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Schemes and dreams

Posted May 3, 2013

Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is as thrilled as anyone about the selection of Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert in the first round.


Tyler Eifert

Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is as thrilled as anyone about the selection of Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert in the first round. He believes Eifert can be an NFL difference-maker once he becomes more of a blocker.

But Gruden is not sitting around doodling plays out of the New England Patriots two tight-end playbook in a daydream haze.

"We're not the Patriots," he says. "We're the Bengals and we're going to do what we do with our players."

And he loves the pick of North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard in the second round. He's a three-down back, Gruden says, who upgrades the Cincinnati passing game with an exciting sizzle.

But Gruden is not rummaging through the Ronald Reagan clips, the Back to the Future VHS, and any other '80s paraphernalia in search of James Brooks.

No, Gruden is calmly preparing for next weekend's rookie minicamp because he believes his playbook is versatile enough to handle this infusion of specialty players.

"Obviously we'll tweak it quite a bit as we go, but we'll be interchanging instead of overhauling," Gruden says. "It's just changing the personnel a little bit with similar concepts without teaching a whole new system."

There may not be a dramatic change to the scheme, which is good news for his young skill players. What Gruden is banking on is the change in diversity providing a dramatic blow to defenses.

"When you look at the beauty of our team, we've done a great  job in the scouting department and Marvin (Lewis) and Mike Brown have built a pretty good team where we don't have to fill for immediate starters," Gruden says. "We can hone in on specialty-type players. A second tight end to back up Jermaine (Gresham) to come in and create matchup problems. A unique back with the skill set that doesn't have to be a 25-carry guy. He can be a 10-15 carry guy, catch eight balls, whatever it is, to help us out and make us more diverse. It a great position to be in. To be able draft talent and specialty needs as opposed to starters."

The most obvious change would figure to be how many plays the Bengals run out of two tight-end sets manned by a two-time Pro Bowler in Gresham and the nation's best tight end in Eifert. Last year, according to NFL stats, the Bengals used two tight ends on 23 percent of their plays, compared to three wide receivers 52 percent of the time. Gruden can see the gap closing considerably without putting a lot of stress on the learning curve.

"We featured probably more of the personnel groupings with one tight end and one back and three receivers. It's very easy to take out that third receiver and put a tight end in there and call the same plays," he says. "A lot of it is the same thing. It's a matter of keeping the personnel on the field that you want to dictate. If (the defense) wants to play nickel, we'll match up. If they want to use base, it's a good deal for us.

"Every year you have a draft and you have some new toys, so things change. You have to adjust."

But one gadget that isn't going to the Island of Lost Toys is that three-receiver set. Not with slot receivers like Andrew Hawkins and Mohamed Sanu.

"I love that formation. That's how you get Hawk and Mo on the field in situations they excel," Gruden says.

Gruden may not be coming out and saying the Bengals are going to use more double tights. And he'll have to figure how to balance it with three wides. But he can't help but be enthused by the benefits of the formation.

"You've got the same plays you have with regular," Gruden says of the base formation with two backs and two receivers. "Now instead of a fullback running a route, you add a tight end that's a great pass catcher and you have a lot of the similar runs you can run with a fullback. Maybe not some of the lead-type (isolation runs), but zones and outside zones and different things you can do with another tight end in there is good."

One discussion the Bengals are certain to have is if they're going to keep a fullback on the roster this season. But first things first.

Before they do anything drastic, the Bengals have to see these guys practice in pads, which won't happen for nearly three more months. And even before that, like next weekend, they have to simply install the offense for rookies like Eifert.

"We're going to keep the plan very similar, we'll get Tyler going in the rookie minicamp and figure out what to do with him after we see him," Gruden says. "He didn't have to do a lot of blocking at Notre Dame. We'll have to see what kind of blocker he is and things he has to work on. He's got to be able to do that; otherwise if he's just a pass catcher (the defense) will play nickel and there's really no benefit. In order to be a difference-maker at that position you have to be able to block to help the running game.

"There's nothing on film that says Tyler can't do it. It's just a matter that he's got to do it, come in and practice it to really get the most out of that personnel package."

Although no one is wearing pads until July, Gruden says coaches and players can get a handle on blocking with footwork, helmet position, and pad level. Until the pads surface, the coaches will get a better look at the passing game than the running game and Gruden says they'll give Eifert and Bernard, as well as the other rookie skill players in next week's camp a chance to "run and make plays" during the five practices while also giving them a sampling of classroom work they have to master "to be a pro."

Gruden says that while the departed Brian Leonard was steady and Cedric Peerman is getting better, what the Bengals are getting in Bernard is a running back "we haven't really had" running routes out of the backfield. He also likes what Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead, a sixth-round pick, adds to the passing game.

"We had a need and we filled it with two guys. Bernard and Burkhead are both good in that role," Gruden says. "They'll be competing for the third-down spot."

Gruden covets Bernard's versatility, and his size, 5-9, 205 pounds, he says, is no different than three-down backs coming into the league. Like Tampa Bay's 5-9, 220-pound Doug Martin in the last draft: "(Bernard) ran the ball in and outside zones and caught it as well. A lot of guys his size are doing it."

Gruden does allow himself to envision some scenarios with his new guys, such as teaming them with his best player, two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green.

"When you get in the red zone you get these coverages where they want to take A.J. away," Gruden says. "Most of the time the back gets single coverage. If you have a guy that can beat that outside backer, that's problems for a defense. They have to play more standard zone and that opens up things for A.J. hopefully also."

But first things first.

"Let's see how they do," Gruden says of that rookie camp.

 

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