Backfield Breakdown – Bengals
With four straight playoff appearances, the Cincinnati Bengals have been one of the most successful franchises in the NFL over the last five seasons. Head coach Marvin Lewis enters his 15th season at the helm as the winningest coach in Bengals history and will be joined by a coaching staff that returns intact.
As successful as the Bengals have been recently, they might appear as a bit of a relic in today’s pass-happy NFL. While the rest of the league seems to utilize record-breaking passing attacks, Lewis and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson will look to employ a run-heavy offense that features two star running backs and tries to protect limited quarterback Andy Dalton.
While Dalton had impressive passing numbers under former offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, the defensive-minded duo of Lewis and Jackson favor a more conservative approach that will see the club attempt to rush for 2,200+ yards behind one of the NFL’s youngest, most talented offensive lines.
One of the bright spots for the Bengals’ offense last season was the play of the offensive line, and that unit will return all five starters intact. Cincinnati’s front five graded out very well according to PFF numbers, finishing as the No. 4 pass blocking unit, and seventh-best in run blocking. As a unit, the Bengals O-line surrendered only 23 sacks last year – third fewest in the league.
|Pos.||Player||Age||Starts||Run Block||Pass Block||Overall|
Even with an impressive showing in 2014, expectations will be even higher this season. Lewis showed a commitment toward a run-heavy offense by using Cincinnati’s first two 2015 draft picks to bolster an already-strong O-line.
First-round OT Cedric Ogbuehi was widely considered a top-10 talent before tearing an ACL in Texas A&M’s Liberty Bowl win. He’s expected to be slowly groomed to eventually take over at left tackle, where starter Andrew Whitworth is a pending 2016 free agent.
Second-round selection OT Jake Fisher was also pegged as a first-rounder and was the highest-rated player on Cincinnati’s draft board. Fisher will have the challenge of learning to play in a pro-style offense after starring in Oregon’s spread attack. Offensive line coach Paul Alexander will have the luxury of utilizing Fisher at a variety of positions as a rookie, but he could be a starting right tackle, sooner rather than later.
10-year left tackle Whitworth continues his tremendous play. He was PFF’s No. 2 overall tackle, and graded out as the top run blocker in the league. He also excelled in pass protection, surrendering only one quarterback hit and zero sacks all season. Whitworth, 33, seemed unhappy that the club spent their top two selections on potential replacements and enters the final year of his contract with something to prove.
26-year-old left guard Clint Boling re-signed a five-year, $26 million deal with Cincinnati. Boling graded out as PFF’s 20th-ranked guard, with positive marks at run blocking, but he did give up the fourth most quarterback hits (8) in the league. Still, Boiling did make 14 starts coming off of a 2013 torn ACL and is expected to be the long-term answer at guard as he enters his prime.
Second-year center Russell Bodine managed to make all 16 starts as a rookie. Bodine had the expected struggles that a fourth-round starter would have, but earned the praises of the coaches for his ability to consistently snap the ball. Despite finishing the season as PFF’s 33rd-ranked center, the coaching staff has high hopes for Bodine, who is expected to make improvements with a year’s experience under his belt.
Right guard Kevin Zeitler was another bright spot on Cincinnati’s young line, finishing his third pro season as PFF’s No. 9 guard. Zeitler graded positively as a run and pass blocker and gave up only one sack in his 12 starts. At 25, Zeitler is set to enter his prime entrenched as the starter.
The writing may be on the wall for former No. 6 pick RT Andre Smith, who has been plagued by conditioning issues, declining play and injuries. Smith tore his triceps last season and that injury will keep him out through training camp. As it was, Smith regressed in 2014, finishing the season as PFF’s 47th-ranked tackle. With the Bengals investing their top two picks on potential successors, it’s easy to see why Smith, in the final year of his contract, will need to improve in 2015 to earn another lucrative contract.
Throughout his career as an offensive coordinator and head coach, Hue Jackson has fielded a variety of offenses built around the talent that he inherited. Though Jackson has a background in the West Coast offense, more often than not, the teams he has coached have been more balanced. As a former quarterbacks coach, Jackson also has the ability to communicate well and get inside the heads of his signal-callers. These traits and versatility bode well for an up-and-coming Bengals ground game.
|Year||Team||Pass Yards||Rank||Rush Yards||Rank||Overall Rank|
Andy Dalton became the first Jackson-coached quarterback to make it through an entire 16-game schedule. In his five seasons calling plays, Jackson has had the misfortune of trying to construct a new offense while being hampered by subpar quarterbacks like Patrick Ramsey, Joey Harrington, Chris Redman, Jason Campbell, and Bruce Gradkowski.
No Jackson-led offense has cracked 4,000 passing yards, but a lot of that has been due to the quarterbacks. The running game has fared significantly better. Three times Jackson’s squads have been top-seven units, rushing for over 2,100 yards in each of those seasons.
In his first two stops in Washington and Atlanta, Jackson employed committee backfields, mainly due to the lack of talent. Jackson’s least productive rushing squad was led by 32-year-old RB Warrick Dunn, who faltered to 3.2 yards per carry. Dunn received 227 carries and was badly outplayed by Jerious Norwood, who averaged 6.0 yards on each of his 103 attempts.
Three seasons later Jackson was hired as the Raiders’ head coach and led Oakland to two straight top-seven rushing seasons. Those Oakland squads added a new wrinkle with pass-catching fullback Marcel Reece blocking for RB Darren McFadden, who enjoyed a career-best 2010 campaign. The oft-injured McFadden would miss more than half of 2011, but RB Michael Bush nearly rushed for 1,000 yards off of the bench.
Jackson’s first season as the play-caller proved promising for the Cincinnati ground game. After four straight seasons toiling in the bottom half of the league’s team rushing ranks, the Bengals shot up nearly 400 yards to finish sixth in the NFL, while adding 0.8 yards per carry to get to 4.4, good for 12th in the league.
Cincinnati’s rushing attack actually benefited from a hip injury to RB Giovani Bernard, who dominated the early season touches from rookie RB Jeremy Hill, who saw double-digit carries only once in the Bengals’ first six games. After Bernard missed three weeks, Hill became the starter and dominated carries, and Bernard transitioned to a pass-catching and change-of-pace threat in the season’s second half.
Hill averaged 103 rushing yards per game and scored six touchdowns in Cincinnati’s last nine games of 2014. In the final five weeks of the season, Hill was a top-10 fantasy back while averaging 96 rushing yards, scoring three touchdowns and putting up over 16 PPR points per tilt.
After Bernard returned from his hip injury, he became less of a factor as a runner, but more of a pass-catching weapon. Hill would garner more rushes than Bernard in Cincinnati’s final nine games, but Bernard out-caught Hill 21-11 in the six games that the duo split time. In those six contests, Bernard averaged just under 40 rushing yards on 59 attempts, while generating 28 receiving yards per game, with a couple of scoring tosses.
Once the ball got in the red zone, Hue Jackson’s offense became even more reliant on their dominant offensive line and running game. The Bengals ran the ball from inside their opponent’s 10 a league-high 69 percent of the time. That conservative approach should mean Hill, a tough inside runner, will continue to get the lion’s share of goal line looks, and Bernard should stay busy as a receiver looking for mismatches in coverage.
Considering the successful improvements of Cincinnati’s offense, the limitations of Dalton, and the tough schedule, it’s safe to say that the 2015 Bengals should be among the league leaders in rushes, with plenty of attempts to feed both of their young runners.
Hill will command a majority of the rushing attempts, especially around the stripe. He is also an underrated pass catcher who should be a threat to average a couple of grabs each week. With a year’s experience and now that he’s entering the season as the starter, Hill has the look of a runner that could finish as a top-5 rusher with double-digit rushing touchdowns.
Although he’s not going to run as much, Bernard still has significant fantasy value – especially in PPR leagues. Based on his usage down the stretch for Cincinnati last year, Bernard is a candidate to run for north of 600 yards, but make a bigger impact as a receiver. A healthy Bernard could easily surpass 1,000 scrimmage yards, catch north of 50 passes and generate eight touchdowns.