They call the NFL a passing league, yet teams that consistently win have a strong running game. Bengals fans were excited to watch Jeremy Hill pick up where he left off last season and become the punishing running back the Bengals would love to ride to victory. But, it hasn't happened. So far this season, Hill has been out-shined in the running back position by teammate Giovani Bernard.
Bernard ranks fourth in the NFL with a 5.5 yard average per carry, (based on backs with at least 50 carries this season). Jeremy Hill however is averaging 3.0 yards a carry which is good for 47th on the same list. One of these guys is not getting it done.
In Marvin Lewis's weekly press conference, he was specifically asked about the running game woes. "We have to do a better job offensively, running the football when we need to, and limiting the penalties that set us back. This causes us to throw a little bit more than we'd like," Lewis said.
There is truth to this. In the past, the Bengals game planned to limit the throws from Andy Dalton. There were stats that indicated the more Dalton had to toss the ball, the less likely the Bengals were to win. Yet, that narrative is being re-written this season. The Bengals passing game is dominating and Andy Dalton is leading that charge.
So what gives? If Bernard is still able to find success in the running game, why can't Hill? Is it a knee injury that's led to him missing practices during the last two weeks? Is it a lack of confidence from two turnovers earlier in the season?
The simple answer is no, it's none of the above. The Bengals early success in the passing game and the amount of weapons they have to run out there for the offense makes a back like Jeremy Hill not fit in this offense.
On downs when Hill is in the game, there is rarely a fullback blocking for him. For Cincinnati, this is by design. The Bengals want to keep their weapons on the field, so instead of having Ryan Hewitt lined up as a fullback, the Bengals trot out Mohamed Sanu as an extra receiver. This eliminates one of the pieces that Hill used last season to run the ball.
Add to that the fact the offensive line has been facing some pretty stout defensive fronts and Bengals center, Russell Bodine, gets pushed back into the path of the running back. This creates issues where Hill gets contact earlier and loses momentum by having to shift. This is a totally different dynamic than what he faced at the end of last season.
Make no mistake, the lack of output from the running game is not due to lack of effort. The Bengals rank third in the NFL in rushing attempts. The problem for Hill is, he has been outpaced in snap count by Bernard in all but two of this season's games.
So can it be fixed?
Sure, but it doesn't need to be. The NFL season has trends and is 16 weeks long. The Bengals running game will be necessary down the stretch to keep this offense moving. This is where the tide should shift for Hill. He will make his impact in games where the passing game is struggling. The duo of Hill and Bernard will keep the Bengals offense in the top tier of rushing teams.
Hill will find his footing when he is allowed to pound the ball the entire game. The Bengals at times will leave Hewitt in to block and Hill will be expected to carry the load. This is a great problem to have. This ensures Hill is fresh from the beating an NFL season brings and can carry that energy into the postseason, should the Bengals get there.