Stay Grounded

The Bengals young duo of running backs has sparked the offensive early in 2014.

 

According to Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill, he and Giovani Bernard are “#Turnt.”

I’m not hip enough to dissect such an equivocal hashtag, but, if you’re a Bengals fan, just know that you want them to stay that way. It only took two weeks for the Bengals to surpass their highest single-game rushing total from 2013— 165 yards in a Week Four overtime victory at Buffalo—with 170 yards on the ground last week in a run-dominant 24-10 victory against the Atlanta Falcons. Additionally, the 2013 one-two rotation of BenJarvus Green-Ellis (who averaged a dismal 3.4 yards per carry on 220 attempts) and Giovani Bernard combined to score just 12 touchdowns in 2013, while the 2014 combo of Bernard and Hill have already amassed five scores in the first three games of 2014. Clearly, “#Turnt” is good. With Bernard’s early-season success as the leading man, one can’t help but wonder how much better off Cincinnati would’ve been last year with him in front of Green-Ellis—a literal and often painful-to-watch embodiment of “three yards and a cloud of dust.” Essentially, the 2014 version of the Bengals backfield is simply a one-year-wiser Bernard elevated to the starter’s role, and an infinitely better version of Green-Ellis in Hill. Hill, who is deceptively fast for his large stature, has more lateral quickness and speed than Green-Ellis ever dreamed of and runs downhill with purpose, while Bernard brings big-play potential and patience behind his blockers, but can also muster up enough lower body fortitude to grind out yards beyond his smaller frame’s presumed ability. Perhaps more notable than their distinct improvement to Cincinnati’s running game is Bernard and Hill’s enhanced value to the Bengals passing attack from the running back position. I looked this up five times and still don’t believe it, but Green-Ellis caught four passes in 2013. FOUR receptions in 16 games as a starting running back is the NFL equivalent of the fictional Cleveland Indians “One God Damn Hit” in Major League. To be fair, Bernard hauled in 56 receptions last year and received nearly every target from the backfield. But is it really possible to be so useless in the passing game that you receive only nine targets in 16 games as a starter? Because, after three weeks, there are 46 running backs in the NFL this season with at least four catches. *Fun Fact: Bengals great and Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz, a left tackle, hauled in seven receptions and four touchdowns in his illustrious 13-year career. Bernard, unlike Green-Ellis, is not only talented enough to be in the NFL, but can also be the linchpin of an offense, which he has been through three weeks for the Bengals. He leads the team in targets through the air with 19, and is tied with A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu for most receptions with 12. His presence in the screen game has been elevated from last season, and he’s developed a vital comfort level with Andy Dalton as a quick-yet-dangerous check-down option in the face of pressure. His presence in the passing game has been massive in helping Andy Dalton to avoid being sacked through three games this season, a truly remarkable feat, seeing as how no other qualifying quarterback in the NFL has managed to do the same this season. While Hill has only two receptions in the regular season, he put his receiving skills on display with an impressive performance in the final game of the preseason—six catches for 70 yards, including a 41-yarder that showed off his speed. He’ll surely see more targets as his playing time increases and as the Bengals will inevitably be in closer games than they have been in the past two weeks. The duo’s full complement of abilities were obvious for the first time in their complete undressing of the Atlanta Falcons defense in the Bengals 24-10 win in Week Two. Bernard: 27 rushes for 90 yards and a touchdown, five receptions for 79 yards. Hill: 15 rushes for 74 yards and a touchdown, 22 yards receiving. In total, they racked up 265 all-purpose yards, which is more than any Bengals running back duo in the last two seasons and second highest total in the NFL so far this year, trailing only the Philadelphia Eagles running back tandem consisting of the NFL’s reigning rushing leader (and apparent worst restaurant attendee) LeSean McCoy, and perhaps the best scat-back of this generation in Darren Sproles. Bernard and Hill’s combined performance against Atlanta was reminiscent of James Brooks and Ickey Woods—the last great Bengals Backfield, which combined for 2,483 all-purpose yards and 29 total touchdowns in 1988. In a game where the Falcons defense keyed in on the run and stacked the box because of injuries to A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, and Tyler Eifert, Hill and Bernard combined for 46 touches in just 69 total Bengals plays. Factoring in Dalton’s eight incompletions, the two young running backs accounted for 75 percent of Bengals plays that resulted in live-yardage situations. This is best illustrated by Cincinnati’s 91-yard scoring drive in the second quarter, which consisted of seven Bernard runs, Bernard’s aforementioned 46-yard reception, and two punishing Hill rushes that totaled 22 yards. Ten plays, 10 Gio/Hill touches, one touchdown.

Bengals_RB drive
Even in a statistically sub-par Week Three, they showed their value and reinforced just how improved the Bengals backfield is as a whole. Because the Bengals 33-7 victory against the Titans came with such ease and so little possession—Bernard didn’t even have a carry in the fourth quarter, when third-stringer Ced Peerman got a handful of snaps. At face value, the stat lines were less than impressive for the entire offense this weekend (even in a blowout victory). However, the running back duo still managed to combine for three touchdowns and demonstrated that each can carry a drive without the other. Bernard notched seven carries and one reception for 36 total yards and a touchdown on the final drive of the third quarter to put the Bengals up 26-0, and Hill’s four carries for 28 yards and a touchdown on the short ensuing drive made it 33-0. After three weeks, Bernard and Hill rank 13th and 28th respectively in rushing in the NFL, while Bernard also ranks second in receiving yards from the running back position. With the Bengals offense not yet fully in-sync and the passing game still badly depleted by injury, there’s no reason to think that Bernard and Hill—whose duo still needs a nickname—will do anything but increase in productivity as the Bengals offense settles into its current personnel and, hopefully, gets a little healthier after the coming bye week. Andy Dalton makes all the money and A.J. Green gets all the hype, but if the Bengals are to finally succeed in the playoffs, it will be because the running game is finally good enough to command attention and take pressure off the passing game. But the question remains, can Gio and Hill “#StayTurnt?” We’ll see.  

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