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Bengals fine-tuning team that's been playoff flop

By JOE KAY - AP Sports Writer
    2013-07-23 11:16

CINCINNATI (AP) - Marvin Lewis sees it as a whole new series rather than a summer repeat.

The Cincinnati Bengals agreed to be the focus of HBO's ``Hard Knocks'' training camp series for the second time this summer. They also were in the cable spotlight in 2009 with an entirely different cast that reached the playoffs and flopped.

``It is a lot different football team,'' the Bengals coach said. ``There are very few players on this squad that were here in '09, so there's a lot of interesting positions, some battles that we're going to have. There's been quite a bit of change.''

One thing hasn't changed: the knack for falling flat in the postseason. The Bengals have been to the playoffs each of the last two seasons and lost to Houston both times. Those poor performances extended the seventh-longest stretch of playoff futility in NFL history - no postseason win since the 1990 season.

Andy Dalton is entering his third season as the starting quarterback, and young players like receiver A.J. Green and defensive tackle Geno Atkins have emerged as stars. While HBO's audience watches, the Bengals will try to fine-tune a roster that returns nearly intact from last season and knows the stakes.

Five things to know as the Bengals prepare to open training camp with cameras rolling at their first practice at Paul Brown Stadium on Thursday.

1. IT'S DALTON'S TIME: He needs to take a big step in his third season. Dalton is the first Bengals quarterback to reach the playoffs in each of his first two seasons. He has 47 touchdown passes, trailing only Dan Marino and Peyton Manning for most in the first two seasons. But he's had two awful playoff games - no touchdowns, four interceptions and a 48.6 passer rating. He overthrew an open Green in the end zone late in the playoff loss at Houston last season. Dalton has been working on his long throws and needs to find receivers other than Green with more consistency. Tight end Tyler Eifert, taken in the first round, should give him another option.

2. DALTON'S BACKUP: One of Cincinnati's biggest losses in free agency was backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who gave the Bengals some security in case Dalton got hurt. They signed Josh Johnson, who started five games for Tampa Bay from 2008-11, and claimed John Skelton off waivers for Arizona, which couldn't settle on a starter last season. Johnson knows offensive coordinator Jay Gruden from their days in Tampa Bay. Skelton has never run a West Coast-style offense. Although Dalton has been very durable, missing only half of a game because of injury, a team with playoff aspirations needs some security at the backup spot.

3. WHAT'S UP WITH ANDRE? The Bengals reached a three-year deal with right tackle Andre Smith as the draft started in April, meaning their entire offensive line would return intact. But Smith missed all of the team's offseason workouts and its mandatory minicamp because of personal matters, the only player who wasn't available. His conditioning will be a focus in camp early. They'll also be looking at how center Kyle Cook has recovered from an ankle injury that required surgery and forced him to miss the first 12 games last season.

4. TURNING HARRISON LOOSE: The Bengals' biggest offseason acquisition was linebacker James Harrison, who left Pittsburgh after they couldn't agree on a restructured contract. Coordinator Mike Zimmer will be looking for ways to turn the outside linebacker loose in a defense than finished sixth in the NFL in yards allowed last season. Harrison says he's healthy and ready to make an impression with his new team, especially when it faces his old team.

5. PAGING DRE KIRKPATRICK: Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was the 17th overall pick in the 2012 draft, but missed all of training camp and the first seven games of the season after injuring his left knee during workouts. He played in five games, then suffered a concussion and was bothered again by the knee problem, ending his season. Kirkpatrick has been limited because of the knee in the offseason. His status will be another focus in camp.

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Online: AP NFL website www.pro32.ap.org

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