The Bengals went back to work Monday and the buzz at the podium and in the nooks and crannies of Paul Brown Stadium revolved around the commitment to the run.
Or the lack of it.
Look for the Bengals to make a concerted effort to get the ground game back on the rails 1 p.m. Sunday against the undefeated Patriots at Paul Brown Stadium and that came from the head man himself.
"We obviously have to be more effective running the football still, continue to commit to running the football, and stay with it, and make positive plays in the running game, and not get spooked away from it too often," head coach Marvin Lewis said in a Monday autopsy that put the microscope squarely on the offense.* *
"We want to be mixed, and you don't want to give a tendency of what you do. Other than the first play of the game, we had some very effective runs, and we've got to stay on course that way, and continue to mix it that way. Running helps us to be able to create space and lanes in the passing game."
Sunday's 17-6 whitewash in Cleveland has hit this offense where it lives.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, the team's de facto captain, spent time after Monday's position meetings talking in the locker room to offensive coordinator Jay Gruden before wandering over to the lockers of wide receiver A.J Green and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis as they commiserated before Tuesday's off day. Gruden, stand-up guy, took 15 minutes of tough questions from the media after one of the worst regular-season outings in his three-year tenure. Lewis summed up the angst with, "I think after four games, there have been times we've played brilliantly, and then we've hurt ourselves. We have to eliminate the self-inflicted wounds that we get."
Heading into the Monday Night game the Bengals were 22nd in offense at the quarter pole and Gruden used the word "shock"' just as his players did in Sunday's postgame.
"It's embarrassing. You put a lot of work in your game plan, a lot of work into practice," Gruden said. "We have a very talented team for us to go out there and lay an egg like we did it's not a good feeling. Hopefully it's motivation for us more so than embarrassing. Hopefully it doesn't happen again. It can't happen again. To get where we want to get we can't have games like this no matter who it's against, where it is. We can't perform like that as a group."
The Bengals were supposed to be on the way with everybody back, more experience and the addition of two playmakers in rookies Tyler Eifert at tight end and running back Giovani Bernard and yet the offense that finished 22nd last season is, well, 22nd.
But if you're looking for a SportsCenter meltdown or a tirade, rant or fit, you've come to the wrong guy.
"We just have to coach them up better and stay positive with them because honestly I am going to be upbeat and positive," Gruden said. "I am not going to yell and scream and hoot and holler because I think this team's future is very, very bright for this offensive group. For us to take one game and hammer them and try to bring them down a few notches I don't think is the way to go. I think be positive and bring them up because I think there is great things to come for this group, honestly."
Gruden has enormous faith in quarterback Andy Dalton. He proved it when he tapped him two years ago to get him through his first gig as an NFL offensive coordinator. They came in together and Sunday's ugly performance didn't move Gruden.
How ugly? Pro Football Focus had Dalton 4-of-17 on passes longer than 10 yards and 1-of-5 on passes of 20 or longer. As for points generated and passer rating, it was his worst outing since his third game as a pro and the 13-8 loss to the 49ers.
But getting stoned by Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and NaVorro Bowman is a lot more logical than getting outplayed by Brian Hoyer.
"I'm sure he has some throws that he wishes he would have liked to have back. Maybe some reads. It wasn't all him," Gruden said. "It was a combination of a lot of things. I'm not down on Andy whatsoever. Andy is still our quarterback and leader. He will be fine. He's a strong-minded guy and he will fight through this. He's going to have to because we need him. To put all of the blame on him, people who play offense and watch that tape know it wasn't all his fault. Could he have done better? No doubt but so could have everyone."
All he had to do was point to the fourth-and-one where BJGE lost two yards from the Browns 7 in the first half. On Sunday, Whitworth called it a "cluster." On Monday, Gruden called it a "slaughter," and he took the blame for not getting the call in sooner so that Dalton could check into another play.
"Andy said he was running down on the play clock and we didn't get in the right play. Yeah, miscommunication so to speak. Hindsight running down on the clock, fourth down and 1, such an important play, take a timeout." Gruden said. "That's on me more so than anybody probably.
"It's not like we didn't have a play that couldn't work at all. We still had a chance to get the first down but we didn't get any movement up front and ran into a slaughter."
If it looked like the offense lacked some coherence and consistency in whiffing twice in the red zone and 12 times on third and fourth downs, Gruden agrees. In the wake of four handoffs in the first 18:30 of a second half the Bengals trailed 7-3, 10-3 and 10-6, Gruden admitted Monday his unit has an identity crisis.
"That's probably our biggest fault that we're still trying to get one; we're working towards that," Gruden said of an ID. "We have to be balanced in what we do. I don't know if there is any team in the NFL that can be just a running team. Teams are throwing it a hell of a lot more. We have to do both effectively. We have to come up with a running game we can feel comfortable with and keep working with it. We have some weapons that are tough to deal with and put them on the back burner and say we are going to run it 60 times a game is unrealistic. It is for me. If people want to see three yards and a cloud of dust we can do that."
Gruden is right. Heading into Monday Night, through 62 games this season, there have been 4,899 passing plays, compared to 4,749 through 63 games last record-breaking season, an increase of 150.
No one wants three yards and a cloud of dust. But 4.1 wouldn't be bad. The 4-0 Pats (4.1), Broncos (4.0), Chiefs (4.1), Seahawks (4.2) are all averaging at least 30 runs a game. The Bengals, at 25 per, have given it to their running backs an average of 18 times per game the past two weeks.
Gruden wants to be balanced, but he also doesn't want to get caught in a quagmire. The Browns came into the game giving up less than three yards per rush.
"The running game, we just probably have to stick with it a little more like (Lewis) says to try to pop some big ones," Gruden said. "We haven't done a very good job of popping any big ones, haven't gotten the big 9-, 10-, 12-, 15-yard runs, and that's something we've got to try to grow to.
"We're trying to grind out these drives, you run the ball two plays in a row, you're looking at third-and-3 possibly and third-and-3 is not a slam dunk all the time. So second-and-6 or 7, I try to get a first down on that one. We can do that via run or pass or whatever. Just a matter of execution and getting us into better plays that guys are comfortable with and we can do a better job."
The Bengals have a shot to establish something Sunday with word the Patriots have lost their Pro Bowl run-stuffer for the season when tackle Vince Wilfork went out with a torn Achilles in Atlanta on Monday night.
According to The Boston Herald, two rookies are slated to take Wilfork's spot. Joe Vellano, undrafted out of Maryland, sacked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan while Chris Jones was claimed off waivers a few weeks ago and played in his first game against the Falcons. New Engalnd's only other healthy inside guy is 32-year-old Tommy Kelly.