For all of Andy Dalton's critics in his first two seasons, one thing that has seemingly been overlooked is the inconsistency in the running game behind him. Cedric Benson would have his handful of brilliant games, followed by a slew of others that were forgettable, so the Bengals opted to go with the younger and more reliable option in BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
One could argue either way on how that swap went for the Bengals, but at a minimum, it was a push. "The Law Firm" gained almost 1,100 yards on the ground and was uber-effective in converting short-yardage situations, which the team struggled with in previous years. He was effective late in games when the defense had been worn down and popped the occasional big run.
Conversely, Green-Ellis only had six rushing touchdowns and a 3.9 yards per carry average in 2013, which isn't any better-looking than Benson's previous years with the team. He also broke his stellar streak of not fumbling the football in college or the pros in 2013 and lost two.
It can't and shouldn't be laid all at Green-Ellis' feet though. The offensive line had inconsistent performances, as did the backs behind Green-Ellis. Brian Leonard, usually the clutch performer for the offense, had a subpar year on the ground and Bernard Scott, the team's "speed option" was injured for almost the entire 2012 season. Cedric Peerman provided a nice boost here and there, but a couple of his big runs on the year were on fake punts, not on offense.
WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN:
- Giovani Bernard, Giovani Bernard, and more Giovani Bernard. In hindsight, it is clear that this was the back that the Bengals coveted the most in the 2013 Draft. He brings speed, versatility, shiftiness and explosiveness to the running back position. He was a fringe first round player, given how high the Bengals picked him in the second and even though he's going to be a rotational player, expectations are high for him. The coaching staff needs to use him creatively and often.
- Figure out the center position. Kyle Cook was the team's savior at the position a few years back, but an unfortunate ankle injury set him and the offense back in 2013. After failing with Jeff Faine early in the season with Cook on the IR-recall list, the Bengals turned to rookie Trevor Robinson. Some of the better performances on the ground came with Robinson in the lineup, even after Cook returned and played. It's possible that Cook was never 100% last year, but whatever the case may be the team needs to sort it out. The swapping in-and-out of this position won't work.
- Andre Smith had better be ready to go. Even with all of his "issues", Smith is a big part of what the Bengals do, offensively. Where Green-Ellis and the running game had the most success last season was running behind Smith and right guard Kevin Zeitler, as they created huge holes to run through. The Bengals re-signed Smith to a three-year deal this offseason, but the joy of that move has quickly dissipated and morphed into frustration because of his absence throughout the offseason following that signing.
- Kevin Zeitler needs to continue to be a dominant guard. The reluctance to accept the drafting of Zeitler over David DeCastro quickly went away with Zeitler's stellar play as a rookie. He was only called for two penalties all of 2012 and played at a near Pro Bowl level. As I stated above with Smith, the right side of the line dominated the line of scrimmage in the run game and they will need to lean in Zeitler in that respect once again.
- Rotate the backs! There is a good amount of talent in the group this year. If one guy isn't working, try somebody else to get things going. The Bengals did this effectively once in a while last year when they began to sprinkle in Peerman into the offense. Each guy in the group brings something special, so they need to mix it up. If they get a true "thunder and lightning" thing going, then this offense will be quite potent.
Because of the overhaul at the position this year, there's reason to be optimistic that they will perform more ably and take heat off of Dalton and Co. Bernard should be a great asset and if he isn't for whatever reason, the Bengals have Scott, Peerman, Rex Burkhead and Dan Herron to help alleviate that sting. Still, as I mentioned, it isn't all about the backs. That position can only be as good as the big boys in front of them and this team still has some questions to be answered in Training Camp along the line. If this group can get some consistency, it will go a long way in helping this team take the next step.