CINCINNATI — The task seemed overwhelming at first. The Cincinnati Bengals were trying to teach an entirely new offense to a group led by a rookie quarterback and 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.
The Bengals are tied with Baltimore at 6-2 atop the AFC North heading into a pivotal game Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3) at Paul Brown Stadium. It'll be the best test yet for Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, who have carried an offense severely lacking in experience at the marquee positions.
"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."
Dalton's quick emergence has gotten the Bengals through an eight-game stretch that seemed daunting. 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.
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.
"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," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said.
Bucs pick up Haynesworth
TAMPA, Fla. — Albert Haynesworth didn't stay unemployed long. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers claimed the 350-pound defensive lineman off waivers Wednesday, one day after the two-time Pro Bowl selection was released by the New England Patriots. In six games with the Patriots, he had three tackles and no sacks.
Bush to start for McFadden
ALAMEDA, Calif. — Oakland Raiders running back Darren McFadden will sit out Thursday night's game in San Diego because of a lingering ankle sprain. The NFL's leading rusher through the first month of the season has been wearing a walking boot all week. Former Louisville standout Michael Bush, who rushed for 96 yards in the loss to Denver this past Sunday, will start in place of McFadden against the Chargers in a critical game for these longtime division rivals.
Steeler hit by $40,000 fine
Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark is angry about being fined $40,000 for an illegal hit against Baltimore's Ed Dickson. Clark was flagged 15 yards for unnecessary roughness Sunday night late in the first half of Baltimore's 23-20 win for launching himself into Dickson just after the ball glanced off Dickson's hands.
"There wasn't anything malicious about it," Clark said. "It wasn't a spear. It wasn't a forearm to the head. It wasn't any of those things and to be fined $40,000 for that? To me it's either targeting me as a single player or it's targeting this team."
Clark was fined a week earlier for hitting New England tight end Rob Gronkowski out of bounds.
■ Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said he was fined by the NFL for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Steelers receiver Hines Ward in Sunday night's game. Ward was dazed by the collision and helped off the field. He did not return.
Progress for Ochocinco?
Haynesworth is gone, but another underachieving, high-profile player for the Patriots seems likely to stay. Chad Ochocinco is becoming more familiar with the Pats' complex offense, and his playing time increased Sunday, although he had no catches.
"He's done some good things and there are things we need to do a better job of," offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien said. "Getting him the ball and things like that."