When the story is written about this Bengals season it starts with the nameplates on the player personnel board tucked away in the Paul Brown Stadium draft room and the depth chart Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis never likes to release until the first day of training camp,
Slot receiver Andrew Hawkins, who arrived on that board via waivers in the first week of the A.J. Green-Andy Dalton era in August 2011, hardly raised an eyebrow Sunday when the Bengals depth-charged the Ravens with nearly 400 yards of offense in the 34-17 victory without their top two tight ends.
"We've got offensive linemen playing multiple positions; we've got receivers playing multiple positions. We've got receivers going in when tight ends get hurt, we've got tight ends playing fullback, the fullback playing tight end," Hawkins said. "When you have that luxury I think it helps the O-coordinator out."
Not only were tight ends Jermaine Gresham (hamstring) and Tyler Eifert (neck) shelved, but during the course of the game the Bengals lost their center, left guard and left tackle. Quarterback Andy Dalton didn't get sacked while he found four different receivers for at least 51 yards.
For an offense that opens the playoffs next week a year to the day the Bengals were eliminated by the Texans in a game they had just 198 yards of offense when only one receiver had more than 34 yards, it's a good sign.
"We've got more weapons," said wide receiver A.J. Green, whose 53-yard touchdown bomb on a post led the way Sunday.
The Board yielded the first two Bengals to have at least 10 receiving touchdowns in a season when wide receiver Marvin Jones made a wondrous one-handed catch against Lardarius Webb, the estimable Ravens slot cornerback, with 1:51 left in the first half to give the Bengals a 17-6 lead.
It was the 10th touchdown of the year for Jones, nine of them in the golden red zone, to go with Green's 11 touchdowns.
But snapshot back to the play earlier in the drive that set it up. Hawkins, the 5-7, 180-pound blurry-fast matchup nightmare, got loose on a screen and he hunted and pecked and spun and burst for 22 yards behind the blocks of the touchdown men, Green and Jones, on the perimeter.
"I've been saying it since day one. We've got a great group of receivers. A tight group. We're accountable … we're happy for each other," Hawkins said. "Those guys were blocking their butts off. I don't have to worry about those guys missing their blocks because they take that as seriously as they do running the routes.
"We've added not just players, but great players. We're very versatile, as opposed to the last two years going into the playoffs."
Never was the diversity more apparent than on the biggest drive of the game, Dalton's response to the Ravens tying the game at 17 with the help of his third pick. The Bengals embarked on a 90-yard go-ahead touchdown drive that consumed the final 5:13 of the third quarter and first 1:31 of the fourth quarter with just one tight end after a season they've operated normally out of two tights.
Dalton hit Jones, lined up on the outside with a razor sideline pass for 11 yards to get the drive going, and then theBengals took advantage of Baltimore's aggressiveness. Dalton, who kept the ball on the zone read six times for 23 yards Sunday, did it this time for nine.
"Their ends are very aggressive and it slows them down a little bit," running back Giovani Bernard said of the read.
Dalton then dinked and dunked the rest of the drove. Down to one tight end with the season-ending dislocated wrist of Alex Smith, Dalton found H-back Orson Charles for his first catch of the season as he released as a blocking tight end for an eight-yard gain. Then Dalton caught the Ravens pass rush with a screen to Bernard and the rookie offered another whirlwind highlight, this time for a 27-yard dance down the left sideline with left tackle Andrew Whitworth out in front.
That ended the third quarter. The Bengals started the fourth quarter with the same play for nine more. Now they moved Jones into the slot and ran the same play from the Ravens 15 that Jones scored on at the end of the half. Except this time he released outside instead of inside and cornerback Jimmy Smith was called for interference to put the ball on the 1. From there, Dalton took advantage of outside linebacker Terrell Suggs crashing down almost immediately into the backfield to haul down running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. But Dalton had taken the ball out of BJGE's belly and kept it around left end for an easy touchdown.
It was Cincinnati's 14th red-zone TD, a skein snapped moments later from the 1 on Dalton's fourth interception, but that drive showed not only the depth but the diversity with Jones and Charles lining up all over the place. (And Green scored when he ran by safety Matt Elam out of the slot instead of his usual spot outside.)
"I think guys get a little more hungry," Hawkins said of the red-zone mentality. "You see Marv's hands turn magnetic inside the 20-yard-line. That guy had an incredible season."
Jones insists he's tough to cover one-on-one and he keeps proving it. "No one can cover him one-on-one," Hawkins said, and that's what beckoned on his touchdown.
"That was a play we knew we had. It was man across the board," Jones said. "We have players that if you double anybody, we have somebody that is going to get it and we're very confident in the red zone. We know we're going to get in. That's the big thing. When you're confident and you're past that 25-, 30-yard line, you know you're going to get in. That's our whole mode. That's why we have so much success because we know we're going to get it."
Dalton also knows that, like Green, Jones is going to catch it if the ball is close to him. Webb was draped all over him and Jones, looking straight back for the throw over his head down the seam and out of the slot, corralled it with his left arm before tipping it to his body and cradling with both hands as he hit the ground.
"When I initially had it with one hand and it slipped, I was like, 'I'm keeping my eye on the ball. I'm catching this.' "
The Bengals responded to the tight end question by going with more three and four wides and Hawkins also burned Webb out of the slot in a three-receiver set for a 38-yard gain when he burst past Webb in the middle of the field and caught it in an open middle before running for about 10 more yards.
"We have such strong personnel in any situation," Hawkins said. "If we're given a chance, we can do a lot of damage. Receiver, tight end, running back. The sky is really the limit. This is nothing to new us."
Which is why the sky is blue heading into the playoffs this time around.
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