Updated: 12-21-10, 7 a.m.
The Bengals 2010 draft class is turning out a lot better than the 2010 season.
First-rounder Jermaine Gresham has already set the Bengals rookie record for catches by a tight end.
Second-rounder Carlos Dunlap, a left end, has seven sacks in six games and is 1.5 away from Justin Smith's club rookie record of 8.5 set in 2001.
Third-rounder Jordan Shipley, a wide receiver, leads AFC rookies with 49 catches, one more than Gresham.
Fourth-rounder Geno Atkins, a regular on passing downs, has the second-most sacks of AFC rookie tackles with 2.5.
And now the other fourth-rounder Roddrick Muckelroy, a linebacker from Texas, has made his mark. He had just one snap from scrimmage Sunday but it was a doozy when he made the game-changing stop on third-and-one from the Bengals 5 on the first snap of the fourth quarter.
Playing the middle in the goal-line defense as he has the last couple of weeks, Muckelroy cooled off the hottest big back on the planet when he belted 250-pound Browns fullback Peyton Hillis up top to stop his momentum and Dhani Jones, moving over from the middle, went low to stone the 4.5-yards-per Hillis for no gain and force a field goal in the 19-17 win.
"I had no responsibilities; I was off at the snap," Muckelroy said. "I'm just supposed to go to the ball, no keys. Get the ball. The fullback was offset. When he stepped down, I was going into the A gap."
Muckelroy said he went off the backside of pulling left guard Eric Steinbach in his cameo appearance. He was more visible on special teams, where he had a tackle and forced a fumble that the Browns recovered. Muckelroy came into the game second to linebacker Dan Skuta with eight special-teams tackles.
It was supposed to be a Texas-sized showdown between tight friends and former Longhorn teammates now NFL rookies, Shipley and Browns quarterback Colt McCoy. But it was the eldest UT product, Bengals running back Cedric Benson, and the least heralded Longhorn rookie, Muckelroy, that made Sunday's biggest impact.
"He's done a good job all season for us on special teams," head coach Marvin Lewis said of Muckelroy. "He got slowed a little earlier on with ankle injuries and so forth. Every chance he gets, he practices hard every week and shows me he has the traits to be a good linebacker in the NFL."
Dunlap leads all NFL rookie ends with those seven sacks and trails only Lions tackle Ndamukong Suh's eight. Shipley is on pace for 673 yards, fifth best among Bengals rookie receivers.
"Guys are getting real productive playing time and opportunity, and they continue to make good use of it," Lewis said. "You've got to feel good about it all the way through. It's been a good thing. Jermaine, obviously, all season has played well. Carlos has earned opportunity and keeps getting better and better with it. Geno and Shipley, and Muckelroy makes a nice play yesterday. I think all these guys are getting opportunity and making the best of it."
FULL FORCE:For the first time since last season Sunday, the Bengals got heavy duty work out of a fullback when Chris Pressley took 30 of the 68 snaps in their season-high 188-yard rush effort. Ever since Fui Vakapuna was lost for the season with a shoulder injury in training camp, the Bengals opted to replace Jeremi Johnson with formations instead of a player and relied on tight ends for the rare lead blocking assignments that usually came on third-and-short.
But against Cleveland they pounded the 260-pound Pressley on the lead at any point, using more of the two-back set. And running back Cedric Benson noticed. Earlier in the season, the lack of a fullback didn't bother Benson. But he's convinced after his 150 yards.
"It's his approach to the game, his style of play," Benson said of Pressley. "He's a physical guy. He flies around, plays fast. It makes things clear. If there is going to be a guy back there, I'd rather it be a natural fullback as opposed to a tight end. A guy like him, he makes it real comfortable, real easy back there.
"In a sense, not having a fullback is kind of like saying we're not going to make a big effort in the run game this year. Early on I didn't see it as that."
After using Johnson in about 30 percent of the plays last season, the Bengals looked at a variety of fullbacks on the market after Vakapuna got hurt, but didn't think they'd fit. Tampa Bay began offering Pressley in a trade in the preseason, but at that point the Bengals preferred using the tight ends. When the Buccaneers cut Pressley back in October and he didn't get a shot on any active rosters, he signed to the Bengals practice squad Nov. 10 and was activated before the Pittsburgh game two weeks ago.
The Bengals signed Pressley out of Wisconsin as a free agent after the 2009 draft and his rise from crushing poverty out of New Jersey is one of the most riveting stories on the roster. It became one of the storylines of HBO's Hard Knocks, but he only made the practice squad and when Tampa Bay offered an active roster spot early last season he went to the Bucs.
Pressley thought he was going to get used in that Steelers game like he did on Sunday, but he got just six snaps and Benson got just eight carries. It all changed Sunday when the Bengals were successful right away running it.
"He plays with a lot of energy. He's your prototypical fullback in terms of his size," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "He did some good things. There is room for improvement, but he did some good things.
"It takes a little bit of heat off the tight ends. Certainly you don't have to put them in some of the positions because we had been playing them in the fullback position. It takes a little bit of work away from them, which is sometimes a good thing, where they don't have as much to prepare for. It gives you that ability if you want to pound it and run some lead plays, where you've got a little better chance to do that with a true fullback instead of doing it with a tight end that may or may not be built to do that."
Bratkowski says the Bengals were looking for a certain kind of player in the wake of Vakapuna's injury.
"You have to have the right one," he said. "We felt Chris had the ability to be that kind of fullback, so when we got him up and going it gave us a few more things we could do. ... Having had Chris here for the entire preseason last year, we knew what he could do and we saw him play in all those games and that was certainly in his favor."
After watching Pressley fly around, Benson thinks he fits his own smashmouth approach and that it helps solve the offense's identity crisis.
"You ask anybody on this offense, the guys up front, ask them what they want to do, and they want to run the ball," Benson said. "There is your identity right there. Your team is telling you what they want to do."
SLANTS AND SCREENS
» Lewis confirmed Monday that wide receiver Terrell Owens is out for the rest of the year with a knee injury, meaning Andre Caldwell most likely takes over the flanker position. After splitting snaps with Jerome Simpson at the X spot, Chad Ochocinco said his ankle is OK to play in the last two games. But he also said he probably needs another arthroscopic surgery to remove bone spurs in the offseason like he had in the '08 offseason.
Lewis dismissed a report over the weekend that the Bengals mulled deactivating Owens for the last three games because of his attitude and at least one other coach said it wasn't discussed.
» Look for running back Brian Leonard (ankle sprain) to have a difficult time getting back on the field this season.
» The one possible callup from the practice squad is wide receiver Shay Hodge.
» Bratkowski liked what wide receivers Andre Caldwell and Jerome Simpsondid playing for Owens and Ochocinco. It's the most Simpson has played in his three seasons and the reason he hasn't played is because of his assignment errors, not his talent. Bratkowski says it is improving and that he ran the right route when quarterback Carson Palmer tried to lead him in the corner of the end zone, but he didn't get it. Players were actually looking for defensive interference.
"It was close; couldn't tell on film," Bratkowski said. "The film didn't show a good picture of it, but at the time it certainly did. I know a number of guys on the field thought so.
"He ran the right route, it's just he got banged along the way. In the coverage they were playing, they were trying to disrupt the receiver and he got a little tied up so the timing was a little bit off. ... If he can consistently be where he needs to be, there's no reason he can't (be a good player). He's very talented. He's made progress, that's why he's playing. He's made some good progress. He really has. He's worked hard at it; he got his chance yesterday and did well."
What Caldwell and Simpson did blocking in the running game was the white elephant in the film room Monday. The Bengals haven't exactly been getting consistent blocking from their wide receivers. Or, as Bratkowski said, "These guys did it enthusiastically. That's their opportunity to get in the game. Their chance is here and they've been hearing how important it is to the run game. 'Well, it's my chance to get in and I want to show them.' (Simpson) did really well. Had a knockdown. He did it enthusiastically. He knew it was his chance to go in and do what he needs to be done."
» Palmer continues to make throws that convince the Bengals he has plenty left. Bratkowski pointed to one of his two 15-yard completions to Simpson despite an illegal contact call on the Browns. He said it was even better than the 20-yard bullet Palmer pumped over double coverage to Caldwell on the sideline that he unloaded just before he got cut in half from the back side and bailed the Bengals out of a second-and-20.
"Carson made even the second throw to Jerome when there was illegal contact," Bratkowski said. "Carson let that ball go in the middle of contact allowing him to get out there. As impressive as a throw (Sunday). It was a pretty clean look and he hoped he could get through the contact and made some touch on it. He saw exactly what was happening."