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Emerging Bengals challenge prolific Pack

Posted Sep 20, 2013

If anyone knows the Bengals are going to have to put on a show to beat the Packers this Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, it is Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.


Giovani Bernard

Running backs coach Hue Jackson doesn't care what the emerging thunder-lightning tandem in the Bengals backfield ends up being called.

It could be Bennie and The Jet. Or the Law Firm and the G-Man. Or Crash and Dash. Jackson, revealing his inner Lakers fan, says BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard "just better be Showtime when the bell rings."

If anyone knows the Bengals are going to have to put on a show to beat the Packers this Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19), it is Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. He may have spent more time this offseason watching the Green Bay offense than defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Its breathtaking efficiency and bottomless versatility is what Gruden envisions for his young up-and-comers.

The problem is Gruden needs his kids to grow up fast in the face of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers is microwaving the NFL's top-rated offense that has averaged 38.8 points in last four regular season games, a number the Bengals have never reached in the 34 games quarterbacked by Andy Dalton.

"I've got pretty good faith in Coach Zimmer and the defense over there," Gruden said after practice Thursday. "You've got to be prepared. I told our offense the other day in our meeting, we've got to be prepared to score 40 to win.

"We haven’t really had to do that because our defense is pretty damn good. We'll see how it goes. (Rodgers) is one hell of a player and they have great weapons across the board. ... We haven't had to score in a ping-pong-type game yet. If that day comes, hopefully we'll be able to help out our defense."

Green Bay isn't the only offense Gruden aspires to. The Saints are often on his screen as well. If there was ever a time for the Bengals to break out, wouldn't it be nice against one of those offenses Gruden would love to emulate?

"They all get involved also, that's kind of (how) we'd like to go; same way with New Orleans," Gruden said. "They have Colston and Graham and Sproles; it's about spreading the wealth. Everybody buying in and running their routes and you just never know who the hot guy is going to be."

Gruden's kids and his toys look to be on the come. The guys that allow the Bengals to mirror the versatility of offensive juggernauts such as Green Bay and New Orleans are the two tight ends and Bernard. As Jackson says of his prized rookie running back and his one rushing TD and one receiving TD against the Steelers, "We're just beginning to open the toolshed with him."

Just like Gruden is tinkering with those double tight-end sets. According to NFL stats, the Bengals have run double tights 57 percent of the time and multiple tights 69 percent. The reward is that Pro Football Focus rates rookie Tyler Eifert the fourth-best overall tight end in the NFL while Jermaine Gresham is tied for third among NFL tight ends with yards after catch and seventh in catching the percentage of passes thrown his way.

"You look at our formational breakdown from that personnel grouping, it's pretty heavy. I think Andy has a good feel for it," Gruden said. "As long as we can get in the running game and keep working the running game out of it then our passing game will be even more effective. We can put Tyler in five or six different spots. He can play on the line, off the line, in the slot, outside. Jermaine can play outside. Now Giovani can play outside. So, we are just trying to make it hard for the poor coach on the other team to break us down. We might not be very effective, but we are making his life hard."

On Monday night, Eifert caught the longest pass by a Bengals tight end in nine years when he was wide open on a 61-yarder. Bernard's 27-yard catch-and-run was the longest receiving TD by a Bengals back since 2008. Gresham has caught 11 of the 13 balls thrown to him. The Bengals have passed it 78 times and run it 55.

"I just don't think a lot of people have two tight ends like we have. When you get in third down and have three receivers and two tight ends I get upset because one of the receivers has to come out of the game," Gruden said. "I don't want them out. It's a great tool. It's a good running formation, it's a good passing formation. I think we are probably right around 50/50, could be skewed one way or the other, 60/40. But it's a very balanced formation. It's hard for a defense to say let's blitz it, let's play coverage, let's play base, or eight-man boxes. It keeps them a little bit more vanilla than probably they want to be. We are still working with it and we are happy with where it is going."

If the Bengals are going to score, they need to keep Dalton clean. He's been sacked just once and both Jackson and Gruden agree the theme of the offseason has hit home with their players.

"It's not just a theme; it's a lifestyle," Jackson says. "It's just not the offensive line, it's the tight ends, it's the receivers getting open, it's the backs picking up the blitzes. We take pride in that in this room."

Ask Jackson about the most important film clip from Monday night and it's not Bernard dragging two Steelers into the end zone or his touchdown catch that was a metaphor for how old Pittsburgh looks in the revamped AFC North.

Neither.

For Jackson it was the handful of blitz pickups by Bernard. Jackson says he has yet to miss one yet in his first two NFL games.

"I expect him to score touchdowns," Jackson said. "He's a sensational runner. I think he's a big-time player. But he should be. That's why he was the first running back taken in the draft. That doesn't surprise me. There were people who weren't sure about his pass blocking. I was because I know his heart and his desire. But the fight, the assurance of assignments, the finish has been outstanding. We've been more than happy with that."

Green-Ellis is on pace to carry it 288 times, Bernard 96. Everyone knows that ratio is going to change at some point.

"He's actually more poised, more focused on game day during games than at practice," Gruden said of Bernard. "He is still a focused guy. We are obviously very happy with our running back situation the way it is. Honestly, if Gio is in the game, I am content. If BenJarvus is in the game, I'm fine with either one of them in there. I don't have a problem. I think they are going to get more to 50/50 sooner than later, probably."

For all the talk about keeping Dalton clean and scoring points, the best way to beat the Packers is probably how the Bengals beat Pittsburgh the other night: with more than 35 minutes time of possession. It doesn't have to be a two-way track meet.

"We have a lot of say in that, too," Gruden said. "Ball control. Being able to run the ball. Short passing game. Staying on the field. Keeping them standing there watching the game. We could probably go out there and air it out 70 times if we wanted to. But that's not really what we want to do. We want to be able to help Andy out and take some pressure off him with the running game. We'll see how it goes."

But Gruden smiled. He's not going to go in a shell, either. Not after banging his head in training camp against this defense.

"I'm not going to lie," he said. "I like to watch our defense play a little bit, too. I like to watch Geno (Atkins) get after people and (Vontaze) Burfict. Those two guys are fun to watch."

Gruden hopes his offense is just as fun to see.

 

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