With the sixth-best defense in the NFL returning virtually intact and a special teams that finished first in a compilation of the league's 10 major categories retaining all but one of its core players, all eyes are on the Bengals offense in this Year Of Getting Over The Hump.
In the immortal words of head coach Marvin Lewis, if they told you what they've done to improve to the offense during the offseason, they'd have to kill you.
But the most tangible evidence of how the Bengals hope the offense has turned into a cold-blooded executioner in time for Sunday's opener in Chicago (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) should appear rather quickly.
In the first 10 seconds or so they have the ball, to be exact.
If the trend in the NFL is fastbreak football in order to pile up the number of plays, then the Bengals are looking to fill the lanes and get out of the huddle quicker than they ever have in the three years under quarterback
"Blitz the defense before the defense blitzes you," is how Gruden puts it. "It's important for us when we do huddle to still come out fast … play with great tempo to try and dictate what we want to do instead of the defense dictating to us."
If the Bengals are hoping there is one difference between this offense and the one that walked off the field in Houston with just a measly 13 points in the playoff loss, it is that the 2013 edition is going to probe and not react.
"The tempo has been a big part of what our focus has been this training camp," Dalton says. "The faster you play, the more plays you're going to get and the more plays you get the more chances you have to score."
The Patriots and the Broncos, with the two smartest quarterbacks in the game, bookended the top five last year with Tom Brady running a league-high 1,191 plays in New England and Peyton Manning churning out 1,090 in Denver. In between there were the Lions (1,160), Colts (1,109) and Texans (1,090). There is some no-huddle there in the top five, but the main threads are bright quarterbacks that get their teams in and out of the huddle and off the line with interchangeable sets.
And, oh yeah, they're ranked in the top 10.
The Bengals aren't looking to out-Brady Brady, although they are looking for Dalton lead the attack mode with what Cook calls his master's degree in the offense. And they aren't looking to turn Gruden's West Coast offense into a fastbreak buffet or be the digital descendant of Sam Wyche's game-long no-huddle, although they do want to use it more frequently.
What the Bengals are trying to do is get to the line quicker so they can add five or maybe six more snaps a game to get somewhere between 90 and 100 more plays than the 1,016 they ran last season, 15th-most in the league.
"The best offenses in this league are usually fast-paced. It puts more pressure on the defense," says left tackle
Whitworth (knee) hasn't practiced very much this spring and summer and probably won't play Sunday, but he's been on the sidelines harping on the tempo and urging his mates on faster, faster.
"You don't want the tempo so fast that you can't execute," Whitworth says. "You don't want to go 100 miles an hour. But you want to be fast enough that you've got the defense on its heels."
Gruden has tried to spread the word before, but the key to up-tempo is knowing what you're doing and now that Dalton and his major weapons are working on multiple years in the system, things are naturally moving quicker.
"You might say these guys have their master's degrees now in the offense," Cook says. "They've been here two, three years. Even the new guys (know it) because they can come in and lean on a guy like
One of the reasons the Bengals think they can jack up the tempo smoothly is not only do they have their master's but Cook, the guy in the middle of it all, has his doctorate. Considered one of the brightest players they've ever had on the line, Cook is a key guy setting the pace.
"From an offensive line perspective, it's good to get moving, to run to the ball; that's what the defense does," Cook says. "It's just something to be aware of."
The fast-paced approach is an outgrowth of the versatility the Bengals have tried to cultivate. The less substituting of personnel groups the faster they can get up and go. The other big difference from the Houston loss is the Bengals have more guys that can stay on the field and play different spots.
That means the Bengals can run a slew of formations without running in single guy. That means they can hurry up, line up on third-and-five, and the defense is back on its heels not knowing if it's run or pass.
"It's all about being in position to pick up third down," Dalton says.
Whitworth says the biggest difference from the Houston loss to now is that those versatile guys give the offense a better idea of what it is. Not only was the team's most interchangeable player, Sanu, shelved, but guys like Eifert and Bernard were thinking about bowl games back in January.
"We know our strengths a little better," Whitworth says. "We're a year older at positions where we were really young with guys like Mo and
"And the young guys like Gio and Tyler present matchup problems; that's the biggest difference. Look at a guy like Mo. The four or five games he played, he played well. He's a matchup problem in the slot. And then Tyler and Gio, that's what football is. It’s a game of matchups. You can talk about everything else, but you start having matchups that look bad for people, you have a chance to be successful."
The Bengals may not play with the breakneck speed of the zone read of RGIII and Russell Wilson, or the microchip perfection of Brady and Manning. Gruden says offenses adapt to their strengths and he thinks the Bengals have plenty of strengths. Starting with Dalton.
"That's the intent every year. You try to preach the same thing. It's hard in practice to sustain that kind of tempo. We did good with it in training camp and our guys understand the importance of it," Gruden says.
"A lot of it does depend on how much your guys know the offense and what the quarterback can handle, too, and what he's comfortable with. He likes no-huddle stuff. He likes to go fast. It doesn't have to be a million miles an hour all the time. But we do need to have things in our game where we can go no-huddle at the blink of an eye any time. But in order to do that the quarterback has to be on the same page with everyone else and I feel pretty good about where we are with that."
It may not happen in a blink of an eye. But the Bengals will find out how different they are from Houston pretty quickly.