a fourth straight game.

He was charged to not let that happen. He was charged to convert key third downs and to check to plays that would get the Bengals a score.

It wasn't Dalton's prettiest drive, nor his prettiest day, but this finish showed why the Bengals signed him to a massive extension this preseason.

They believe in him.
CINCINNATI -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 27-24 win over the Baltimore Ravens:
  • Jackson
    Jackson
    Putting pressure on the line: After an abysmal offensive performance last week at Indianapolis (12 rushes for 32 yards), Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson wanted to ensure his unit would be more physical Sunday against the Ravens. In the days leading up to the game, he raised the pressure on his offensive line. "Hue called us out all week and said this was going to be up to us," Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth told ESPN.com after the game. "He said we were going to win or lose the game based off of how physical we could be up front." The Bengals rushed for 111 yards on 34 carries and plowed behind the line on Andy Dalton's game-winning 1-yard quarterback sneak.
  • End drives with kicks: Head coach Marvin Lewis was notably more relieved during Sunday's postgame than he had been at any point all week. During his news conference, he shared the discussion he had with Dalton coming out of halftime. It was the same message he would have shared going into the Bengals' final drive had he spoken to Dalton: "[Former Ohio State coach] Jim Tressel told me this a long time ago: If each possession ends in your kick, you'll be in good shape. That's your job as a quarterback -- make your possession end in a kick."
  • Iloka defends penalty: As reporters huddled around him in the locker room after the win, safety George Iloka defended the offensive pass interference call that negated a potential Ravens touchdown on Baltimore's final drive of the game. "Why would I fall this way?" Iloka asked rhetorically as he stepped backward into his locker. "I was just getting ready for a jump ball, and I wasn't allowed to jump with whatever [receiver Steve Smith] did. It knocked me off." Before the flag was thrown, Smith got separation before catching the ball and finishing off an 80-yard touchdown reception with 32 seconds left. The flag pushed the Ravens back to their 10, two plays before a turnover on downs.
  • "No excuses": According to linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who spoke very briefly at his locker after the game, the motto of the day for the Bengals' defense was: "No excuses." "We played all together," he said. "There was no finger-pointing. Everybody was accountable." During the Bengals' three-game winless streak, some defenders had literally been seen pointing fingers at others who didn't fulfill certain responsibilities after key plays.

Rapid Reaction: Cincinnati Bengals

October, 26, 2014
Oct 26
4:06
PM ET

CINCINNATI -- A few thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 27-24 win over the Baltimore Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium:

What it means: More than anything, the Bengals' win shows that Andy Dalton may be a better quarterback than many want to give him credit for. With the fourth-year signal-caller leading a winning, 80-yard drive in the final three minutes, the Bengals walked away with a meaningful win after arguably their longest and most trying week this season. Dalton was the hero with his 1-yard touchdown dive with 57 seconds remaining, but he also was the hero for completing a pair of clutch third-down passes on the drive to receivers Mohamed Sanu and Greg Little. The big drive came after Dalton had thrown an interception and fumbled on the two previous series. With the win, the Bengals put their three consecutive winless weeks behind them. They're now 4-2-1.

Stock watch: One week after getting shut out, Cincinnati's offense was significantly better against the Ravens. Dalton was sharp Sunday, completing 21 passes for 266 yards on 28 attempts. He also converted his share of short-yardage plays, including a third down on a QB sneak on the third play of the game. That first-down pickup was the first of eight on third down.

Atkins is finally back: Geno Atkins looked like the player he was before tearing his ACL a year ago this coming Friday. In pass-rush situations, he was all over the Ravens' offensive line. He was aggressive, pushing past blocks and applying intense pressure on quarterback Joe Flacco. Some of Atkins' best pressures this season came in this game. He had a sack of Flacco to go along with his four tackles, two of which were for loss.

Game ball: There are two logical options to go with here, Dalton and Sanu. One could make a case for Sanu, considering how, without his 53-yard reception on a third-and-10, the Bengals wouldn't have even been in position for Dalton to score the winning touchdown just inside the final minute. We're going with Dalton here because he had the two touchdown runs and an efficient day from a passing standpoint.

What's next? The Bengals are back in action next Sunday when they host the Jaguars in the second game of this three-game home stretch. It'll be the first time Jacksonville has visited Cincinnati since 2008, when the Bengals won 21-19. The Jaguars lead the all-time season series 11-8, but the Bengals have won the past three meetings.

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