When you pump up 429 yards on a night you don't have your Pro Bowl wide receiver, your Pro Bowl left tackle and your bell cow running back, an offensive coordinator has to have the pick of his favorite plays.
After Saturday night's 27-19 victory over the Titans at Paul Brown Stadium made the Bengals 2-0 in the preseason for the third time in the Marvin Lewis era, Jay Gruden could have gone with:
» Rookie running back Giovani Bernard's 22-yard run-and-catch off a quick flare out of the backfield straight out of the James Brooks-Sam Wyche-West Coast offense archives complete with a singed linebacker.
» Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu's two-yard touchdown catch on one of those muscle fades from quarterback Andy Dalton that made the Bengals one of the most dangerous red-zone teams in the NFL before Sanu got hurt last season.
» Running back Daniel Herron's 40-yard touchdown run complete with a Boom supplied by quarterback Josh Johnson's downfield block on safety Al Afalava after he executed a zone read, one of the toys Gruden has been using in training camp.
But, instead, Gruden opted for two third-down passes from Dalton in the first quarter to wide receivers. Both led to touchdowns. Both crossing routes. One to Sanu on third-and-10 for 24 yards that was aided by a stiff-arm in honor of Tom Brady to safety Bernard Pollard. The other to Brandon Tate for 22 yards, aided by his sheer speed as he motored away from the safety.
Gruden loved them because Dalton threw both balls so well and just in front of Sanu and Tate that they were able to get the first down and the bulk of their yards after catch.
"People underestimate how important the location of that throw is," Gruden said. "It's an under route so it's got to be right there so he can catch it and turn up and run.
"Same thing with Tate. The location on that ball was perfect also. He throws that ball right here (up the arm), Tate gets tackled for five yards and we're punting. Not only was it a great location, good protection. But great finishes by the guys."
Gruden has been seeing third down in his sleep. After the Bengals finished in the bottom third of the NFL converting on third down last season, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has blanketed camp with all kinds of conversion scenarios.
"We had our troubles on third down and it's been a major emphasis. Hell, I know in camp we've faced more third downs in training camp than hopefully we will in three lifetimes," Gruden said. "I don't know how many he has a day but every day… seven on seven we've got about nine of them, blitz drill we've got about eight of them, team we have about six of them. Sometimes we have a third down period, which is about 15 plays.
"It helps to keep your third down list sizeable. We have a lot of different ways we can go on third down formationally, personnel groupings and quarterbacks have a better understand of the plays that we want to get to on those situations and protections."
Dalton went 3-for-3 on third down for 56 yards and it helps to have Sanu. He caught two of them, the last coming on third-and-five when he easily found one of the soft spots in a two-deep zone for a 10-yard gain over the middle.
"He felt the zone; there's nobody better at that than Mo," Gruden said. "He was a quarterback. He was a safety. He knows all the holes. Knows man-to-man. Knows how to beat coverage. He's got a size advantage and strength advantage."
It wasn't a third down, but every play inside the red zone is like third down. In the three games before he broke his foot last season Sanu scored four red-zone touchdowns. On Saturday night the 6-2, 210-pound Sanu easily powered past the 6-3, 198-pound Tommie Campbell on the outside on the 2-yard-line and leveraged him enough so he had clear sailing to the back of the end zone.
"He had very good coverage on me. I was able to use my hands and my big body and hold my line and Andy dropped a dime in the back of the end zone," Sanu said. "I had no choice but to catch that for him."
What couldn't have helped the Titans was that another red-zone target lined up on the other side also split out. Tight end Tyler Eifert. And Cincinnati's most lethal red zone threat, two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green, has yet to play.
"A lot of guys down there," Gruden said.
But in the end, it was the running game that seemed to give rise to it all Saturday night. The Bengals had a bad first series. On second down, Dalton got manhandled throwing an incompletion. Then on third down it appeared that right guard Kevin Zeitler made a mistake that let defensive tackle Jurrell Casey crash into Dalton and take the ball away from him at the Bengals 27.
But the Bengals line bounced back. The right side of the line atoned with Zeitler dishing it out and getting joined by right tackle Andre Smith and tight end Jermaine Gresham. Gruden also sent out triple tight ends three times in that drive that began with Bernard going right for nine yards on the first two snaps after the fumble and then he went for seven more to the left on the third snap.
"I would like to know a better blocking tight end in the NFL than Jermaine Gresham," Gruden said. "He can pass block, he can run block. To me he's as good of a blocking tight end, I would think, as there is."
When the dust cleared, for the second time in as many games the Bengals had at least four backs with at least one run of six yards. After getting 5.3 yards per carry last week in Atlanta, the Bengals ran for 6.2 vs. the Titans.
"Yeah we came out in a personnel group with three tight ends and tried to get some alleys there for Gio and we took advantage of some of them," said Gruden, asked if he wanted to run it after the sack-and-strip. "We got the ball moving. It was good to see them come off the ball. Anytime you have a bad series, the linemen appreciate it if you can come out and run the ball. That way they have their say in it. And if that doesn't work then you can come out and throw it, but you have to try it at least to establish some kind of running game, especially now."
But on this night, Gruden's favorite plays were passes that kept the drives alive.