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Out of the box

Jay Gruden

It is barely 24 hours after Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden turned the Redskins upside down with a Wildcat touchdown bomb from a rookie wide receiver on the first snap of the game and he's already thinking about ways to turn the Jaguars inside and out Sunday (4:05 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) when what is suddenly one of the more talked about offenses in the NFL goes to Jacksonville.

"He's given me freedom to do whatever," Gruden says of head coach Marvin Lewis. "He has the ultimate say and if we're putting too much in I'm sure he'll put the reins in. But right now, we don't have too much in my opinion and we're just scratching the surface."

For instance, Mohamed Sanu, the guy with the perfect passer rating, may not even play. After the team's other rookie wide receiver, Marvin Jones, was inactive in Washington, he could resurface in Jacksonville with what Gruden hints is going to be a completely different game plan.

"It's 50/50 right now," Gruden says Monday. "There are things that Mo brings to the table that Marvin can't do. And there are some things Marvin brings to the table that Mo can't do."

Jones got sat down basically for one play last Sunday. Well, that and the desire to keep all four running backs active.

What Sanu brought to the table was the wing that dominated New Jersey high school football and fired four college touchdown passes for Rutgers. The Bengals had noticed anytime the Redskins defense faced a Wildcat offense, the safety walked to the line of scrimmage, leaving a one-on-one for the wide receiver. The thought of A.J. Green one-on-one deep for just one snap was too much for Gruden to resist.

But Redskins middle linebacker London Fletcher didn't wave the safety down until late while Gruden's heart had a jump ball with his throat.

"We would have just run it up the middle for a loss of one and we would have gotten booed," Gruden jokes if the safety stayed back. "Luckily he came down and left the middle of the field open and made a hell of a throw.

"I think he wants to keep his NFL best of all-time passer rating, so I don't think he'll be throwing anymore anytime soon but you never know. He does have a good arm. He proved at Rutgers he could be successful in that role. It's just you only have so many plays a day you can practice. How much time we want to spend on that is going to depend on where we are."

That's a peek into the mind of Gruden, a happy-go-lucky sort that doesn't take himself too seriously but takes watching tape and taking care of his family deadly intensely. He never met a box he didn't like to jump out of or a different drummer to march to while rising from the ranks of the world's greatest indoor quarterback.

"If you knew Jay as a guy personally, you would understand how he is with the game of football," says wide receiver Andrew Hawkins. "He loves what he does and he brings that to the table. He's not scared to try new things and mix it up because that's the kind of guy he is off the field. It's great for us because it meshes with the guys in the room."

This is a guy players like playing for. When running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis suffered his first NFL fumble in 590 touches Sunday, Gruden was right there for him.

"That's what happens," Gruden says. "When you tell someone they haven't done something, then they go out and do it. It's just like a free-throw shooter when he's made 90 in a row, then clank, he misses it. Or a kicker. He's made 195 extra points. He hits the crossbar. It's going to happen. I just told Benny today, congratulated him on an awesome streak. And it's time to start another one."

Gruden also congratulated The Law Firm on a heck of a game, for doing the things that don't show up in the box score. Two weeks ago against the Ravens, Green-Ellis struggled in pass protection. Against the Redskins he was superb in picking up their myriad of blitzes to help make the innovations go.

There was not only Sanu heaving a 73-yard touchdown bomb Sunday, there was Hawkins wandering into the backfield to run a reverse sweep on third-and-one for 11 yards, as well as BJGE himself taking a direct snap for a one-yard touchdown run while quarterback Andy Dalton was split out like Isaac Curtis.

"He's a good route-runner, has good hands," Gruden one-lines about Dalton.

In the last two weeks the Bengals have put up receiving numbers never seen around these parts that are no stranger to offensive innovation. When four of Gruden's receivers caught at least 63 yards on Sunday, it was the first time that's happened for the Bengals since the days Bill Walsh coached Curtis and Ken Anderson. When three receivers caught touchdown passes of at least 48 yards Sunday, that's something that never happened here, even in the tenure of no-huddle guru Sam Wyche.

Green and Hawkins are on pace to become the second 1,000-yard duo in club history, five years after Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh did it. Naturally, the man that crafted that offense, Gruden's predecessor Bob Bratkowski, waits in Jacksonville as the new Jaguars coordinator.

"When you have a guy like Jay who is such an offensive guru and he's going to dial up the right plays, we don't have to worry about what's going to work and what's not," Hawkins says. "We stick to the game plan and we know it's like Novocain. It's going to work, give it time. It's a burden off our shoulders. It's something we don't have to worry about. We just go in and work and trust what he does."

If anyone knows that Gruden likes to think out of the box, it is the Jaguars.

After he guided Dalton, Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham to the Pro Bowl last season in his first year as an NFL offensive coordinator, the Jaguars were one of two teams Gruden turned down when they called about interviewing for the head coaching job.

Gruden cited family reasons and his commitment to finish a job that began with Dalton and Green becoming the first rookie QB-receiver tandem to make a Pro Bowl.

But then, Gruden also treats his Xs and Os unconventionally. From time to time.

"I don't know if anybody is good enough to line up in a conventional set every down and run between the tackles or do things that's easy for the defense to recognize and read and get their keys," Gruden says. "Sometimes you have to be a little different. Sometimes it brings chaos to them and they get confused. Unfortunately, sometimes it does to us too. But, it's good to have some of those nuances. It just makes the defensive coordinator work a little harder during the week. Our guys have a little bit more fun during the week practicing some of it. We don't do it a whole lot. The ones we do I think are fun for them."

He may not even do it this Sunday. While the Redskins dared the Bengals to go deep by stacking the run and leaving the receivers one-on-one while going for the big blitz, the Jaguars are more methodical and grinding. Gruden is thinking they'd prefer the Bengals to go 80 yards in 12 plays, rather than the five it took them to go 80 for the go-ahead score Sunday in the fourth quarter.

"We might run all two-back runs right up the middle. I don't know what we're going to do yet," says Gruden, who used fullback Chris Pressley on only 11 plays in Washington. "I think each week we have to be creative in some regards and give the defense something they haven't seen. You have to do something off-kilter to keep them off balance."

Gruden says last Sunday's innovations weren't all that hard to practice or run. The Hawkins reverse and Green-Ellis direct snap were spun off staples.

"As long as you don't give them too much, those are pretty simple concepts; we're not changing a whole lot offensively," Gruden says. "We're just doing a basic power play, a simple snap instead of handing it off. It's not that complicated. The Jets sweep is something we've been working on."

But that's not as easy as it sounds. While taking with assistant quarterbacks coach Nick Siciliano about the fake sweep the Bengals ran in Baltimore two weeks ago where Dalton handed it off up the middle, Gruden mused about a play not faking it. Siciliano, a former Jim Tressel aide at Ohio State, knew right where to go and pulled up clips from how Oregon and Wisconsin ran it against the Buckeyes.

Gruden has Dalton's yards per throw up to 9.1, good for second-best in the NFL and a product of a lot of things. One is that in the Redskins he played a defense that doesn't mind giving up the big play to get one. Another is that the Bengals have a bunch of young receivers behind Green that can do a little bit of everything. With wide receiver Armon Binns on pace to catch 837 yards and tight end Jermaine Gresham 698 more, it would be the most productive quartet in Bengals history when teamed with Green and Hawkins.

"They're deep and reliable, which is what I like about them. They all can do a lot of different things and come together, which is what I like about them," Gruden says. "They're starting to know their depths. Andy feels good about all of them. It's exciting in that aspect because whether it is Hawk or Sanu in the slot or A.J., Binns, (Brandon) Tate, they're doing a good job.

"Jermaine made some big plays. It's good to get everyone involved and that's the nature of this offense. You have four possible targets on every play."

But how many and who this Sunday? Gruden notes that wide receiver Ryan Whalen, inactive all three games, is close to deserving a shot.

"Might see, might see. I don't know," Gruden says with a smile. "Might see Whalen. Who knows?"

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