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Short game

BenJarvus Green-Ellis

With the pads coming on Monday and Tuesday, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has let the word go forth.

"Coach Lewis has made a major emphasis on it this year," says offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. "Red zone, big plays, short yardage, no turnovers. That's how you win in the NFL right now."

Gruden could have added "goal line." That's what the Bengals are going right to this week in their first action in pads with the expectation they're going to install goal line and short yardage with some live action up close as they unveil their two new athletic guards and big-yard knack of new running back BenJarvus Green-Elllis.

"That's what we're going to do; come right out on the goal line and smash it early on and see where we are," Gruden says. "We're not going to try and Tricky Dick anybody. In short yardage on day one we're going to try and jam it up the gut. That's the mentality you have. Then if you do have to Tricky Dick somebody ... ."

Quarterback Andy Dalton was a bit surprised this week when told the Bengals were 10th last year in the NFL in converting third downs of two yards or less at 63.2 percent on 24-for-38. For one, he figures it should be closer to 80 percent and in the top five. And for two, Gruden says it always seems less because you remember the bad ones.

"It's glaring by five times when you don't make them," Gruden said and he just has to look at the failed fourth-and-one in the last four minutes of the 24-22 loss in Denver.

Or the couple of third-and-shorts the Bengals couldn't get when they couldn't put the Rams away until late in St. Louis as they tried to adjust without injured fullback Chris Pressley.

And some of the perception of not being able to convert on big short-yardage plays comes from before Gruden, when the Bengals weren't exactly brimming with confidence in it and threw it more than they ran it on third-and-two or less in 2010.

(It will be recalled when the '10 season started in New England, the Patriots were coming off a game in that building where the Ravens ended their 2009 season in the playoffs rushing for nearly 180 yards. On Cincinnati's first third-and-short of the new season, quarterback Carson Palmer threw an incompletion to backup tight end Daniel Coats.)

"Our standards are different. We've always prided ourselves on third-and-short," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "We want to be in the top five in everything. Short yardage is a confidence deal. If you get shut down in it, it can send you on a four-, five-game stretch where everyone is mentally thinking you can't do it."

But Gruden is going to go right to the well this week to erase any inner doubts. Look for short-yardage to be big leading up to Saturday's 3 p.m. scrimmage at Paul Brown Stadium once the coaches get it installed.

Maybe New England isn't a bad place to start. The Bengals signed the Patriots running back during the offseason and Green-Ellis brings the 29 rushing touchdowns from his four-year career. In that same stretch Bengals running backs have scored 27 rushing TDs, among the fewest in the NFL.

"I'm actually really excited because you have these things on it's like playing flag football," Green-Ellis said the other day, pointing to the light shoulder pads known as "shells."

"I was joking with one of my coaches I was like, 'y'all look nice today but what about tomorrow when we put on pads?' Things change, it's not going to be running around and people playing touch football. That's not the game we play. So, I'm really excited for the pads."

The man called "The Law Firm" (center Kyle Cook has already shortened it to "The Firm") fits right into the rough-and-tumble courtroom of the AFC North. Although the Bengals have had problems punching it in from in close lately and getting big yards when they need them, they have generally competed blow-for-blow physically in what is generally regarded as the most physical division in the NFL with all four defenses finishing last season in the top 10.

"Soft guys don't stay around here. I've seen it. You've seen it," Cook said of the culture on offensive line coach Paul Alexander's unit. "That's just the way it is. If you're soft, you don't last."

It was evident Monday on the first day of pads and Lewis's favorite drill, "The Oklahoma." There was Cook himself hooked up with the strongest man on the team, Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins, mushing out a stalemate. Then Lewis called out his tight end, Jermaine Gresham, to face Atkins in a battle Gresham gave up 30 pounds.

Everyone has to block and Lewis was saying with that the Bengals think Gresham is a good, improving blocker. The two alpha males dueled to a massive stalemate when the de facto captains, Whitworth and defensive tackle Domata Peko, butted heads. And right tackle Andre Smith flattened left end Carlos Dunlap. When Lewis called for a rematch, Dunlap stood his ground this time.

Lewis, famed for his tough practices, has worked for three of the four division teams and knows the AFC North is no place for the faint of heart.

Now the Bengals add a guy like The Firm who has never fumbled in his career ("He runs hard. I can't wait to block for the guy," Cook says) and, try this on for size, has a 70 percent career conversion rate on third-and-two or less. His predecessor, Cedric Benson, is at 60 percent.

Lewis loves many things about his new back and one is that he runs like he's still that college free agent out of Mississippi rather than the guy that has led everyone in rushing TDs the past season except for Houston's Arian Foster.

"Once you are out there on the field I don't think anyone is running around with an undrafted or first-round sticker on their head," Green-Ellis said. "When you are in between the lines no one knows where you come from; you just have to go out there and prove your mark. Some of the people like media or fans blow things out of proportion regards to where a guy was taken because you can have potential but potential without producing is nothing."

Dalton has come away impressed with The Firm's instincts and knowledge for the game.

"He's a really smart player," Dalton said. "He came in right away knowing what to do and kind of correcting the coach sometimes. It's great to have him around. He's great for us. He's not a selfish guy at all. He's all about the team and just wants to win. He's going to be a big part of this offense."

The Patriotic offense's back-by-committee that plays in quarterback Tom Brady's long shadow deemed not to pay BJGE. But that doesn't mean he's not highly regarded in Foxboro. Get head coach Bill Belichick going on "The Firm,' and he loves what "Benny" brought to his team.

This is why:

"Every year is a new year and you want to go out there and prove yourself whatever you can do," BJGE said when asked about what the stat line on his new team might be.

"Whatever your mark is on the game and whatever you want to leave on it when said and done is out in front of you. Every year and every day we come to practice to get better. That's what we are doing right now, getting better at what we need to get better."

Gruden says a lot needs to get better. He's monitoring rookie right guard Kevin Zeitler's pad level, among other things, in the effort to beef up the middle.

"Long way to go," Gruden says.

But the Bengals believe they're better in the short game with the help of Green-Ellis's nose for producing up close.

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