The Bengals’ running game has been a mixed bag through the first three weeks of the 2016 NFL season. There have been instances in which Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard have looked ready to tear up opposing defense with powerful downhill running and slick cut moves. But, there have been other times when they couldn’t find a hole to run through and have looked completely helpless.
In Week 1, the unit got out to a mediocre start, recording 57 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. Bernard was more effective between the pylons, recording an impressive 5.0 yards per carry. But, Hill was the one who punched the ball in the endzone, despite only recording 3.4 yards per rush. In that game, the Bengals ran the ball at least three times on all but two scoring drives. In both cases, the Bengals completed 54 yard passes, leaving far less opportunity for the running game.
In Week 2, the rushing unit looked awful. Granted, Bernard was used exclusively as a pass catcher against the Steelers. But still, by putting up only 46 yards and zero touchdowns on 18 carries, the running game averaged only 2.6 yards per rush, highlighted by Hill’s abysmal 2.0 yards per rush. The Bengals were completely unable to punch the ball in the endzone with the running game. On scoring drives, the Bengals virtually abandoned the running game all-together, only attempting a single rushing play in each of three of the four scoring drives.
The running game bounced back in Week 3 to deliver 143 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries. Unfortunately, the passing game never got into enough rhythm and the final score suffered as a result. But, what is worth pointing out is the fact that the Bengals were winning this game when they were focused on making the running game work.
The Bengals jumped out to a 7-0 lead on their first drive after Hill exploded for 65 of the 74 yards on the drive, capping things off with a three yard touchdown run. Three drives later, the Bengals reclaimed the lead after he attempted three runs on the nine play drive, the last of which was a four yard run for a touchdown that put the Bengals up 14-10 late in the first half.
However, despite Hill’s effectiveness on the ground throughout the day, the Bengals did not continue to run the ball much outside of one particular drive in the second half. That drive ended in a go-ahead field goal that was preceded by four rushing attempts from Hill and three from Bernard. At that point, the game was back in the Bengals’ favor by a score of 17-16. Unfortunately, the Bengals did not attempt a single rushing play for the rest of the game, save for one four yard scrambling attempt by Andy Dalton.
Is it any surprise that allowing the offense to become one-dimensional resulted in their complete inability to put together any serious production? Over those final three drives after the Broncos went back up by a score of 22-17, the Bengals attempted a pass on 15 of the 16 plays.
The result? A punt, an interception, and a turnover on downs. It was the polar opposite of clutch play by the offense. Although, in fairness, the defense allowing two touchdowns on the Broncos’ final three drives didn’t help either.
Still, it is clear that the Bengals’ offense performs much better when they commit to the run. Yes, the run has been stagnant and downright pitiful at times. But, there’s something to be said about leaving the defense guessing on what play is coming next.
Going forward, the Bengals would do well to try to work the running game into whatever they’re doing, and create a balanced attack. Obviously, that’s generally the goal, and it’s hard to justify riding the running game when your starting running back is putting up two or three yards per carry. If the offensive line is struggling in any given week, it could lead to a seriously ineffective running game. But, as we can clearly see, the Bengals tend to do much better on offense when they at least try to put something together on the ground.
The Dolphins have the 32nd ranked run defense heading into Week 4, having allowed 147.3 yards per game on the ground and 2 rushing touchdowns in three games. Hopefully, the Bengals capitalize on that heading into this next matchup on a short week.