Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson wants more plays this month.
It is finally December, a good month full of big-time accomplishments for the Green-Dalton Bengals since they were born in 2011.
January might not be much, but in December they have gone 10-4, won an AFC North title, won in Pittsburgh to secure one Wild Card berth, and got another one when Andy Dalton became the first rookie quarterback to win nine games while throwing 20 touchdown passes. They are 5-2 at Paul Brown Stadium, 5-2 on the road, and average 29.4 rushes while committing less than two turnovers per game.
But in the room of first-year offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, that is not good enough as he looks at a formidable December. It features a home-and-home with Pittsburgh, a game in Cleveland where they haven't won since '11, and one of those prime time dates at Paul Brown Stadium against Peyton Manning and his 8-0 record against the Bengals.
In fact, Jackson calls the 12 games that have just transpired as "non December," football.
"It's winning time. This is when you grow," Jackson said on this Dec. 1 in his office, ESPN to the right of him, the Steelers scouting report at his fingertips and Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's machinations right in front of him.
"This is when the real players show up, because this is an opportunity to really make something special happen. The great football players, this is when you get lathered up," Jackson said. "People remember what you do in December. That's the old term. December, January football is where it's at and I think our guys understand that."
Jackson has always been one of head coach Marvin Lewis' top advisers, even when he hasn't been on staff, so here are two guys living and breathing on the same page.
One of Lewis' biggest strengths is feeling the pulse of his team and reacting accordingly. Look at the past few Septembers (when the Green-Dalton Bengals are 9-5) and Decembers and Lewis has proven he can flip the switches. He's just looking for the post-season button.
So in what has become an annual rite of December, Lewis is going to start a quicker Thursday practice four hours earlier at 11 a.m. so they can get off their feet sooner.
"You give yourself the opportunity to get to this month to really earn something and I think collectively as a football team we've kind of done our part," Jackson said. "Not as well as I'd have liked for us to do it, but I think we've gotten to this point to where now it's time to push to make sure we get this thing done correctly."
His quarterback is going to have to play better this month than he has the rest of the year, when he has thrown as many TDs as interceptions (13) and completed 63 percent of his passes for an 81.2 passer rating, his lowest since his rookie year. He has to get nearer to the numbers of last December, when Dalton hit a 97.2 rating on 12 TDs with just five interceptions.
Or closer to his career December numbers of 20 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. They can't have the interceptions of October in December. Check out 2012. In the first eight games, Dalton threw 11 interceptions. When they finished 7-1, he threw five.
Cutting down the turnovers has been Jackson's mantra since he took office. But even though the season numbers are far from where he wants them, he has seen growth on other levels and he saw a moment Sunday in Tampa.
Dalton had a first half arguably worse than the Nov. 6 Meltdown with three picks, but he rebounded with a near flawless second half. His history is once he starts out badly he stays that way. But not Sunday with the playoffs on the line.
"You hate for it to happen, but you're talking about something to grow from. We did that against Cleveland earlier in the year and didn't win the game," Jackson said. "We did it again yesterday and won the game, because he was able to re-steady himself and come back and make some plays in the second half.
"That was an improvement. I told (the media) a long time ago we're trying to continue to build a quarterback and an offensive football team at the same time. It's not just, 'Here we go.' I hate to go backward, but you go back and you think about the Cleveland contest where he wasn't playing well and threw interceptions and we couldn't get out of that funk….We got out of that funk (on Sunday). We got out of it sooner better than later and were able to steady ourselves and go find a way to win with the help of our defense and special teams. That's the National Football League for you. This league will bring you to your knees as a quarterback."
"December football," is usually a nice fat code word for the running game and since Jackson has been pounding the run game in theory and reality, it becomes larger than life now. Jackson has made good on his promise to protect Dalton, on pace to throw 100 fewer passes than last season with a running game that is on pace to average 4.2 yards per carry for the first time since the '05 North champs.
The pass (365) run (360) ratio is almost even compared to last year's 105 passing edge. With Jackson ready to unleash the four-legged backfield of Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill for its first December, that should be rather interesting in four cold-weather games.
"I'm not going to tell you we're going to run it more, we're going to do whatever it takes to win. I don't know what that looks like. Sometimes you don't know what that looks like until you get in the game," Jackson said. "We all understand at some point in time you do have to put your hand in the dirt and block people."
The Green-Dalton Bengals are at their best when they run the ball and not chucking it around the yard and the numbers hold up in December. They are
8-0 in the month when they run it at least 30 times.
But, of course, they have to be able to run it and Jackson is as demanding of his running backs and offensive line as much as he is of the quarterback. The Tampa Two scheme is usually a good one to run against because the safeties are deep, but on Sunday the Bucs were dropping a safety late into the box and the Bengals ended up getting 3.9 yards per carry combined from Bernard and Hill.
Since Jackson's goal every game is 4.5 yards per, not good.
"When we don't catch that goal, then to me something's wrong because I believe those are the kind of blockers we have and the kind of runners we have," Jackson said. "So (Tampa) got it done and we didn't. That was disheartening, but we will rise again. We'll find a way to get this ball run."
Jackson doesn't want to hear about safeties in the box. He says if there is an eighth man in the box, it is the back's responsibility.
"Break tackles, OK? That's what running backs do, they break tackles and that's it," Jackson said. "At the end of the day, his job is to run through somebody and come out the other side and go find a way to score, period.
"HE has to block the safety," Jackson said. "That's the back's job. The great back, that's his job."
Bernard and Hill have come up with some spectacular long and clutch runs this season, more than any in the 12 seasons of the Lewis era. But Jackson is looking for consistency. When it comes to breakaway runs and the percentage of their total yards, Hill and Bernard are 21st and 23 respectively in the NFL, according to profootballfocus.com. PFF's elusive rating for them is 23rd and 28th, respectively.
Jackson is looking for greatness in December. And that means some broken tackles.
"I think we've got two very talented backs. They're young backs. They're growing. They're growing with the offensive line," Jackson said. "The special backs in this league make uncommon plays all the time. It's just what they do. And if you want to be considered as that, you have to make those plays, and the play isn't when everybody's blocked."
On Dec. 1, the weather was 50 degrees and Jackson smiled. You don't know, he said. It could be 50. It could be freezing. It could be worse.
"It's going to be a very interesting month. That's what this is all about," he said. "We're in the race and that's all you can ask for. The rest of it we have to take care of ourselves. I think our guys understand that."