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Road map for next step

Andy Dalton

These are Andy Dalton's receivers.

They are his guys. He may have only 17 NFL starts, but the only one of his seven receivers who has caught an NFL ball from other than Dalton (and backup Bruce Gradkowski) is Brandon Tate and the 24 balls he took from Tom Brady in New England in 2010.

"We're so young at the receiver position. It makes it fun and hopefully these are the guys I'll be throwing to for a while," Dalton says, preparing for Monday's opener in Baltimore (7 p.m.-ESPN and Cincinnati's Channel 12) against the Ravens.

"The guys we have, I wouldn't want anyone else. They've come in and worked real hard and done everything they've been asked to do. They've learned on the fly. They have such a good understanding that I'm confident of everything they've done."

If you want to know why the Bengals think their entire offense is going to improve this season and that Dalton takes the next step, you have to wait a good 20 minutes after practice.

That's when quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese and wide receivers coach James Urban come walking off the practice field. They have just finished their usual routine and gone extra with No. 3 quarterback Zac Robinson, much like they did last season when they went overtime with him and new receivers like Tate and Armon Binns in the effort to install the new offense in hearts and minds.

Now they've moved on to the even newer receivers with Robinson throwing extra to rookies Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones and Orson Charles.

"They're a conscientious group of young guys. It's fun to be around these guys," Zampese says. "When you ask them something, they say, 'What do you think about this? Let's do that.' Or they ask you. And that's not always the case. It's the case now and we're really happy about it."

The thinking is that if the people around Dalton are just as conscientious and reliable as he is, the next step should be smooth. And while some pundits are still after him about his arm strength and question what he did last year against top 10 defenses, when the Bengals went 4-7 while he threw 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions for a 70.6 passer rating, Zampese counters.

For a rookie? The pundits' view is a minority view in Bengaldom.

"Those are the guys that had him as a backup and are trying to improve their positions," Zampese said. "He's not a three- or four-year starter that maxed out in college and that's it. This is a guy that has some skills and mental ability that we think can last a long time in this league."

Dalton may not have Carson Palmer's receivers, but Palmer left the road map to beat Baltimore, a perennial top five defense, never mind top 10. In 12 games against the Ravens, Palmer was 9-3, but he did it in all kinds of ways. In '05 the Bengals swept Baltimore when he lit up the Ravens with passer ratings of 128.4 and 124.6. In the sweep of '09, he threw just two touchdown passes.

But the turnover is always the key against the Ravens. Palmer was 0-3 in the games he threw more than one interception against Baltimore. He was 2-0 in the games he didn't have a touchdown or an interception, which brings Zampese to Dalton's decision-making.

"He's always been a good decision-maker; it should get better and better," Zampese said. "As we get used to the group we'll be better and we'll see their consistency increase as we go."

Dalton looks to be on track against the Ravens. He threw three interceptions in his first game against them, just like Palmer did in his first game against them, and he came back to have no touchdowns and no interceptions in the regular-season finale. That's usually good enough to get a win in this series. But tight end Jermaine Gresham's fourth-quarter fumble decided it when it cut short a go-ahead touchdown drive.

"That's how it is. Anybody can win any week, it just comes down to a couple of plays," Dalton says. "You've got to take advantage of the opportunities when you get a chance to make a big play. And we got down early in both games, so we were playing from behind. We've got to find a way to start faster and come out and get some good drives to start the game and get into the flow of things."

But Dalton knows the score. He's 0-4 against Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Rookie or no rookie.

"For us to play really good teams like that every year, twice a year, and for this team and this offense and everybody to get to where we want to be, we've got to find ways to beat those teams," Dalton says.

The extra post-practice work is emblematic of the work that Zampese and the rest of the offensive coaches were able to do in this offseason with Dalton that they weren't able to do last year and he's confident the benefits are going to be seen and the next step taken.

"Football conversations are faster," Zampese said of his talks with Dalton. "You say certain code words and we're on the same page. Our language together is spoken faster. We can get to more topics and I (like) his comfort level on where guys are going to be. ... Those things are a little better."

But there are intangibles instead of the stats, and that's why Dalton was Cincinnati's top guy among the seven QBs in last year's draft.

"Accountability through the roof," Zampese says.

One of the reasons the Bengals don't think there is going to be a major problem when Jeff Faine starts at center Monday night after just five practices is Dalton's command of the offense. It is why Zampese expects improvement. The next step.

"I expect an increase. Especially with his understanding and ability to execute our plays and accuracy," Zampese says. "Those things should be better. He does a good job managing games. He's good at managing where the ball goes and why. And how to cut your losses. I think everybody sees that this is a guy that gives us a chance to win games. He doesn't take chances away from us."

That's what is on Monday Night's road map. Palmer was 6-0 vs. Baltimore in the games he didn't throw an interception.

"We're so prepared. We've got such a good understanding of what we're doing," Dalton says. "So we expect to be better than we were last year, just having another year in the offense. We feel like we can do a lot of good things. The players might be a little bit different, but the guys we have here are very reliable, and hopefully there should be some improvement from where we were last year."

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