CINCINNATI – It’s hard to practice smash-mouth football when there isn’t a lot of smash permitted in practice. Not impossible but it does make things tougher.
The NFL continues to evolve into more of a passing league. The Bengals are in step with the majority of the league in that they throw the ball more than they run it; last year they attempted 540 passes (not counting sacks) compared to 430 rushing attempts. The last time they ran the ball more than they threw it was in 2009, although factor in sacks and they did have one more passing play (506) than running play (505).
The NFL is a quarterback-driven league but that doesn’t mean the running game isn’t important, especially in the AFC North where weather conditions, particularly late in the season, may dictate a greater emphasis on running the ball.
So how does a team evaluate where its run game is when the physical part that is vital to any rushing attack is heavily curtailed in practice? There isn’t as much hitting done in practices these days and live tackling is even more seldom.
“You’re not going to evaluate that during practice,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “You’re going to evaluate getting on the right guys and the execution of it. But you’re exactly correct, you have to evaluate that as you go forward, particularly when you get into the same guys, the same back, the courses as you begin the regular season.”
“The right people, the right placement, pad level. All of those things. That’s what you’re looking at offensively.”
The Bengals were 18th in the league last season, averaging 109.1 yards per game. They were at their best during a five-game stretch in the second half of the season when they averaged 35 carries and 168.2 yards while going 4-1 against Kansas City, Oakland, San Diego, Dallas and Philadelphia. In the final three games, however, against Pittsburgh, Baltimore and in the playoffs at Houston they averaged just 17 carries and 47 yards a game.
The run game will get its first real look this week when the Bengals play the Falcons in Atlanta Thursday night in the preseason opener for both teams. The teams will practice together Monday and Tuesday at the Falcons’ complex in Flowery Branch, Ga., but those practices won’t include any ‘live’ hitting portions.
“I’m just watching the pad level through the line of scrimmage, making sure I’m low to be able to avoid and get rid of tacklers easier, explode on contact,” said running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. “Every play is designed where the ball should fit, so I’m trying to make sure that I fit the ball into the right spot, that way when we see it on film in live action the ball is fitting there. The line and the running backs get to see it on the same page. They see where the ball is supposed to fit, so when we do it live it’s a lot simpler.”
Green-Ellis led the Bengals with 1,094 yards and six rushing touchdowns last season, his first with the franchise. He converted 14 of the 15 chances he had on third-and-one situations, the best ratio in the NFL, so the Bengals were doing some things right in the run game.
Last season the Bengals also had three new starters on the offensive line, all in the middle of the line – right guard Kevin Zeitler, left guard Clint Boling, and centers Jeff Faine and Trevor Robinson before Kyle Cook returned from injury late in the season. Cook is healthy this season and Zeitler and Boling have that full season under their belts.
Behind Green-Ellis, the Bengals are trying to work in the diverse skill set of second-round draft choice Giovani Bernard. Cedric Peerman, Dan Herron and rookie Rex Burkhead should be an intriguing battle for roster spots. All three could make the final 53 depending on how they perform on special teams but historically the Bengals haven’t taken five halfbacks into the regular season.
“As long as you see the proper footwork and technique, I’m sure as we go through the process of the preseason we’ll be talking about our players playing lower and lower just because you can’t do that right now,” said running backs coach Hue Jackson. “We’re trying to take care of each other out here, but it’s the environment you create, in my opinion, when you run the ball just to grind it, understand where the ball is going to hit, why it’s hitting there, how it’s got to hit there, the velocity of it. Then you take it to the game and hopefully we can get this thing going where we want it to go.”