One of the biggest differences when comparing Cincinnati's previous two playoff runs in 2009 and 2011 wasn't so much the change at quarterback, nor the revision at wide receiver. It was the production of Cincinnati's rushing offense, specifically the components in Cedric Benson and the Cincinnati Bengals offensive line.
During the Bengals regular season opener this year, Benson cruised with 121 yards rushing, scoring the game's final touchdown to give Cincinnati a 27-17 lead (and eventual win) over the Cleveland Browns. Later during the season against the same team, Benson generated another 106 yards rushing and a season-high 24 yards receiving for 130 yards from scrimmage.
As it turns out Benson's production against the Cleveland Browns accounted for 21.3 percent of his total production in 2011 and two of his three 100-yard performances.
|Bengals rushing offense comparison from 2009 and 2011|
|2011||455 (10th)||1,778 (19th)||3.9 (t-26th)||10 (t-21st)||7 (t-15th)|
|2009||505 (4th)||2,056 (9th)||4.1 (t-19th)||9 (t-22nd)||8 (t-18th)|
During their remaining 14 games, Benson would go on to average only 60 yards rushing per game with one 100-yard performance against the Buffalo Bills in week four. During his final 12 games of the year, Benson hit the 100-yard milestone once (the second Cleveland game), including a pitiful 14-yard performance against the Houston Texans during Cincinnati's 31-10 wild card loss. Soon after Benson reflected the overall emphasis on the rushing offense:
"We kind of just went away from it," Benson said. "There wasn't a big emphasis on it throughout the week in preparation going into games. It just kind of became not important."
On the surface Benson's grievances appears to be nothing more than a running back sounding off as he heads into free agency. Yet once you cut through the heavy vines that cover Benson's objective perspective (that's kind of a joke), you have to wonder if Benson is actually correct.
Consider this: Benson wasn't the only one struggling within Cincinnati's rushing offense.
According to the grades handed out by Pro Football Focus, Bobbie Williams was the only offensive lineman that scored a positive run-blocking grade. Cincinnati's best lineman, Andrew Whitworth, and Nate Livings graded as the team's worst run blockers -- it doesn't help that teams expected the Bengals to run to their left, ranking around the top-five for most rush attempts to their left.
Added to the team's overall philosophy this year was Cincinnati's effort to get Bernard Scott more involved, registering a career-high 112 carries in 2011. Yet much like Benson's struggles, Scott produced a career-low 3.4 yard/rush average.
Opposing defenses had little reason to worry about Cincinnati's passing game, especially once they accounted for A.J. Green. Compact defensive formations, stuffing the gaps because opposing teams failed to see the threat in Jerome Simpson, who caught less than 50% his passes and Jermaine Gresham, how averaged 10.6 yards/reception.
Additionally the Bengals tend to be trendy with their running game, pounding the rock on first and ten on nearly 57 percent of the time.
Trends, overall effectiveness in the passing game, lack of overall production all result into a depressing effort running the football.
When the Bengals decided to revise their rushing offense in 2009, it came with a born-again emphasis to run the football and a serious attempt to implement that philosophy. They had Jeremi Johnson lead-blocking for Benson with Dennis Roland's single-track mind to maul guys in the run game (but look incoherent in pass protection). They had a great offensive guard in Evan Mathis, who was rated as the league's best run blocking guard during his first season with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011.
Things have changed but we can't argue that it's not entirely anyone's fault, especially considering that coaches were tasked with applying an entirely new offense during a lockout that prevented communication with their own players.
That being said, Cincinnati's rushing offense turned into a detriment this year. The lack of sustained success and production forced rookie Andy Dalton to carry the team, clearly succeeding early in the season but struggling during the second half of the schedule.
It wasn't just Cedric Benson either. It was Cincinnati's inability to dominate the line of scrimmage, the overall lack of a passing threat to force opposing defenses into pass coverage (and pressure from the opposing pass rush) and the trendy play-calling that often allowed teams to put themselves in position with limited concern that they're reading something incorrectly.
As we've pointed out, all the elements were there to struggle. Elements that are entirely correctable with Jay Gruden sticking around for another season, Andy Dalton and the passing offense growing and the realization that the team has the ability to win most of these matchups -- and perhaps a slight injection of talent on the offensive line and running back.
Some say that the offseason is far more important than the regular season. No area is that more prevalent than Cincinnati's rushing offense.