There's little debate about one of the Bengals greatest strengths. A dominant ground-game carried Cincinnati into the postseason last year, despite the wealth of injuries that typically dooms postseason ambitions for many NFL teams.
Playing behind one of the best offensive lines in football, Jeremy Hill assumed the majority of the workload, rushing for 929 yards, six scores, and 5.4 per carry over his final nine games of 2014.
If we spread that trend over the course of a 16-game season, he'd generate 1,651 yards rushing and 11 scores, obliterating Rudi Johnson's single-season mark of 1,458 yards. Hill would have almost certainly have broke Cedric Benson's record of six 110-yard rushing games in a single season (Hill had five in final nine games).
This has led to significant offseason hype coming Hill's way. Instead of running from it, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson wants Hill to embrace it.
"We can't run from it because they're going to say it," Jackson said, via ESPN. "Now you've got to go live up to it. There should be no pressure in that. All it is is to go out and work. To me, if a guy wants to be great, he's got to relish that. He's got to want that and then go exceed it. That would be my challenge to [Hill]. I expect him to exceed whatever the expectation is about him."
Joining Hill optimistic projections is third-year back Giovani Bernard. Despite missing over three games in 2014, Bernard managed to top 1,000 all-purpose yards for the second straight season. He's arguably as talented as Hill, and Jackson thinks the two could be in for a special season.
"The sky's the limit for him and Gio," Jackson said. "But they've got to go out and do it. They've got to do it on a consistent basis, week in and week out. It can't be about the plays that are called, the defenses that they're facing. You've got to make plays."
Here's why it's critical to the Bengals' success that Hill and/or Bernard perform big: In nine games in which one of those two accounted for at least 96 all-purpose yards, the Bengals were 7-1-1 in those contests. That included wins at Baltimore, at Houston and vs. Denver, arguably the three biggest wins of last season. The one loss was also at Pittsburgh, which Cincinnati lost more so due to three untimely turnovers while allowing a punt-return touchdown.
In games which neither back topped 96 all-purpose yards, Cincinnati went 3-5 (including playoffs). Those two playing well more often than not determined if the Bengals were victorious, and that will likely be true again in 2015. Hue knows this, and that's why he doesn't want Hill hiding from the hype he's receiving. If the Bengals are just back in the playoffs at the end of this coming season, it will likely be due to big years from Hill and/or Bernard and living up to the hype they're getting.