Having to watch Giovani Bernard suffer a torn ACL is one of the most gut-wrenching things Bengals fans have seen in recent memory.
The fourth-year running back has been a fan-favorite ever since he came to Cincinnati as a second-round pick out of North Carolina in 2013. Since then, Bernard has been the perfect complement to what’s been one of the league’s best backfields along with Jeremy Hill.
Losing Bernard will have a major effect on the Bengals in more ways than most realize.
Bernard has become one of the best dual-threat backs in the league with 583 runs for 2,442 yards and 14 touchdowns to go with 187 grabs for 1,671 yards and six scores.
That’s over 4,000 all-purpose yards in 55 games, most of which came as the No. 2 back behind either BenJarvus Green-Ellis or Hill. There may not be a No. 2 back in the NFL more important to his team than Bernard, though he might as well be considered a starter for as much as he brings to this offense.
Bernard is actually getting 57 percent of the running back snaps compared to 40 percent for Hill this year. A big reason why is Bernard has quietly become one of the best pass-blocking backs in the NFL, which is a huge asset in today’s pass-happy league, not to mention for a Bengals team that has one of the league's worst offensive lines.
Bernard’s blocking has made up for a lot of bad blocking at times, and losing him means the floodgates will open even more for opposing defenses to get to Andy Dalton.
Bernard had rarely missed a game in his NFL career, even if he wasn’t always the most durable back when getting a big workload. Part of why Cincinnati kept only three running backs this season was because Bernard rarely misses games, so losing him means at least one, maybe even two running backs will be signed very soon.
This year alone, Bernard has accounted for 130 touches (on plays that counted and weren’t wiped out by penalty), so that’s about 15 touches per game that need to be replaced.
The most likely candidate to get those is Rex Burkhead, who actually caught a 14-yard pass that moved the ball to the 33-yard line during Sunday’s narrow loss to Buffalo. Burkhead will get more touches with Bernard now out.
They both are pass-catching backs who will get limited touches behind starter Jeremy Hill. Burkhead has 39 rushing yards on six attempts this season and 24 receiving yards on two catches.
We could see Hill get a few more touches per game to help offset the loss of Bernard, but he too has had durability issues when given a big workload, especially this year. A shoulder and chest injury led to Bernard actually starting and getting the bulk of the touches in several games, so don’t expect Hill’s workload to increase too dramatically.
Jackson vs Peerman
The biggest effect Bernard’s injury may end up having is on the decision between who will come off Injured Reserve: William Jackson III or Cedric Peerman. It initially looked like Jackson was the favorite to come off I.R. and get the Bengals’ lone designation to return, meaning he would be activated at some point over the next six weeks.
Only one player on I.R. can receive that designation, and veteran running back Cedric Peerman is also being considered for that. With Bernard now out, there is a more immediate need at running back than at cornerback, so the edge for who returns probably just changed to Peerman.
Normally the team’s fourth running back and special teams ace, Peerman suffered a forearm fracture on Aug. 28 vs the Jaguars in the team’s third preseason game. He was going to make the roster as a fourth back, though his biggest impact has always been on special teams for the coverage units.
As for Jackson, the rookie cornerback has spent the last three months recovering from a torn pectoral muscle suffered during the opening days of training camp.
The first-round pick out of Houston was then placed on I.R. after the Bengals’ final roster cuts were made, which means he is eligible for the I.R. designation to return. His addition would be a welcome one to a struggling defense that has seen lackluster cornerbacks play as a whole. It’s not crazy to think Jackson could push for playing time if he is brought back and active in a game, not to mention his future is much brighter and should last longer than that of the 30-year-old Peerman, who becomes a free agent next year.
Needless to say, the Bengals have a lot to consider following Bernard’s injury. My guess is Peerman is activated to return once Bernard is placed on I.R. later this week.