Postcard from camp: Bengals
Jay Gruden is opening the playbook for Andy Dalton, who's a more vocal leader
BenJarvus Green-Ellis won't be the workhorse, as Bernard Scott will get carries
The Bengals' season begins and ends with a series of crucial divisional matchups
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Albert Chen had to say about Bengals camp in Cincinnati, which he visited on Aug. 2. Read all of our postcards here.
In the shadow of the downtown skyline in Cincinnati, where the Bengals relocated their training camp after 15 years of summering in the rolling hills of Georgetown, Kentucky. The team has been working out at Paul Brown Stadium and on the adjacent practice fields, where the crowds have been near capacity -- fans have been turned away at recent practices. "It's been a real positive, a great move for the fans," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "But it's also been something different for the veterans. There's been a lot of change here -- good change."
There's a great energy surrounding this young and talented Bengals team, which is coming off a promising 9-7 season and third playoff appearance under Lewis. Year 2 of the Andy & A.J. Era begins with heightened expectations; everyone here is ready for the Bengals to take the next step and make back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in 30 years and win their first playoff game since 1990. The Bengals recently announced that games against Pittsburgh and Dallas had already sold out -- it was the earliest since 2008 the team announced they were closing in on sellouts. The day I dropped in on camp, fans packed the bleachers to capacity and watched a mid-afternoon practice in the 90-degree heat; afterwards they strolled across a parking lot to the Great American Ball Park, where the first-place Reds were opening a big weekday series. Not a bad time to be a sports fan in Cincinnati.
1. Jay Gruden is going to let it fly. In his first year as the offensive coordinator, Gruden guided the young and inexperienced offense to surprising success given the lack of offseason programs. But now, with the benefit of OTAs and a full training camp, the fiery assistant is ready to really put his stamp on the unit. Gruden is expanding the playbook of his West Coast-style passing game -- look for the running backs to get more involved, and expect more shots downfield. One of the first things Gruden did with Dalton this offseason was to sit down and break down tape of the quarterback's numerous misfires on long passes. Gruden wants Dalton, who's been working hard on his footwork, to be more aggressive throwing the ball downfield. "I'm not saying we want to throw Hail Marys every play, but we're going to take more shots," said Gruden. "We got to give A.J. (Green) a chance to make a play -- too many times last year we left the ball two or three yards too far and out of bounds. Andy's trying to place the perfect pass too often, instead of just letting it fly. He's understanding that even if it's underthrown a little bit but kept in play, it won't be an interception -- A.J.'s going to get it."
2. The backfield will very much be a running back by committee. It looked like BenJarvus Green-Ellis would finally get his chance to be The Man when the Bengals signed him in March, but it's since become clear that the Bengals are interested in an even split of carries between the 27-year-old bruiser and long-time backup Bernard Scott. I asked Lewis if he wanted a back to emerge from camp as a No. 1 and he said, "We don't, actually. We really feel like we'll utilize two or three backs depending on what we feel good about. That's what our plan was, to upgrade ourselves in the run game that way -- to add Bennie but also give Bernard, finally, an opportunity to show his ability. We're really excited to see what Bernard can do."
3. This is Andy Dalton's team. Early reports out of camp were that Dalton was struggling, though he looked sharp, his timing and accuracy impressive, on the days I was there. What's clear is that Dalton is trying to take on more of a leadership role. "This year isn't about learning the playbook, it's about taking control and letting everyone know that I know what I'm doing and that I'm in control of this thing," he says. "There's a different leadership role I've taken this year -- this year I'm demanding things out of guys, and that's a big area that's different. Last year just gave me a bit of credibility."
"Andy went through a lot last year," says Lewis. "Between getting married, the draft, and wondering when Carson [Palmer] would walk into the room, he just went through a lot -- and he handled it remarkably well. He's ready to take the next step. Between him and A.J., we hit a couple home runs."
Jermaine Gresham, tight end. The hot topic in camp is who'll line up as the No. 2 receiver. Will it be the former practice squad player Armon Binns? Brandon Tate? Or the rookie, Mohamed Sanu? With no clear candidate there, don't be surprised if Gresham emerges as Dalton's No. 2 option in the passing game. Gruden has hinted at an increased role for the former first-round pick, who made his first Pro Bowl last year. Gresham isn't at all satisfied with his production in his first two seasons. Given his talent, he shouldn't be.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, running back. He might not get 20 touches a game, but Green-Ellis will be a difference-maker for the Bengals in the red zone. Last year Cincinnati ranked 24th in the league in converting goal-to-go situations into touchdowns (14 of 26), but that should change with Green-Ellis there to punch it in -- his 24 TDs over the last two seasons are second only to Arian Foster. The Bengals have been thrilled with what Green-Ellis has brought to the locker room. "He's a team guy, an accountable guy -- such a solid individual," says Gruden. "He's not the most flashy guy, he's not going to run the fastest 40 time, he's not going to have the most reps bench pressing 225, but when you talk about the all-around position, you got to love what he brings with the short yardage and the ball security. He's a damn good back."
How much has Cincinnati's stock risen? After not playing a primetime game all last year, the Bengals are slated for three this year: they open the season on Monday night at Baltimore, play a home Sunday night game against Pittsburgh on Oct. 21 and a Thursday night game at Philadelphia on Dec. 13. Cincinnati has a number of key AFC North games early -- four division games are in the first seven weeks of the season. The Bengals then go nine weeks without facing a division team until it finishes with a bang: at Pittsburgh and home against Baltimore.