When the Bengals signed BenJarvus Green-Ellis in free agency this offseason, many Bengals fans were excited for the change at the running back position. Not only is Green-Ellis a couple of years younger than the previous starter, Cedric Benson, but he also comes from the winning culture that is the New England Patriots and hasn't fumbled in his NFL career (four years under his belt). He's also known for gaining tough yards and racking up touchdowns, as he's compiled 24 in the last two seasons alone.
But, as time wore on this offseason, fans and analysts both grew apathetic to the Green-Ellis acquisition. As Pro Football Focus and other sites looked at Green-Ellis, he didn't appear to be that big of an upgrade over Benson, if at all. Michael Lombardi of NFL.com and The NFL Network has also chimed in, calling the Bengals running game their biggest question going into 2012.
As for his reasoning, Lombardi writes:
Cincinnati Bengals: Who will give the Bengals big plays in the run game? Last season, they only managed six runs of 20-plus yards. This is not an area of strength for free-agent acquisition BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Cincinnati struggled to churn out plays of 10-plus yards, as well, finishing 30th in the NFL. And Cincy compiled just 10 rushing touchdowns all season.
It's a fair point to bring up. Many assume that Bernard Scott will be the "big play back" of Cincinnati's committee system that they will be employing this season, but what in Scott's previous three seasons makes anyone think that he's a "big play back"? His longest run was for 61 yards, but that was back in 2009 and wasn't even for a touchdown. Since then, his longest runs have been for 18 and 25 yards, respectively.
The team does appear to have an improved offensive line though, and that should help things. Scott himself went public with the opinion that the guards were the offense's weak link last season and the team overhauled both spots with the additions of veteran Travelle Wharton on the left and rookie Kevin Zeitler on the right. This should help things, but probably not enough to make Scott or Green-Ellis Pro Bowlers in 2012.
But, while Lombardi makes a good point, the Bengals don't really need a totally formidable rushing attack. Last year, the run game was totally anemic and the team still went to the playoffs with a rookie quarterback and wide receiver. With budding stars like A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham in the offense, the passing game will likely do what it needs to do. What the team will need from the run game is the ability to get tough yards, gain first downs, chew up clock, and punch it into the end zone.
Achieving that will take massive amounts of pressure off of Andy Dalton and company, likely making the offense a well-balanced one. Green-Ellis provides those attributes to the rushing attack, and Scott should provide a nice change of pace as well. We just don't expect that the team will be seeing the type of highlight runs that Vikings and Titans fans have come to expect with Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson. The truth is, the Bengals don't need that even though Lombardi makes it sound as if they do.