AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports"I'm not probably going to comment on other guys' players and stuff like that," John Harbaugh said of Vontaze Burfict (55). "He's a good player. He's a guy you definitely have to be aware of when you play against him."

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco cracked a wide grin and paused a second after being asked his opinion of Vontaze Burfict, the highly controversial Cincinnati Bengals linebacker.

"That's a tough thing to answer," Flacco said. "I try not to worry about all that stuff. I just want to go out there and play the game. For the most part, he's does that. But obviously, he's had his incidents. We'll see how it goes on Sunday. But I'm not going to worry about it."

From Baltimore coach John Harbaugh to his players, it became apparent Wednesday that the Ravens were going to let their history with Burfict speak for itself.

In the last meeting with Cincinnati (the 2015 season finale), Burfict blindsided Ravens tight end Maxx Williams with a helmet-to-helmet blow that knocked the rookie off his feet. The ball wasn't even coming in Williams' direction.

That hit led to a $50,000 fine and drew the attention of Ravens guard John Urschel, who tweeted a video of Burfict's shot.

Nearly a year later, Urschel declined to comment on Burfict. "I've got no opinion," Urschel said. "Business as usual."

That wasn't the Ravens' first run-in with Burfict. In October 2014, wide receiver Torrey Smith was hit late by Burfict after he was already shaken up from a collision with Adam Jones. Smith later called Burfict a "dirty" player.

No one on the Ravens' current team would go that far in describing Burfict.

"I'm not probably going to comment on other guys' players and stuff like that," Harbaugh said. "He's a good player. He's a guy you definitely have to be aware of when you play against him."

Will the Ravens talk about Burfict given the incidents that have occurred in the past?

"We do that on every player," Harbaugh said. "There's a scouting report on every single player."

That scouting report must be an extensive one. The NFL suspended Burfict for the first four games of the season for “repeated violations of safety-related rules” after he was penalized for a shoulder-to-helmet hit on Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown.

"If I was worried, I wouldn't play football," tight end Dennis Pitta said. "That's part of the game. I know he's got a reputation for some things, but I've never experienced it. We're worried about playing our best football, and as long as it's physical and in between the whistles, we're fine with it, and we expect it.”

Burfict apparently hasn't changed his ways since returning from his suspension. He was fined $75,000 for stomping on New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount after a touchdown on Oct. 16, and Burfict delivered a late shot Sunday on Robert Woods after the Buffalo Bills wide receiver was already on the ground with a knee injury.

"I respect him as a player," said Ravens fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who has had plenty of collisions with Burfict. "I don't get too involved in after-the-play kind of stuff. So he can say whatever he wants and I'm going to move on."

Would Juszczyk describe Burfict as a dirty player?

"I don't agree with some of the decisions he's made and some of the things he's done after the play," he said. "So I'll just leave it at that."

You can’t watch the Cincinnati Bengals without looking over your shoulder. They are Murphy’s Law in Halloween colors -- a franchise forever looking up at the bottom of the other shoe.

Which is why it’s easy to forget how good they are.

This is a Bengals team that has made the playoffs five years in a row -- something only the Patriots, Packers and Broncos can also claim. It is a team that didn’t lose last season until Week 10 -- that had a shot at the AFC’s top playoff seed until Week 16. In this decade, between the months of September and December, the Bengals have consistently been one of the best teams in the NFL.

So let’s give credit where it’s due. Sunday’s victory over the Jets in New Jersey was a big-time win by an AFC power. The list of things the Bengals overcame to start this season 1-0 is amazing.

First of all, with the possible exception of the Minnesota Vikings, no team in the NFL ended its 2015 season in more devastating fashion than the Bengals ended theirs. With a playoff victory over their hated rivals in their hands, they fumbled the ball away when all they had to do was run the clock out, then put the Steelers in field goal range with two personal-foul penalties in the final seconds. No loss in recent memory, by any team, was harder to stomach or explain.

Mike NugentBrad Penner/USA TODAY SportsMike Nugent drilled a 47-yard field goal with 54 seconds left to propel the Bengals to a win in their opener.

So they were coming off of that, for starters. They also were playing without star linebacker Vontaze Burfict, whose authorship of one of those penalties earned him a three-game suspension to start the season, and star tight end Tyler Eifert, who’s injured. They lost two significant wide receivers -- Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu -- as well as starting free safety Reggie Nelson in free agency. Their offensive coordinator left to coach the Browns.

Then the game itself started, and the Jets punched them right in the face. Five sacks in the first half by a swarming New York defensive front. The Jets took a 7-0 lead, intercepted a pass in Cincinnati territory and moved the ball to the point of first-and-goal on the 4. It was fixin' to get ugly in a hurry.

But the Bengals’ own defense held -- and blocked the field goal -- and one of the grittiest games of the day was on. Five lead changes, including a go-ahead Jets field goal with 3 minutes, 23 seconds left in the game. Seven sacks total of quarterback Andy Dalton. This was a game the Bengals could have lost any number of ways, for any number of reasons, and it would have felt very Bengals if they had.

Thing is, though, that’s not who the Bengals are. I mean, it’s who they are one day every January, sure. But for the vast majority of the time, since the year they drafted wide receiver A.J. Green in the first round and Dalton in the second, what the Bengals have been is one of the best teams in the AFC. They have built a team the way you’re supposed to build it – through the draft. They are able to replenish from within when they lose free agents, not having to use high picks on short-term needs but rather with an eye toward the future and keeping themselves competitive over the long haul.

It’s working. You can’t win playoff games if you don’t get to the playoffs, and the Bengals get to the playoffs every year. This is a team judged on a handful of its worst days, in a league in which playoff success has become the only thing that matters. That perception obscures who the Bengals really are. But on the road Sunday against a tough fellow contender in a game, that didn’t seem to be going their way for long stretches, they showed who they really are.

The Bengals could let you down in January again. And if they do, that will be the story of their season. They know it, and they don’t think it’s unfair. But what you don’t have to wonder, if you’re a fan of this team, is whether it’s capable of getting to those January games. At this point you kind of expect the Bengals to be in the playoffs. And how many teams would trade places with them on that?

One of the NFL's longest active playoff streaks will continue this season when the Cincinnati Bengals earn a franchise-record sixth straight postseason berth. Will they finally win a playoff game? That question is tough to answer. Back in April, we predicted the Bengals to finish 11-5. Can that still happen? That's one question we can answer by taking the following game-by-game look:

Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 11 at New York Jets, 1 p.m. ET

Cincinnati's journey begins the same place it has every opening weekend since 2009 -- on the road. Those road openers haven't gone too well, either, as the Bengals have posted a 3-4 record. Two of those wins have come the past two seasons, though. Though the Bengals are more talented than the Jets on paper, they will have to contend with an extra element during this trip: emotion. This game comes on the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The entire region will be eager for a Jets win. With key Bengals like Tyler Eifert possibly missing the opener because of injury, MetLife Stadium's added energy could play a factor for the Jets. Record: 0-1

Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 18 at Pittsburgh Steelers, 1 p.m. ET

In another game that will be defined by emotion, the Bengals visit the Steel City for the first time since last season's Week 8 win against Pittsburgh. From bars in both cities, to TVs of casual football fans around the country, to the monitors inside the league offices, many eyes will be on this game. Viewers will be anticipating an intense game because of recent history. The past seven games between these teams have been among the ugliest this rivalry has seen. With both teams vying once again for the AFC North crown, more of the same could be coming -- even without Vontaze Burfict. Record: 0-2

Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 25 vs. Denver Broncos, 1 p.m. ET

The schedule-makers really did the Bengals little favors at the start of this schedule. After back-to-back road games, the Bengals come home to host the reigning Super Bowl champions. Sure, the Broncos might have some offensive uncertainty as they usher in a new quarterbacking era, but they also bring to Cincinnati a defense that still features Super Bowl MVP Von Miller. But fed up with an 0-2 start, the Bengals will ride their own fans' energy and get the win. Record: 1-2

Week 4: Thursday, Sept. 29 vs. Miami Dolphins, 8:25 p.m. ET

Now, things get interesting. With a chance to improve to 2-2, the Bengals welcome Burfict back to the lineup after the linebacker missed three games because of a suspension for the aggressive nature of his play. Thus, the theme of the season, "emotion," returns. In front of his energetic home crowd, and on the big stage of a nationally televised game, Burfict will assert his game-changing dominance. Remember, before the craziness at the end of last season's playoff game against Pittsburgh, he had an interception that put the Bengals less than two minutes from icing a victory. Record: 2-2

Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 9 at Dallas Cowboys, 4:25 p.m. ET

The potential for a hiccup looms here, but it won't happen. By this point, the preseason health concerns Cincinnati had should have completely faded. If the combination of Eifert, tight end Tyler Kroft and cornerback Darqueze Dennard aren't all healthy by Week 1, they certainly ought to be by this point. That means on offense and defense, the Bengals will be back in the rhythm they had hoped to establish during the preseason. Record: 3-2

Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 16 at New England Patriots, 1 p.m. ET

All the momentum the Bengals were building comes to a screeching halt in Week 6 when they visit Tom Brady's Patriots. Once again, the word of the season, "emotion," should play a role. Much the way Burfict's return ought to engender a positive response from Bengals fans in Week 4, the same ought to happen in Gillette Stadium when Brady plays in front of his fans for the first time since his four-game suspension for "Deflategate." Brady officially returns Oct. 9 at Cleveland, but this will be his first home game. Based on how he played against the Bengals in the "On to Cincinnati" game in 2014, Brady will be hard to stop. But Burfict won't make it easy in a close game. Record: 3-3

Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 23 vs. Cleveland Browns, 1 p.m. ET

Just like that, the most difficult stretch of the Bengals' season concludes. Granted, they will want back the losses against the Steelers and Patriots, but they will have their chances to pick up a couple of other big-game wins later in the season. This won't be one. Yes, they will win this game, but it won't be considered a big-game victory -- at least not yet. Perhaps in another year or two, Cleveland will have all the pieces to contend for a division title. For now, though, Hue Jackson's Paul Brown Stadium homecoming won't go well for his Browns. Record: 4-3

Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 30 vs. Washington Redskins (in London), 9:30 a.m. ET

After beating one former offensive coordinator in Week 7, the Bengals will do the same in Week 8 when they take on Jay Gruden's Washington team in the Bengals' first overseas trip. Multiple time changes (in addition to the time-zone adjustment, that also will be the weekend London changes from daylight savings time) could be difficult, but the Bengals will close out the first half of the season with a win. Record: 5-3

Week 9: Bye week

Week 10: Monday, Nov. 14 at New York Giants, 8:30 p.m. ET

The Bengals' first game of November brings them back to MetLife Stadium. They won't lose a second game there. Sure, Odell Beckham Jr. will probably put on show for the Monday night cameras, but his former LSU teammate Jeremy Hill figures to have a better third season than he did a second one. Close to his rookie-year form, Hill could be a difference-maker in his first regular-season game against his friend. Record: 6-3

Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 20 vs. Buffalo Bills, 1 p.m. ET

In what will be its first game at home in about a month, Cincinnati's defense will be tested by a Bills offense that has the type of balance that might make them an AFC dark horse in 2016. Tyrod Taylor has settled in at quarterback, and Sammy Watkins -- if healthy -- has proven his playmaking ability. The combination of LeSean McCoy and Reggie Bush could make Buffalo's backfield dangerous, too. Still, this Bengals defense will be up to the task. Record: 7-3

Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 27 at Baltimore Ravens, 1 p.m. ET

Of late, the Bengals have felt at home at M&T Bank Stadium, walking away with wins in 2014 and 2015. A.J. Green was the hero in both, and he even had a key touchdown reception to send the Bengals to overtime in their last loss at Baltimore. With the Bengals fully in sync at this stage of the season, expect more of the same -- not only from Green but those around him, too. The winning streak is now at five. Record: 8-3

Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 4 vs. Philadelphia Eagles, 1 p.m. ET

Playing in only their second home game since the middle of October, the Bengals will want their fans to experience a taste of what's made them roll through the middle of the season. Under first-year head coach Doug Pederson, the Eagles' offense will struggle to handle Cincinnati's imposing defensive line. Record: 9-3

Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 11 at Cleveland Browns, 1 p.m. ET

At this point, it's a foregone conclusion that the Bengals are headed back to the playoffs. Sure, they might not clinch their sixth straight postseason berth in this game, but a likely win against the still-being-reinvented Browns will at least put them on the brink. Record: 10-3

Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 18 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, 8:30 p.m. ET

Seven straight wins, back home, hosting the rival Steelers, Burfict will be playing ... why exactly would we think the Bengals will lose this game? Because it's December and they're playing Pittsburgh. Just about anything and everything that you could think of has gone against the Bengals in this matchup during December games the past few seasons. The Bengals haven't beaten the Steelers after Dec. 1 since 2012. Before that, the series' four previous December meetings all ended in Bengals losses. Expect more of the same. Record: 10-4

Week 16: Saturday, Dec. 24 at Houston Texans, 8:25 p.m. ET

Let's assume the Bengals didn't clinch the playoff berth with the win against the Browns in Week 14. They could be in the position here of either needing to beat Houston to get into the postseason, or requiring help from other teams to do so. It wouldn't be surprising if the Bengals' next win helps them not only get into the playoffs but clinch a division title, too, tie-breaking scenarios aside. Will this be a Christmas to remember for the Bengals? Much like Pittsburgh and December, Houston on the road has its haunts, too. Sure, the Bengals had an NRG Stadium win in 2014, but they lost their previous three games in that building. Record: 10-5

Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 1 vs. Baltimore Ravens, 1 p.m. ET

Two losses to the Steelers, an 0-2 start and still the Bengals will be playoff-bound for a sixth straight season, and AFC North champs for a second straight. It all happens when they beat Baltimore to close out the season. Record: 11-5

DETROIT -- One drive after Detroit Lions receiver Marvin Jones torched the Cincinnati Bengals secondary early in Thursday night's preseason game, he took a hard shove in the back from a player he used to battle regularly in practices: Adam Jones.

As violent as the shove might have been, it barely bugged Marvin Jones.

Marvin Jones
Raj Mehta/USA TODAY Sports"It was just more fun than anything, just looking across the line and seeing all my brothers," Marvin Jones said of facing his former Bengals teammates in Detroit.

From the moment he went sprawling into the sideline filled with players who were once his locker neighbors, the wideout knew there wasn't much about the push he needed to take personally. He viewed it more or less as a friendly bump from an old friend who just so happens to be one of the NFL's most ardent trash-talkers and aggressive defenders.

"He got a good little shot on me," Marvin Jones said, flashing the same grin he had throughout the four-year stay in Cincinnati that kicked off his career. "And hey, I respect him for that. That's him, you know what I'm saying? But we got up and we talked and started talking at each other and laughing and stuff like that."

Adam Jones' shove worked. It resulted in an incomplete pass.

Had Marvin Jones caught that particular ball in bounds at the Bengals 11, it might have set up a second consecutive scoring opportunity for the Lions. Instead, the third-down incompletion led to a punt, and played a role in the Bengals' starting defense limiting Detroit's scoring chances early in the game.

"He said, 'I seen you make that same catch on the sideline last week, so I had to hit you,'" Marvin Jones said.

On the previous Lions series, Marvin Jones tore up the Bengals with receptions on chunk passes of 32 and 19 yards. He added a 5-yard reception in the red zone before Cincinnati's front seven forced Detroit into kicking a field goal. The lack of red-zone scoring was something the receiver later lamented while Bengals defenders celebrated.

By the time his night ended early in the second quarter, Marvin Jones had caught four passes for 65 yards.

The 2012 Bengals draft pick who signed with the Lions as a free agent in March was glad to face his former teammates for the first time in his career. He admitted, though, the emotions might have been slightly higher had there been more on the line in this game.

"It was just more fun than anything, just looking across the line and seeing all my brothers," Marvin Jones said. "Had it been a regular-season game it would have probably meant more, but since it wasn't, I was just happy to see them. Happy to see them and happy to go against them."

CINCINNATI -- The events of March 9 continue to shape the Cincinnati Bengals' offense.

It was that day when former Bengals receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu elected to hit free agency, leaving behind a pair of large holes in one of the Bengals' more stable position groups.

Some five months later, their spots are still in the process of being filled. On Thursday night, when the Bengals visit Jones and his new team, the Detroit Lions, the Bengals could take a large step toward regaining some semblance of their old pass-catching stability.

Rookies Tyler Boyd, Cody Core and Alex Erickson will be part of that process as they look to build upon strong performances in last Friday's preseason opener.

"They've established that they have playmaking ability ... for one game," Bengals receivers coach James Urban said. "But I want to see them take the coaching correction points from Zamp [offensive coordinator Ken Zampese] and from myself and show that, 'I got it.' Because that's the only way you can shorten the learning curve, to improve."

Aaron Doster/USA TODAY SportsTyler Boyd makes an over-the-shoulder grab that set up a touchdown in the Bengals' preseason opener.

The Bengals' push to replace Jones hit a snag these past couple of weeks following an injury to veteran free-agency acquisition Brandon LaFell. A pending decision on the seventh-year receiver's part could complicate the Bengals' push to get past Jones and Sanu. Soon, LaFell will have to decide between undergoing surgery to fix a torn ligament in his right hand or trying to spend the season playing through the injury.

If he plays through the injury, it will be the second season in a row in which LaFell wasn't playing fully healthy. Last season, while overcoming an ankle injury, he had a noted drop-off in production at New England. After setting a career-high in 2014 in receiving yards (953), his total plummeted to the second-lowest point of his career. After catching a career-high seven touchdowns in 2014, he had none in 2015. His drops spiked, too, to career-high six.

Beyond LaFell's injury concerns, though, the Bengals are feeling good about how their youngest receivers are progressing.

"They were right where I would hope they would be at this point, having played one game against a real opponent in a real setting and all those things," Urban said. "They're right where they should be. We just need to accelerate it because we're going to count on that."

One of the more encouraging takeaways Urban had from last Friday's opener against the Vikings was an in-game adjustment Boyd made to come down with a spectacular second-quarter catch that led to a touchdown. Earlier in the game, Urban didn't like how Boyd allowed a cornerback covering him to ease him into the sideline and off a go-route pattern. Because Boyd had drifted a couple of steps wide, he wasn't quite where he needed to be when quarterback AJ McCarron dropped a deep ball along the sideline that ultimately fell incomplete.

But as halftime approached, the Bengals called for a similar route from Boyd, and that time he was there. With a sliding, over-the-shoulder snag, Boyd's 40-yard haul from McCarron put the Bengals in goal-line territory ahead of Erickson's 3-yard touchdown catch.

"Within a game [Boyd] was able to say, 'Doggone it, I didn't use the right technique, I did exactly what I said we shouldn't do,' and then the next time he runs it, he runs it with the right technique and we get the good results," Urban said.

The Bengals want more results like that from their rookie receivers Thursday when they greet Jones for the first time since his departure.

AP Photo/John MinchilloBengals rookie defensive tackle Andrew Billings could be lost for the season following knee surgery Monday morning, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

CINCINNATI -- At this rate, the people here are really wishing the NFL would cancel the rest of the preseason.

From an injury standpoint, it's been a rough training camp for the Cincinnati Bengals. Months after learning tight end Tyler Eifert might miss a couple of games at the start of the regular season while he rehabs from an ankle surgery suffered in the Pro Bowl, the Bengals watched his backup, Tyler Kroft, go down with a knee problem that could keep him out until the regular season begins.

Just one day before Kroft found himself in crutches, cornerbacks William Jackson III and Darqueze Dennard also suffered injuries, with Jackson's -- a possibly season-ending chest issue -- being by far the more serious of the two.

Now, two weeks later, ESPN's Adam Schefter is reporting the Bengals have discovered that defensive tackle Andrew Billings, a highly touted rookie like Jackson, could be done for the season following knee surgery Monday morning. Billings, a fourth-round pick from Baylor, was hurt during a routine pass-blocking drill in the middle of last Wednesday's joint practice with the Vikings. According to Schefter, the surgery was to repair a torn meniscus.

It certainly isn't the news the Bengals needed to hear following the earlier onslaught of injuries, but if there's a silver lining to it, it's this: Billings' absence will open up opportunities for a couple others.

Sure, the phrase "next man up" is cliche, but it's the Bengals' way. Which means it's time to keep an eye on young defensive tackles Marcus Hardison and DeShawn Williams, a pair of second-year players who had Bengals camp buzzing as rookies last year.

In large part because of his size (6-foot-1, 325 pounds), strength (in high school he squatted more than 800 pounds) and his pre-draft first-round projection, Billings had seemingly earned a spot in the Bengals' interior line rotations before he even set foot on a practice field. When he did participate in minicamp and organized team activities in the spring, his solid play confirmed that as long as he showed steady improvement, he deserved to be on the field fairly regularly.

That meant expectations were high that he would play a contributing role on the Bengals' defensive line, albeit in secondary and tertiary ways. Geno Atkins and Domata Peko, the veterans who have been playing side-by-side since Atkins was drafted in 2010, still were going to be the Bengals' starting tackles. But in certain situations, Billings probably would have relieved one of them as Cincinnati tried to keep it's line fresh.

Although they only played three snaps in Friday's preseason opener against the Vikings, Atkins and Peko showed just how dominant the Bengals' starting line could be this season. On the unit's very first play, Atkins pushed Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater backwards 10 yards before a Bridgewater stiff-arm prevented him from recording a sack. One play later, Atkins got the sack. A play after that, good push from the Bengals' interior line helped ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson collapse pressure on Bridgewater before he rushed a throw that fell incomplete.

Though Hardison might not have had the sacks or other tangible numbers to show it, he still was generating his share of pressure in Friday's game. He was a constant backfield presence.

Williams has been the same way the past two years, too, despite the fact depth at the position forced him onto the practice squad nearly all last season.

But with Billings now out, he has a stronger chance at having a roster spot this year.

CINCINNATI -- For the past week of Cincinnati Bengals training camp, I've had the following thought:

Alex Erickson, an undrafted rookie signed this May out of Wisconsin, could be the stiffest competition fellow Bengals receiver Mario Alford has to make the team. Why? Because although their speed is slightly different, they have a similar general make-up as highly-elusive, dual-threat receiving punt returners.

Oh, and both are on the bubble, fighting hard for one of the team's final 53 spots.

Alex EricksonAP Photo/Frank VictoresAlex Erickson (12) celebrates with Cody Core after scoring a touchdown in the first half.

It's an observation that hasn't been made this preseason, and one I publicized as Erickson celebrated his 80-yard punt return touchdown in the fourth quarter of Friday's preseason opener against the Minnesota Vikings. Had the Bengals' fourth-team offense converted a two-point conversion that immediately followed the score, Cincinnati might have won. Instead it lost, 17-16.

Don't get me wrong, this isn't to denigrate Alford's game and the way he has performed this summer (he had a 14-yard catch, a 9-yard punt return and a 30-yard kick return Friday). The 2015 seventh-round pick with sub-4.3 40 speed has flashed at times this preseason, but he has yet to consistently make plays the way Erickson has. In practices, you don't often see Erickson drop passes or come up just short of a potentially spectacular grab or slow down at the end of a route. He practically catches anything thrown near him.

The same can't fully be said of Alford, although when he has come down with a jaw-dropping grab, you can't help but rub your eyes, wondering how he made the snag.

Get this. The preseason is about two things: competition and taking advantage of opportunities. Erickson raised the stakes for Alford and other fringe Bengals receivers when he returned the punt for a touchdown and scored on an earlier 3-yard touchdown pass.

"That's what they brought us here for, just to compete," said second-round pick Tyler Boyd, whose spot on the roster is all but set in stone. "If you're afraid to compete at the highest level against all the greatest guys at this level, then you shouldn't be here. We love competing against the top-notch guys.

"At the end of the day, we're all competing as we try to accomplish one thing, and that's (earning) a position. But at the same time, we're going to help each other and learn and make it through the process."

Erickson has been learning the punt-return aspect of his game this preseason from veteran Adam Jones, one of the NFL's more fearless return specialists.

As Erickson returned to the sideline to celebrate his special teams score, Jones was one of the Bengals vets who greeted him.

"He just said 'great job.' He said, 'I knew you were going to have a chance when that guy drove the punt back,'" Erickson said. "Adam's been doing this for a long time. He's one of the best in the game. Watching him every single day, it helps to see how he works and how he makes guys miss and the angles he uses to set guys up, to set the blocks up. I've learned a lot just from watching him every single day."

After avoiding one tackle and then breaking a couple of other attempts, Erickson wiggled through a tight alley before breaking up the sideline and outrunning the Vikings' coverage team. Much of his return was improvised, but it still followed Jones' simplest advice: "Catching [the ball] with your feet in the right position, get going north, make your cuts, but always go forward."

Forward is exactly where Erickson's stock is going.

CINCINNATI -- Jan. 9, 2016, has officially been buried.

Cincinnati Bengals fans will recall that was the night their postseason dreams were dashed for a fifth straight year, this time in heartbreaking fashion. A self-inflicted end-of-game collapse sent the Bengals to another wild-card loss and prompted their head coach to adopt a two-word mantra once April rolled around: "Bury it."

Well, a new year began at Paul Brown Stadium on Friday night, as the Bengals looked to outdo their 2015 campaign, which culminated with a 12-4 record and a division championship. Andy Dalton, the quarterback whose last season ended on this field with a Week 14 thumb injury, was back in action, and he looked strong in limited action.

But so did some of his youngest receivers, providing a measure of optimism in the 17-16 preseason-opening loss to the Minnesota Vikings:

Aaron Doster/USA TODAY SportsTyler Boyd makes an over-the-shoulder grab during the Bengals' loss Friday, beating Minnesota's Jabari Price for 40 yards.

QB depth chart: Dalton looked sharp early, connecting on his first four passing attempts -- all of which went to A.J. Green and Brandon Tate. He finished 4-of-5 for 32 yards. First-off-the-bench backup AJ McCarron picked up where he left off last season, throwing a touchdown pass. He dropped a perfect back-shoulder fade to rookie receiver Tyler Boyd for 40 yards to help set up a 3-yard touchdown pass to undrafted rookie Alex Erickson two plays later. McCarron, who relieved Dalton in parts of the Bengals' last five games of 2015, finished Friday's game 11 of 16 for 125 yards and the touchdown. Keith Wenning and Joe Licata had their share of action as third- and fourth-teamers. This depth chart isn't changing.

Maybe that player could start: Boyd gave a subtle glimpse at the myriad ways the Bengals can use him. He lined up as a punt returner and got work both in the slot and at one of the boundary receiver positions. The pregame scratch of veteran Brandon LaFell allowed Boyd to play even longer, and he took full advantage of the extra work. Boyd's 40-yard first-half reception from McCarron came as he broke into a well-timed slide. The over-the-shoulder haul put the Bengals in goal-line territory and was clearly the team's play of the game. Maybe Cincinnati is getting closer to identifying a receiver to line up opposite of Green.

Who got hurt? There were no announced injuries, but running back Jeremy Hill was seen leaving the game favoring his left arm during the first quarter. He didn't return.

A surprise player who impressed: Three times on McCarron's first drive behind center, the Bengals found themselves in third-and-1 situations. They converted all three times. The conversions contributed to the drive lasting 22 plays and 12:24. At the end of it, the Bengals stalled out on Minnesota's 4, failing to convert on fourth down. The star of that series, though, was fullback Jeff Luc, who impressed by opening up holes for his running backs on the short-yardage conversions. After whiffing on a block on his first third-and-short, Luc pushed back defenders on the next two third-and-short snaps. Remember, this was the first time Luc had ever played fullback in a game. A two-way player in high school, he played tight end before getting recruited as a linebacker. Until this spring, the second-year player had been exclusively a linebacker since his freshman year at Florida State.

Surprise player 1A: Let's add undrafted rookie Erickson to that list, as well. With 2:45 remaining in the game, the receiver/punt returner broke a couple of tackles and used a series of quick cuts to get free for an 80-yard punt return that resulted in a touchdown.

When it was starters vs. starters, the Bengals looked ... Dominant on defense, and OK on offense. Dalton's unit moved the ball well on its first couple of plays but stalled when Dalton's lone incompletion went wide, leading to a field goal attempt. The drive was capped by a 48-yard miss by Mike Nugent. Minutes later, though, the Bengals' first-team defense stood tall, turning back Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater & Co. on three straight plays before a punt. (More on what that starting defensive unit did below.)

One reason to be concerned: You might want to be concerned, Bengals fans, with the way the Bengals weren't able to capitalize on two early-game scoring opportunities. Nugent's miss was a little problematic, as was the failed fourth-down conversion that the offense had on McCarron's first series. Between the miss and the failed conversion attempt, that might have been 10 points the Bengals left off the scoreboard.

Geno Atkins is still a bad man: Yes, yes he is. The Pro Bowl defensive tackle appears to be already building upon an impressive 2015 season that saw him record 11 sacks. On just three plays on Friday night, he very nearly had two. Atkins' very first play of the game featured him chasing Bridgewater about 10 yards into the backfield. The only thing that saved Bridgewater from going down was a last-second stiff-arm that denied Atkins the wrap-up tackle. One play later, though, Atkins got his sack. A play after that, ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson converged to force a rushed incomplete pass.

Cody Core turns heads too: While Boyd might start convincing the Bengals he can start, another rookie stated a strong case for being part of the Bengals' receiving rotation. Core, the sixth-round pickup from Mississippi, was a go-to weapon of McCarron's, as well. Core caught three passes for 33 yards.

(Read full post)

CINCINNATI -- Marvin Lewis has never been to an induction ceremony at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

He'll make it there for this one, though.

Kevin GreeneAP Photo/Hans Deryk, FileKevin Greene, whom the Bengals' Marvin Lewis coached as an assistant in Pittsburgh in 1993-95, is set to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.

While former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre is the big-ticket inductee at this weekend's Hall of Fame celebration in Canton, Ohio, former Rams, Steelers, Panthers and 49ers linebacker Kevin Greene is another inductee who will have northeast Ohio buzzing Saturday night. As Greene's position coach for three seasons in Pittsburgh, Lewis got to know the intimidating defender well.

"Just being with Kevin all the time and just his struggle to get in and how much it meant for him to get in, I'm really excited to be able to go," Lewis said Friday.

Lewis coached linebackers in Pittsburgh from 1992-95 before serving as an assistant at Baltimore and Washington. He became the Cincinnati Bengals' head coach in 2003.

Greene, who played 15 NFL seasons, was with the Steelers from 1993-95. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he had at least 10 sacks in 10 of his 15 seasons. That's the third-most seasons with that many sacks in NFL history.

This will be Lewis' first induction ceremony after he was unable to make previous trips to see Bill Polian, Rod Woodson and Darrell Green, past Hall of Fame inductees who invited him. The Bengals coach will spend the early part of Saturday afternoon in Cincinnati leading a simulated game before boarding a private plane for Canton. He'll be back in time for Sunday's practice.

CINCINNATI -- Why was Vontaze Burfict placed on the non-football injury list at the start of Cincinnati Bengals training camp?

The linebacker revealed the answer Friday evening.

Vontaze BurfictColey Harvey/ESPN.comVontaze Burfict talks with ESPN's Bob Holtzman following Bengals training-camp practice Friday.

In a post-practice interview with ESPN's Bob Holtzman, Burfict said he had a "minor" foot injury, sustained during individual workouts just before the start of the Bengals' camp.

"Just planting," Burfict said when asked what happened. "My foot got stuck in the grass. It's a little swollen. Other than that, I feel pretty good. I'm happy to be out here with my teammates."

Burfict was placed on the Bengals' active/NFI list for the first five days of camp. He came off it Thursday when he cleared his conditioning tests.

"I feel 100 percent," Burfict said. "The team did a good job of holding me off. I got injured on the month that we had off. It was a minor injury, but they just told me we don't need you to rush back. Just rehab it and get in shape. I came in 3 pounds overweight, so they were like, 'You might as well spend three days losing those pounds.' So it worked out good and I feel good today."

Burfict was also asked what his plans were for the start of the regular season, considering the linebacker is facing a three-game suspension at its outset, and coach Marvin Lewis' pre-camp proclamation that he wouldn't be playing him in preseason games. Burfict isn't planning on missing a beat when his suspension ends.

"When that time comes, then I'll have to deal with it," Burfict said. "But Marvin's going to have a little program for me away from the stadium, working out and making sure I'm still conditioning so when it comes to the week before, I'm still good."

Burfict's regular-season debut should come during the Bengals' Week 4 Thursday night home game against the Dolphins.

CINCINNATI -- Try asking the Cincinnati Bengals these days about the end of January's playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers and you'll be met with the same stock answer.

That was last year, they'll say. We're moving on, they often add.

Few Bengals probably want to believe that, like running back Jeremy Hill, the player whose lost fumble just after the two-minute warning gave the Steelers the possession they needed for a come-from-behind victory in the closing seconds.

But with the turnover now buried deep in the recesses of his mind -- or so he says -- a seemingly much more confident Hill is coming into his third season with a primary focus: being a trusted leader on his team.

So far this preseason, he and his position coach believe he's achieved that goal.

"I feel like a veteran," Hill said. "Offensively, I know everything we're doing. I know what my coaches want; I know everything. It's just going out there with my energy and effort and leading by example."

Running backs coach Kyle Caskey wasn't too concerned about the fumble weighing too heavily on Hill's psyche this offseason. But Caskey spent the past seven months getting his embattled young rusher to realize he needed to reassert his ownership of the team. Despite the finger-pointing that went on outside the locker room, Caskey needed Hill to know that in this new season, Hill needed to command the respect of his teammates inside it.

Jeremy HillAP Photo/Gary LandersBengals running back Jeremy Hill is showing maturity after a rough ending to his 2015 season.

Caskey believes Hill listened.

"He's attentive to everything. He helps out the young guys. He's getting with the older guys more to make sure they're all on the same page," Caskey said. "He's forcing other guys to make sure they're doing the right thing at all times.

"It's a lot to do with just growing up as a player. He's two years in now, and he's had ups and downs, and he's learned what it takes to stay on the upside more than the downside. He knows with these older guys like [Andrew] Whitworth and then with Brandon LaFell coming in -- he's known him for a long time -- he's really taken the example that these guys show."

It doesn't take a coach's eyes to see that some of that growth has trickled onto the playing field, too. Once the pads came on earlier this week, Hill has been running differently than what he showed through most of last season. He's running with more certainty, effortlessly hitting holes with the type of confidence he exuded his rookie year, when he averaged 5.1 yards per carry. Last season he averaged just 3.6 yards per rush. Of course, the true test won't come until the real contact arrives in the season opener.

Hill could benefit this season from a few schematic tweaks that ought to simplify his duties on some plays. He also could be aided by the maturity that comes with growth from Year 2 to Year 3.

"With him, we just stress for him to press his tracks and make his reads," Caskey said. "It's not necessarily a patience thing as much as it is just, 'Run the play the way it's meant to be run and trust your blocking in front of you.' He's doing a really good job of growing within that part of the game."

Hill just wants to be more of a playmaker.

"Last year I was not dynamic at all. This year I need to be more dynamic," Hill said. "Not take more chances, but just be more dynamic and make more plays."

CINCINNATI -- Believe it or not, Vontaze Burfict's first day of a new football season is a lot like your kids' first day of school: full of nerves, butterflies and excitement.

"The first day out here I had the little jitterbugs," the Cincinnati Bengals linebacker said late Thursday. "[But] I felt good and my injury feels good. Everyone else had three days ahead of me with pads and everything, so the first day I put pads on I felt a little heavy. But you just have to get used to it."

Vontaze BurfictAaron Doster/USA TODAY SportsVontaze Burfict admitted to a case of the nerves as he joined Bengals training camp for the first time Thursday.

Burfict was back in the Bengals' practice lineup after missing the start of training camp with an undisclosed injury that landed him on Cincinnati's active/non-football injury list just before camp started. He came off that list early Thursday.

Last month, coach Marvin Lewis said he has no plans to play Burfict in preseason games. Much of the coach’s reasoning stems from the fact that he believes he knows what Burfict can do on the field, and he also wants to keep Burfict as healthy as possible ahead of his looming three-game suspension.

Burfict will miss the first three games of the season due to his sometimes overly aggressive playing style. A hit to the head of Steelers receiver Antonio Brown in the Bengals' playoff loss to Pittsburgh in January was the tipping point for the league.

Lewis reiterated Thursday his desire to hold Burfict's contact to a minimum.

"I'm not looking for anything special out of Vontaze," Lewis said. "Just go out and practice and do his job. This is not an eye-opening day for Vontaze Burfict, so nothing special out of him. Just stay healthy."

Burfict estimated he was part of 23 plays in his first workout of the season, and was encouraged by how he played.

"Every time I practice, I practice at 110 percent like it's a game," Burfict said. "[Joint practices next week] against Minnesota and the practice against my teammates, those will be my game-time game reps."

Here are some other observations from the Bengals' latest practice:

  • In addition to the welcome sight of Burfict in shoulder pads, the Bengals had to be pleased to see tight end Tyler Eifert go through some conditioning and rehab exercises on a side field. Eifert is trying to return from a May ankle surgery in time for the start of the season. He was joined there by rehabbing receiver Jake Kumerow (hamstring) and linebacker Trevor Roach (hamstring). Tight end Matt Lengel (undisclosed) hasn't practiced all week.
  • Lewis said cornerback William Jackson III could return at some point this season after he undergoes surgery to reattach the pectoral muscle he tore in practice Monday. It's still a serious injury, and it could land the rookie on injured reserve, possibly with the designation to return.
  • Much of Thursday's practice was devoted to red zone and special-teams work. On special teams, the Bengals practiced standard kickoffs and squib kicks. In red zone territory, quarterback AJ McCarron had a tough time getting passes into the hands of his wideouts before finally connecting with A.J. Green on a touchdown Green was "penalized" for. Officials, in town to share the latest league rule changes with the Bengals, flagged Green when he punted the ball a short distance after his score. Just before that touchdown, a pair of McCarron passes into the end zone were dropped by rookie receivers Tyler Boyd and Rashaun Simonise. Another was tipped away by middle linebacker Rey Maualuga.

CINCINNATI -- Pay close attention to the Cincinnati Bengals' secondary when the second-team unit starts hitting the field in preseason games later this month.

At that time, second-year defender Josh Shaw will line up at safety in a game for the first time in his professional career. Since April, he's been making the switch to that position after spending his rookie year primarily lining up as a backup slot cornerback.

"It's growing on me, and it's fun," Shaw said. "You get to do a lot."

Josh ShawKen Blaze/USA TODAY SportsJosh Shaw, No. 26, said he likes the different responsibilities that come with playing safety. "You get to do so much. One play you may be blitzing, and the next play you may be covering," he said.

A lot like happening to be in the right spot when quarterback Andy Dalton threw a pass in the direction of a receiver who slipped out of his break. That occurred late in Monday's practice. As an errant pass traveled far from on-the-ground receiver Tyler Boyd, Shaw dove to his left to intercept it. After the pickoff, Shaw got up and ran several yards before getting forced out of bounds by Dalton and running back Jeremy Hill.

"You get to do so much [at safety]," Shaw said. "One play you may be blitzing, and the next play you may be covering. You may be in the post, you may be in the half. Sometimes it's hard for a quarterback to predict what you're doing. You can disguise a lot more than you can as a corner."

Shaw's interception was one of four turnovers the defense came away with Monday. Shortly after Shaw's interception, fellow second-year safety Derron Smith stripped H-back Ryan Hewitt following a pass and then scooped up the fumble for a return. Earlier in the practice, corner Dre Kirkpatrick and linebacker Marquis Flowers jumped in front of a pair of passes and sprinted away quickly for respective long returns.

Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther believed the defense's success stemmed from its ability to be more physical with the transition to a full-pads practice for the first time this training camp. The hitting and contact was certainly more intense than it had been the first three days of practice.

"You can jam the receivers, you can press them with a little bit of a tighter coverage, since, obviously, you can't press early on," Guenther said. "That had a lot to do with it. It's something we're really emphasizing, too. if we can continue to get interceptions and fumbles, it's going to help our cause."

The Bengals also believe Shaw's switch will help their cause. His ability to learn another position falls right in line with the Bengals' philosophy of cross-training defenders at multiple spots. Linebacker Jayson DiManche, for example, has appeared at rush end this summer, as well.

"It makes it easier because if you know what the next guy is doing, it makes it easier for you to put the puzzle together," Shaw said of learning a new position. "Then you're able to understand not just what you're doing, but why you're doing it, if that makes any sense. Because you know where everybody's supposed to be and how the defense is supposed to work."

Here are other observations from Monday's practice:

  • Bengals veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth was back at work after taking Sunday off. Cornerback Darqueze Dennard returned, too, after missing Sunday because of a funeral. His return was short-lived, though. Dennard left practice early with an ankle injury. Guenther said he'd be OK.
  • Rookie corner William Jackson III also left practice early with an unknown injury. He walked toward the locker room about 10 minutes before practice ended.
  • Jake Kumerow, Karlos Dansby, and Trevor Roach were non-participants all afternoon due to unspecified injuries. With Dansby out, the Bengals gave second-year linebacker P.J. Dawson and rookie Nick Vigil their share of reps.

CINCINNATI -- Here's the difference a year can make.

This time some 365 days ago, Tyler Kroft was a rookie tight end whose sole focus was learning the Cincinnati Bengals' expansive playbook. His head sometimes swimming, it was easy for self-doubt to creep into his psyche. He was just like most any other first-year player.

But now he's a changed man. On the personal side, he's become an engaged man. On the football side, he's become vastly more confident in his abilities and has settled into a spot where he can be an early-season difference-maker for the currently Tyler Eifert-less Bengals. As he enters his second season, Kroft is at ease.

"I know the playbook. I study it week in and week out to make sure I'm up to speed with everything," Kroft said. "Last year, the moment could get a little big sometimes, but you've just got to trust in yourself."

Trust in self doesn't come for young players without them being tested first. A series of late-year starts and appearances in place of Eifert last season helped Kroft have a better sense that he could contribute if called upon.

Kroft definitely will be tapped throughout this preseason as the Bengals navigate the next several weeks without Eifert, the standout pass-catching tight end who made to his first Pro Bowl last season. Hurt late in that game, Eifert said last week he didn't plan on playing in the all-star contest again if he could help it. His rehab from a surgery that was required to fix the injury may not be fully complete until just after the regular season begins.

"Everything's a little bit more natural this year," Kroft said. "I'm a lot more comfortable with the playbook, definitely. Once you get a pretty good grasp on the playbook, especially [compared to] at this point last year to this year, I feel way better."

Part of what has Kroft saying that stems from the reps he's gotten to take this spring and summer with starting quarterback Andy Dalton. The more time Kroft spends with the first-team unit, the more he feels like he's part of a group that could rely on his services for a game or two, depending upon how long Eifert's rehab takes.

"Everything is clicking a lot faster, and that enables us to play faster," Kroft said.

Here are some observations from a faster-paced third day of Bengals camp:

  • For the first time since January's playoff game, the Bengals on Sunday donned shoulder pads. They will be in full pads Monday, permitting them to do a measure of modified contact drills. Those will be the first such drills they've had this year.
  • Cornerback Darqueze Dennard was absent from the practice, excused due to a funeral he was attending. He's expected to be back Monday and participating fully in the workout. Starting offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth also didn't practice Sunday, taking an early veteran's off day. He was replaced on the line by second-year tackle Jake Fisher.
  • Two backup defenders left practice early. Linebacker Trevor Roach came out of uniform midway through practice, and stood on the sidelines with a towel around his neck and head. Defensive end Jack Gangwish was carted off the practice fields just before the final period of drills concluded.
  • Two rookies who left Saturday's practice early, Tyler Boyd and Cody Core, were back practicing Sunday.
  • This remains an important camp for fast receiver and punt returner Mario Alford. He didn't help himself much on special teams when he dropped a punt late in practice.