While it wasn't the most hope-inspiring performance going into the playoffs, one thing the Bengals wanted to achieve on Sunday can be checked off the list. In the past few weeks, and for the majority of the season, Cincinnati has struggled with consistency when running the football. A number of factors were to blame, and neither of the main backs were lighting the world on fire in 2015.
Giovani Bernard showed a more frequent ability to get positive yardage throughout 2015, but the hope all season was to use Jeremy Hill as the workhorse and grinder of the clock on the way to wins. Only once this season did a Bengals running back record more than 100 yards in a game, and that was Bernard all the way back in Week 2 against the Chargers. It's a stark contrast to the six 100+ yard performances by the two last year (five by Hill, one by Bernard), where the team rode the running game to a Wild Card berth in 2014.
On Sunday against the Ravens, the Bengals wanted to bring balance to an offense that had been struggling to escape major dry spells. While a lot of the struggles have been placed on the forced utilization of a backup quarterback, the lack of getting consistent yardage on the ground has been another big issue. On Sunday, the Bengals recorded 145 yards on the ground, 96 of which came from Hill and 36 of which came from Bernard.
What to like:
The Backs: You could argue it was the best game of the season for Hill, even though he had one game with more yardage (98) on the ground than he did against the Ravens (96). Still, it was Hill's six yards per carry average and 38-yard touchdown run, his longest of the year, that has the Bengals feeling good heading into the playoffs. And, even with the struggles Hill experienced all season, he finished the year as one of the league leaders with 11 rushing touchdowns.
Finally!! Jeremy Hill with a 38-yard touchdown run, giving the Bengals a 21-9 lead. https://t.co/4jkab1D0OT— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) January 3, 2016
Hill was very decisive on his cuts, and though most of his other 15 carries on the afternoon were for single-digit gains, it was largely positive. While some of the later carries when they were wearing out the clock didn't go for much, it was nice to see Hill being fed the ball with a lead. There are such things as "playoff backs" because of size and running style, and Hill fits the mold. The hope is that a near-100-yard performance on Sunday bodes well for the Bengals in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, Bernard had 10 less carries than Hill with six, but still had the same yards per carry average. With 36 yards on the ground, including a beautiful 15-yarder where he was lost in traffic and hid behind blockers, the Bengals mixed and matched both backs for a nice formula.
The Line and the Rookie Tackles: It wasn't the best day for the offensive line, in terms of penalties and inconsistency, but running lanes were often available. Aside from the five good, standard starters on the line, the Bengals often used first round pick Cedric Ogbuehi as an extra tackle and second round rookie Jake Fisher at H-Back in relief of the injured Ryan Hewitt.
What ensued was a 145-yard rushing effort at 5.4 yards per rushing play against the Baltimore Ravens, if you can believe it. Ogbuehi helped out with the jumbo package, while Fisher frustrated and impressed by opening up lanes ahead of the backs. In fact, he was huge on the 4th-and-1 where Hill had his 38-yard touchdown scamper.
Jake Fisher with a big block, helping spring Hill. https://t.co/DeiFCgfbgi— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) January 3, 2016
What not to like:
The Line: The big boys giveth, the big boys taketh away. At one point, we counted five of the six linemen the Bengals employed on Sunday (if you count Fisher) as penalized in some fashion. Andrew Whitworth, Russell Bodine and Clint Boling all were called for holding penalties, while the two rookies, Ogbuehi and Fisher, were called for false starts.
Not all of these infractions were in the run game, but they definitely affected the entire offense, as it put the Bengals in long-yardage situations on second and third down. If it didn't directly hinder their ability to run on drives where these penalties occurred, it caused them to at least temporarily abandon it.
Clock Grinding: With the Bengals holding a 24-16 fourth quarter lead with the game almost over, it seemed like an opportune time to be able to run the ball against a Baltimore defense that was probably tired. Instead Hill and Bernard combined for three carries for three yards to punt the ball back to the Ravens in what was a technical one-possession game.
These are the types of scenarios that need to be capitalized on in the postseason against superior teams. Being able to pound the ball, especially late at home, will be a key for the Bengals to make a run through January. The Ravens are banged up on defense, making some of the late inconsistencies on the ground unacceptable, but there's plenty to be encouraged about heading into the playoffs.