CINCINNATI — Hue Jackson wants the Bengals to be able to run the football better this season. The new offensive coordinator has lofty expectations, not the least of which is improving immensely upon last season’s moribund 3.6-yards-per-carry average.
Week 1 of the experiment at Baltimore didn’t go so hot, but Week 2 against Atlanta was much more in line with the vision Jackson has for the team. There’s already talk gathering about the search for a catchy nickname for the running back combination of Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill — most of the talk was started by Hill via his Twitter account — but there is still a long way to go before they reach Jackson’s goals.
That begins with Jackson himself.
"I’ll be the first to tell you I could have done it better," said Jackson when it comes to how he handled play selection against the Ravens, even though the Bengals won the opener 23-16.
"Last week, I think I improved in that area, making sure (Hill) was out there and he made some plays. My comfortability with him, I had to talk to myself about. You have to do that. When you’ve been around a guy like Gio and his talents and what he’s able to bring to the team, you get used to that. But the other guy’s very talented, too. That’s why we drafted him."
Hill (6-1, 238) was this year’s second-round pick out of LSU. Bernard (5-9, 208) was the second-round pick last year out of North Carolina. On the surface they appear to be a contrasting pair but they have more in common than a first impression suggests. They can both run the ball between the tackles, yet have speed to get outside and are effective receivers.
Maybe the one difference is that you’re more likely to find Bernard spinning and leaping his way around and over defenders than bulldozing them, although both say they’re able to implement the other’s more dominant style to their own game.
Bernard and Hill combined to run for 164 of the Bengals’ 170 yards on the ground against Atlanta, splitting 42 of the 45 rushing attempts. The Bengals had just 79 yards rushing on 26 carries against Baltimore.
Last Sunday was the most rushing attempts by a Bengals team since they had 45 carries in a 19-17 win against Cleveland on Dec. 19, 2010. The 170 yards were the most by the team since Nov. 25, 2012, when they ran for 221 yards against Oakland.
"That’s what you want as an offense. You want the fourth quarter coming, you’re in a four-minute type situation where you’re trying to run the ball and run the clock out the rest of the game," said rookie H-back Ryan Hewitt, who is likely to see his role and playing time increased now that tight ends Tyler Eifert and Alex Smith are on injured reserve. "That’s something I think everyone enjoys offensively and you’ve got to excel at it."
Leading 17-3 in the third quarter, the Bengals had a first-and-goal at the Atlanta 10-yard line. They ran the ball three straight plays, all by Hill. The last run produced a 1-yard touchdown, the first score of Hill’s NFL career.
"Hue got the mentality that we were running the ball successfully on them, we need to pound it up there and get the touchdown," said Hill. "When you get five on first down and make it second-and-five it makes it a lot easier to run it again and get ourselves in a favorable third down."
Tennessee has a formidable front seven, led by defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, but gave up 220 yards rushing on 43 carries against Dallas last week in a 26-10 loss. The Titans held Kansas City to just 67 yards on 17 carries in a 26-10 win on the road in their season opener.
"I’ve seen (Casey) at defensive tackle, defensive end, he’s everywhere," said Jackson. "He’s one of their bell cows and I understand that and I think our players understand that. They’re planning on putting their best player in situations to have that success and we’re going to have to rise to the challenge."
The Bengals haven’t had an individual running back rush for 100 yards or more in 20 straight games. BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran for 106 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries on Dec. 13, 2012 at Philadelphia in a 34-13 win. Green-Ellis rushed for 92 yards on 20 carries in a 17-10 win at San Diego last December and Bernard had 99 yards on 12 carries against Indianapolis the following week in a 42-28 win.
But no one has topped 100 yards. The 100-yard barrier isn’t a pure determinant of an effective run game but it definitely is an ego boost for a running back and his blockers.
"As running backs, that’s something you want to accomplish every game," said Hill. "But total stats, that’s more important than a single guy being able to get that. I don’t know how many we rushed for last game, but I’m sure it was well over 100. As long as we continue to do that, we’ll be fine as a running back room. We’ll be happy with the numbers we put up. Like I said, every back goes into a game hoping they get 100. That’s just something they dream of."
Bernard had a career-high 27 carries against the Falcons to go along with a team-high five receptions. He had 169 yards of total offense on 32 touches, both career highs. He’s had more than 100 yards of total offense in both games so far this season. He topped that number just four times last as a rookie when he had more than 20 touches in just two games. He had 20 touches against Baltimore, gaining a combined 110 yards rushing and receiving.
"We’ve got a lot of weapons offensively, we’ve got a lot of guys who can do a lot of great things," said Bernard. "Hue Jackson puts us in good situations that he knows can help the team win."