When you think of prolific offenses, you think of New Orleans, New England, Denver and ... Cincinnati?
OK, not many people think of the Bengals as a high-powered point-scoring machine, not yet anyway. Last year they finished 12th in points per game (24.4) and a gross 22nd in yards per game (332.7). Many will assume quarterback Andy Dalton was at fault when in reality the run game was worse. Cincinnati's pass offense ranked 17th at 223.6 yards per game but accounted for 28 scores, seventh best in the league. The run game ranked 18th with 109.1 yards per game and finished tied for 18th with 11 touchdowns.
Through a series of incredible drafts since offensive coordinator Jay Gruden joined the team in 2011, the time has come for the Bengals (read: Dalton) to take the next step. Not that Dalton's been a bust: His 47 passing touchdowns trails only Dan Marino (68) and Peyton Manning (52) for most scores thrown by a quarterback in his first two seasons. Dalton has seen pretty much every meaningful stat rise from Year 1 to Year 2. But questions about his arm, consistency and playoff performance remain.
"He's worked to improve his game, from a mental standpoint to a physical standpoint," Gruden said to CBSSports.com of Dalton's offseason. "He's jumping rope, he's lifting weights, he's stronger. He's working on his quickness, his foot speed. He's working on his reads in the classroom with (quarterbacks coach) Kenny Zampese and me non-stop. I think from a mental approach he's continuing to progress. We just have to make sure his physical approach is also progressing. Then all he has to do is go out and play.
"You'll know everything you need to know on a chalkboard, but when you go out there and people are rushing you, it's about making plays. We need him to do a much better job as we do everybody, myself included."
Thanks to sound drafting the Bengals have put Dalton in a position to take the next step, and a pair of rookies this year underscore the point. Start with this year's first-round pick, Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert. The 6-foot-5, 250 pounder has exceeded every expectation since joining the team. The rookie has advanced to playing with the first-team offense in camp -- and is dominating.
"Tyler's emerged at a more rapid pace than we probably thought he would," Gruden said, his voice seemingly a half-octave higher talking about his new offensive weapon. "I've been trying to find something wrong with the kid's routes or run blocking or lining up wrong or something and he seems to just do everything right."
Only time will tell if this translates to live action during the season, but Gruden says there isn’t a lot to be critical of right now.
"You can line him up anywhere, he makes very few mistakes, if any. Obviously it's early but we are very excited about him." Eifert's accelerated growth has created what Gruden called "a dilemma" when it comes to how he'll line up his offense. We know Dalton will be there and A.J. Green, knee permitting, will be there. We know an offensive line will be there. That leaves four spots open on every play that gives the Bengals incredible potential to create mismatches.
Gruden's having fun with it. Maybe too much fun.
"Sometimes I'll come up with too much," he said. "When it's all said and done, you have the two-tight-end package and 100 plays; you have the one-tight end, two-running back package and you have 25 plays; you have the one-tight end, three-receiver package and you have another 50 plays; you have the four-receiver, one-tight end package, another 20 plays. "You've got 200 plays when it's all said and done, but you can only call 60 or 70 in the game, and I haven't even talked about my (run game) yet! "
Given all this potential for offensive diversity, this question remains: Does he see Eifert as a clone of Saints tight end Jimmy Graham?
"I do, I do very much so," he said without wavering. "It's hard to compare a rookie to an established player like Jimmy Graham, but from a talent standpoint as far as size and athletic ability, they're very similar on the hoof."
Graham has the professional game experience, something Gruden quickly admits, but offers this tidbit.
"Now, Jimmy's proved it in games already and done his thing so Tyler has a long way to go, but I think if you see them walk in the room at the same time you'll say 'damn, they look alike,' and if you see them on the field in shorts you'll say they're very similar. The matter of going out and proving it on the field is a totally different thing."
If Eifert pulls through the preseason looking as good as he has in camp and spring workouts, odds are he'll contribute in a number of ways not unlike how Graham and even Rob Gronkowski work out for their teams. It could even mean more targets going his way than that of fellow tight end Jermaine Gresham and maybe every receiver other than Green. The translation for those of us who play Fantasy: Get him on your team.
The other rookie expected to contribute for Cincy is North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard, who should inject some much-needed flash at his position. The team has fielded a 1,000-yard rusher in each of the last four seasons, but only once in that span did one average more than 3.9 yards per carry. Bernard's rushing average for the Tarheels over 423 attempts: 5.9 yards per carry.
Perhaps more importantly is Bernard's ability to catch the ball and make a play, an area the Bengals are desperate to improve. Under Gruden's steward for two years, Bengals running backs have totaled 96 catches for 606 yards and a lonely touchdown catch by fullback Chris Pressley. Darren Sproles by himself had 161 catches, 1,377 yards and 14 scores in three fewer games than the Bengals have played.
"That's probably the one thing, if you point your finger at what we've been lacking, is maybe somebody to make people miss at the second level as far as catching the ball out of the backfield. We think Gio can bring that dimension to the offense," Gruden said. "Gio's a smart kid, he's picked up the offense very well. He can do a lot of different things … and if he catches the ball in the flat with room to run he is very, very dangerous."
Bernard still has to prove he's worthy of getting a sizeable workload -- Gruden said he's done well in drills but his pass protection is "yet to be seen." His preseason efforts will ultimately determine just how much Gruden will trust him this season. One potential plan Gruden seemed to like involves Bernard working on passing downs while incumbent starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis would remain on the field on rushing downs and goal-line wor
"We'll see how it goes," Gruden said. "If BenJarvus is the hot back I have no problem playing who's hot. … I foresee both of them getting their touches, maybe neither one of them getting as many as they probably would like, but I think as long as both of them are unselfish and willing to sacrifice a few touches for the good of the team I think we'll be in good shape." If it comes to pass that Bernard can pick up the blitz, make plays out of the backfield and do enough to be a force between the tackles and guards, then he won't be ignored for long over the one-dimensional Green-Ellis. It wouldn't be a total shock to see him end up with as many touches as Green-Ellis, if not more.
Bernard should present another reliable target for Dalton, but it was a surprise last November that really helped Dalton out. Mohamed Sanu, then a rookie, saw a major uptick in playing time against the Giants, Chiefs and Raiders that led to 11 catches, 98 yards and four touchdowns before breaking his foot in practice leading up to a game at San Diego, ending his year.
His rehab went smoothly this offseason and Sanu has come back strong in training camp, giving the Bengals even more versatility on offense. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Sanu lined up as a slot receiver on 91 snaps and as an outside receiver on 96 snaps. He's competing for a starting job right now.
"The future looks good for him," Gruden said of Sanu. "With A.J. being sidelined right now we had to move him back outside but he can do a lot of damage on the inside also. He's one of those guys that isn't the (flashiest) guy as far as speed is concerned, but he's got really strong hands, runs good routes and the quarterbacks trust him and he can do a lot of different things in different areas. I think the future is very bright for Mo and he can move the chains and he did that a lot when he was playing and healthy."
So do the math: Two rookies with promising pass-catching potential join one of the elite young receivers of the game and a burgeoning possession receiver with a knack for scoring. This is on top of an already-established veteran tight end in Jermaine Gresham and a pair of young buck receivers in Andrew Hawkins and Marvin Jones. Even if Andy Dalton doesn't have the greatest arm in the world, he should be able to befuddle defenses who can't cover all of these guys play after play.
That's the Bengals' hope this year, which is why getting offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth back healthy along with the rest of the O-line rounding into form is so important. If they can hold up their end of the bargain and cut down on the number of sacks Dalton sustained last year (46), then the Bengals' passing game should take that next step.
"There's a lot of things we have to get cleaned up," Gruden said, splashing water on our fire. "In order to throw the ball you have to be able to pass protect and you have to be able to run the ball so you can have some balance and defensive linemen aren't teeing off and blitzing the heck out of you. So we have to be sound in what we do in our approach."
After consecutive playoff appearances, including a "debacle" at Houston last year according to Gruden, things are indeed looking up. That goes double for the creative Gruden, who has reportedly had six interviews for head coaching jobs over the last two years, but isn't in a hurry to take any of them.
"I think every coach has the desire to run their own franchise," Gruden said. "I'm excited about this team here and I'm trying to do the best job I can here and then whatever happens after the season happens. If it happens, great. If it doesn't happen then I'm perfectly content here. I just have to make sure I do a good enough job to keep this one. I'm not worried about anything down the line, I'm just worried about the job that I have right now."
With the collection of talent the Bengals have harvested over Gruden's tenure, he shouldn't have to do much worrying in 2013.