The weather is turning cold. Freezing rain, snow, and muddy fields are coming. The Cincinnati Bengals are in the business of playing football in the AFC North. Strong winds and icy rain can wreak havoc on passers dropping back for a simple dump pass to a check-down receiver. But since Hue Jackson talked to Jeremy Hill, the Bengals running game has come back to life.
When the season started, Hill was the talk of the town. As a rookie, he rumbled over opposing defenses and racked up yardage at a Pro Bowl pace. He stepped into the spotlight and wowed the franchise with his ability to turn his shoulders, hit the hole, and ramble for five or six yards. Hill finished 2014 with 1,124 rushing yards, nine touchdowns, and averaged 5.1 yards per carry. Against the Raiders in Week 1, that was expected to continue.
The Oakland game was a good start for Hill. Splitting time with Giovani Bernard, he gained half of the Bengals’ rushing yardage and ended the day with 63 yards and two touchdowns. It was a modest start and showed that he still had the juice.
After that, it seemed to become a struggle for the talented Hill. He was shuffling his feet and running past holes that the Bengals offensive line was creating for him. He looked hesitant and indecisive as he made his reads from the backfield. Hill suddenly had fallen into the dreaded “sophomore slump.” He was able to pick and peck his way to 490 yards through the first 11 games of the season.
Those numbers are more than respectable. But for a running back like Jeremy Hill, it was a sign that something else was afoot. He wasn’t playing the same, and he was carrying an attitude that was hurting the Bengals.
The Bengals offense was being criticized for a lack of balance. Hill was getting the carries and playing time, but the yards weren’t coming. In short yardage situations, he was given the ball on the goal line to increase his confidence. Hill had seven touchdowns rushing and one receiving. But he still lacked the rookie dazzle.
Bengals’ offensive coordinator Hue Jackson was fed up.
Before their Week 11 showdown with the St. Louis Rams, Jackson called Hill into his office for a little talk. Something clicked. Hill finished the game against the Rams with 86 yards on 16 carries. Whatever he was told had worked like a charm.
According to the Cincinnati Bengals website, Jackson said it was a matter of getting Hill to focus more. He needed to stop wasting energy elsewhere and concentrate on the task at hand. He wanted the second-year player to channel the emotion. Jeremy was free to express himself but not to overdo it.
“I am never going to muzzle Jeremy because I don’t want to. There is part of you that you got to have to play this game. There’s got to be a fire in your belly. You don’t have any fire in your belly, you can’t play this game. I’m not going to do that.”
That fire and drive carried over to the Cleveland game. Against the Browns, Hill had his most productive game of the year. There was a return to the focused running that made Jeremy Hill so dangerous as a rookie. Hill ran over the Browns for 98 yards on 22 carries and scored a touchdown. The fire and emotion made Jeremy jump into the stands like he did last year. This time, it was more successful.
Hill was able to use his blockers, and his feet weren’t stuck in the mud. His vision and cutback ability returned. With the weather turning cold and the playoffs a few games away, the Bengals running game has come back to life.
[Feature Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images]