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CINCINNATI -- At this still relatively early stage in the season, it appears Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has been coming through on one of his top offseason objectives.
The Bengals, statistics show, are indeed putting more of an emphasis on the running game than what they may have placed upon it in recent seasons.
Given the current perception of the Bengals' rushing offense, it might be difficult to believe that's the case. It might also be difficult to believe, but the Bengals are running the ball slightly more effectively through seven games than they did at the same stage the past two seasons.
Cincinnati's most significant rushing improvement has come with the volume of rushing touchdowns it has had. Already this season, the Bengals have 10 rushing scores. They had five through seven games last year, and four at this same point two seasons ago. This season, Giovani Bernard has five, rookie Jeremy Hill has three, and quarterback Andy Dalton added two more Sunday when he dove into the end zone on a pair of 1-yard quarterback sneaks.
If you look at the 10 scoring plays, you'll see that all but one of them came in goal-to-go situations. Bernard's 89-yard touchdown run against Carolina three weeks ago was the lone outlier.
Aside from the touchdowns, the Bengals have run for more yards, slightly better than average, and with cleaner play than they had in 2012 and 2013. After seven games, they lost two fumbles in each season. This season, the Bengals haven't been credited with a fumble in the rushing game, although Dalton did lose a fumble Sunday when he was chased down while trying to get out of the pocket on a passing play that went negatively.
It may not seem like the Bengals have been running the ball better than in the past because it always seems like ball carriers aren't getting much of an opportunity to get going. Defensive players have been all over the backfield this season, none more than the Indianapolis Colts who were mainstays back there two weeks ago. On six of the Bengals' eight first-half rushes in that game, their running backs were first hit either at or behind the line of scrimmage.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bengals this season are averaging just 1.95 yards before contact. That's the worst average they've had through eight weeks since 2006, the year the statistic was first tracked. As a result, the Bengals' 2.01 yards after contact this year is the highest figure they have had in that category since the same season.
With respect to the 3.96 rushing average the Bengals currently have, that's their highest per-carry mark after eight weeks since 2009, when they averaged 4.34 yards a carry. Only two other Marvin Lewis-coached Bengals teams (2005, 2009) have had higher rushing averages through eight weeks.
It's actually quite amazing the 2014 Bengals rushers have accomplished what they have on the ground considering how comparatively bad the blocking has been for them. Part of the reason so many defenders have lived in the backfield this season is because the Bengals have, for the most part, been porous up front in run-blocking. Pro Football Focus has given this season's Bengals their worst run-blocking grade since 2007, the year it started tracking the advanced stat.
They are currently at a minus-4.3 run-blocking grade from PFF. For a frame of reference, they were at plus-32.6 at the end of last season. That was the 10th-best in the league.
This is all to suggest that the Bengals' running game really isn't performing as badly as it is perceived to. Still, this also all shows just how far that phase of the offense still has yet to go.
By Coley Harvey | espn.go.com | October 29, 2014