Bengals finally get running game moving
The Bengals' offense is developing into a lot more than just Dalton-to-Green, one of the main reasons they're back in the playoff chase.
Finally, they've figured out how to run the ball.
Cincinnati has won three lopsided games in a row largely because the running game has finally gotten in gear. After struggling to find running room for the first half of the season, BenJarvus Green-Ellis has put together 100-yard rushing games the last two weeks.
Green-Ellis ran for a season-high 129 yards during a 34-10 win over the Raiders on Sunday that included the two longest runs of his career - 48 and 39 yards.
The difference is noticeable.
''Confidence plays a big role,'' offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. ''Those guys love to run the ball and it takes the pressure off the quarterback. When you have success running the ball, guys come off (the snap) harder.
''You can see our running game fluctuates from week to week, but they are buying into the system and doing a great job.''
The Bengals (6-5) head to San Diego this weekend trying to stay in the mix for a playoff spot. They're tied with Pittsburgh for the AFC's second wild card, although the Steelers won their head-to-head meeting at Paul Brown Stadium this season.
It should be a much tougher test in San Diego. The Bengals ran for a season-high 189 yards overall in a 28-6 win over Kansas City, which has only one victory all season. They followed that with 221 yards rushing against the Raiders, who have lost four straight and given up the most points in the NFL.
The Chargers are tied for fifth-best run defense in the league, along with the Steelers.
''We've got to keep this going,'' quarterback Andy Dalton said. ''The running game has done a great job the last two weeks. We've got to keep the balance.''
The run game has improved as the middle of the line has developed.
The Bengals suffered two significant injuries on the line during preseason. Left guard Travelle Wharton suffered a season-ending knee injury during the first preseason game. Center Kyle Cook hurt his right ankle in the final preseason game and needed surgery. Rookie Kevin Zeitler was given the starting job at right guard in preseason.
With all the changes, the running attack suffered. Green-Ellis was held under 70 yards in five of the first eight games, forcing Dalton to look for Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green more than the Bengals would have liked.
''It is tough,'' Zeitler said. ''We had to rely so much on our pass game early and just defenses could focus on that area more. But now that that's going, it really helps open everything up and the offensive output has gone up, especially during the win streak.''
It's helped that defenses are giving Green a lot of attention lately, using a safety to help with double coverage instead of bunching more players at the line to worry about the run. Green-Ellis was able to break those long runs - backup Cedric Peerman also had a 31-yard gain - because the Raiders' secondary was more worried about the pass.
Green still finished with 111 yards on only three catches.
''Guys have to respect A.J.,'' Peerman said. ''He's a phenomenal playmaker. You throw the ball up to him, he's going to come down with it. That definitely helps us out in the running game. He's just done a phenomenal job.''
Gruden acknowledged it was difficult to keep calling runs plays when they weren't working in the first half of the season.
''Very tough,'' Gruden said. ''The best thing is the last two weeks, I think we've had one negative run. As long as we are churning and getting two, three yards, it's OK. And occasionally pop a big one like we did (against Oakland).
''Keep the defense off-balance and if they want to load up to stop the run - thank you! We'll take some shots.''
NOTES: The Bengals made a pair of moves with their practice squad on Tuesday, releasing C Scott Wedige and LB Ben Jacobs and signing OT Dan Knapp and TE Bryce Davis. ... The Bengals and Steelers have comparable schedules for the last five weeks of the season, playing the same three opponents and each other. The only difference: Pittsburgh hosts Cleveland (3-8) while the Bengals play at Philadelphia (3-8).