Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden caught glimpses on Sunday, but he knows the agonizing evolution of the offense has come at a terrific cost. Three times in this four-game losing streak the Bengals have gone into the fourth quarter tied or ahead and they have been unable to manufacture the winning points.
Now this Sunday at 1 p.m. at Paul Brown Stadium with the Super Bowl champion Giants importing the fourth-quarter magic that has brought them two of the last four NFL titles, Gruden has a teachable moment for his young crew grappling for success.
"They play with a lot of confidence and they expect to win every game and that's something we have to instill in our players; where every game you're expecting to win," Gruden said Monday, taking a break from studying the next Manning. "(The Giants) have already had some great comebacks this year where they're down, down, down and all of a sudden they just win at the end because they know they're going to. They make the big plays when they have to."
Gruden only has to turn this past Sunday, where the video is still covered with the fairy dust of Peyton Manning's NFL-record 48th fourth-quarter comeback and the three Bengals offensive penalties on six snaps as they attempted to regain the lead midway through the fourth quarter on a drive that ended with quarterback Andy Dalton's only interception of the day.
"Our pendulum has swung the other way around; we make the big plays for the other side," Gruden said. "A couple of penalties. We shoot ourselves in the foot and throw an interception. We just have to win those tough games. All these teams are good. There are going to be lot more close games for us to get to where we want to get. We have to win the close games, make the big plays in crucial situations and we haven't done that in our five losses."
It's even more of a mystery because that's how Gruden and Dalton made hay in their rookie NFL seasons last year. Five of Cincinnati's first seven wins came in the fourth quarter, the first one at the hand of backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski. But the Bengals haven't been able to scrape together one for nearly a year. Since Nov. 27, 2011, Dalton has watched Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Brandon Weeden and T.J. Yates break ties or take the lead in the fourth quarter.
"Offense, defense or special teams. Everybody. One of the groups was making a big play and we were finding ways to win at the end," Gruden said.
But Gruden saw enough Sunday in the 366-yard effort against Denver that thinks the Bengals are on the right road. He liked:
» How Dalton and A. J. Green bounced back from their career-worst games against the Steelers. Dalton had an alert, aggressive outing in and out of the pocket improvising at times for many of his 299 yards passing and Green beat Hall of Famer Champ Bailey enough for 99 yards and a touchdown.
"Andy competed. Made some tough throws, made some big plays and there were still a lot of plays there over the course of the game he wished he had back and I wish we had back," Gruden said. "For the most part he was under some pressure and I was happy with the way he competed. He stood in there, took a few hits, but didn't let the rush get to him mentally. I was happy to see that. I think we can build from there.
"He made a couple big (unscripted) plays and that is going to be needed. The (Broncos) are a very good pass rush and with their style of pass rush it's very hard to get out of the pocket. They really press the edges very well and don't leave a lot of space for the quarterback to run but he was able to get out and made some things happen."
» How tight end Jermaine Gresham bounced back from an early drop to make enough big catches to post the first Bengals 100-yard game by a tight end in 17 years with six catches for 108 yards.
"He had the one-handed catch and caught some big out routes and, of course, the scramble drill," Gruden said of the 52-yard catch-and-ramble as Dalton escaped the pocket. "Going over 100 yards is a good feat for him. Important for him to continue to see signs of progress. Keep coming in here and keep getting better and better. There are some things that he can clean up and he can be a hell of a force for us. But with the drop and a couple other issues he had with reading coverages and things of that nature, he needs to improve. We are happy with the way he is coming around, but he's got to come faster for us to make the move that we need to make to get in the playoffs."
» How the running game finally produced a steady diet of plus four-yard runs. Gruden knows the running game is below average and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis still managed to rush below his season average of 3.4 yards per carry with 3.3 Sunday (17-56), but he also had 10 runs of four yards or more and just four of two or less and none for negative yardage. That's an improvement.
Another teachable moment. Denver kept running the ball even though it was worse than the Bengals. Willis McGahee averaged just 2.9 yards per carry and carried it six more times than Green-Ellis.
"They weren't great running the ball yesterday, but they were effective. And you have to defend it. If you're going to run it, even if you're not running for 200 yards, if you run it effectively like I think we ran it (Sunday), you have to defend it and you have to prepare to defend it," Gruden said. "The good thing is that BenJarvus had a number of carries of three, four, five, six, seven yards, which I thought was pretty good. Not overjoyed. But making progress."
Where Gruden knows the Bengals have to make progress this week is protecting the passer against New York's NFL-best front four. The Bengals gave up five sacks to Denver; three to SAM backer Von Miller as he worked against right tackle Andre Smith, although Smith was probably responsible for one while the others came off coverage and a twist. But still, Gruden didn't like how the pocket constricted on Dalton all day.
And the two biggest rushes of the day didn't count because Miller beat center Jeff Faine for a holding call to wipe out Dalton's 19-yard throw to Green on that drive from Heck. But Faine was clearly hurting with his hamstring injury. On the next snap, third-and-25, Robert Ayers bulled through him to hit Dalton's arm that ended up as the killing interception for Bailey.
That particularly galled Gruden because that came off a three-man rush.
"There's a couple of other pressures that (Smith) gave up, and (left tackle Andrew Whitworth) got pushed back a few times. It's not so much the stat of how many sacks we gave up, but the pressure that forced us into bad throws or a hit arm," Gruden said. "The interception goes down as an interception for Andy, but that should be a Faine sack. Some of the sacks we gave up shouldn't be sacks, they should be Andy scramble sacks. It works both ways over the course of a game. When we got down two scores we had to throw obviously, then they can tee it off."
And there's the key, with Smith and Whitworth blocking Miller and Elvis Dumervil one-on-one. Gruden would have liked to have given them help with a back or a tight end slide, but he also had to get some receivers out in patterns.
"You can try to keep extra guys in (to block), then you've got a three-man route against seven guys in coverage," he said. "What route do you want to run? There's no way to get anybody open. But then you chip and get out of there, they're back to being one-one-one anyhow, so you're in the same predicament without a route. We were up 20-17 then they came down and scored and we got the ball back (down) 24-20 and the holding call hurt."
He's not happy. But with the Super Giants looming, Gruden sees enough to build on. The idea is to be, like the Giants and Broncos and other playoff contenders, balanced.
"They're balanced. It's important. You hear Aaron Rodgers preach about he wants to be more balanced in Green Bay. It's very, very important. Tom Brady (the Patriots) have become very, very balanced. They're running the hell out of the ball," he said. "Part of New Orleans's downfall this year is probably lack of balance. They're not able to run the ball at all. Drew Brees is back there throwing every down and teams are mixing coverages and dropping extra guys and making it hard on him.
"We're headed that way (to balance). You have to be balanced. We're just not great running the ball, we're not great throwing the ball, but I think we're decent in those. We just have to do a better job of being great at both. Effective at both."