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Lewis, Dalton get them to the gate again


 Marvin Lewis has turned the Bengals into one of the NFL's best September teams.

The Bengals head into one of the NFL's most demanding visiting venues Sunday when they travel to Baltimore (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) on a trip made even more dangerous with the Ravenous faithful lathered up by an 0-2 start for its home opener.

The only better winning percentage in the NFL at home in the last 10 seasons than the Ravens' .775 is the Patriots' .838.

But the Bengals can answer with their own trend. It may not be hot and sexy and get you on NFL Network or make you the darling of the NFL insiders.



Pass the bulky 1990s remote.

But it wins a lot of games in this league.

While Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is working with his fourth offensive coordinator in the last four seasons, the Bengals' Andy Dalton has the foundation of the same playbook since the Green-Dalton Bengals arrived in 2011 with Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green in the first round and Dalton in the second.

Current Washington head coach Jay Gruden steered Dalton through his first three seasons as offensive coordinator and for the last two seasons Hue Jackson has built off the same system that is West Coast in nature and that and then some in reality.

Among other factors, keeping the offense intact has helped the Bengals become one of the NFL's best September teams. Since Dalton's second season in 2012, the Bengals are tied with Denver for the league's second best September record at 10-3, a game behind Arizona's 11-2.

"There's different stuff, but there's also some of the same stuff," Dalton said Monday after the Bengals won their fifth straight September game dating back to last season's opener in Baltimore. "It's obviously Hue's offense. Jay had the foundation here and we've kind of taken it and ran with it."

Not only that, the only major target Dalton has lost since 2012 is tight end Jermaine Gresham. The other two wide receivers in the Big Three, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, have been here since that year's draft. When Dalton invited his receivers and backs to Dr. Tom House's quarterback camp back in July to throw with him before training camp, it was the third straight summer he got together with Green, Jones, and Sanu.

"If you go back to my second year, it's like all the same receivers are playing," Dalton said. "Then we added backs the next year and Tyler the next year and Jeremy the next year so I feel like we understand the guys, we've played together for a while now so I think all that stuff helps."

It has transformed into Dalton's supersonic September numbers. He's played an entire season of Septembers, 16 games, and Jackson would take these numbers right now for all of 2015: A passer rating of 94.4 with 23 touchdowns and 11 interceptions on a completion percentage of 65 and yards per attempt of 7.5. Take away his rookie year and the numbers are even better: a 96.9 rating with 20 TDs and nine picks on 66 percent passing and a yards per of 7.9.

"You come from training camp and you've been through everything. You're well-schooled," Jackson said. "The pressure of making every play count, play in and play out, doesn't happen in the preseason. It starts to happen now, so I think you're well prepared to handle that. It's just a consistency of doing it for 16 games to earn a 17th game. You have to really get yourself in that kind of mindset. I think he's there. He's working at it, but yet we still haven't done it yet. There have only been two games."

Of course, not only the offense is intact. Head coach Marvin Lewis is in his 13th season with the same special teams coordinator, Darrin Simmons, and   defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is in his 11th year with the club. Even the exiles have returned in free agency, such as right end Michael Johnson and defensive tackle Pat Sims.

"I've been here four years and I'm still looking at the same faces," said cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. "Mike left and Pat left, but they brought those guys back and they act like they've never left."

Cincinnati Bengals host the San Diego Chargers in week 2 of the regular season.

But if the systems and players have stayed the same, other things haven't.  Kirkpatrick is a good object study. He's the first draft pick in the post-Georgetown era, when the Bengals stayed home to have training camp at Paul Brown Stadium, a move that has spurred a variety of infrastructure changes.

"We do things a lot differently than when I got here," Kirkpatrick said. "They do a great job of trying to adapt and make the environment as comfortable as possible. . . . Now it's how we practice. How much stress we put on our body. The modalities after practice. I feel like they've always been flexible here and that affects our play."

Since the move from Georgetown in 2012, Bengals head strength coach Chip Morton and assistant Jeff Friday have delved into the digital world of GPS, wiring their players to gauge everything from heart rate to numbers of steps in an effort find the best combination of practice and rest.The data helped convince Lewis to change his practice schedule this season by using Friday to focus on the game plan and recovery instead of a full-scale practice with a more up-tempo session the day before the game.

Morton, another coach who has been with Lewis since the creation, has also dabbled with major nutritional changes the past few years highlighted by the installation of a cafeteria next to the locker room this past June.

"The guys are comfortable in their surroundings and what we're doing. There's not a lot of big change," Lewis said. "We enter the season on the same level of comfort as what's expected from them all the time. That takes the angst and unknowns out. Our guys are comfortable with what they know, and what's going to unfold. We strive through camp to keep them healthy, keep them on their feet, keep them fresh, and move forward. That's such a big part of our training camp."   

But does a good September mean an even better January for the Green-Dalton edition looking for its first play-off win? The trend would say yes. A game behind the Bengals in the September rankings since 2012 are the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots (10-4) and the Cowboys (9-4). Denver has also made a Super Bowl in that stretch.

The only puzzler is Arizona at 11-2. Since 2012, they've undergone changes at both quarterback and head coach. And the Broncos, who have a new coach this year along with a new offensive system, haven't batted an eye in getting off to a 2-0 start that includes a win over the Ravens. Like the Bengals, the Patriots and Cowboys have had the same head coach and quarterback.

But then there is Flacco. Amid all his changes, he's got a Super Bowl ring.

Maybe a good start simply comes down to what Lewis talked about Monday.

"Don't turn the ball over, defend the score, and don't give up big plays," Lewis said. "If you do those things you're going to have an opportunity to be successful. Our guys have embraced that understand that's how you win."

Of course, that's what wins in January, too. But you need a September to get there.

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