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Dalton's options Ganging up


Sometimes, Andy Dalton is his own option, like on this Friday night scramble.

Better keep on movin' Doolin-Dalton
* 'Til your shadow sets you free*
* And if you're fast and if you're lucky*
* You will never see that hangin' tree*

_ The Eagles singing "Doolin-Dalton"

Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has bequeathed quarterback Andy Dalton with a cadre of weapons that is turning into the best re-invention of the Dalton Gang since The Eagles twanged their musical tribute 40 years ago to the Wild West desperados.

Tight ends playing wide receiver. Fullbacks playing tight end. Running backs playing receiver. Tackles playing tight end. When Dalton is dueling this season with Big Ben or Flacco or Russell Wilson, he'll have a huddle full of options.

Cincinnati Bengals host New York Giants at Paul Brown Stadium in their preseason opener 08/14/2015

"That's what makes it fun. Coach Jackson loves it. He's got multiple weapons, he's got multiple guys who can do a bunch of different things," said running back Rex Burkhead, one of Jackson's riders in disguise. "He can use us in many different ways. He loves those options and it makes it easier for Andy, as well, just knowing he has guys who can work inside in the slot or outside wide and do multiple things."

On Friday night Dalton didn't have to be lucky because he was fast on that six-play, 52-yard touchdown drive that opened and closed the pre-season opener at Paul Brown Stadium, an eventual 23-10 victory over the Giants. On that last play, a three-yard flip to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, Dalton beat WILL linebacker J.T. Thomas IIII's blitz up the middle with ease because Sanu was so wide open at the goal line.

That was in large part because Jackson deployed three receivers (Sanu, Burkhead and tight end Tyler Eifert) in a tight bunch formation to Dalton's right with his top receiver, A.J. Green, split out to the left.

After Eifert went back and forth briefly in motion, cornerback Jayron Hosley covered him deep to the corner, which put safety cornerback Bennett Jackson in a bad way. Sanu and Burkhead were coming right at him and only him. Bennett Jackson chose Burkhead. Dalton chose Sanu.

Who is this masked man Burkhead? He's one of the most productive running backs in the history of run-rich Nebraska, he was drafted as a running back in the sixth round in 2013, and he calls himself a running back.

And once the first team exited, Burkhead did get four carries for 23 yards before he suffered what is believed to be a minor neck issue. The sense is it won't keep Burkhead out of the next game, nine days away in Tampa. Whatever, whenever, he's still preparing like he's a running back.

Maybe it's fitting that one of the writers and singers of "Doolin-Dalton," Don Henley, is a Texan, just like Dalton and Burkhead.

"I'm still a running back. I'm still a running back," Burkhead said Saturday, almost pleading.  "Is that my mentality or whatever? It does, it gets tricky at times but at the same time, it's going out there playing football and trying to get open and trying to get the ball in your hands whatever way you can or make a difference on the play whenever you can."

On those six plays Burkhead lined up four times as the third receiver, stationed in the slot with Green and Sanu also in the game. So this Rex thing turned out not to be a spring fantasy or a training camp pause for Marvin Jones as he gets settled back in after a year out.

On the first play, Burkhead lined up in the slot next to Sanu and opposite Green with Eifert popping out of the line to make a 12-yard catch.

Two snaps later, when Green caught a 16-yard pass off Dalton's bootleg play-action fake to running back Jeremy Hill, they did it with two receivers and two tight ends as fullback Ryan Hewitt joined Eifert as a tight end.

Burkhead came back on the field for the last two plays of the drive. When Hill banged for five yards through right guard Kevin Zeitler and right tackle Eric Winston to set up the touchdown, the receivers were flipped, with Burkhead still next to the split Sanu on the right and Green by himself on the left.   

He didn't make a catch with that first group. Sometimes he was split out in the slot. Sometimes he was bunched in tight. Sometimes you wonder what happens when Jones is back with the first team and rookie wide receiver Mario Alford's 4.3-second 40 speed gets a call.

But you also know Jackson is going to use you if you can play.

"He takes your talents and uses them in whatever way he can fit them into his system," Burkhead said. "He understands that we have a lot of guys who can do multiple things and he's going to try to get the ball in their hands in whatever way possible."

It's not like Burkhead went to Jackson looking to play wide receiver. What's the line? "Necessity is the mother of invention."  It will be recalled that Burkhead went to receiver when the Bengals' top two receivers and top two tight ends couldn't play in the Wild Card Game.

But what separates thinkers from mere doers is an open mind and Jackson just never plugs players into a stereotype and leaves them.

So when Jackson saw Burkhead tear up practice two weeks before the postseason as Denver slot receiver Wes Welker, mother came for a visit.

"It's something he felt like I could do," Burkhead said. "He'd see me working at scout team last year and said maybe we can work him into this role."

Burkhead's evolution isn't that much of a surprise to Cedric Peerman, who really is a running back as well as the special teams co-captain. Burkhead and Peerman back up Hill and Giovani Bernard, the starters in the Bengals' most talented backfield in a generation.

"When Rex first came here I knew that he had talent and he was a great player at Nebraska," Peerman said. "I knew that he had the skills, and watching him on the scout team, I thought it was undeniable his abilities, especially as a receiver. It's something that when he got drafted they probably didn't expect. But yeah, he's got quick feet, very explosive, he can jump out the gym. So yeah, he's the total package."

 Peerman has spent six seasons getting off the roster bubble. He won a last-back battle with James Johnson in 2010 when he bolted 93 yards for a touchdown and returned a kick 50 yards in the pre-season finale in Indianapolis.  The beauty of an open mind. By then, Peerman had been signed by four teams and waived four times. Last year he led the NFL with 15 special teams tackles.

"Coach Hue is like 'if you can make plays with the ball in your hand, you're going to be out there, and we're going to give you chances,' " Peerman said. "That's what Rex does on a consistent basis. That's why he's in that role."

 Peerman and Burkhead could be the same guy. Quick, tough backs. Selfless team players. Smart and resourceful on special teams. Both have been recently married and, as Peerman points behind him, they locker next to each other.

"On Monday nights during the season we'll go over to a friend of mine's house, and we'll watch Monday Night Football together," Peerman said. "Me and him and Vinny Rey and our wives will come as well. They like football, thank God. We have a good time together just hanging out, just chilling together."

If it's the preseason, Peerman must still be grinding. He's got the club made, but on Friday night there he was at the end of an 18-yard catch-and-run trying to leap into the end zone. He was stopped at the Giants 2 and he hurt his knee, but he says he'll be ready for next week.

"Just coming in each year is like a brand new season. You have to start all over again and start from square one." Peerman said. "That's the approach I try to take. Nothing is for certain in the NFL. We all know it stands for Not For Long."

Burkhead has also found a guy with a similar approach in Jackson, who is all about being tough and smart.

"We have similar mindsets and I just want to be one of those tough guys, and teammates that do everything, like finish plays and don't just be selfish and wanting the ball all the time," Burkhead said. "But help your other teammates make plays. Whether that's blocking downfield or whatever it may be."

It's the only way in to the Dalton Gang, which, at the moment, has just about filled up with possibilities.

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