A New Hope

 

 

It took most of the year to find it, but Hue Jackson has finally established an identity for his offense: pounding the rock with Jeremy Hill. The rookie from LSU rumbled for 5.9 yards-per-carry against the Browns on Sunday and finished two yards short of his third 150-yard rushing game. This production helped the Bengals dominate time of possession, holding the ball for 39 minutes—the Browns 38 offensive plays were the fewest for any team in the NFL the past two years. Of course, Cincinnati forcing six three-and-outs on defense was a big part of this domination as well.

Cincinnati’s rushing attack is on pace for some historic totals, as ESPN.com’s Coley Harvey points out in a recent post. The Bengals are currently on pace to finish with the most rushing yards in the Marvin Lewis era, racking up 1,824 yards through 14 games. The team’s current 4.28 yp is the highest average since Corey Dillon led the Bengals to a 4.7 average in 2000. The 18 rushing touchdowns are also tops in the league and the most of any Bengals team under Marvin Lewis.

When the Bengals take on the Broncos on Monday Night Football in Week 16, Hue Jackson would be wise to stick with the running game under Jeremy Hill, something he failed to do in the Bengals last two losses. Take a look at Hill’s numbers in November and December:

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In the four wins by multiple scores, Hill has gotten 18 or more carries in each game. Jackson got away from the running game in the first Cleveland contest and against Pittsburgh, even though Hill was churning out a respectable 4.6 and 5.8 ypc, respectively. (Hill’s fumble in that Thursday Night Football game against the Browns cost him playing time, too.) In the Pittsburgh game, the Bengals were more successful through the air—Dalton’s 10.41 yards per attempt was his second highest of the year—but they couldn’t move the ball at all in the fourth quarter. After the read-option fumble at the beginning of the final period, Hill didn’t receive a carry for the next three Cincinnati drives, which all ended in punts. When the Bengals can close the fourth quarter with Hill, they win games:

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The Bengals next two opponents, the Broncos (11-3) and the Steelers (9-5), both rely heavily on workhorse production from young running backs. Le’Veon Bell is averaging 25 carries per game and 5.3 ypc in his last four. For Denver, C.J. Anderson is averaging about 27.3 carries per game and 4.8 yards per carry over his last four contests.

The Bengals must lean on their own talented young running back to have a shot at a victory in both games, with Hill’s own 5.02 ypc over the last four games right in line with his counterparts. If the Bengals offensive line can continue dominating in the running game, and Gio Bernard can continue to be effective as a receiver out of the backfield and a secondary back, the offense should be able to hang with the scoring of both Denver and Pittsburgh.

This week will be the bigger challenge, as the Broncos run defense will present the stiffest test all year for Hill and the Bengals o-line, which still hasn’t decided on their starting offensive line combination following Andre Smith’s season-ending injury. Denver allows only 71.6 yards per game on the ground at a pace of 3.4 yards per carry. Both averages are second only to the Detroit Lions’ dominant run defense.

Regardless of who plays right tackle when Cincinnati takes on Denver this Monday—Clint Boling, Eric Winston, or (gulp) Marshall Newhouse—they must look to Jeremy Hill to control the pace of the game and convert first downs. This Bengals offense has converted 24.6 percent of their rushes, the highest conversion rate under Marvin Lewis. Leaning on Jeremy Hill is the best option for the offense to keep things close in two games that have a heavy impact on playoff seeding and the AFC North title race.

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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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