Rex Burkhead, like Giovani Bernard, was drafted by the Bengals in the 2013 NFL Draft. But the two Bengals running backs experienced very different paths during their first three seasons clad in the orange and black stripes of a Bengals’ uniform. In his first three seasons, Bernard had touched the ball 640 times, and had averaged more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage in each of his first three seasons. Meanwhile, Burkhead had a mere 30 touches to his credit, averaging less than 60 total yards from scrimmage per season. But on Sunday afternoon in his fourth NFL season, Burkhead made up for lost time by rushing for 119 yards and a pair of touchdowns against the Ravens in his first NFL start. In rushing for 100 yards, and scoring two rushing touchdowns, Burkhead accomplished a pair of feats which Bernard has only accomplished twice each in his 55 game NFL career.
There is no doubt Burkhead’s performance in Week 17 of the 2016 NFL season was an impressive game. In addition to his 119 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, he also added two catches for 25 yards through the air. It secured his spot as the team leader in yards per carry (4.6 YPC), but was it the best game by a Bengals’ running back in 2016? Did the fourth year, third string running back top the rushing performances of both Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill in his lone NFL start? Let’s take a look.
Week 2 Giovani Bernard vs Steelers
- 5 rushes for 17 yards (3.4 YPC)
- 9 receptions for 100 yards and 1 TD
In a game which the Bengals’ running game was totally shut down, Bernard emerged as the Bengals’ top receiver. Trailing all game, Bernard gave the Bengals hope by scoring on a 25 yard pass from Andy Dalton, closing the gap to 16-24 with three and a half minutes to play. His touchdown was one of the few bright spots in a dismal offensive showing by the Bengals.
Week 3 Jeremy Hill vs Broncos
- 17 rushes for 97 yards (5.7 YPC), 2 TDs
Hill scored both of the Bengals touchdowns against the Broncos, scoring twice on first and goal situations from inside of the five yard line. Hill did not get a touch in the fourth quarter, when the defense let Trevor Siemian look like Joe Montana, and forced the Bengals to play from behind. On the Bengals’ first drive, Hill ripped off a 50-yard run, but averaged less than three yards per carry after that, against the league’s 28th best rush defense.
Week 7 Jeremy Hill vs Browns
- 9 rushes for 168 yards (18.7 YPC), 1 TD
- 2 receptions for 24 yards
A few weeks after churning out 97 yards and two touchdowns against the league’s 28th best run defense, Hill destroyed the league’s 31st best (or really, second worst) rush defense with 168 yards on only nine attempts. Hill gained positive yardage on each of his rushes, including a 40 yard run, and a 74 yard touchdown score. Hill set the 2016 mark for most total yards from scrimmage by a Bengals’ running back on only 11 touches.
Week 14 Jeremy Hill vs Browns
- 25 rushes for 111 yards (4.4 YPC), 1 TD
- 3 receptions for 31 yards
Hill has a penchant for great games against horrible run defenses, and was at it again in the Bengals’ second game against the Browns. He gained positive yardage on 24 of his 25 rushes, including his one yard touchdown score. In a game without A.J. Green, he was the team’s third leading receiver with 31 yards on three receptions.
Week 17 Rex Burkhead vs Ravens
- 27 rushes for 119 yards (4.4 YPC) and 2 TD
- 2 receptions for 25 yards
In Week 17, Burkhead accomplished several feats which had eluded Bengals’ running backs in 2016. He scored two rushing touchdowns and topped 100 rushing yards in the same game. Also, he had a good rushing game against a good rushing defense (ranked No. 2 in the league). Unlike Hill’s great games against the league’s worst run defenses, the Ravens were ranked in the top five in rushing yards allowed per game, rushing touchdowns allowed, and fewest yards per carry. Burkhead’s longest run was only 17 yards, meaning he did not pad his stats with a lone big gain, but grinded it out behind a much maligned offensive line, against a good defense. Burkhead’s performance saw the second most yards from scrimmage by a Bengals running back this season.
At the risk of sounding like one who is merely chasing “what have you done for me lately”, I’m inclined to rate Burkhead’s performance as the best by a Bengals’ running back this season. I think the circumstances sway me to his production in Week 17. Not only did he rush for 119 yards and two touchdowns against one of the league’s best run defenses, but did it with many offensive weapons and starters missing (Green, Tyler Eifert, Clint Boling, Cedric Ogbuehi).
What do you think? What was the top performance by a Bengals’ running back during the 2016 season?