A.J. Green's back sounds like it's OK for Denver.
Hue Jackson didn't get much sleep after Monday morning's arrival from the win in San Francisco. For a variety of reasons, with some of the prime ones being Sunday's 242 yards as the fewest in his 21 victories as the Bengals offensive coordinator.
And he says he won't sleep much this week staring at next Monday night's (8:30-Cincinnati's Channel 5 and ESPN) assignment in a Broncos defense ranked No. 1 in everything.
Jackson expressed his happiness at how AJ McCarron executed the game plan in his first NFL start, how he stayed away from turnovers, how he dug the club out of jams not of his doing, and how his guys gutted out a gritty one on the road.
At the moment, only the Bengals, Patriots, and Packers have been to the last five postseasons, and they can make it tough on the Broncos to join them.
But after being unable to average two yards per 36 carries Sunday, Jackson unloaded on his unit's need to better surround McCarron in his second NFL start.
"We need to get mote tenacity," said Jackson of Denver's relentless style. "We need to get a little more fire in the crank case.
"Where Andy Dalton was the leader, he was kind of the pied piper and they followed him," Jackson told a gathering of local scribes Monday afternoon. "AJ hasn't earned that role. They have to as a unit kind of help lead him by doing their jobs as well as they've ever done it to take that other pressure off him. Because he's not ready to do all of that. He's ready to do his part. But to ask him to do his part and make sure everything else is taken care of, the T's are crossed the I's are dotted, I don't think that's fair. Because we do have a veteran unit, so that unit needs to continue to step up. And they will. I believe they will."
Jackson praised defensive coordinator Paul Guenther for the four turnovers against the Niners, lifting the Bengals into a tie for fourth in the NFL with a plus-9 turnover differential and he's looking for a similar showing from his guys as McCarron continues to carry the Bengals' hopes.
Jackson didn't single out the offensive line, instead putting it on "the other 10 guys,' but the line took a beating from graders. Profootballfocus.com targeted center Russell Bodine with eight negative plays in the run game while right tackle Andre Smith put up a minus-4.5 against Quinton Dial, a fifth-round pick from two years ago.
"If you just play ho-hum, I don't think it will give us a chance to get to where we're trying to go. That's my message to the group. We've got to get better. We've got to get better fast. What's awaiting us on the other side is not pretty," Jackson said. "I'm not going to give you any excuses for it. There are none. When you don't play well, you don't play well. We can talk about looks and this and that all we want. If you don't play well, you don't play well. That's what was disappointing to me."
Jackson also wasn't happy how his unit finished and is reminding them play-off games are usually decided in the fourth quarter.
Hue Jackson is going to keep throwing the long ball
Jackson also took questions on:
Why did running back Jeremy Hill not start for the first time all season and not play until the second quarter?
"That's between the head coach and the coordinator and Jeremy. So it's all good. That's it. End of discussion."
Giovani Bernard played 10 more snaps than Hill, but Hill ended up having five more carries with 19. His two one-yard plunges give him 10 TDs, the first double-digit back since Rudi Johnson had a dozen in 2006. With tight end Tyler Eifert at 12 TDs, it's the first time in history the Bengals have had double-digit TD makers running and receiving in the same season.
Was Hill's third fumble of the season his fault on an odd play in which he collided with right tackle Andre Smith
as he took the handoff?
"It just wasn't Jeremy, it just wasn't the quarterback. It was part the offensive line. We all have to do our jobs a little better," Jackson said. "Two guys run through the same gap, that doesn't happen very often. But we should have been able to get that stopped. All of a sudden the guy blows up the handoff. That's the first time I've had one of those in a long time. So we have to make sure that doesn't rear its ugly head anymore because you can't have those things happen."
Because it wasn't wholly his fault, Hill was back on the field for next series.
Why did Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green leave midway through the third quarter and why did he have a season-low one catch? Reports have had him crashing into a retaining wall during Saturday's practice at San Jose State and bruising up a floating rib, but the Bengals say he's OK.
"It was a little bit of everything. I want to make sure you guys know we're not trying to force the ball to A.J.," Jackson said. "I don't think that's important when you have a young QB playing in his first game because then that's when things start going the other way. You said one ball, that's one ball caught. But there were other targets where it was thrown to him where we just didn't hook up with him."
Green ended up with three targets, his second fewest of the season after the two in the win in Pittsburgh.
How significant is Sunday's victory and a possible play-off bye with a win in Denver?
"I though the whole place was flat. It was a big building and not a ton of people," said Jackson of Levi's Stadium. "We had to supply our own energy. Sometimes when that happens things don't go as well . . . There were a lot of things tied to this game and there were a lot of reasons why the thing could have gone the other way. Give them a lot of credit it. A lot of credit to, one, the offensive staff, to the players more so than anybody. They said, 'uh-uh, we're not letting this go.'"
Maybe a bye can help Andy Dalton say good-bye to the cast.
With Andy Dalton's broken right thumb, he'll need every week he can get. It's why Jackson says getting a bye into the division round would be "heavenly."
"And that's the fun part about where we are that there's still stuff out there," Jackson said. "There's an opportunity that we can have a first-round bye and play games here, and there would be nothing greater than that. We'll see where we are and see where Andy is. All of that is wrapped up into that thought process of it."
How different is that Denver defense than the one from last season at Paul Brown Stadium? The one the Bengals ran for 207 yards on to qualify for the playoffs on, yes, Monday night.
Cincinnati Bengals travel to take on the San Francisco 49ers in week 15 of the regular season.
"New year. New defensive coordinator. New style. New emphasis on how they do things. Jack Del Rio to Wade Phillips. Totally different. Entirely different. They weren't No. 1 in everything when we played them last year. There are some animals over there. We have to understand that. What we did last year is doesn't matter, Jackson said.
"Nothing against Jack. Jack does what he does and Wade what he does. But I think Wade really just turned their guys loose and told them to play as hard as you can play. Don't worry about much. Whoever has the ball, go get 'em as fast and as hard as you can. That's how they play and they play hard and that's how football should be played."
But the questions kept coming back to McCarron. With the go balls of 37 yards to Green and 47 to wide receiver Marvin Jones, it's pretty clear Jackson is going to take his shots.
"We're not going to be afraid to take our shots because you have to," he said. "I don't want any defense to line up and say these guys are just trying to survive. We're not trying to survive; we're trying to score. That's out job."
Jackson even paid homage to the 'Bama curse McCarron broke Sunday. It was the first NFL win engineered by an Alabama starter since Jeff Rutledge won for the Giants in 1987, three years before McCarron arrived in Mobile.
"He helped lead the winning performance. That was his first outing, so I think he got that Alabama monkey off his back for the university, for himself," Jackson said. "But more so than that, he helped the team achieve a goal, which was to win the game. I thought that part of it he did well. He took care of the ball, and I think that was most important."
But there are things that Jackson needs to see improve. McCarron did well by taking sacks and not throwing picks. (Is that you Kellen Moore?) But the next step is not throwing the pick and not taking the sack, too.
"I'm not expecting AJ McCarron to be Andy Dalton. You know what I mean?" Jackson said. Everybody's got to understand that. He's doing the best he can, and he's going to battle and prepare and work his butt off. That much I do know. But if that's the expectation of whom he is, then we're mistaken. He's no different than any other rookie quarterback that has played . . . There's so much growth still to put him to get him better. That's just the name of the game."