Game of Runs

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Starting running back Gio Bernard won’t play for the second week in a row when the Bengals face the Browns tonight on Thursday Night Football. Bernard was averaging 19 touches per game and 89 all-purpose yards per game over the first seven of the season. This heavy use led to several body injuries in consecutive weeks for the smaller running back. Bernard suffered a collarbone injury in Week 6 against the Panthers, a rib injury in Week 7 against the Colts, and a hip injury in Week 8 against the Ravens.

All these body punches have taken their toll, leaving Jeremy Hill to shoulder the load. The 235-pound Hill racked up 154 yards on the ground last week, the most rushing yards by a Bengals running back since Cedric Benson’s 169 in the 2009 wild card playoff loss. Hill’s success was due in large part to the blocking in front of him, which had been horrendous in the previous couple weeks.

When Hill was asked about the long 60-yard touchdown that sealed the game, Hill gave credit to everyone else around him.

“I think it was great scheme. If you watch the play, they had everybody blocked up. I just had to make my guy miss. If they continue to do those things for me, then I can continue to do my job and make guys miss. It was a big play in the game, and we needed it. Our defense kept getting stops, and we just needed to put the final nail in the coffin. It was a great job by our offensive line and a great play call. I was just doing what I needed to do.”

Hill also used his size and elusiveness to make several plays on unblocked defenders. His vision, decisiveness, and explosiveness were all factors in the biggest day for a Bengals running back in years.

Early in the first quarter, the Bengals were in a three-receiver set on the first play of the drive. They were facing a six-man box, since the Jaguars had both their safeties deep. Six blockers against six defenders leads to an easy decision to run the ball. Hill took one step to his left, then grabbed the handoff from Dalton and followed a lead block by Andrew Whitworth, who pulled across the formation.

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Andre Smith made a kick-out block on the outside defender, while both guards blocked down on the defensive tackles directly in front of them. Jermaine Gresham cut his man on the backside by just diving onto the ground in front of him.

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The key blocks on this play were made by rookie center Russell Bodine and Whitworth. Bodine moved up to the second level to make his block on a linebacker. Bodine even pancaked the guy onto his back. Whitworth completely devoured the other nickel linebacker and turned him towards the sideline away from the play. This created an alleyway between Bodine and Whitworth’s blocks for Jeremy Hill to get downfield into the secondary. The nickel corner slid from the left [not pictured] and combined with the deep safety to make the tackle on the play, limiting it to a 9-yard gain.

The next decent gain from Hill came in the second quarter, also on first down. Dalton audibled and moved his fullback Ryan Hewitt to the right, out in front of the run.

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Dalton pitched the football to Hill on a stretch run to the right. Hill will end up running to the right of Andre Smith, who did a great job of getting on his defender and turning him inside. Both guards, Clint Boling and Mike Pollak are asked to make tough reach blocks, which are landed successfully. Bodine again moved up to the second level and got a great block on the middle linebacker. Jermaine Gresham really didn’t have to block anyone on the backside.

The most important block was made by Ryan Hewitt on the free linebacker, who had cut upfield in an effort to keep Jeremy Hill from getting to the sideline. Because the play was so well blocked by the right guard and right tackle, Hill had ample space to cut towards the endzone. Hewitt just walked the linebacker upfield and out of the play. This let Hill get to the deep safety again, and again the nickel corner combined with the safety to make the tackle.

Hill missed most of the second quarter to get his knee checked out, which was hit awkwardly when a player fell on it during AJ Green’s fumble in the redzone. When Hill came back healthy in the second half, this is when he did most of his damage. The Bengals promptly drove straight down the field on the opening drive of the second half thanks to a second deep completion to Mohamed Sanu. On first-and-goal from the one-yard line, the Jaguars were expecting a run up the gut. It was really a run to the left sideline (from the offense’s perspective). Clint Boling, the left guard, pulls to the front of the run and gets an initial push on the defender but doesn’t sustain the block. The tight ends on the left edge, Kevin Brock and Ryan Hewitt, both block down. Andrew Whitworth also blocks down.

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The interesting part of this play is that two Jaguars defenders will actually take each other out of the play. The middle linebacker (52), aggressively hit the A-gap because he was anticipating a run inside. Domata Peko, the fullback on this play, got the block on him. As Peko and the linebacker were moving towards the sideline together, Peko gave the linebacker an extra shove backwards. This push knocked the linebacker into the safety (36) on that side and the safety fell down. Only one defender remained on that side, Clint Boling’s man. Hill takes over from here. He puts the brakes on and cuts upfield towards the endzone. Hill’s speed, size, and agility were all on display on this one-yard run. Watch how he used his free hand to balance himself as he slows down. He converts his momentum upfield, and there’s no way the defender will bring down this 235-pound man by just getting one hand on him.

Later in the third quarter, Hill had another big run on first down. The blocking wasn’t there at all, thanks to a blown block by Russell Bodine, so Hill cuts the run all the way to the backside. Not many running backs in the league have the vision and speed to make a cutback run like this. With Hill and Bernard, the Bengals have two.

On the very next play, the Bengals use play-action with Hill. Nobody is open downfield for Dalton, so he checks it down to Hill, who had slipped out the backside. The Jaguars linebackers bit so hard on the run that they didn’t even follow Jeremy Hill out of the backfield. He gained an easy 9 yards. Later in the third, the Bengals are in a heavy formation. They run a very similar play to Hill’s one-yard touchdown, except Hewitt is now at fullback. Boling pulled and blocks a cornerback to the right of the picture. Whitworth and both tight ends blocked down again. This time, the weakside linebacker (52) pursues the play well and has a chance to make the tackle. Hill makes him miss, while Hewitt makes a great cut-block downfield on the safety (37). The other safety comes all the way across the field to make the tackle on a 14-yard gain.

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In the fourth quarter, Hill would put the game away with an incredible 60-yard touchdown.

It was a similar scheme to the play above, with the Bengals using a pulling guard again. This time, it’s the right guard Mike Pollak, who blocks a cornerback to the right of the picture.

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The right tackle Marshall Newhouse (playing for an injured Andre Smith), and both tight ends block down again. The fullback, Ryan Hewitt, makes a huge block on the middle linebacker (52) to spring this run. The strong safety (37) to the right of the screen is put in an awkward position where he can’t see the running back because of Hewitt’s block. Hill presses the hole to the outside, so the safety expects a run outside, but Hill cuts upfield into daylight and green grass. At this point, Hill just has to make a move on the free safety, who makes a poor tackling attempt. Hill simply runs by the free safety to the outside and scores standing up.

This play gave the Bengals a 10-point lead with 8 minutes remaining in the game. The Jaguars subsequently drove down the field, only to be intercepted in the endzone by George Iloka.

One last run-heavy drive would put the game away for good. Hill gained a first down with another key block from Hewitt, and then Hewitt himself caught a pass for a first down. The Jaguars got the ball back with 45 seconds left and a Margus Hunt sack ended the game.

The Bengals will undoubtedly lean on Hill again tonight when they face the Browns. The weather forecast predicts a 30% chance of rain and 15-mph winds, gusting up to 30 mph. This calls for another heavy dosage of Jeremy Hill, jumbo sets, and Ryan Hewitt lead-blocking from the fullback position.

The Bengals will be without right tackle Andre Smith, cornerback Leon Hall, and starting linebackers Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict. Players like Marshall Newhouse, rookie Darqueze Dennard, Vinny Rey, and recently-signed linebacker Nico Johnson will need to step up and have good games. A strong running game, good defense, and special teams should lead the Bengals to a 14-0-1 record in their past 15 regular season home games come Friday morning.

Brennen Warner is a contributor to the Cincinnati Magazine Bengals Blog and SB Nation’s Cincy Jungle. You can follow him on Twitter at @JustBeWarned.

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