What I saw: Bengals scrimmage at Paul Brown Stadium.
Three things you need to know about the Bengals:
1. They’re hungrier than I’ve ever seen them. I’ve been in the Bengals locker room a number of times in the last three years, and something’s different this time around. To a man, they’re tired of the Andy Dalton questions after four straight years of one-and-done playoff appearances. They’ve owned these playoff failures as a product of the collective. Perhaps safety George Iloka said it best: “Our playoff losses have been team losses, not on one particular person. There’s no, I lost or he lost. We all lost… When we got to the playoffs, nobody took their game to the next level."
2. It’s obvious, after watching this team with a dominant Geno Atkins in 2013, and watching them with a ho-hum Geno Atkins still recovering from a torn ACL the following year, he is the straw that stirs the drink. If you were to make a list of the defensive players most valuable to their team’s fortunes in 2015, he would be No. 2, right behind JJ Watt. In 2013, Atkins made Michael Johnson look like an all-pro end worthy of a five-year, $43.75 million deal in Tampa that offseason. Johnson was released after one season and finds himself back in Atkins’ good company in the starting lineup. The sixth-year defensive tackle isn’t talking to the media in training camp, but the consensus is he’s back to his 2013 form.
3. Tyler Eifert may be the weapon that puts Dalton over the hump. He’s been more than just a safety valve for the quarterback, who seldom targeted Eifert’s predecessor, Jermaine Gresham. A first-round pick in 2013, Eifert’s been the star of Bengals camp after playing just one game a year ago, dislocating his elbow against the Ravens. A healthy Eifert means a reliable blocker who can be a safe outlet for Dalton, who is not above throwing dangerous lobs to a double-covered A.J. Green when no check downs present themselves.
Player I saw that I really liked: Rex Burkhead. The former sixth-round pick out of Nebraska had a big impact wherever he lined up in practice, whether in the backfield or the slot. He’s got a real mastery of the offense and a quick first step that translates to route-running and running off tackle. A career special-teamer, he flashed some offensive ability in last season’s playoff loss to Indianapolis, totaling 57 yards on just four touches.
Player on the roster that I forgot about: AJMcCarron. How could I forget about possibly the greatest college quarterback of all time? The three-time national champion and fifth-round pick in 2014 has a new attitude, and from the sounds of things, has conducted himself behind the scenes like a big league quarterback this training camp for the first time since his arrival in Cincy.
Five dot-dot-dot observations: I think the coaches like what they see from third-year running back Rex Burkhead, so much so that Burkhead could begin dipping into Gio Bernard allotment of reps behind Jeremy Hill… Second-year center Russell Bodine’s issues with accurately snapping the football have been an unwelcome storyline at camp, and haven’t waned late in August. Bodine himself chalks them up to an offseason technique tweak… Defensive end Michael Johnson is progressing as expected with a sprained MCL suffered in early August. There is little doubt about his availability for the season… Third-round rookie linebacker Paul Dawson has shown flashes of brilliance as a ballhawk in practice… Three years since the Bengals drafted cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick 17th overall out of Alabama, he looks more than ready to be a full-time starter.
What I’ll remember about Cincinnati: George Iloka, laying the wood on helpless Bengals teammates in a scrimmage low on both contact and adrenaline. Iloka is a known striker around the league and doesn't appear to let up too much when the targets share his locker room.
Gut feeling about the Bengals: I could see three playoff teams coming out of the AFC North again (last year, the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals all made it). I could also see the Nov. 1 and Dec. 13 meetings between the Bengals and the Steelers deciding who gets the wild card and who watches from home. My gut says the Bengals sweep that matchup, if anybody’s going to sweep it, but that’s a projection based on several players coming back from injury (Geno Atkins included). Prediction: 9-7.