Updated: 10 p.m.
Paul Alexander would like it to be better, no question. But after scheming against the Steelers and Ravens four times a year for the past 18 seasons as the Bengals offensive line coach, he's also a realist when it comes to the running game and where it rates in the priority to pass protection.
He got center Jeff Faine 10 days before the opener because of Kyle Cook's injured ankle and put Faine in the middle of the guard tandem of Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler that never played an NFL game in their spots until the opener. And new running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis went 31 days between carrying the ball in a preseason game and the opener.
Alexander figures it could be worse. The Bengals are 3-3 and the quarterback is still standing. He's quick to point out that he's hesitant to use the word "factor" because it sounds like "excuse," and he's not offering any of those.
"All I know is we'll get better," Alexander acknowledged after Wednesday's practice with a yards per rush average of 3.9.
"At this point in time, to be 10th in the league in offense with three new guys and a new back, I would like it better. But I'll take it because I know we'll get better from here."
Even though the Bengals are 23rd in the NFL in giving up sacks per pass, Alexander is pleased with the protection so far because a lot of them have been related to coverage.
"I know we've given up a million sacks, but the line protection has been good. He hasn't got hit much," Alexander said of quarterback Andy Dalton. "To have three new guys in there and get hit as rarely as he's been hit this year, I'll take it. I've worked harder on protection because I know if you don't protect you lose your franchise. The other stuff will come."
For instance, Alexander says he's spent most of his time with Zeitler on pass protection because the Badgers simply didn't throw it that much at Wisconsin.
Alexander said there's a different look to the protection because the Bengals are encouraging Dalton to extend plays and "when that happens you give up sacks."
After six games last season, Dalton had been sacked 10 times for 69 yards. Now he's at 17 sacks for 102.
"I see us getting better every week. In protection if you miss you've got another guy helping you. In run blocking if you miss everyone else is firing out," Alexander said.
While Alexander is talking about changes in the pass pro look with Dalton looking to extend plays, head coach Marvin Lewis indicated the coaching staff rehabbed elements of the running game during the offseason.
"When you look at what you want to do improving-wise in the offseason, that's part of it," Lewis said. "So it's a whole revamp of the running game. You've got to include everybody on the offensive football team, because it's all new for them and you have to apply it each and every week against new opponents – three-man front, four-man front. You all have to see it through the same eyes, and you continually go through it and through it until you get better at it. That's the best way. I don't know any other way to get better at anything but to continually do it."
Lewis thinks it's tough to run all over, and maybe he's got something there. Although the Bengals run numbers aren't good, they've got some company. They're 21st in rushing and according to Elias, their five rushes of 15-plus yards are tied with four other teams for 19th in the league. Their 100 rushes of three yards or less are eighth most in the NFL.
A lot of eyes are on Green-Ellis's 3.4 yards per carry, yet Alexander says the Bengals like his discipline and approach. But they're still getting to know him.
"We like him but he missed all of training camp and you learn how to block for different guys and adjustments," Alexander said. "We like blocking for him. Sometimes it's the blocker, sometimes it's the runner. The bottom line is if they all screw up one play at the end of the day you are not good. You can't have a game where everyone makes their one mistake."
The one thing looming over this game is the enormity of the Steelers defense. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's juggernaut routinely is a top five outfit. His front seven has played just one quarter together this year and they are still ranked fifth. They plan to reunite Sunday night.
Alexander remembers the only time the Bengals beat the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium in the Lewis era, 2009, it was another first year of a new offensive line. People forget, but their show in the first half bordered on the horrific. After the first quarter the Bengals had negative 10 yards and with 1:06 before halftime they were only up to 47 yards and yet they warmed up enough to post TD drives of 85 and 71 yards in the fourth quarter to win it.
"Their defense is so fast that you can't simulate it," Alexander said. "They just have to kind of get on the horse and hang on. I hope we don't start slow this week. The longer you play that defense, the more you get a feel for it."
Green-Ellis played the Steelers three times in his career as a Patriot and in the one game he carried more than five times, he gained 87 yards on 18 carries in a 2010 victory for the Pats. The Bengals would probably take that right now. They haven't had a back get more than that against the Steelers since Rudi Johnson went for 98 yards on 21 carries in the 2005 victory at Heinz.
"Traditionally Pittsburgh always has a good defense. The last 20, 30, 40, 50 years, as long as they've been in existence. It's up to us to handle them and do what they do. If we go out and execute I think we'll be all right," Green-Ellis said. "They do a lot of different things. They can throw a fire zone blitz at you. They've shown different blitzes this year than they've had. We have to be ready not only in the running game but also in the passing game and be ready to pick up some blitzes because we know they're going to be coming. We just have to be sound in execution."
Green-Ellis hears the argument about a lack of timing with a new unit, but he says it's too late for that.
"I'm not sure. Me missing a lot of time, almost the whole preseason, with Jeff showing up 10 days before the season, and everybody being new, that's one thing," he said. "But we're into Week 7 and we've got to go out there and play well together and we have to gel here and gel quickly and get the problems that we have and get them fixed and move forward."
FRESH LEGS? The Bengals may be getting a shot of fresh legs and blood in Sunday's game. With first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick drawing closer and closer to his NFL debut at cornerback, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said after Wednesday's practice the Bengals are looking at giving fifth-round pick Marvin Jones more snaps at wide receiver as well as dressing wide receiver Ryan Whalen for the first time this year.
Jones, the speedster from Cal who along with undrafted linebacker Vontaze Burfict lit up training camp, has been slowly getting more and more time. He caught two balls for 21 yards late Sunday during a career-high 15 snaps and has three catches this year.
"Marvin is going to get more snaps, no doubt. Whalen might get more snaps, too," Gruden said. "The thing about all those guys is they've all proven that they can play in the NFL. It's just a matter of once they get the opportunity hanging on and making plays when they get it. And keeping it. If it's not happening or we are not getting a lot of production then these guys are in line, they are waiting. They are breathing down their necks right here."
That's because Armon Binns and Brandon Tate, the starter and backup opposite Pro Bowler A.J. Green, have struggled the past two games as they try to find their footing. It's the first six NFL games of Binns's career and the first six games Tate has played at receiver for the Bengals.
Binns fumbled against the Dolphins two weeks ago and in Cleveland last Sunday he had trouble getting open when he caught two out of five targets for 12 yards. The Bengals also weren't happy how he didn't turn upfield on a third-and-13 that turned into just six yards. And they didn't like Tate's route on Browns cornerback Sheldon Brown's 19-yard interception return out of the slot for a touchdown that sealed it at 34-17 with 7:50 left in the game.
But Gruden isn't giving up on anybody. He says all seven receivers can play in the league.
"Problem is, these guys are getting quality reps on game days and then they are learning on the fly and you take them out and start them over and bring another new guy in who is going to make his young mistakes," Gruden said. "So it's a tough call. Like I said, I feel good about all those guys; I don't want to give up on anybody. I don't think any of those guys deserve to be given up on right now. Just a matter of getting them out there and once they are out there they have to go out and make the plays."
SLANTS AND SCREENS
» Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis wouldn't rule out third-down back Brian Leonard (rib) from Sunday's game even though he didn't practice Wednesday. He also said while defensive tackle Pat Sims (hamstring) is eligible to come off the physically unable to perform list (PUP) this week, he won't be active against the Steelers.
(If Leonard can't go, the move seems to be to promote rookie Daniel Herron from the practice squad for the week. But who would get cut to take his place?)
Also out was defensive end/SAM backer Dontay Moch, but it was not injury related. Moch missed last Thursday's practice with an illness but came back to work full Friday and made his NFL debut in Cleveland on Sunday in the sixth game of his second season when he played four snaps in pass-rush situations on the defensive line. Asked Friday if the illness was related to the headaches that helped shelve him his rookie year, Lewis would only say it it was "an illness."
» Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins (back) was limited Wednesday, as was defensive tackle Devon Still (shoulder) and right guard Kevin Zeitler (elbow). Gruden is looking to get the 5-7, 180-pound Hawkins some rest. After having at least one catch of 24 yards in the first five games, Hawkins caught five balls for just 35 yards total in Cleveland during a game he played 72 percent of the offensive snaps (51) and 46 percent of the special teams snaps (17).
"He's a little worn down and we want to keep him a little fresher," Gruden said.
"Hawkins is a little banged up. He's in on special teams and we've been in so much three wide receivers in the last week that I think he just wears down a little. He'll be fine, though. He just needs a little bit of rest today. We gave him some rest to get his legs back, and come Sunday he'll be fine. But we do need to get some other people in there. The positive is Hawk is very quick, very dynamic. The negative is sometimes he's hard to see when he gets jammed, and it's hard for him to separate sometimes. He needs to be fresh."
» Rookie center Trevor Robinson played his first NFL series early in Sunday's game and got rave reviews, but nobody is saying much about the future. Or when it is going to be. Except that he has a good one.
"He looked good. He did a real good job," Alexander said. "He's done great in practice and we wanted to see how he did and worked great."
Cook, whose ankle surgery spurred Faine's signing, is eligible to start practicing this week and play as soon as Nov. 4 against the Broncos. He wasn't at practice Wednesday, but the club doesn't have to clear him this week. When the Bengals do allow him to practice, they have three weeks to get him to the active roster.
» Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has already declared strong safety Troy Polamalu and right tackle Marcus Gilbert out of the game. His top two running backs, Rashard Mendenhall (Achilles) and Isaac Redman (foot) are dinged and didn't practice but the sense is they'll play Sunday. Same with center Maurkice Pouncey (knee) and inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons (foot).
» Lewis is delighted that Reds manager Dusty Baker has joined him in the two-year extension group. He calls Baker a "coach's coach" because of his belief in fundamentals and can empathize with the second-guessing.
"I just laugh because people say, 'Well, he should have started this guy this day and that guy this game.' C'mon man," Lewis said. "You've done a good job and you're sitting in that dugout and all you're doing is trying to win. You're doing everything you can in every fiber of your body to win. Nothing else matters. You don't care who plays what. Who pitches, who hits, you just want to win and if you're going to get a hit, you'll be in there."