Bengals coach Marvin Lewis publicly challenged quarterback Andy Dalton and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga on Wednesday to become more forceful leaders on their 3-4 team.

The move was out of character for Lewis, who prefers to handle things quietly and internally. It underscored the Bengals' predicament approaching the season's midpoint — it's time to start winning or else.

"We've wallowed around here in mediocrity," Lewis said. "Let's go. That's the thing we've got to do."

Cincinnati has lost three in a row heading into home games against the Denver Broncos (4-3) and the Super Bowl champion New York Giants (6-2). The Bengals went 9-7 and got a wild card berth last season, when Dalton was a rookie and Maualuga was in his first season at middle linebacker.

With this season starting to slip away, Lewis challenged the two young players — Maualuga is in his fourth season overall — to step up.

"We're looking for our quarterback and our middle linebacker to take hold of our football team, and I think that's important for us," Lewis said. "I think both guys are such good people, that you've got to be a little bit of a (jerk). You do.

"Andy has a great deal of confidence, self-confidence, internal confidence, confidence in the guys around him. But at some point you step out of your skin and you go. And it's time to go."

Lewis' comments weren't off-the-cuff. He said essentially the same things during a conference call with writers in Denver, making a point to challenge the quarterback and the linebacker.

Lewis has defended Maualuga as the defense struggled this season. The linebacker said he feels he has the support of Lewis and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. He accepted Lewis' comments as a challenge to become a more vocal.

"So I guess it is my opportunity — not like it was never given to me but at the same time, time to be a jerk, time to get in the middle of that defense and start spicing things up and get everybody running around and be on the same page," Maualuga said. "A quote that coach (Lewis) gave me before I came to the facility: 'The rate of the pack is determined by the speed of the leader.'

"So I think the quicker I get things going, the quicker I get things riled up, the more people will buy into it and the more we can get things started and get going. I love the opportunity and the challenge, so I'll give it everything I've got."

Dalton was reluctant to assume a leadership role last season, when he was a rookie learning the offense as he went along. He left it up to other veterans to take charge, concentrating on what he had to do to learn the position.

Lewis wants Dalton to start taking a bigger role in making sure everyone on the offense is doing things correctly.

"The natural progression of it," Dalton said. "As a rookie, you come in and you are meeting new people. Now, second year, it is your offense. It is your team. That is how I've got to treat it.

"He just wants some fire out there, making sure we are perfect in practice in everything we are doing. I am not too worried about what he said. It's just he expects a lot out of us."

The coaching staff talked to him during the bye week about taking on a more prominent role.

"We're looking for Andy to take the next step of being the leader of this football team," Lewis said. "A confident, vocal (leader) if it needs to be, but grab this football team by the back of its neck and let's go. Let's move forward."

Notes: DT Pat Sims returned to practice Wednesday on a three-week roster exemption. Sims hasn't played because of a hamstring injury on July 26th. He can practice for three weeks before the Bengals have to decide whether to add him to the 53-man active roster. ... C Kyle Cook will have a pin removed from his right ankle within the next week, giving the Bengals a better idea of whether he'll be able to return this season. He hurt the ankle in the final preseason game. He went on the injured reserve list with the option of returning during the season if he's healthy.


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