The Bengals’ run game ranked 13th this season in rushing yards. That seems high considering how the rushing offense seemed to operate on a week-to-week basis.
Starter Jeremy Hill had only two games with more than 100 yards and both came against the Browns. Other rushing totals he put on display included 31 yards against the Jets, 22 yards in Week 2 against the Steelers and 43 yards in Week 15 against the Steelers, 12 yards against the Cowboys, 21 yards against the Ravens in Week 12, and 33 yards against the Eagles. In some of these games, the Bengals were playing from behind, but for the Bengals’ starting running back to have that many games with less than 50 yards was disappointing and unsatisfactory.
As for Giovani Bernard, he had just one game with more than 52 yards on the ground. And Rex Burkhead finally got his first start in Week 17, and he totaled 119 yards rushing in that game. In the six games in which he played considerable snaps (all games following Bernard's season-ending ACL tear) he had three games with more than 40 yards on the ground, which helped bolster the run game late in the season.
The Bengals ended the season with a strikingly similar rushing yard total as the team amounted in 2015, but the season-to-season results varied greatly for the team as a whole.
“The numbers were the same running the football,” Bengals offensive coordinator Ken Zampese told Bengals.com’s Geoff Hobson. “Yards were almost the same (1,769 yards in 2016, 1,805 in 2015). Yards per attempt were the same (4.0 in 2016, 3.9 in 2015).”
That’s interesting to think about, but, in the grand scheme of things, the Bengals’ run game was really only impressive against the Browns and in Burkhead’s lone start against the Ravens once the Bengals were already eliminated from playoff contention.
There’s ways to make the numbers from the run game seem impressive, especially when considering the contributions that came against the terrible Browns. But when you take away those numbers, the team’s rushing stats as whole are much less inspiring.
Bernard's best game also came against the Browns, in Week 7, when he totaled 80 yards rushing. And Burkhead had 45 yards against the Browns in Week 14. Hill totaled 279 yards in the two games against the Browns combined. That’s 404 yards on the ground, just against the Browns. Imagine if the Bengals’ run game could have done that against every other team. The Bengals’ offense got 22.83% of their running game output against the Browns.
Next season, the hope is obviously that the running game will improve; Zampese says a 4.4 yard per rushing attempt average would be the goal. And maybe Burkhead, who is set to hit free agency in March, will be a part of the team and that effort. But, there’s a good chance he’s not in Cincinnati next season.
“He made the most of his opportunity. Very hard to tackle him. Very determined runner. Showed his toughness, his speed,” Zampese said of Burkhead. “It was really fun to watch him play.”
Conversely, Hill didn’t make the most of his opportunity and despite finding the endzone nine times, he was far from the impressive rookie we were enamored by in 2014.
“I know he played with some injury this year,” Zampese said in making excuses for Hill, who seemed to be down on the field in pain on a near-weekly basis. “I know that he did not put the ball on the ground this year and there are positives to be taken away in those regards. We certainly want more yards from that position and we’re going to be working with all these guys to get the best out of them.”
So how does the running game get back on track and become a top 10 unit in 2017?
“More consistency with the backs’ tracks and courses. Less mental errors in the blocking unit,” Zampese said. “And when the ball gets in the secondary, staying on blocks on the outside. Running through arm tackles to get those extra yards play after play that you need to get the average up.”
So will Burkhead be a part of that effort to improve the run game next season? He surely looked like he could help the team toward the end of this season.
“We have a lot of needs. Running back is one of them,” Zampese said in regards to whether Burkhead will be back in 2017. “I know Coach Lewis will make the best decision possible for us.”