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Offense seeks consistency

Jay Gruden

Five months before Sunday's game in St. Louis (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), say you had handed Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden this week's NFL stats.

His quarterback is on pace to have one of the five best rookie passing seasons of all time. His No. 1 receiver is on pace to become the first rookie in five years with 1,000 receiving yards. The Bengals are on pace to have more points, fewer turnovers and fewer sacks than last year's veteran-laden offense and Andy Dalton is one win and two TDs away from becoming the first rookie quarterback since the 1970 NFL merger to throw for 20 touchdowns while winning eight games.

So back on July 16 you make like Steve Jobs and hand the future to Gruden and would he have taken it?

"I not a stat guy. I'm a wins guy," he said this week. "I'm not depressed or upset, but we're leaving too many plays on the table."

He looks at the 7-6 record and gives Dalton a C and gives himself a C-minus in their first NFL seasons.

"I'm happy with how he's played," he said, "but he knows and I know he can do better."

But with his signature optimism that has done as much to infuse this offense as his Xs and Os, Dalton's cool, and wide receiver A.J. Green's talent, Gruden holds off on handing out a report card.

"We have a couple of exams coming up and we can get that grade up," he said. "How we do in these last three games is how our team is going to be graded."

The Bengals inconsistences have become maddening. Here's a team that last week had two scoring drives of 159 yards against the second-ranked Texans defense, but could manage just 126 yards the rest of the game.

A lot of it is failing to produce in the red zone, where the Bengals have scored just six touchdowns on 15 tries since scoring on three straight shots back in Tennessee on Nov. 6.

One big stat as highlighted in play-by-play man Dan Hoard’s blog is that starting Nov. 20 in Baltimore the Bengals haven't scored a touchdown on their last six first-and-goals. Four of those have been snarled by penalty and that's what has Gruden galled.

The other big stat is since the win over the Titans, in their last five games the Bengals have played defenses that were ranked at one point this season in the top five. Gruden says a combination of youth and those defenses has contributed to the inconsistencies.

"The biggest frustration is seeing 12, 13 plays a game that are messed up," Gruden said. "Whether it's penalty, running the wrong route, whatever it might be. That's a reflection on me. You can't have those mistakes at this stage of the year."

Even though Gruden, along with quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese, has to get some assistant coach of the year votes, he's coming down hard on himself these days.

"The most frustrating thing is watching the tape after a game and seeing we have too many mistakes that are controllable by coaches or players," Gruden said.

He's talking about backs bouncing out wide too early, receivers not being in the right place, communication mixups. Cadence was a problem on a false start last week on the six-inch line, as well as the last play in Baltimore, a sack. But Gruden says those are the only two snaps where it was a problem. Not bad he says, for a team that has run 818 plays.

"Andy's done a great job with the cadence," he said.

And Gruden isn't shy about taking on himself. He took the bullet for last Sunday's false start because he didn't get the play in quick enough.

But if Gruden learned something, so did Dalton.

"He's learning timeouts are in his realm; that they are one of his possibilities," Zampese said. "It's like, 'If we don't do it, you do it.' "

No one sees Dalton like Zampese sees Dalton and what he loves is that he's been the same before Game 14 as Game 1.

"Same approach, same demeanor. That's very rare," Zampese said. "You don't see that in a young fella. You don't see it in an old fella."

That other important thing, accuracy, is just fine, too, in Zampese's evaluation.

"It's not just throwing it straight," he said, "but it's throwing it where guys are going to be and when they're going to be there while there are a lot of other things going on."

The red zone is always high on an offensive coordinator's list because it is so important and so hard because so many bodies are flying around in a condensed area. Green feels like defenses have double-covered him more in the last month down there and he's had just one red-zone TD in the last seven games.

"They can play outside leverage on A.J. with a bump-and-run corner like (Johnathan Joseph), who's really good with the safety right there to take away the slant and he can't get outside because the guy's got heavy outside leverage," Gruden said. "So it's important for our tight ends to win the middle and our backs to get out. A lot of times our backs couldn't get out because they were in protection. There are a lot of things."

Back on July 16, maybe Gruden would have autographed that stat package. Not now. But maybe he would have kept it because he likes the promise.

"I don't think anyone has lived up to what we expect," he said after five straight games in the blender. "There are reasons for optimism. I don't think there's anybody that says we got physically outplayed or outmatched. I don't think there's anybody that forced their will on us. Pittsburgh had three sacks, two were blown protections.

"For the most part when you watch the tape, you feel like we're doing some things that are pretty good. We're getting movement up front, we're throwing the ball down the field here and there and we're doing some great things, but we're just not consistently finishing drives. ... We have to do better in the red zone and on third down. That's what the difference is in games."

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