AFC North: West Coast offense

CINCINNATI -- New England coach Bill Belichick has expressed his reverence for former Browns and Bengals coach Paul Brown before. However, as he spoke with reporters Wednesday morning in Cincinnati ahead of Sunday's game between the Patriots and Bengals, he took his admiration a step further.

As far as Belichick's concerned, the same offense the rest of the football universe knows as the West Coast scheme, deserves a different name.

"The West Coast offense should really be the Ohio River offense because it's Paul Brown's offense that [Bill] Walsh took out of there," Belichick said, referencing Walsh's 1980s San Francisco 49ers teams that won three Super Bowls.

[+] EnlargePaul Brown
AP Photo/NFL PhotosThough he passed away in 1991, Paul Brown is still influencing the NFL game.
Much like Walsh's scheme, which helped revolutionize the modern-day NFL, Brown's system called for short-yardage throws to receivers and running backs in spaces where they could take off and gain yards after the catch. It opened up offenses, and put the onus on defenders to account for more than two or three playmakers.

"The more you read about Paul Brown, the more you look at what he did, he truly is the father of this game," Belichick said. "He was so ahead of his time in all the organizational things, a lot of the schematic things. The preparation that we do, it's all very, very similar to what he did half a century ago, or maybe longer ago. The more I know about Paul Brown, the more impressed I am with him."

That's quite a feat, considering Belichick doesn't seem impressed by much. On his same conference call with Bengals reporters, Belichick was quick to bring up the exhaustive list of mistakes he believes his undefeated team still has to clean up.

Before founding and coaching the Bengals in 1968, Brown served as Cleveland's head coach across parts of three decades. He was respected there for his use of running backs and his ability to win championships. He claimed seven while with the Browns. In the eight years in which he served as Bengals head coach, Brown led Cincinnati to the playoffs three times.

Here's a little more on what Belichick had to say about the "father" of the Ohio River offense and how its principles still apply to today's game:

"The possession passing game and the balance he brought to the offense. It really was when he went to Cincinnati that you saw that you can pass the ball five or six yards and that's a good play that moves the chains and keeps the down and distance in your favor. Passes don't have to be 15 to 18 yards down the field where it's either a big gain or an incomplete pass. Then you had a lot of second-and-10s. He was able to use his backs in the passing game, which is such a trademark of the West Coast offense.

"And using the tight ends on the short intermediate routes, too. Like I said, not always the 12- to 15-yard routes, but being able to get them the ball. The whole catch-and-run principles. We're in those drive routes, those underneath crossing routes. It's a 2- or 3-yard pass, but you get the ball in the hands of a good player and they can make 15 out it. The possession timing passing game and the utilization of the backs and tight ends, as well as the receivers in the passing game. Being able to attack all areas of the field, the width of the field, the inside part of the field, the deep part of the field, plus in conjunction with the running game, the balance that he had offensively was again so far ahead of it's time. Even going back to Cleveland, you saw a lot of that back in that day, even with the toss sweeps that they used to run, as well as the inside running game, they did a good job of getting the ball down the field, as well. It was expanded to a different level, certainly one that's more familiar to the current NFL was when he went to Cincinnati in the late-60s and implemented what's now the West Coast offense, but to me is Paul Brown's offense."
The Cleveland Browns will host the Cincinnati Bengals in the "Battle of Ohio" in Week 1. It will be an important tone-setter for both AFC North teams.

The game also marks the first NFL meeting between Texas natives Colt McCoy and Andy Dalton. The rival quarterbacks are vying to become the long-term solutions for the Browns and Bengals, respectively. Much of their success will hinge on their ability to win division games.

McCoy looks ahead of the rookie Dalton in two preseason games. McCoy, who is in his second year, leads Dalton in every major statistical category. McCoy has more yards, a better completion percentage and four more touchdowns.

Dalton, a second-round pick, hasn't looked sharp. He's thrown for only 155 yards, zero touchdowns and three interceptions.

Cleveland's West Coast offense is more in sync than Cincinnati's West Coast offense halfway through the preseason. Dalton has to play better in the coming weeks to build momentum to face McCoy and the Browns in the regular season.

Morning take: Steelers or Patriots?

August, 24, 2011
Here are the most interesting stories Wednesday in the AFC North:
  • Should the New England Patriots be favored over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC?
Morning take: Quarterback Tom Brady and New England have Pittsburgh’s number. The Patriots deserve to be the AFC preseason favorites. But eventually everything will be settled on the field.
  • Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is happy to have safety Taylor Mays.
Morning take: The Bengals were high on Mays in last year’s NFL draft but took tight end Jermaine Gresham instead. Now, Cincinnati has a chance to work with Mays one year later.
Morning take: Work ethic and conditioning are major concerns. But the Ravens need McKinnie’s talent on the offensive line. They are counting on Baltimore's solid locker room to keep McKinnie focused.
Morning take: I think Browns fans would take any offense over what they saw last season. Shurmur's group looks sharp so far, which provides hope for the regular season.
Here are the most interesting stories Tuesday in the AFC North:
  • Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy spent a couple days this offseason with future Hall of Famer Brett Favre to learn the West Coast offense.
Morning take: This was a wise move by McCoy. He couldn't learn the offense from coaches during the lockout, so McCoy sought help from someone who played under Browns president Mike Holmgren.
  • Cincinnati Bengals assistant coach Mike Zimmer stands up for his defense following their 34-3 preseason loss to the Detroit Lions.
Morning take: Usually, a coach doesn't need to stand up for their group in the preseason. But there's so much early concern in Cincinnati that Zimmer felt it was necessary.
  • Baltimore Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta is hoping to fill the void Todd Heap left behind.
Morning take: Pitta's playing style looks fairly similar to a young Heap. Tight end is important in Baltimore's offense. Therefore, Pitta and Ed Dickson will get opportunities to make plays.
Morning take: This should be the focus. The Steelers do not have many position battles or much to prove in the preseason. These next few weeks should be all about preparing for their biggest rival.

AFC North Stock Watch

August, 15, 2011
Week 1 of the preseason is in the books. So let's see who's stock is rising and falling after the first batch of preseason games.


1. The Cincinnati Bengals: I rarely make too much of the preseason. But I didn't like the way the Bengals came out to start their 2011 season. It's a new era and a fresh start in Cincinnati. But the Bengals didn't play with much energy or effort in a 34-3 loss to the Detroit Lions. It's difficult to lose a preseason game by 31 points. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has a lot of work to do. I want to see how the Bengals rebound this week against the New York Jets.



2. Baltimore Ravens' offensive tackles: Baltimore allowed six sacks in its 13-6 preseason defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles. At least three sacks came against starting offensive tackles Michael Oher and Oniel Cousins. Pass protection has been a year-long problem in Baltimore. Oher had a great rookie campaign on the right side but has been average as a left tackle. Cousins hasn't shown much on the right side. The Ravens are now considering moving Cousins to right guard. There don't seem to be any easy answers to this issue.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers' pass defense: In Pittsburgh's first game since Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers had a field day in Super Bowl XLV, Washington Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman (207 yards, one touchdown) also did well in limited action. Should this be a concern? Bryant McFadden was out and cornerback Ike Taylor broke his thumb. Taylor is expected to miss the rest of the preseason at an already thin position. It's way too early to panic. But Pittsburgh's corners need to start covering better this summer to erase concerns of last season's Super Bowl loss.




1. Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy: There is a lot of pressure on McCoy to show growth this year as the full-time starter. He made a great first step with a near-perfect performance against the Packers. McCoy was 9 of 10 for 135 yards and a touchdown. He led two touchdown drives -- one against Green Bay's starters and the other against the Packers' second unit. This should give McCoy and the first-team offense things to build on in the preseason.

2. Browns coach Pat Shurmur: The Browns looked solid and played with energy in Shurmur's head-coaching debut. Shurmur was solid in his dual role as head coach and offensive coordinator. The Browns looked prepared and the offense moved the ball. His play calling went a long way to giving McCoy and his younger players confidence.

3. Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger: Kruger had his best game as a Raven, albeit in the preseason. He recorded five tackles and a sack against Philadelphia. Kruger was active and looks much better now that he's lost the extra bulk. Baltimore tried converting him to a full-time defensive end in 2010, which didn't work. Now, the Ravens hope Kruger can provide more quickness and speed-rushing on the outside.
Here are the most interesting stories Sunday in the AFC North: Morning take: This is the best move right now for Baltimore. It's unknown if Cousins will do well at right guard, but it's clear he's struggling at right tackle. The Ravens have three preseason games to figure it out.
  • Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor (thumb) will likely have surgery but should be ready for the regular-season opener against Baltimore.
Morning take: Taylor and the Steelers do not have anything to prove in the preseason. Getting healthy for the Ravens should be the biggest priority.
Morning take: Neither the starters nor the reserves played well for Cincinnati. The team needs to study this film and fix all that went wrong quickly.
  • The Cleveland Browns' West Coast offense looked good in their 27-17 victory over the Green Bay Packers.
Morning take: Browns head coach Pat Shurmur also is the offensive coordinator and did a good job Saturday. I don't overrate the preseason, but Cleveland's offensive concepts looked solid compared to the past two seasons.
GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- It's a new era in Cincinnati. But will it result in more victories?

That's the question facing the new-look Cincinnati Bengals this season.

Cincinnati hit the reset button after a disappointing 4-12 campaign in 2010. The Bengals moved on from the Carson Palmer-Chad Ochocinco era, replacing them with rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and No. 4 overall pick A.J. Green.

But going young often brings growing pains. That was evident in Cincinnati's lackluster 34-3 loss to the Detroit Lions in Friday's preseason opener. The Bengals' starters and backups looked shell-shocked and were dominated on offense, defense and special teams.

"It's our first step in a long, long journey," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis told reporters Friday night. "There's a lot of work to do. I knew it coming in. Now we have a chance to coach off the tape and make corrections off the tape and get after it quickly."

The rebuilding Bengals have nowhere to go but up this season. They were ranked last in's preseason Power Rankings.


[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonCincinnati could face growing pains with rookie QB Andy Dalton.
1. Is Andy Dalton ready?

Palmer's unexpected retirement in January thrust Dalton into the starting lineup as a rookie.

This is unfamiliar territory for Lewis. Lewis sat Palmer, a No. 1 overall pick, during his entire rookie year in 2003.

I asked Lewis this week about his different approach with rookie quarterbacks.

"The football team that I took over in 2003 couldn't afford to lose games because of the quarterback," Lewis said. "They had a guy who had been in the seat and a lot of people were very, very comfortable with. Jon [Kitna] had done some good things, so it was a different situation.

"This football team is put together differently. They're tough, they're physical, they know how to go out there and compete. I didn't know those things coming in 2003. I know what this team is made of now. I know where the leaders are. I didn't know those guys then."

The Bengals hope to get immediate results from Dalton. He made some rookie mistakes in practice during the week and looked shaky in his preseason debut. Dalton's first throw was an interception. His third pass attempt was a sack. He finished with 69 passing yards and a pick.

Overall, Dalton is confident and has good presence. But things will not come together overnight.

2. How is Cincinnati’s new West Coast offense?

The West Coast offense is known for its precision passing. But expect a heavy dose of tailback Cedric Benson in Cincinnati's system.

First-year offensive coordinator Jay Gruden acknowledged that he wants a power running game to protect his rookie quarterback. Benson is coming off back-to-back 1,100-yard seasons. He is the most reliable offensive commodity the Bengals have.

If Benson runs well, it should open things up for Cincinnati's passing game. Gruden is particularly high on starting receivers Green and Jerome Simpson.

Look for Cincinnati's opponents to stack the box against the run this season. But Gruden will not be afraid to take shots downfield with Simpson and Green, based on what I've seen in practice.

"Those two guys on the outside are very athletic," Gruden said. "You almost have to take a different approach as a quarterback when those two guys are running down the field. If a defensive back has his back turned, you have to give [the receiver] a chance. A lot of times you want to tell a quarterback, 'It's either us or nobody.' But with these two guys you can throw it up high and let them go get it."

3. Can the defense rebound?

The Bengals were No. 4 in total defense in 2009. That led to a playoff run.

In 2010, Cincinnati's defense dropped to No. 15. The Bengals finished 4-12 last season.

The success of the defense is vital. The Bengals return veterans such as cornerback Leon Hall, defensive lineman Domata Peko, safety Chris Crocker and third-year linebacker Rey Maualuga. The team also added cornerback Nate Clements to replace Johnathan Joseph and new linebackers Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard.

Improving the pass rush will be key. The Bengals only had 27 sacks in 16 games last season. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap accounted for 9.5 of those sacks.

Speed on defense also is an issue. Cincinnati is not very fast in the front seven or in the secondary.


I went into Bengals camp unfamiliar with Colin Cochart. But by the end of the week, the undrafted rookie tight end from South Dakota State was one of my favorite players.

Cochart is an aggressive blocker, which is a valued commodity. He blocked in every practice as though it was the Super Bowl. That got under some teammates' skin and caused some extra pushing and shoving.

Cochart's blocking makes him a sleeper to make the Bengals as a third tight end behind Jermaine Gresham and Bo Scaife.


I wanted to see more from backup running back Bernard Scott. But he has been sidelined most of training camp with a hamstring injury.

Many players across the league, particularly speedy ones, are suffering hamstring injuries after the lockout. Scott showed flashes in past seasons. But he needs to stay healthy and be more reliable to back up Benson this season.

    [+] EnlargeA.J. Green
    AP Photo/Carlos OsorioReceiver A.J. Green, a first-round draft pick, has looked as good as advertised so far in camp.

  • Green is the real deal. He is an extremely good athlete with great hands and the ability to go up and get the football. But he needs to work on is his routes. Green relied mostly on athleticism in high school and college. He needs to be more precise getting out of his cuts to get the most out of Cincinnati's West Coast offense. There is little margin for error at the NFL level.
  • Former 2009 first-round pick Andre Smith is in much better shape this year. He is down to 335 pounds. Smith's quickness, footwork and endurance have improved. This is his first full training camp. He missed the first two camps because of a contract dispute and prior injuries. Smith's weight loss also takes pressure off his surgically repaired foot.
  • Veteran backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski looks to be a decent signing. Gradkowski knows the West Coast offense and is making plays in camp. The Bengals are counting on Dalton to be the starter. Dalton's ceiling is higher. But right now there isn't a wide gap separating Cincinnati's top two quarterbacks.
  • Simpson looks ready to bust out. He was one of the best players in practice last week and continues to make highlight-reel catches, even when covered by defenders. Simpson has been quiet for three seasons in Cincinnati. But he finished strong in the final month of last season. Simpson has to prove he can be productive for 16 games.
  • The Bengals can use a healthy Adam Jones this season. The backup cornerback will miss all of training camp after neck surgery. Jones is by far Cincinnati's best athlete in the secondary. It doesn't appear the commissioner will act on Jones' offseason arrest for disorderly conduct. Jones says he was wrongfully arrested.
  • Michael Johnson looks more comfortable back at defensive end. The Bengals experimented with moving Johnson to outside linebacker last season, but he never looked comfortable standing up. Now, Johnson is making more plays in training camp at his natural position. He was listed as a starter on the team's first depth chart.
  • Maualuga is another player who looks better at his natural position of middle linebacker. He has good instincts and is a force against the run. Maualuga sheds blocks well and gets to ball carriers. He had two tackles for loss Friday against Detroit. The past two seasons Maualuga often was forced to cover tight ends in pass coverage and struggled.

AFC North Week 1 preseason preview

August, 11, 2011
The 2011 NFL preseason will begin Thursday night with several games, including the Baltimore Ravens of the AFC North against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Here are four preseason storylines this weekend:

1. Cleveland Browns unveil new offense, defense against Super Bowl champs

Analysis: Cleveland could not pick a better measuring stick for a preseason opener. The Browns will debut their new West Coast offense and 4-3 defense against the Green Bay Packers. Green Bay is the NFL's top preseason team, according to's Power Rankings. Many eyes will be on Cleveland second-year quarterback Colt McCoy. The 2011 season is huge for McCoy to prove he's the future of the franchise. His season-long journey starts Saturday at Browns Stadium.

2. Andy Dalton era begins for Cincinnati Bengals

Analysis: Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis made Carson Palmer wait a full season to make his first NFL start. But Lewis believes his team is ready to be led by a rookie quarterback in 2011. Second-round pick Andy Dalton will get his first career start for the Bengals Friday against the Detroit Lions. Lewis said the young offense will play longer than expected for a preseason opener.

3. Baltimore Ravens LB Sergio Kindle makes debut

Analysis: Kindle was Baltimore's prized draft pick in 2010. But a fractured skull last summer ended his rookie season. Kindle will make his debut one year later against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Ravens hope Kindle stays healthy and improves their pass rush. Baltimore had just 27 sacks in 16 games last season.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers evaluate young players

Analysis: The reigning AFC champions do not have anything to prove in the preseason. Pittsburgh's opener is more for evaluating young players. The Steelers took advantage of the preseason last year. They gave plenty of reps to inexperienced players Ziggy Hood, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. By midseason, this trio contributed to Pittsburgh's Super Bowl run. This year the Steelers want extended looks at rookies such as defensive end Cameron Heyward, offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert and cornerback Curtis Brown to see if they can eventually earn spots in the rotation.

Thoughts from Bengals OC Jay Gruden

August, 11, 2011
GEOREGTOWN, Ky. -- The Cincinnati Bengals will begin their 2011 preseason Friday against the Detroit Lions. One of Cincinnati's big storylines will be the new-look, West Coast offense led by first-year offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.

The AFC North blog and several media members recently spoke with Gruden to get his thoughts on a variety of topics leading into the preseason:

[+] EnlargeOffensive coordinator Jay Gruden
Frank Victores/US PRESSWIREOffensive coordinator Jay Gruden wants the Bengals "to be a physical football team."
(On what Gruden wants to see from his offense Friday)

Jay Gruden: We just want to set a standard for ourselves and what kind of team we want to be. It starts in the preseason. How are we going to come off the ball? How are we going to break the huddle? The little things that we're going to do. Are we detailed in our assignments and what's our physicality going to be? Are going to be soft, or are we physical? We want to be a physical football team.

(On how much of the new offense is installed)

Gruden: I think enough right now. I think these guys have enough in where we can keep people off balance. We will add as we go on. Depending on who we play and what defenses we're playing, we might change some things up. But right now I think we're in good shape.

(On the speed of the installation process)

Gruden: I can always install plays. People have to slow me down. I can install 50 plays a night, but that's not what's good for this team. What's good for this team is giving them a chance to win and giving them a chance to succeed. It's enough things in for them to be successful on the field and knowing what to do.

(On right tackle Andre Smith)

Gruden: He looks very good. I don't know what he looked like before. I heard it was not very good (laughs). But he looks good to me right now. We're excited that he's a candidate to start at right tackle. He needs to play. He needs to practice. He's got to get the reps if he's going to play. We need to see if that foot will hold up. Right now it's holding up, so we're excited about it.

(On receivers A.J. Green and Jerome Simpson)

Gruden: Well, those two guys on the outside are very athletic. You almost have to take a different approach as a quarterback when those two guys are running down the field. If a defensive back has his back turned, you have to give [the receiver] a chance. A lot of times you want to tell a quarterback, "It's either us or nobody." But with these two guys you can throw it up high and let them go get it. A.J. has made about four of those already in this camp and Jerome had three in the last two days. So that's a [great] option for the quarterback. It sure makes him look good.

AFC North camp roundup

August, 9, 2011
The AFC North blog is in Georgetown, Ky. with the Cincinnati Bengals. But let's take a look at the latest happenings with the other teams in the division:
GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- Eight years ago, the Cincinnati Bengals had a rookie No. 1 overall pick in quarterback Carson Palmer. He sat on the bench his entire first season.

This year, the Bengals are about to give rookie second-round pick Andy Dalton his first career start Friday against the Detroit Lions. It's expected to be the first of many starts for Dalton, who was drafted to replace Palmer.

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis explained the difference between the two teams. Lewis believes this year's club has a better chance of success with a rookie quarterback than his 2003 team, which finished 8-8 under veteran Jon Kitna.

"The football team that I took over in 2003 couldn't afford to lose games because of the quarterback," Lewis said. "They had a guy who been in the seat and a lot of people were very, very comfortable with. Jon had done some good things, so it was a different situation.

"This football team is put together differently. They're tough, they're physical, they know how to go out there and compete. I didn't know those things coming in 2003. I know what this team is made of now. I know where the leaders are. I didn't know those guys then."

Lewis wouldn't go as far to say Dalton was more NFL ready than Palmer was in 2003. That will be decided by Dalton's play on the field.

The Bengals are expected to give Dalton and the first-team offense more reps than usual Friday because of their new West Coast offense, rookie quarterback and NFL lockout.

Notes from Bengals practice

August, 8, 2011
GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- The Cincinnati Bengals began their second week of training camp with a full-padded practice Monday night.

Here are several notes and observations:
  • Bengals receiver Jerome Simpson was the star of this practice. Simpson caught a pair of impressive deep balls from backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski in team drills. One was a jump ball over a defender for 20-plus yards and the other was a streak down the right side of the field for a touchdown. Simpson is out to prove that last season's strong finish was not a fluke.
  • Similar to Cleveland, the Bengals' new West Coast offense still has some kinks to work out. There were three false starts in team drills by Simpson, rookie receiver A.J. Green and right tackle Andre Smith. Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton's timing also looked off with several receivers. Dalton threw an interception right to middle linebacker Rey Maualuga in what likely was a miscommunication between the quarterback and receiver.
  • Keep an eye out for undrafted rookie tight end Colin Cochart. I don't know much about him -- Cochart is from South Dakota State. But Cochart made several really nice blocks against the first-team defense on Monday. The rookie could be an early sleeper in training camp.
  • On the injury front, Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap had a wrap around his knee and did not practice. Backup running back Bernard Scott (hamstring) and corner Adam Jones (neck) also sat out. Cincinnati safety Gibril Wilson (knee) is returning from an ACL tear and practiced for the first time. He got into a brief scuffle with running back Jonathan Williams in team drills.

Live from Bengals camp

August, 8, 2011
GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- The AFC North blog continues its 2011 training camp tour with the Cincinnati Bengals.

There are plenty of interesting storylines to keep an eye on. For starters, the team is beginning a new era led by rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and No. 4 overall pick A.J. Green. Both will be important cogs in Cincinnati's new West Coast offense.

I also will be watching the new linebacker corps. Rey Maualuga moves to the middle, which is where he played in college. The Bengals also signed Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard to play the outside linebacker spots.

The Bengals also released their first depth chart Monday. But there will be plenty of competition over the next several weeks that could alter this list.

Be sure to follow the AFC North blog and AFC North Twitter page this week for all the latest observations from Bengals camp.
Here are the most interesting stories Sunday in the AFC North:
  • The Pittsburgh Steelers suffered injuries in practice to starting offensive linemen Jonathan Scott (ankle) and Ramon Foster (unspecified).
Morning take: Neither injury is considered serious. That is a good thing, because depth on Pittsburgh's offensive line is lacking. This will give young players a chance to get significant reps in practice.
Morning take: Cotchery is probably the best of what's left at receiver. The Ravens failed to land Malcom Floyd and Derrick Mason. Now it's pretty slim pickings.
  • Cleveland Browns coach Pat Shurmur says the new West Coast offense will come along.
Morning take: The Browns still have a long way to go offensively from what I've seen in camp. Fortunately for Cleveland, there is a month of practices and four preseason games before the regular season.
Morning take: "Grind" is a good word to explain what the Bengals and Browns are going through offensively. The team and quarterback that learns the fastest likely will prevail in Week 1.