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Bengals Mailbag: Continuing questions at running back, cornerback rotations

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As the Bengals get set to face the Broncos in their home opener, we take a look at a couple of positions on the minds of our loyal readers!

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bengals greet the Denver Broncos in their home opener this Sunday, which is looking like a critical early-season conference matchup. The Bengals currently stand at 1-1, which brings a mixed bag of emotions. If the team can escape a treacherous three-game opening stretch of the 2016 season with a winning record, optimism should run high. If they fall to 1-2, however, more questions like the ones we’ve received this week will abound.

Send us your questions via email or Twitter (@CincyJingle or @CJAnthonyCUI) to be answered in this weekly feature, or tune in to The Orange and Black Insider, as we answer questions there as well!

Good question. It’s hard to say if Giovani Bernard can get more touches in the passing game, given his nine-catch, 100-yard performance against the Steelers, but he definitely could contribute more in the running game. Both he and Jeremy Hill have struggled to get things going in that regard so far because of a variety of factors.

The tenacious defenses of the Jets and Steelers is a big reason, inconsistent blocking and usage of Ryan Hewitt are others, and a rookie offensive coordinator is another issue with the current state of the running game. After all, running the ball 17 times with the talented duo against 54 Andy Dalton passes isn’t usually a formula for success against Pittsburgh.

But, some has to lay on the feet of the backs too. Hill has been hitting holes with more authority this year when they’re there, but he isn’t breaking tackles the way he did with great frequency as a rookie. After signing a big extension this offseason, Bernard has just 10 carries through the first two weeks of the season, with a 4.2 yards per carry average—which, to me, seems surprising because neither has been able to get consistent positive yardage.

There seems to be an internal conundrum with the club and the two backs. I’ve long believed Hill was a feature back kind of guy, who gets better as the game goes on with more carries, while Bernard is the Swiss Army Knife weapon, who can aid in three facets: running, blocking and receiving. I don’t want to call Bernard a third down back because he’s much more than that and it can be predictable when he’s out there on the down, but he does often excel in those scenarios too.

In short, the Bengals have two talented, three down backs whom they can’t seem to revolve a proper game plan around. It started last season under Hue Jackson and has trickled down to Ken Zampese. Why give Bernard and Hewitt big extensions this offseason if they aren’t going to be used?

Three years into both backs being on the roster, the team needs to be able to come up with a more solid plan of attack. I’d also like to see more creative formations where both guys are on the field at the same time, likely putting defenses on their heels.

For this Sunday, I think getting the run game established, be it with Hill or Bernard, is critical against Denver. Their defense is strong at all levels, but where they have been wreaking most of their havoc is in making good quarterbacks pay with interceptions and sack-fumbles.

The key is to stay patient with the running game, though. Obviously, if Dalton and Co. see something they can exploit in the passing game, go for it, but if success on the ground isn’t had early, Zampese can’t bail on it. If the Bengals can use delays, draws and power formations to success, it will help to negate the likes of Von Miller off the edge. And if Cincinnati can take him out of the equation, it should be a Sunday to smile about, if you’re a Bengals fan.

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I’ve been frequently asked about my take on Darqueze Dennard, Josh Shaw and who should be getting more snaps. Coaches and fans like the skill sets of both players, but patience has to be wearing a little thin with Dennard, a former 2014 first round pick.

After being injured and sitting out most of the preseason and Week 1, he returned to action against the Steelers. Dennard was responsible for coverage on both of Sammie Coates’ big catches, which netted 97 yards. Then, this week, Dennard once again showed up on the injury report with a hamstring issue, making him questionable against the Broncos.

Meanwhile, while going up against the Jets receiving trio of Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker and Quincy Enunwa, Josh Shaw had an outstanding Week 1 in relief of Dennard. He made a tackle inside the five on a pass to force a New York field goal and had the game-clinching interception. If you’re a Pro Football Focus nerd, Shaw was excellent in accords to their metrics in Week 1.

So, should one be playing over the other?

Dennard may not have a choice this week because of his ailment, but it’s still a little too soon to fully say. However, if Dennard can’t get on the field, he isn’t helping the team. Shaw doesn’t necessarily have the feet or hip fluidity of Dennard, but he works well in the slot and in short areas, who can also also help out in a safety-like role.

This is a big week for both guys. The Broncos may have an inexperienced quarterback, but they do have two good wideouts in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. If Dennard sits, Shaw will need to prove that Week 1 wasn’t a fluke and he’s truly grown in his second season.

It’s very possible, however, that both Dennard’s struggles last week and his hamstring issue are results of rustiness and not being in “game shape”. As he gets healthy and settles back in, we could see the guy who did very well against the Bills last season to help seal a win.

The jury is still out on the career paths of Shaw and Dennard, but they both have promise. The coaching staff will, for now, undoubtedly give the nod of a former first round pick over a fourth rounder, but if current trends continue, the rotation may change.