Bengals backfield duo key to success

In the last three games, Giovanni Bernard and Jeremy Hill have touched the ball 114 times, producing 659 yards and four touchdowns.

Andrew Weber/Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

CINCINNATI — The Bengals were envisioning big things from the running game this season from the moment they picked Jeremy Hill in the second round of the draft last May. The thought of teaming the 225-pound Hill with whirling dervish Giovani Bernard was a perfect scenario for offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.

It’s took a little while to get the mechanics of the combination worked out but the Bengals and their backfield have been producing as hoped, especially in the last three games. If the Bengals are going to go to Indianapolis and win Sunday’s AFC wild card game, it’s unlikely they’ll do so without Hill and Bernard producing.

In the last three games, which coincides with Hill firmly being used as the starter, the pair have touched the ball 114 times, producing 659 yards and four touchdowns. Hill has gained 100 yards or more on the ground in three straight games while Bernard has been effective as a receiver out of the backfield in space, catching touchdown passes in each of the last two games against Denver and Pittsburgh.

"It’s what I’ve been preaching, that we’re starting to form an identity right now," said Hill, "that’s as a team that’s very physical and can run the football and can also pass the ball. I think we’re starting to do that now. We need to eliminate the turnovers to be the team that we want to be, and I think Gio and I are a big part of us doing that."

The Bengals are ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing offense. Hill and Bernard have combined for 2,368 yards and scored 16 of the Bengals’ 40 touchdowns this season. Bernard missed three games because of hip and clavicle injuries — injuries that were in part caused by two jolting hits he took against the Colts back on Oct. 19 in a 27-0 Indianapolis win. He returned to the field on Nov. 23 at Houston and produced 67 yards from scrimmage on 19 touches.

The key for the Bengals is making sure they possess the ball enough to give Hill and Bernard as many chances as possible. Indianapolis’ defense is ranked a respectable 11th overall in the NFL but is No. 18 in the league against the run, allowing an average of 113.4 yards per game. While the Colts won three of their final four games in the regular season, they did allow an average of 129.5 yards per game.

What the Colts do very well is get off the field when they have a chance to do so on third down.

Indianapolis is ranked second in the NFL in third down defense, allowing a conversion just one-third of the time. The Bengals went three-and-out on their first eight possessions and converted just one of their 13 attempts on third down in their first game at Indy. It was the fourth straight game the Colts allowed their opponent just one third down conversion.

In their 11 wins, the Colts have held opponents to a 23.6 percent conversion rate (33-of-140), but a common theme in their five losses has been their inability to get third down stops. Denver, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New England and Dallas converted a combined 55.7 percent (34-of-61) of their third downs when they beat Indianapolis.

"Just how bad we played and got away from anything that we set out to do in that game," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth about his memories of the game in October. "I think we started throwing it a lot and really didn’t execute it very well and that got us in a lot of third-and-longs. Anytime you’re in third-and-long a lot in the NFL you’re not going to be very successful. The percentages are there enough. Nobody has to come up with real facts for that one. You’re not going to play real well when you’re in third-and-eight or longer all day. That was a bad loss and an embarrassing part of the season for us. I don’t think anybody felt good about that one, but it’s a great opportunity to fix it and right the ship and make things right and play the way you thought you should have."

The more effective the Bengals running game can be, the better it bodes for their passing attack whether or not wide receiver A.J. Green is cleared from the NFL concussion protocol to play. Green didn’t play in the first game but neither was Hill as prominent in Hue Jackson’s offensive scheme.

"Any time you’re able to run the football as effectively as they are, you’re going to open up things in the back end because you’re going to be forced to maybe load the box to stop the run game," said Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano. "You’re putting your back end guys on an island, and then Andy (Dalton) does a great job of seeing things and getting them in the right play and managing bad plays. You’ve got playmakers on the outside in A.J. (Green) and (Mohamed) Sanu and the tight ends."