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Gruden eyes active backs

Cedric Benson

Cedric Benson showed up when he didn't have to Wednesday at the Bengals voluntary voluntary because he said he needed the work. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is vowing Benson will get it once the season shows up with everyone else.

And Jay's track record with brother Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay shows that Benson is going to need his track shoes if he indeed re-signs with the Bengals.

"If our strength is running the football," Jay Gruden said Wednesday, "then we have to find a way to get the best possible scenarios to get Cedric as many touches as possible without killing him."

With the most experienced Bengals quarterback possessing all of 15 NFL passes, there is no doubt that the team's strengths heading into 2011 are a veteran defense, speed on special teams, and the running game anchored by Benson on paper.

Sound familiar? When Jon Gruden coached the Buccaneers from 2002, his starting quarterbacks ranged wildly from Brad Johnson to Brian Griese to Chris Sims to Bruce Gradkowski to Jeff Garcia, a lot of the burden fell on the running backs on the ground and in the air.

In the Grudens' first season in Tampa under Johnson in 2002, the top two ball carriers - Michael Pittman and Mike Alstott - combined to touch the ball 444 times on 350 runs and 94 catches. In their last season in 2008 under Jeff Garcia, Warrick Dunn, Earnest Graham and an injured Cadillac Williams racked up 395 touches.

Proof that no matter if it is Gruden's West Coast offense or the Cleveland Browns offense of the 1950s that Bill Walsh crafted into the West Coast, the backs get plenty of work. Especially in an offense with quarterback questions.

"Jon kind of adjusted from the West Coast themes from Bill Walsh and all of them that were more a pass-happy offense to set up the run," Jay Gruden said. "He ran the ball there at times. We had quarterback issues from time to time. We didn't have any Joe Montanas or Peyton Mannings or Tom Bradys. We had efficient quarterbacks, but I think he just thought we needed to run the ball to protect them and try to set up the pass with the run.

"We had a great defense and that had a lot to do with it. We wanted to keep the clock running, play field position, punt when you had to punt and let the defense do their thing and try to set us up with good, sound drives and take shots when we could."

Sound familiar? Gruden isn't going to surrender the pass game yet, but it is clear Benson would be in the middle of a lot of action a year after he bristled in what he thought was former offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski's pass-first offense. Whether the backs played on first, second or third down, they got the ball in Tampa Bay one way or the other. From 2002-2006 (with Johnson, Griese, Sims and Gradkowski as QBs), the backs caught 442 balls and with Garcia in '08, Dunn and Graham combined for 70 catches.

Benson has just 65 catches in his three seasons as a Bengal and Jay Gruden also know he's got a secret weapon out of the backfield in Bernard Scott. Secret because in his two seasons the Bengals have thrown just 16 balls to Scott.

"The back is definitely a very important part of this offense both running and catching the ball," Gruden said. "Hopefully between Cedric and Bernard and (Brian) Leonard somebody will jump up and take over in the backfield as far as catching the ball. We know that Cedric and Bernard can run it. We've just got to see who can catch the ball more effectively."

According to the media reports from Wednesday's practice, Benson is in vintage form. At 28, healthy, comfortable in his surroundings, and embracing the new offense, Benson sounded ready to lug it 25 times tomorrow.

"I'm beyond football shape," Benson told the media. "I'm in 16 regular-game, four postseason-game kind of shape. I'm ready to roll … with this extended lockout, you've had all this extra time to work out. I haven't trained like this since I don't know when. It should be a lot of guys coming back in their best athletic (shape)."

Although there have been no coaches around for the last two weeks, the overhaul of the offense is clear lockout or no lockout. No Carson Palmer, Chad Ochocinco or Terrell Owens. But Benson wants to stay. After last season's 4-12 underachievement, he sounds revived.

"Anytime it's a new season, there's a fresh start. You always start fresh. There's no question having a new coordinator is definitely going to be a fresh start," Benson told the media. "I think this offense is looking for and eager for a fresh start from the past season. Change can be good. Considering the way things went a year ago, it's time for change. I think it's going to be a good look."

It may look a lot like the Bucs in the previous decade trying to protect their young QBs and relying on their defense and Benson and his backs.

"Might be," said the younger Gruden."We'll see how it goes in training camp. How we're throwing the football. If we can't complete a forward pass then, yes, we will run the ball 50 times a game. But I fully anticipate with A.J. Green and Jerome (Simpson) and (Jermaine) Gresham and (Jordan) Shipley, they'll see it differently. They'll want to throw the ball a little bit. We'll see. That's what training camp is for."

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