Marvin Lewis taught the Bengals an AFC North lesson when he arrived in 2003, one that he perfected while the defensive coordinator at division rival Baltimore.
Now with his core of young playoff veterans steeling for a night in the lair of the blood-thirsty Ravens this Monday (7 p.m.-ESPN), Lewis is patiently reviewing the plus-turnover concept for a new generation of stripes led by a second-year quarterback piling up the experience, a no-nonsense running back and a new fleet of young receivers the club thinks are as resourceful as they are talented.
The offense, that in just 17 short games has exactly one starting skill player that played with Carson Palmer (tight end
"Not only with it being the second year, but we have new guys who are going to step in,” said quarterback
It was in Baltimore where Lewis's NFL record-setting defense of 2000 ignited the Raven Century on a Super Bowl ring encrusted with a plus-23 turnover ratio. When the Ravens slid to minus-8 in 2001, they still won 10 games but didn't get far in the playoffs and the trend was in place.
Since 2000, the Ravens are plus-54 in turnovers and 116-76. In the three seasons before Lewis arrived, the Bengals started the century minus-38 and 12-36, respectively. Under Lewis in the regular season they are plus-32 and 69-74-1.
“Turnovers have been the key to this series. It’s what’s important. You can’t turn it over. You have to possess the football. It’s the recipe of the AFC North," Lewis said at his Monday news conference. "You have to possess the football. It’s the recipe of the National Football League. If you have one more turnover than your opponent, right now, you can take that and finish the season at 10-6 since 2000. It’s an amazing thing.”
This is the third time for Lewis's AFC North lecture. The first time around, from 2005-06, the Bengals didn't really possess the ball and drew blood on Pittsburgh and Baltimore with the no-huddle more than anything. Then in 2009, they bludgeoned their way to a division sweep with defense. Now with just 14 players left from that '09 run, Lewis is listing the recipe again.
It certainly is the road map for this series, which the Bengals lead under Lewis at 10-8. Numbers may lie, but they don't cheat. The Bengals are 6-0 when they are plus and 0-7 when they are minus in turnovers against the Ravens. And 4-1 when they are even.
So what the Bengals need more than anything in The House Near Where Ruth lived isn't a host of yards and a bevy of punts, although a more than a few would be nice. But more than anything they need that reliability the kids were missing last year against the Ravens in going minus-three in turnover differential.
“We’ve stated that from the start that we made changes on offense to be more reliable,” Lewis said.
So the torch has been passed to running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the man who is to turnovers what Aroldis Chapman is to blown saves. They never fumble. And there is the crew of receivers that barely have any NFL catches (
"They have a better idea of where to go and how to get there," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said of the improvement over a year ago. "That's important when you have a timing offense and a guy that likes to throw in rhythm. It's important that the guys are in the right spot, the right depth at the right time. Knock on wood; they’ve been pretty good so far."
Lewis is stressing that Dalton needs help around him. In the 31-24 loss in Baltimore last season in which the Bengals were stranded on the Ravens 17 with 50 seconds left, Dalton suffered his first three-interception game while passing for the Bengals rookie record with 373 yards.
Two of those picks came on throws to former wide receiver Andre Caldwell and the other came on an ill-advised heave at the end of the half that may have cost the Bengals a field goal. It was Dalton's first lesson that Ravens Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed seemingly pops out of sprinkler heads to make plays.
"Caldwell stopped on one of the slants and he shouldn't have thrown it," Gruden said. "(The DB) had inside leverage and he couldn't get in there, so Andre stopped and (Dalton) threw it anyway."
It wasn't Dalton's fault on the other throw to Caldwell, when the receiver didn't come out of his break quickly enough. But Dalton had received an AFC North lesson the hard way. And he's stacking the big-game experience like chips. The last three games for which he's prepared are the Wild Card Game, a Pro Bowl, and a Monday Night opener.
"Quarterbacks are going to make mistakes; the great ones still do," Gruden said. "Tom Brady still does. Drew Brees still does. Aaron Rodgers still does. You just have to make sure you don't make them in key situations and if you do make one, you've got to bounce back and that's what the great ones do. No quarterback is ever going to be perfect.
"I don't expect Andy to be near perfect or perfect, but we do expect him to get better not only on a weekly basis, but a play-by-play basis."
The Bengals pass protection suffered on that last series even though the Ravens rushed only three and dropped eight and turning it over on downs is like a turnover. On second down from the 7, Dalton got a lesson when Pro Bowl sacker Terrell Suggs won his matchup with running back
But it's a year later for Dalton. And for the people around him.
"I just think he's more sure of the people around him and more sure of his abilities," Gruden said. "He's proven himself that he belongs in the NFL, where last year I think he had to go in there and prove to himself and teammates that he was a legitimate starting quarterback in in the NFL. I think after a few weeks he did that and now with a year under his belt I think everybody relies on him. He's the leader. He's the guy that's going to carry us."
It was a rare pressure allowed by Leonard, ranked seventh by profootballfocus.com on the list of best pass protectors at running back over the past three years. That number is eight pressures out of 160 passes. And he thinks the only other one he allowed last year was to 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman.
There's no way the 225-pound Leonard could block the 260-pound Suggs one-on-one ("He bull-rushed me like he does tackles," Leonard said), and his sense is, "We didn't finish the game."
"We've been together longer, obviously we have a young O-line again," Leonard said. "It can happen in any game. We rely on each other. We're a reliable bunch ... (but) it can happen in any game."
But Leonard has noted The Study that Lewis has walked his team through. Just exactly how the Bengals are 10-8 against Baltimore.
"They did a study," Leonard said. "Whoever isn't going to turn it over against Baltimore is going to win the game. We’ve got to protect the ball and keep chugging away."
Which brings the Bengals to maybe the most reliable guy in the league, their new running back, Green-Ellis, with his zero lifetime fumbles. With running back
But true to his reputation as the ultimate team player, Green-Ellis physically recoiled at the suggestion Wednesday he may get the sixth 20-carry game in his 54th NFL game.
"I could say that, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. It doesn’t make sense for me to sit here and tell you ‘Yeah, I want the ball 100 times’ when I don’t control the play call," Green-Ellis said. "I just do what I’m asked to do. That’s all I can control. I just try to take care of things I can control and let everybody else worry about their drives.
"That’s generally the way it works because the offensive coordinator calls plays and us as players, we just go out and execute them. If I want the ball and he calls a pass play, I don’t want to be upset. So I just go out there and do whatever’s called."
BJGE has shown he can grind it out. If asked. In his next-to-last game with the Patriots last year, he pounded out 68 yards on 15 carries against these Ravens in the AFC title game. Carry that pace to 20 carries and that's 91 yards, and who wouldn't take that vs. the Ravens?
"That might not be the game plan. Whatever the game plan is, that’s what I’m going to do. If they want me to run, I’m going to run. If they want to pass, I’m going to block," he said.
He certainly fits what Lewis and Gruden are seeking in games like this. The coaches and the offensive line admired Cedric Benson's toughness, but they love Green-Ellis's reliability.
And the Bengals are going to need it. Gruden didn't sugarcoat the huge problem facing the running game. BJGE is just coming back from a foot injury in the preseason opener, when the left guard was
"I like the fact the guy is, No. 1, a dependable guy as far as knowing what to do and how to do it and he cares about winning," Gruden said.
"He doesn't have a weakness in his game. He might not have the big-play strike ability. That might be the only weakness that he has. He's a great pass protector, he can catch the ball and he's a good, solid runner and he's very dependable when the ball is in his hands. He takes care of it."
Which is where the Lewis lecture begins and ends.