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Episode 2 gets edgy


John Conner

There weren't as many gags and there weren't as many one-liners Tuesday night as Hard Knocks got a little more edgy in Episode 2: Back to the Games.

With the cameras trained on last week's trip to Atlanta that included the 34-10 victory over the Falcons, the lens zoomed in some of the roster battles. Particularly converted tight end Orson Charles trying to fend off veteran fullback John Conner and backup quarterbacks Josh Johnson and John Skelton trading touchdown passes.

The Charles-Conner storyline offered the two best scenes of the week. When Charles walked into running backs coach Hue Jackson's office before the trip, Jackson told him he couldn't keep putting him No. 1 unless he stepped up his game and that he needed to cut down on his mistakes and find his blocks.

Then when head coach Marvin Lewis told Jackson during the game to use Conner as the fullback in regular two-back sets, the next scene cut to Charles pleading with Jackson to leave him in and when that failed he went up to Conner and told him to let him know if he got tired.

The episode also showed why offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has been saying for months that Johnson is the leader in the backup QB derby because of his command of the language. While Skelton was caught tripping on some calls, Johnson was fluent.

But while Skelton was struggling in the huddle during practice, Johnson was misfiring from the pocket. Lewis voiced the dilemma when he observed the club was trying to catch one guy up with the offense while also trying to catch up the other with his accuracy.

Both played well in the game, making Skelton's conversation with a ref even more poignant. When an official asked him during a break in the action if he "had a shot to make the squad," Skelton admitted it was "probably 50-50 between Josh and myself. Josh did really good, earlier. We'll see."

The show reflected the breakneck pace of last week that began on the Paul Brown Stadium practice fields, fast-forwarded to the Falcons practice facility, cut to the preseason opener, and ended at close to 3 in the morning when the team pulled back into PBS with Lewis's voice intoning the Sept. 8 opener was a month away.

There was no coherent theme as the hour bounced around and about and it was superbly captured by NFL Films's effective use of time lapse photography.  

But the show did have its share of light moments, ranging from safety Taylor Mays's obsession with his girlfriend to the Bengals flying in rookie defensive end Margus Hunt's girlfriend from Dallas for a surprise visit to help make the football neophyte feel a little more at home.

And rookie nose tackle Terrence Stephens, who tried out for American Idol as a 16-year-old, got a standing ovation when Lewis called him to sing before a team meeting.

Stephens belted out "Superstar" impressively enough that by the end he had the usually-dour James Harrison up out of his chair pumping his fist.

But Stephens couldn't outshine ESPN superstar analyst Jon Gruden. During the production meeting before the game, the cameras caught Gruden entertaining the room with a story about he and brother Jay during college.

As Jon told it, Jay did nothing all summer except recline on the couch while Jon went running twice a day. After Jon insulted him over his lack of work, Jay challenged him to a race and easily beat him.

"I cried," Jon Gruden said.

But when it was Jay's turn to go into the meeting, it got serious pretty quickly after Jay zung a "nice glasses" at Jon. Jon wanted to know about the backup quarterbacks and Jay didn't pull any punches. It has ranged, he said, from both having their moments to if-something happens-to-Dalton-we're-in-trouble fears.

That's where the show was for most of the hour. The nitty-gritty.

The Vontaze Burfict-Steven Jackson scrum in Atlanta got some play, complete with Burfict later in his hotel room happily examining how he didn't back down.

There was some angst when defensive end DeQuin Evans got too uncomfortably close to quarterback Andy Dalton during practice when he crashed into him with left tackle Anthony Collins trying to stop him and the two got tangled up.

The irate Lewis jumped on Evans and when Evans said he was pushed into him, Lewis said it didn't matter. Shouldn't have been that close. Later, Lewis summed up camp through the eyes of a head coach while he was talking in his office to strength coach Chip Morton.

Guys aren't going to make the team based on what they do in practice, he said. They'll make the team in the preseason games.

The mikes also caught Lewis summing up the mentality of an NFL head coach when it comes to turnovers. On a snap late in the first half, a rush by Hunt and Evans sent Falcons backup quarterback Dominique Davis screaming out of the pocket. Davis threw it even though he was stepping out of bounds and his helmet just wriggled out of Hunt's grasp as he chucked it into the arms of Bengals cornerback Brandon Ghee.

As the sideline exulted and the press box of coaches exploded, Lewis reminded Dalton, "You know what I say about making a bad play worse?"

Then he said to quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese in the headsets, "Remind the quarterbacks, Kenny. Never do that (bleep)."

The nitty-gritty take a bow.

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