Gruden, Dalton have work cut out for them as Steelers come to town
First-place Bengals have been one of the biggest surprises of the season
Cincinnati getting job done with rookie quarterback and offensive coordinator
In the season's second half, Bengals face the Steelers and Ravens twice each
We use the qualifier "and yet'' a lot in Cincinnati these days, because history suggests the Bengals will stumble at some point and because their road to this Sunday against Pittsburgh has been country-easy. Skepticism has its place when the subject is Bengals football.
And yet. . .
For nine weeks and eight games, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and quarterback Andy Dalton have made it look too easy. Playing quarterback in the NFL is the hardest thing to do in sports, right? Rookies attempting it will be crushed like flies on a swatter. The NFL is just too fast, furious and full of James Harrisons.
Lots of Football Nation expects Gruden, Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals to be undressed by the Steelers on Sunday. A cursory review of Cincinnati's first-half schedule shows the Bengals have been living on the corner of Krispy and Kreme. No Steelers or Baltimore Ravens playing Alfred Hitchcock in their 3 a.m. heads.
That ends Sunday. Pittsburgh is in Cincinnati. And now, we will see about Gruden and Dalton.
And yet. . .
The first eight games have taught football smart people not to underestimate Dalton, the fifth QB taken in the draft last spring. He has been fearless without being reckless. He is smart and clear-eyed. He hasn't done a rookie thing since August. He's completing 61.5 percent of his passes. He has thrown just seven interceptions.
"He has one of the quickest releases in the league,'' says Monday Night Football analyst Cris Collinsworth. "Right up there with Tony Romo and [Tom] Brady. That's big in that [AFC North] division. You can't dance around like most rookies do, against Pittsburgh and Baltimore.''
Sunday also represents a midterm exam for Gruden, the rookie coordinator who some of us thought was crazy to take this job. Let's see: Carson Palmer retires, and then players are locked out. New system, new coach, new kid quarterback, no practice, no Chad Ochocinco, no Terrell Owens. Have fun, Jay.
And yet. . .
The Bengals have won six of eight. Dalton is in the rookie of the year chatter. And Gruden is coaching the offense like he's been doing it all his life. "It's just football,'' he says.
Gruden will say it starts with Dalton. "I paced the draft room,'' he recalls.
Gruden watched tape of Dalton at TCU, he worked him out multiple times, he talked with him. He was convinced Dalton was by far the best quarterback for the offense Gruden wanted to run. The Bengals took wideout A.J. Green with the fifth overall pick, meaning 30 picks would be made before the Bengals got a shot at the guy Gruden coveted.
"I was really holding my breath. A lot of people [in Cincinnati's draft room] weren't that nervous. They figured if we didn't get Dalton, we'd get [Ryan] Mallett. Big kid, strong arm. Maybe with Mallett we'd be 8-0. I don't know.
"I just knew Andy had mental stability you can't coach. He's not an erratic behavior guy. Some quarterbacks come in and they're hyper cases. Everything happens so fast for them, because their minds are going so fast. This guy, everything happens under control,'' Gruden says. "I don't have to worry if we're down two touchdowns in the third quarter, him being a basket case.''
When Indy and New England passed up Dalton, and the Bengals took him, "If it was me announcing the pick, I would have pulled a hamstring running up to the podium,'' Gruden says.
Then they went to work. Gruden and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese knew Dalton's mind was a sponge early in training camp, when Dalton literally knew the questions the coaches would ask him, before they asked.
In July, the wonder was whether the rookie would be able to keep up with the veterans, when it came to learning the playbook. Now, Gruden says, "I can challenge Andy all I want. He's the kind of guy who, if we traded him to New Orleans Tuesday, he could play on Sunday.''
Gruden's West Coast style isn't unpredictable. Most often, it's a run off left tackle on first down, followed by the same on second down, Cedric Benson behind Andrew Whitworth, then a quick, safe pass on third down. The wideout Green has been so good that the Bengals deep passing game generally consists of Dalton throwing the ball close enough that Green can make a play on it. So far, Green has caught nearly everything.
And, in fact, Cincinnati's offensive statistics -- 21st in passing, 22nd running -- aren't overwhelming. But the Bengals defense and special teams have been very good. Their offense has had good field position, and Dalton hasn't messed it up.
And yet. . .
Dick LeBeau is in some deep, dark warren at Heinz Field, watching DVDs and pondering surgery. The Pittsburgh defense is where dreamy rookie QBs go to wake up. Here's a nugget courtesy of ESPN:
Rookie quarterbacks over the past four seasons are completing only 48.4 percent of their passes for 4.6 yards an attempt when the Steelers rush four or fewer defenders. During that span, the Steelers have intercepted eight passes from rookies and sacked quarterbacks on 10.9 percent of their drop backs.
If Gruden and Dalton wanted to know where they stand, they'll find out Sunday. "Aggressive,'' says Gruden of LeBeau's defense. "Hard to run against. They say, go ahead and pass, then they come at you from everywhere. Anytime anybody gains a yard, they take it personally.''
Safety Troy Polamalu is the key. Sometimes, even LeBeau doesn't know where Polamalu will line up, or where his instincts will take him. How do you game plan for that?
"The X-Factor,'' Gruden calls Polamalu. "We just have to try to be aware of where he is.''
Polamalu has bad ribs, good news for Dalton, who doesn't need more to think about. Not that Gruden worries about Dalton. "Of all the quarterbacks in the draft, he was the guy most ready to play, right now,'' Gruden says. "I thought that then. I haven't changed my mind.''
Maybe the rookie QB and his coordinator will be the ones to transcend the game's biggest given. Perhaps it isn't impossible for a rookie quarterback to play consistently well. On Sunday, maybe Gruden calls it, Dalton runs it and the Bengals surprise the Steelers, same as they've surprised just about everyone else.
They've made it look easy. Can they do it again?