NFL Combine: Balance new buzzword in NFL

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INDIANAPOLIS -- The team that won the AFC North title, the same team that had the most-balanced offense in the league, wants to put more big pass plays in its attack and start throwing the ball downfield.

The team with one of the best big-play offenses in the NFL, the same team that finished third in the AFC North despite a 4,000-yard quarterback and two 1,000-yard receivers, wants to cut back on the pass and put more emphasis on the run.

Go figure.

"It's all about balance," Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis was saying Friday at the NFL combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. "It's what's effective and what works, week in and week out."

On paper, the Bengals' balance on offense nearly was remarkable, running the ball 505 times and attempting passes 506 times in 2009. And what worked mostly for them was a running game that featured Cedric Benson, who finished as the AFC's fifth-leading rusher with 1,251 yards.

But, even though they went unbeaten in the division (6-0) and finished 10-6, Lewis will spend the offseason trying to put more vertical stretch -- and, hopefully, more big plays -- in the Bengals' offense. To that end, he will use the combine to find a wide receiver who can help him achieve that goal with the 21st overall pick.

"We need to be able to make vertical plays," Lewis said. "If we throw it down there 40 yards and get a pass interference, that counts. Those are things we are going to look to do. We need to make more chunk plays offensively and help affect the game that way so we're not having to grind it out and have 25 first downs every week."

Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer had only 36 pass plays of 20 yards or longer and just five of 40 yards or longer -- each second fewest among AFC quarterbacks with more than 400 pass attempts.

Compare that to Ben Roethlisberger, who was second in the AFC with 61 pass plays of 20 yards or longer and 14 pass plays of 40 yards or longer. And yet the Steelers want to spend the offseason making a renewed commitment to the run, even though Rashard Mendenhall was just the seventh player in team history to rush for over 1,000 yards.

"We have to be more productive in the passing game," Lewis said. "We were able to change, frankly, the face of our football team, which was dramatic. But, that being said, we also took some hits and we've adjusted. We're going to continue to adjust to be better.

"One of those areas to improve is our ability to make throws and chunk throws down the field. We're excited about that."

The Steelers are not looking to duplicate the Bengals' perfect balance in 2009, but their desire to put more emphasis on the run could lead them to Idaho's Mike Iupati, a powerful, 6-foot-5, 327-pound pulling guard, in the first round.

Iupati interviewed at length Thursday with new offensive line coach Sean Kugler and said the Steelers showed great interest in his ability.

"They said I was their No. 1 lineman," said Iupati, who was born and raised in American Samoa. "They were great. He said he really liked how I played on the goal [line]. He said you never know what can happen."

Ending up with the Steelers would be fine with Iupati.

"Most of my relatives are all Steelers fans," he said.


NOTES -- One day after putting the franchise tag on kicker Jeff Reed, the Steelers met with his agent, Don Henderson, and agreed to begin earnest discussion on a long-term contract next week. Director of football operations Kevin Colbert said the Steelers want to sign Reed to a long-term contract -- one of the reasons they put the franchise tag on their kicker, not the transition tag that would have allowed him more freedom to negotiate with other teams.


Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com .


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