There were smiles of relief all around the Bengals locker room Thursday night in wake of the 24-13 victory over the Panthers at Paul Brown Stadium.
They finally found that 2009 offensive identity hijacked by Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens last season bound and gagged at the bottom of the Ohio River and unleashed a running game that gouged out 191 yards on 4.7 yards per bang while chewing up 34 minutes of the clock.
Throw in a relentless night from a blossoming front seven and a steady seasoned secondary, as well as a couple of bombs from specialists Mike Nugent and Kevin Huber, and there you have head coach Marvin Lewis' formula to survive the trials and tribulations of rookie quarterback Andy Dalton.
"Ced gets mad if he doesn't get his carries," joked offensive coordinator Jay Gruden after he gave the ball to running back Cedric Benson 16 times in the first 17 minutes of the game. "Give him the ball until he can't breathe."
Relief. Jokes. Smiles. After a solid month of angst and anxiety.
Dalton laughed when asked what Gruden said to him after he launched his first NFL touchdown pass, a feathery 40-yard strike to rookie wide receiver A.J. Green.
"He said, 'The ball was a bit wobbly and it was a little inside,' " Dalton said of the gag. "I said, 'We scored. That's all that matters.' "
But this was serious business out there. Benson, still aghast at how his role was reduced last season, carried the ball more than he did in four games last season and his 68 yards were more than he had in nine games of last season's 4-12 disaster.
"It works and we're good at it," said Benson, after the Bengals stole 19 minutes of the first half. "We can control the game, control the clock. We do well when we play football like that. We showed that in '09 and we showed some of that last year."
Chained by horrendous starts in his first two games, Dalton looked like he was in the dentist's chair without a running game. But on Thursday, he was at Happy Hour, sifting 11-of-17 for 130 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions, no sacks, and plenty of time.
"When you run the ball, they are going to try to get more guys in the box to try and stop it. We had chances one-on-one and I think we took advantage of it tonight," Dalton said.
The Bengals' signature play is becoming Gruden's favorite. The left guard, whether it be Nate Livings or rookie Clint Boling, pulls right while the right side of the line double teams.
"That's probably one of Jay's favorite plays," Benson said. "Smashmouth football like that. I like that and the offensive line likes it, too. They did great tonight. It was a test for them as well. We didn't run it very much last year. We probably ran it about six times tonight."
In their finest display of the preseason, the line kept Dalton clean while continually pounding huge holes with power plays. But left tackle Andrew Whitworth stressed this power stuff isn't anything new.
"This is our style; this is who we are," Whitworth said. "We have to play like this every week. It's just downhill power. That's like it was the first two weeks. Same players. Same plays. New attitude. New mindset. This is the attitude and mindset we need for the next 17, 18 weeks.
"We played like we wanted to play tonight (after the disastrous starts of the first two games). We came out and we had time to put in our mindset and our attitude and hammer some people."
But it just wasn't the line that showed up with an edge. Fullback Chris Pressley cleared out people on a fourth-and-1 and Benson's third-and-one touchdown run that highlighted the first scoring drive. Wide receiver Jerome Simpson escorted running back Bernard Scott for the final yards of his electrifying 12-yard run.
"We wanted the mentality that no matter who was in front of us we could dominate," said Scott after he scorched the Panthers on six carries for 63 yards.
Gruden has brought the new attitude and he wears it proudly under one of his eyes. Last week while preparing his team for the Jets he jumped into a drill to simulate cornerback Darrelle Revis and Simpson accidently clipped him under the eye and the shiner is just now fading.
His desire to pound the ball is more out of necessity than anything. It's the best and safest way to protect Dalton physically and mentally as he learns the pro game on the job.
"It's very important to run the ball, obviously," Gruden said. "It protects the quarterback and it's going to get cold late in the year, so we have to start right now. It's not always going to look pretty, but it's going to be important and we've got the type of guys up front that relish the opportunity to (pound) the ball and try to knock some people off the ball and that will open other plays, hopefully."
Rewind to the 40-yard bomb with the Panthers bunched in the middle with eight men in the box and cornerback Chris Gamble trying to cover Green one-on-one. Then fast forward to the bomb that didn't work in the last minute of the first half, just overthrown "by a freckle," Gruden said, as the Panthers left Green again one-on-one in an all-out blitz.
For Gruden, his whole deal is making defenses play eight in the box to get those favorable matches on the outside.
"That's going to be the concern for defenses around the league," Gruden said. "Are you going to zero blitz and leave A.J. one-on-one at corner? It will be interesting. I'm sure we'll see a lot of them. How Andy picks them up and how A.J. makes them pay will (tell) how good we'll be on offense."
On Thursday it was good for a laugh.