The day before Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden let the world know he planned to stick around for the 2012 season and not pursue any head coaching jobs, he and left tackle Andrew Whitworth were already looking at what lay ahead.
After a grueling stretch the revamped Bengals offense ended the season pounding seven times against top 10 defenses in the last nine games, they checked out their opponents for this coming season and it came out to eight games against the top 10 for the next 16 games.
Not bad. But Whitworth and right tackle Andre Smith won't get much of a break since they'll face seven of the league's top 11 sackers led by the NFC East quartet of Dallas's DeMarcus Ware, the Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul, and Philadelphia's Jason Babin and Trent Cole.
"I'll face the 12 guys that lead the NFL in sacks every year. I can run the list off," Whitworth said this week. "Between our division guys and Tamba Hali, (Elvis) Dumervil and (Von) Miller, the NFC East … it would be a lot of fun, be exciting."
All the more reason that Gruden is preaching balance and why a major offseason project is rehabbing the run game. The Bengals realize that in those last nine games they were playing the league's elite's run stoppers, but they also know they can't get 3.5 yards per carry from their running backs like they did in December and January.
"You have to have good balance against these defenses. You don't want your QB to throw it 65 times a game. You get butchered if you do that," Gruden said. "If you do it you get hammered because you have a rookie quarterback and if you don't you get butchered for being too vanilla. Bottom line is if you don't win you are going to get hammered as a coordinator and you should. That's the nature of the business. We have to look at what we're good at and continue to get better but really focus in on some areas and really try to improve."
While the offensive line is getting some heat for not being able to control the clock in the running game, Whitworth is looking at Cincinnati's top five finish in allowing sacks per pass. His group is looking at potential major changes with all three top guards becoming free agents, as well as the top two backup tackles. But after a conversation he had with backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, Whitworth is urging patience when gearing up for this season.
"He was saying coming from Oakland and the different places he's traveled across the league, he doesn't think people around here appreciate the offensive line in this city just because where he has played he got his head knocked off every play," Whitworth said. "He said the protection and the way these guys protect the quarterback is unbelievable. Like nothing he's ever been around. The guys here who have been playing up front, play well. We would love to have the guys back that are in there. We don't know, it's not in my control. It's their business and upstairs business. I would love to have our guys back and have another crack at it."
Whitworth realizes the Bengals have to get stronger running the ball, but he says it's not just the offensive line in play. Especially after watching Denver quarterback Tim Tebow carve up a Steelers defense the Bengals could dent for just three touchdowns in eight quarters this past season.
"We've played some great defenses, played some great run-stuffing defenses; played some teams that force us to do other things," Whitworth said. "The key in those games is whatever it is they are forcing you to be able to do is to be able to do.
"The perfect example is Pittsburgh-Denver. Pittsburgh forced Tebow to be able to throw the ball and he answered the call. The key is not going to be whether you can run the ball or not, because teams are going to take it away. It's whether you're going to be able to do the thing those teams allow you to be able to do by forcing you to not being able to run the ball. That's the key to being balanced, that is the key to being a good football team is to be that way. To be able to do whatever it is going to allow you to do, to be very good at."
The big thing about Gruden returning is that the Bengals have another season of continuity.
"Anytime you see some of the great, historic offenses, defenses around the league that you think of that year in year out are good at this or that it is because they have consistency," Whitworth said. "You saw Baltimore have a little bit of a lull when they changed up. It's still the same players; finally they found a guy again they like. Very key to have the consistency, especially with a young team."
It also means the offense has more time to get adjusted to the different running scheme Gruden installed, as well as everything else.
"It's that and just finding out what we do well," Whitworth said. "It's different. Doing different things. We have to find a way to do better than that in all phases. Whether that is who's carrying it, who is blocking for him or what they are being called."
During the last half of the season the Bengals dealt with zone coverage taking away Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green. The conventional wisdom is that means the rushing numbers should have been better. But Gruden says a lot of that was dictated by score.
"We just have to do a better job of staying in games and not falling behind and having to throw," he said. "It's one-dimensional. That's every team in the NFL. You get one-dimensional, you're going to have problems. You see the few draws we hit. Because they knew we were going to pass and they were doing their stunts and rushing the hell out of us. Playing good deep coverage. The score dictated a lot of that.
"If the score was close or we had a lead, then A.J. would have been singled up more and we would have taken a lot more shots. But falling behind 24-10 (last Saturday), the third and fourth quarter was theirs all the way."
Gruden is hard on himself when it comes to looking at what he accomplished in his first season as an NFL coordinator. He's uncomfortable with the lack of big plays, particularly in the running game.
"There is major room for improvement. Overall I felt good about our plans and gave our guys a chance to make plays and put them in position to win," he said. "When it's said and done that's the most important thing … it's about the players. They did a good job for the most part of buying into the system and doing the best they could. We have to do a better job of putting them into position to make the bigger plays. Convert in key situations. I think overall it was a smooth deal. Our players were great to deal with and it was a lot of fun."
And it is going to be a much different offseason as Gruden reevaluates personnel in changes that could include a different running back and some changes upfront. Free agency comes again in March and the Bengals won't be looking at stocking their roster in the one week before camp like they did last year after the lockout. Plus, they are looking at two first-round picks at Nos. 17 and 21.
"It will be better because now you know what you have here and what is coming back for sure," Gruden said. "You can add players that you need to fit and hopefully we'll do a great job of that. There's lot of good players out in the world that can help. We just have to find the ones that fit what we want to do.
"It will be an important time. We've got some high draft picks, we've got a good young team, good foundation. If we are good in who we select and bring in here, we've got a chance to get over the hump. It's exciting. We still have to be correct in our decisions and that's not always easy. Every team in the NFL knows it that hasn't (won) a Super Bowl yet."