CINCINNATI -- Just when it seemed Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden had grown too vanilla with his playcalling, he added a pair of timely wrinkles Sunday that should make opposing defenses rethink their approach to defending the Bengals.
Apparently they weren't the only wrinkles in the Bengals' game plan. Others were attempted during Sunday's game at San Diego, but the situation wasn't right enough for them to be executed.
Gadget plays like the ones Cincinnati ran in the 17-10 win can't be run all that often, but they can have a big impact on a game. Just as establishing the run was a key part of the victory and will continue to be the remainder of the year, so, too, are they occasional trick plays. With the amount of playmakers the Bengals have, there is good reason for them to keep such unanticipated plays in their repertoire.
Even though they tried one such play as early as their second offensive down, it wasn't until late in the second quarter when the Bengals actually showed something that had the potential to throw the Chargers off guard.
"We had a couple trick plays that didn't quite get off," Gruden said, citing flea flicker types of plays involving running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard. "So decision-making at running back and not making a bad play worse was good to see."
The first executed trick play came in the second quarter when receiver Andrew Hawkins started running a reverse, and caught a flip from quarterback Andy Dalton while running up the left side of the line of scrimmage. Hawkins gained 6 yards for a first down. It may not have been a major gain, but it was enough to start forcing San Diego's defense to respect the shifty, speedy slot player's ability to make plays in both the running and passing games.
One drive later, Hawkins factored in another gadget play when he slipped into the backfield and caught a shovel pass from Dalton. On the play, Dalton appeared to hold onto the ball as if looking to pass downfield, and he moved around in the pocket just enough to toss the ball to the sprinting Hawkins in stride. That gain wasn't for much either, but the 4-yard pickup was yet another way of planting doubt in the defense's head.
"It mixes it up," Hawkins said. "It keeps the defense on their toes. It opens up some of the runs and opens up some of the passes and makes them guess if I'm in there doing some gadget plays, of if we're in there doing plays like the third-and-2 play."
The third-and-2 Hawkins referenced came early in the fourth quarter with the Bengals holding a narrow 14-7 lead deep in their own territory. On the play, Hawkins turned into a more traditional pass catcher when he broke inside and caught a hard-thrown mid-range pass from Dalton before letting his speed take over. After speeding into San Diego's defensive backfield, Hawkins appeared poised to go all the way for an 82-yard touchdown reception. He almost did.
Soreness in his hamstring stymied him, though, and forced him to slow up 50 yards downfield. Instead of making it all the way to the goal line, he was caught from behind and ridden out of bounds at San Diego's 32. Four plays later, kicker Mike Nugent made a 46-yard field goal that helped extend Cincinnati's lead.
That play may not have opened up had it not been for the commitment to using Hawkins in a variety of ways earlier in the game. Again, much like the running game, the gadget game can aid the Bengals' air attack, too.