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Bengals stress urgency of improving run game heading into Week 3

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If the Bengals are to become a legitimate title contender, they’ll have to make dramatic improvements in the ground game, which is currently among the NFL’s worst.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at New York Jets William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals have several areas that need improving, but none are more glaring than the lack of a ground game.

Through two weeks, Cincinnati is near the bottom of just about every rushing ranking, including 31st in total rushing yards (103), 30th in yards per rush (2.8), tied for 29th in longest run (12 yards) and 28th in rushing attempts (37). That's not going to cut it, and even though the Bengals have a lot of potential, that kind of enigmatic running game will keep this team out of the playoffs.

The good news is Cincinnati has faced two of the best run defenses they'll face all year in their first two games. That includes Pittsburgh's second-ranked run defense and New York's fifth-ranked unit. That's no fluke either, as both of those teams finished 2015 ranked second and fifth respectively in run defense.

Following Sunday's loss in Pittsburgh, offensive coordinator Ken Zampese vowed to get the Bengals' rushing attack going after his unit rushed for just 46 yards on 18 carries vs the Steelers.

"It just hasn't happened the way we wanted it for two weeks, and it will be better this week," Zampese said Monday, via Bengals.com. "One of those things got handled, and this coming week, we’ll get the other one handled. I think anytime there’s something that hasn’t gone right that gets put up in front – you haven’t done this, or you haven’t done that.

"The best golfer to never win a major. That’s just part of the deal, and that’s what the challenge is. It’s nothing new to the guys; it’s just here’s what’s on the forefront now."

Another reason why the Bengals are struggling to run the ball is the loss of Andre Smith at right tackle. He was usually a good run-blocker, but Cedric Ogbuehi is now starting there. He missed most of training camp with a toe injury, which has helped lead to his early-season struggles, especially in run-blocking.

Head coach Marvin Lewis made sure to point that out and mention how Ogbuehi is really just getting his feet under him for this season.

"(Ogbuehi) and a few guys are basically on practice number 10 now. Of training camp. That’s good," said Lewis. "We’re going to keep getting better, and you have to feel good about that. You have to feel good about him and Tyler Kroft that way-- Darqueze (Dennard) too. There’s nothing but improvement ahead for those guys. We’re obviously going to have a handful this week as well."

Running back Giovani Bernard noted how the Bengals losing on first and second down often in the first two games has prevented them from being able to run the ball on third down.

"The biggest thing for us is we haven’t been putting ourselves in good position on first and second down to be able to run the ball on third down," Bernard said. "We’ve gotten behind the chains a lot, and that’s something we definitely need to work on."

Now, Cincinnati gets to host Denver's 23rd-ranked run defense in Week 3. That is a bit deceiving, though, as many of the rushing yards put up against the Broncos came from Carolina's ground-heavy offense in Week 1, which is led by quarterback Cam Newton, who ran for 4 yards in that game.

Andy Dalton is not nearly as big of a threat to run, and Denver probably has a top 10-15 run defense in reality. They finished 2015 ranked third in run defense. While they did lose linebacker Danny Trevathan and defensive lineman Malik Jackson this offseason, this unit is still an elite unit that will do much better vs the run in the long term this season.

Still, this is a unit that the Bengals should absolutely get their ground game going against. That is, if it exists, which we're still not sure if it does through the first two games. This is easily one of the worst two-game stretches running the ball in recent memory, and it cannot keep up if this team is hoping to be a playoff contender again.

While Denver is no slouch, we should have a better idea of just how good or bad Cincinnati's rushing offense is after this week. Then comes a quick Thursday night turnaround when the Dolphins come to town. They sport the league's 31st-ranked run defense, so they should be someone the Bengals have a field day against.

But if we don't see Cincinnati get the ground game going over the next two games, it's safe to say it's worse than we realized and could be the Achilles' heel of this team in 2016.