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Bengals seem comfortable in Gruden’s whole new offense

CINCINNATI (AP) — The task seemed overwhelming at first. The Cincinnati Bengals were trying to teach an entirely new offense to a group led by a rookie receiver, with only two weeks to go before the first preseason game.

Everyone expected a rough start. A 6-2 mark at the season’s halfway point? Dream on.

“I think it’s definitely better than anybody would have expected it to have been,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said Wednesday. “We continue to keep our heads down and be stubborn and push the envelope to be what we can offensively.”

They’ve been good enough to get to first place.

The Bengals are tied with Baltimore at 6-2 atop the AFC North heading into a pivotal game Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. The Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3) are known for making rookie quarterbacks feel they still don’t belong.

It’ll be the best test yet for Andy Dalton and rookie receiver A.J. Green, who have carried an offense severely lacking in experience at the marquee positions. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is known for disguising his schemes and confusing the passer.

“It’s a challenge for a veteran offense with a veteran quarterback,” offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said after practice Wednesday.

“They’ve made days miserable for a lot of great, great quarterbacks. Rookies are no different.

“I’m sure they’re going to do whatever they can to keep him off-balance and make him hurry his throws and struggle. We have to help him out.”

Dalton’s quick emergence has gotten the Bengals through an eight-game stretch that seemed daunting.

The NFL’s lockout prevented Gruden from coaching the second-round draft pick or introducing his West Coast offense, which is much different from the one used by former coordinator Bob Bratkowski. So many things were stacked against Dalton that his new teammates felt for him.

“I don’t know,” offensive guard Bobbie Williams said, after a voluntary workout in June. “I’ll just say: God help the young man.”

Nobody’s feeling sorry for him now.

Dalton is the 15th-ranked passer in the league with 12 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a passer rating of 85. The only other rookie ranked higher is Cam Newton, who is 12th with 11 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a passer rating of 87.1.

Cincinnati’s offense ranks 22nd in the league overall, but has managed to pull games out in the second half.

“When you have a new system coming in with limited time and some young guys playing — and actually, everybody’s new to the system so everybody’s like a rookie quite frankly — it has gone better than expected,” Gruden said. “I think the leadership from the offensive line has been a big help. And of course, Andy’s ability to learn very fast has been a big help, also.”

Gruden’s system is similar to the one that Dalton ran at TCU, so he’s been able to get comfortable quickly. And Gruden has tailored the weekly game plans to what Dalton does best — throw quick, accurate passes.

“It’s an offense that’s been tweaked to fit what they have,” Steelers safety Ryan Clark said on a conference call Wednesday. “It’s an offense that’s been tweaked to protect a rookie quarterback.”

One who’s overcome his rookie moments with strong finishes.

The Bengals have won their last five games, something they hadn’t done since 1988, and Dalton has been the key. He led them to a tiebreaking touchdown in the fourth quarter in Jacksonville, and pulled off second-half comebacks in two other wins.

The Steelers don’t expect him to get rattled.

“I don’t necessarily see that being a challenge to Dalton as of late,” Clark said. “For a quarterback to lead a team to five straight wins — clearly he’s not the only one playing, but it is impressive that he’s been able to do that.”

Dalton has gotten better at recognizing what the defense will try to do to confuse him.

“I feel like I’ve gotten better each week and I’m starting to see things a lot better,” he said.

This week, he’ll see some things he’s never seen before.

Notes: The Bengals have a three-week roster exemption for LB Keith Rivers, who had wrist surgery over the summer and hasn’t played. Coach Marvin Lewis was noncommittal about his status, other than to say, “He’s progressing.” … CB Nate Clements (knee), S Chris Crocker (knee), DE Carlos Dunlap (hamstring) and RB Brian Leonard (knee) were held out of practice Wednesday. TE Jermaine Gresham (hamstring), CB Adam “Pacman” Jones (hamstring) and MLB Rey Maualuga (ankle) returned to practice on a limited basis.