ORLANDO, Fla. – While the Broncos and Patriots have engaged in an escalating arms race during free agency for supremacy in the AFC, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis thinks his re-tooled coaching staff can carry the day.
"We are going to have to coach our tails off every position every week to go and win against those teams,' said Lewis Tuesday at the NFL annual meeting and when asked if his club is as talented he said, "We are going to prove it.
"They have tried to mix and match some other guys at other spots with the signing of DeMarcus (Ware) in Denver," Lewis said. "They are putting it that these guys can play at a high level. We do what we do, we do it with young guys. We continue to try to do it with young guys and have them emerge."
The Broncos' first strike was smuggling Aqib Talib out of New England. Then they recruited the pass rusher Ware. The Patriot Missile was borrowing Darrelle Revis for a year. A Bengals arsenal that kept the Pats out of the end zone last season in a 13-6 win while taking the AFC North title plans to get replenished in the silos of the draft that have matched New England and Denver with three straight playoff runs.
"We are going to get ourselves better in the draft. What we have right now we could go play a football game and feel pretty good about ourselves," Lewis said. "But we are going to have to lock the doors down and we are going to have to go to work. Get our tails working and moving and compete and compete within ourselves to compete against those kinds of teams. "
Lewis didn't want to compare his new offensive coordinator, Hue Jackson, with his old one, Jay Gruden. But he has also been saying this is a re-boot just like 2011. That was spearheaded by a young roster headed by two rookie stars in wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton. This one is because of Jackson and another internal promotion with linebackers coach Paul Guenther replacing Mike Zimmer at defensive coordinator.
Lewis won't compare Jackson and Gruden. But we can. Jackson has known Lewis for years and has worked for him in four different capacities. If Jackson knows Lewis, Lewis knows Jackson as the ground game moves into this AFC arms buildup. The Bengals aren't using Star Wars, but X-and-O Wars.
"There's got to be a commitment to run the ball. You can't go into the game and construct certain runs and not make eight yards on the first one and get your feelings hurt," said Lewis of the Bengals' lukewarm approach to the run game. "You got to stay with things. I think we've had a great offseason so far with our coaches of getting everyone on the same page that way. I think Hue is excited about that. He feels good about where we are right now staff-wise and scheme-wise as far as being able to go out and present it to our players. As we know it doesn't unfold until September, so talking about it and words on paper now we have to go out and do it and improve in September."
September won't see a sea of new faces. Oh, they could always grab another running back fairly early in the draft and they've got a new, more active center in Mike Pollak they think is going to help them in the running game in an effort to clean up a poor 3.6 yards per carry average running the ball.
So this commitment is about better marrying the running game with the passing game on the power point. Or at least that's what Lewis indicated Tuesday.
"It's a refinement of how we do it. Obviously, our personnel is not going to change greatly. It's got to be a refinement of how we do it, a techniques of being on the same page," Lewis said. "Seeing it through the same eyes. Much like we have asked of the quarterback. The quarterback and offensive skill players have to see the passing game through the same eyes. It's the same thing with the running game. We probably haven't done a good enough job of that."
The Bengals responded to one of their losses up front in free agency with another signing when they picked up backup table Marshall Newhouse. This is a guy that Lewis thinks can be a guy like they lost to Tampa Bay, left tackle Anthony Collins. Newhouse has more starts than Collins (31-25), is three years younger at 25 and, like Collins, has played a lot for three straight playoff teams. And there's the added bonus that he protected Dalton's blindside at Texas Christian for three years and lives near him in the Dallas area.
"We like his versatility, we like that he's a young guy still emerging. He has that great experience," Lewis said. "He played on a great football team in Green Bay and won a lot of football games, so all those qualities. He's Andy Dalton's best friend. There's a lot there. We got him there now. It doesn't limit us going forward in the draft as well. We have covered ourselves to replace AC."
If the Bengals are going to be committed to the run and not just throw it a salute every once in a while, they need a third tackle/sixth man like Newhouse that can come off the bench and play both sides in a defensive division.
"It's really important. You have to have flexibility up front in the offensive line and good, young talent," Lewis said. "We brought Mike Pollak in last year to do that on the inside because we had AC on the inside. Now we've kind of got that going again. You have to have some depth there. It's a position they do good because they play together. We are really looking at him as one of our guys. He may not open up the first game as the starting tackle but I hope what he feels like is he's one of the starters. You got to have guys who go about their job and prepare as if they are starting every week. I think he's conscientious like that."
That's another good place to stack some weapons. The Bengals are fighting the AFC arms race with chemical warfare. Their locker room chemistry allowed Lewis to read the Wells Report that got carved out of the Miami disaster with a satisfied confidence of what is going on with his leaders. It's hard for him to come up with a better leader than left tackle Andrew Whitworth.
"Willie Anderson, maybe," Lewis said of the greatest right tackle in Bengals history. "Whit is probably a little more vocal than Willie. Willie had that kind of respect, I think John Thornton. I have been fortunate. Artrell Hawkins my first year with those guys (in 2003). Jeff Burris. I have been fortunate with guys, (Jon) Kitna, we've had guys who were good pros and knew how to do things the right way.
"There probably just wasn't enough of them back in '03 so they were afraid to stand up all the time. I tried to empower them all the time to do that. That's been the chance of culture and evolution of things. Andrew, Leon (Hall), Robert Geathers, (Domata) Peko, these guys are top of the charts."
Lewis has relied on almost a Board of Trustees culture culled from the best leaders at each position. For instance, he's hoping Green steps in at receiver to replace the leadership of Andrew Hawkins, gone to Cleveland in free agency.
"I've really felt last year was probably our strongest group, now we have to replace some of them, but that's good," Lewis said. "Michael was part of that group, Peko, Alex Smith right now not signed with us yet, Hawk part of that group representing the receivers. Had a guy from each position and the captains. We spent 15 minutes together every week. 'You guys got anything? Here's my message. You guys have anything?' And they wouldn't say much. "OK, here's my message for the week." They are your lieutenants and they are going to carry it out. 'Here's the upcoming schedule. This is what I am thinking when we get to the bye. So you understand, some unspoken words here but if you take care of me I'll take care of you.' So you have a chance to do that."
With chemistry and strategy, the Bengals are declaring themselves in the AFC arms race.