Last season, the Bengals were sitting pretty with a running game that was ferocious. Despite the loss of Giovani Bernard to a hip injury, in a Week 8 win over the Ravens, the ground game looked spectacular. Jeremy Hill danced into the limelight, as a hard-nosed, downhill running back and kept the Bengals going. Cincinnati used the power of Hill to surprise teams that weren’t ready. But what has happened to both talented backs? The Bengals are struggling to get the run game in gear.
When Jeremy Hill burst onto the scene in 2014, he was one of the most feared rookie running backs to grace the turf. Teams prepared for the Bengals behemoth, but they still weren’t able to stop him. Power, speed, elusiveness, anything an O-coordinator needed, Hill had it. Per stats by Fox Sports, Hill’s rushing yardage is far below what he accumulated last season.
What makes his rookie year so amazing is the fact that he didn’t get significant touches until Week 8. He was able to break big plays by shedding tackles and stayed on the field for all three downs. Giovani Bernard was used exclusively as the third down back, before his injury. His emergence seemed to make Bernard’s presence almost expendable.
This year has been different, not only for Hill but Bernard as well. The running game has been used mainly as an outlet for screens or play-action fakes. The primary targets have been downfield. With so many weapons, Bengals’ offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has found success without having to use the running game as much. But, the numbers tell a different story.
Looking at Hill’s numbers from the Bengals’ 2014 campaign, he had 222 carries. Over the course of the year, that averaged out to 13.9 attempts per game. At the end of Week 16, he has 207 carries for a 13.8 average. If Hill gets the ball 13 or more times against the Ravens, in the season finale, he’ll hit the mark from last year.
If Hill is on pace, then there has to be something else off kilter with the running game.
Giovani Bernard is an elusive running back with great presence and open space unpredictability. In his rookie season of 2013, Bernard rushed for 695 yards, within Hue Jackson’s scheme. With one game remaining, Bernard is one yard shy of that total. According to ESPN, he needs 22 carries to equal the totals of the past two years.
Bernard’s yards per carry have gone up (4.7), while Hill’s yards per carry have plummeted (3.4). The Bengals are running the same offense and it seems that the backs are getting the same number of carries from seasons past. What’s causing the running game to struggle?
One explanation could be found in the way coordinators have changed the game. Many game plans use receivers to supplement the ground game. Hue Jackson has a tendency to toss Mohamed Sanu in the wildcat to run him. This will inflate the numbers and take away from the actual ground totals.
Sanu will also be used to run a reverse in goal-line situations. Against the Broncos, the speedy receiver scored on a six yard touchdown that was considered a rushing attempt. Sanu also scored on the same play against the Browns in Week 8. That play went for 25 yards and was also considered a rushing play. Bernard or Hill could use the 60 yards that Sanu has gobbled up on the ground.
The answer to the Bengals running game problems may not be as simple as the average fan may think. Whatever the problem may be, it has to be repaired before the big dance. Struggling with the running game can easily lead to an early exit from the playoffs.
[Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images]