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Bengals' running game continuing to show inconsistency in 2015

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After the running backs and offensive line carried the maligned Bengals' offense in 2014, it's been a different story in 2015. The epiphany became painfully evident on Monday night against the Texans.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

If you're looking for answers as to what happened on Monday night at Paul Brown Stadium, take solace in the fact that you're not alone. After the Cincinnati Bengals' offense largely carried the team in their unprecedented 8-0 start, they hit a figurative and literal wall when the Houston Texans came to The Queen City.

In 2014, fans rightfully clamored for Jeremy Hill to get more carries while Giovani Bernard battled inconsistency. With injuries to Tyler Eifert, Marvin Jones and A.J. Green hitting the offense last year, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson was forced to rely more on the run. It was Hill who helped carry the team to a late-season surge and a fourth-consecutive playoff berth. Most thought Hill would once again bear the load in 2015, even with the weapons back in the fold. Many even thought he'd be one of the top five running backs in the league this season.

While offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has given the second-year running back a chance to shine, Hill hasn't responded. There are a number of conjectures as to why he's struggled, ranging from poor blocking to a tentative running style we didn't see last year, but things just aren't the same.

Picking up the slack during the team's 8-0 run was Bernard and quarterback Andy Dalton, who had been playing the best football of his life, but Houston seemed to have exploited a potential weakness with the Bengals.

Cincinnati was able to put things together for an ugly, but hard-fought win against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but lost in the shuffle was their inability to run the ball that Sunday afternoon. Some brushed it off as just a tough day against a physical divisional foe, but certain things began to rear their ugly head. One such item was the inexplicable decision to give Bernard just one carry on the afternoon.

Obviously, the Houston Texans have an impressive defense, even with former No. 1 overall pick, Jadeveon Clowney, out of the lineup. The mainstream media's obsession with J.J. Watt was in full-force after their 10-6 win, but the dispersal and lack of production in the ground game calls many into question.

Hill was again uber-ineffective, with just 15 rushing yards on seven carries. Meanwhile, Bernard was effective when given the opportunity, but only had eight carries on the day. In an indictment of Cincinnati's running game and how ugly the Monday night matchup was, both Dalton and Brian Hoyer led the Bengals in rushing yards at halftime.

What propelled the Bengals to their playoff run last year was a number of huge gains on the ground in important games. Hill had the bulk of them in the final half of the year, but it's been nowhere near the same in 2015. When we talked to Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com on the Inside the Jungle podcast last week, he seemed to think it was a variety of factors contributing to the issue, and that it would begin to remedy itself as the schedule wore on.

With 73 net rushing yards and a 3.5 yards-per-carry average against the Texans, the light at the end of the running game tunnel seem more dim. The long gain of the evening for Cincinnati was 11 yards by Dalton, who never seemed comfortable at any point, whatever the play call ended up being.

Bernard continued to impress as a receiver though (he did have over four yards a carry, by the way), as evidenced by his five receptions for 43 yards.

Monday night seemed to be a good night to establish the run for the Bengals. The Texans were 25th against the run, though the obviously have defensive talent, but it seemed like an opportune time to feed Hill and Bernard to take pressure off of Dalton and Co. had the felt stress under the bright lights. Hue Jackson decided against it and the entire offense struggled.

In his postgame press conference, head coach Marvin Lewis said that "big heads aren't an issue with this team." While it's assumed Lewis was referring to the players, it's unclear if he's including his assistant coaches in the conversation. Was Jackson getting too cute and relying on the pass too often as his predecessor did? It's a fine line to walk when getting physical isn't working well early on, but it's evident Jackson should stick with the running game a bit more--especially in a tightly-contested game with a drizzle coming down in Cincinnati.

If you're looking for true answers as to what's going on with the running game in 2015, keep in mind you're asking a lowly writer and not a coach. I'm sure Jackson and others have their reasons, but it's a matter of putting said plans out on the field. With upcoming matchups against the Cardinals, Steelers, Browns, Ravens and Broncos, an emergence of the running game will be sorely needed.

A sub-four-yards-per-carry average from Hill and an inconsistent volume of carries from Bernard won't help the team in their final six games. While we expect the passing game to remain efficient, the Bengals will need more balance going forward.