What We Learned from Cincinnati Bengals 'Hard Knocks' Episode 3
Tuesday night marked the third episode of HBO's Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Cincinnati Bengals, which means more looks into position battles, more preseason preparation and more intimate access to the daily life of NFL players.
Here's what we learned about the Bengals and their players this week.
If you missed the first showing, catch an encore presentation Wednesday at 11 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.
James Harrison's Acupuncture
Bengals linebacker James Harrison has made no secret of his disdain for the Hard Knocks cameras. In fact, in this episode he was filmed speaking to reporters including Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer explaining that he doesn't believe the crew "deserves" to have access to training camp because they aren't part of the team.
However, Harrison extended a little more trust by allowing the filming of his legendary acupuncture session. Anyone who is familiar with Harrison on social media knows how seriously he takes the procedure and this episode gave us an inside look at what he goes through.
Harrison said that he was introduced to acupuncture by his former Pittsburgh Steelers teammate James Farrior. His acupuncturist said that when Harrison first requested her services that he wanted to know who had the most needles—that would be running back Curtis Martin, with 232. Harrison first asked for 232, then returned requesting 300 needles.
The 300-needle treatment is Harrison's standard, and he gets it at least twice a week, something his former Steelers teammates couldn't handle when they tried it. As we saw in the episode, Harrison is in such great shape, he bends the needles as they go in. The mythology of Harrison continues—he's certainly proving why he's so intimidating on the field by what he does off of it.
It's Rookie Talent Show Time
One of the highlights of any season of Hard Knocks is when it's time for the rookie talent show, which requires the first-year players to put together skits and show off their talents for the amusement of the veterans and coaches.
While we were introduced to rookie Terrence Stephens last week and his singing skills, this week's exhibition of talent was more on the comedic side. Cornerback Onterio McCalebb served as the master of ceremonies for the event, which included the requisite coach mocking (done by Margus Hunt), a skit by Giovani Bernard (as Andrew Hawkins) and Tyrone Goard (as A.J. Green) demonstrating the differing importance of player injuries and a look-alike draft.
However, rookie receiver Roy Roundtree stole the show in his "A Day in the Life of Taylor Mays" performance, portraying the safety as the strange, special creature we've seen glimpses of during the series. As usual, the rookie show provided highly entertaining moments.
Injury Creates Opportunity at Strong Safety
Second-year player George Iloka made a breakthrough this summer and took hold of the team's starting strong safety position, one that was very much in flux last year with multiple players getting chances at the job.
However, just as Iloka took hold, a costly mistake put him on the sidelines. During a special teams drill, Iloka punched the helmet of rookie linebacker Jordan Campbell, breaking the third metatarsal bone in his right hand.
Iloka apologized to his coaches, including head coach Marvin Lewis, and noted that he learned that "if you're going to punch him, take his helmet off." The injury, however, paved the way for Taylor Mays to get the start in the Bengals' preseason Week 2 contest against the Tennessee Titans.
Much as in the past, Mays had very good plays mixed in with poor ones. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said that Mays "needs to relax a bit more" and looks "robotic" at times on the field, owed mainly to overthinking and trying to be perfect. Mays proved a serviceable fill-in for Iloka, but chances are Iloka wins the job back once his hand is healed.
A Closer Look a Defensive Coordinator Mike Zimmer
Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer got an extensive profile in episode three of Hard Knocks, and was portrayed as a consummate leader of men. His ability to connect with his players was on display, with erstwhile cornerback Adam Jones describing Zimmer as the "father [he] never had," and that he loves him for getting him back playing.
Zimmer explained that he especially enjoys taking so-called troubled players under his wing and providing them with direction and discipline and turning them into effective members of the roster. He cited linebacker Vontaze Burfict—a 2012 rookie who had first-round talent but went undrafted due to his bad on-field reputation—as someone he was especially tough on but who took to Zimmer's ways quickly.
Burfict led the defense in tackles last year, and Zimmer said that "what he's done is remarkable," adding that he has full believe in Burfict after the progress he's made in just one year. Zimmer gets nothing but the utmost respect of his players and fellow coaches; there's a strong case being built for Zimmer becoming a head coach in the NFL sooner than later.
Checking in on Giovani Bernard and Orson Charles
Two ongoing Hard Knocks storylines are the development of rookie running back Giovani Bernard and converted tight end Orson Charles, who is trying to become the team's starting fullback this year.
Bernard has proven an offensive asset as a runner and receiver, but he still needs to prove his worth as an every-down back by being an effective pass protector. As a smaller running back, the need for him to be "believable" as a blocker, according to offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, is imperative.
Bernard showed improvement as a blocker, especially as he was taken off of receiving duties in passing drills until he honed his technique. Charles, too, demonstrated his progress.
Charles was prone to holding linebacker Vontaze Burfict in drills, so Burfict said he would be inflicting hits on Charles until he stopped. He was also shown a technique, called "duck walk" by running backs coach Hue Jackson, to help demonstrate how to use power in his blocking.
It paid off—Charles acted as the lead blocker for a Bernard touchdown in the team's preseason win over the Tennessee Titans later on.
Jayson DiManche Fights for Roster Spot
It was noted in this episode of Hard Knocks that the Bengals had 12 linebackers in training camp but that only six are likely to make the roster. That put the focus on rookie linebacker Jayson DiManche, who went undrafted this year.
DiManche, whose last name means "Sunday" (so appropriate for a would-be NFL player), is athletically gifted but slightly overwhelmed by the speed of the professional game. He performed well in the team's Week 1 preseason win over the Atlanta Falcons after shaking his nerves, but he still needs to stand out enough to get one of the team's scant linebacker roster spots.
He showed his dedication on the practice field, asking any question he needed in order to improve his technique. However, in the second preseason game against the Tennessee Titans, DiManche looked winded and gave up a touchdown in coverage. He'll need to prove more consistent if he's going to last through the two rounds of major roster cuts that are approaching.
Bengals vs. Titans, Preseason Week 2
Training camp isn't all talent shows and practice-field position battles—there are games to be played as well. This episode of Hard Knocks featured the Bengals' Week 2 preseason meeting with the Tennessee Titans, their first home contest of the dress-rehearsal period.
There were certainly highlights for the Bengals in this game. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict was impressive in his ability to stop dangerous Titans running back Chris Johnson, and running back Giovani Bernard again looked sharp, notching his second touchdown in as many games.
Quarterback Andy Dalton saw a lot of pressure, owing mainly to starting offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth working his way back from offseason knee surgery. However, Dalton was helped by Bernard's running and later had two good completions to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, one going for a touchdown.
Backup passer John Skelton helped rookie tight end Tyler Eifert get his first catch of the preseason, but third-stringer Josh Johnson was a little more rough around the edges. Though he threw a good block for running back Dan Herron's touchdown, he also lost a snap that was luckily recovered by the Bengals and fumbled the ball away on a scramble to the end zone.
Fortunately, Johnson's missteps didn't cost the Bengals the win—they defeated the Titans, 27-19. However, Skelton might have gotten the edge in the battle for the backup quarterback job.
Aaron Maybin Released
This episode of Hard Knocks opened with free agent linebacker Aaron Maybin showing off his painting skills and the theme was revisited several times. However, artistic talent doesn't matter when there are 90 men on the roster and that number has to come down soon. Maybin needed to prove himself on the field in order to remain with the Bengals, no matter how interesting a person he is.
Maybin, who was drafted 11th overall by the Buffalo Bills in 2009, was released by the Bills and then the New York Jets. He joined the Bengals as a linebacker after playing defensive end for his previous teams, giving him a steeper learning curve on a team that is rife with defensive talent.
Maybin's biggest problem was limited playing time. Maybin saw only nine snaps in the team's two preseason contests. Once the Bengals realized he hadn't seen the field in their defeat of the Tennessee Titans, he was given time late in the fourth quarter, where he only struggled.
Maybin, who said earlier in the episode that "you'll never be able to create something that pleases everyone," was later released from the team, with the Bengals currently having four strong-side linebackers on the roster who can play in nickel defense.
Along with Maybin, the Bengals also released rookie wide receiver Tyrone Goard and cornerback Troy Stoudermire. They need to pare their roster down to 75 players after next week's preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys and then to 53 four days later, so the cuts were simply a necessary (albeit highly unpleasant) part of the game.
Catch an encore presentation of "Hard Knocks" tonight at 11 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.