Posted: 8:15 p.m.
Bengals running back Cedric Benson, the unequivocal bell cow of a running team, couldn't figure it out, either. How he ended up with 4.5 yards per carry last Sunday in Cleveland and how the Bengals ended up with 154 yards on the ground for 5.1 yards per carry had him amazed, too, because it certainly felt a lot tougher than that.
"We weren't running the ball as well as we like. In a way I think there was small (illusion). We were thinking we weren't doing as much as we thought we should have, but technically we were," Benson said before Thursday's practice. "It was a weird game. The momentum moved quickly. It was kind of hard to get a real kind of grasp on what was going on. ... That's how these division games are going to be and what a division to be in."
The AFC North isn't exactly a day at the beach for a Bengals running back. Benson is starting to figure out that it can be ugly and still be good. Pittsburgh is the NFL's perennial No. 1 defense. Cleveland has the division's most dominant defensive lineman in Shaun Rogers. And the Ravens allow a 100-yard rusher once a Congress.
Baltimore hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 39 games stretching back to late 2006 and 20 straight AFC North games since the Bengals' Rudi Johnson went for 114 yards on 24 carries on Nov. 27, 2005.
The Bengals have a penchant for breaking that 100-yard streak. When Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis coordinated the Baltimore defense at the turn of the century, the Ravens had a streak of 50 straight games without a 100-yard rusher snapped when Corey Dillon went for 127 yards on 27 carries in a Dec. 23, 2001 game. Lewis had the last laugh in a 16-0 victory for the third straight shutout of the Bengals in Baltimore.
Since that day the Ravens have allowed 17 100-yard rushers. Lewis has come and gone and guys like Mike Nolan and Rex Ryan and Greg Mattison roll in and the numbers stay the same.
"Sound fundamentals," said Lewis this week, not without certain pride. "Eleven guys play together, sound fundamentally -- that's how you play defense. Put the black shirts inside the white shirts, take 'em all the way down, and you're going to be pretty good."
And Benson has some pride, too. He wanted to know, "Who was the last 100-yard rusher?"
Kansas City's Larry Johnson on Dec. 10, 2006 with 120 yards.
"Those are personal goals you would love to achieve," Benson said of breaking 100 Sunday. "Do the work on the practice field in preparation of the week that you can best achieve that. I'm sure the guys are fine with us sticking with the run and it's something we're obviously working for."
Asked if the defenses in the AFC North are tougher than those in the rough-and-tumble NFC North, Benson seems to think so.
"Absolutely. Much more technical defenses to read and make plays off of," he said. "Guys fly around. Teams run the 3-4 (defense) in this division ... it is what it is."
Benson is loving his NFL-best 84 carries and the fact that offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, just off making an impassioned press-box plea during the Cleveland game to commit to the run, is talking about not giving up on the run with something like 15 rushes in Baltimore.
On Thursday, Benson revealed he doesn't get sore unless he carries it at least 20 times. So that hip issue he had on Wednesday and the knee last week must not been too bad because he only got 16 shots against the Steelers two weeks ago and 18 Sunday in Cleveland. But he knows there could be a bucketful more Sunday. The only way to prevent the feared Ravens pass rush (Terrell Suggs, Jarret Johnson, Trevor Pryce) is to keep them guessing on the pass.
"We're going to have to find a happy mix somewhere between throwing it and keeping them off balance," Bratkowski said of the Ravens. "You can't go in four quarters and run the ball 15 times and think you're going to make hay. You're going to have no gain plays against these guys. You're going to have maybe back-to-back no gain plays, but you have to stay with it and keep going. You have to find that happy mix. OK, enough throws to keep them off balance and guessing and then come back and hit them when they're not expecting the run."
Still, despite the relatively light work load in the past two games, Benson is on pace to have the fifth-busiest season by a Bengals running back with 336 carries.
For the first time this season, Benson shared the feeling with rookie running back Bernard Scott, the sixth-rounder from Abilene Christian who sped and slashed to 41 yards on six carries and had runs of 11 and 16 on the tying touchdown drive in the final six minutes of the game.
Benson has 25 pounds and five years on Scott, but the 200-pound Scott could give Benson some fresh legs. It was pretty obvious to Benson that's what Scott brought to Sunday's gig.
"Everybody wants to be in there every play," Benson said. "But it's important he get some plays to spell me and also for his development in this league.
"Fresh legs. It's tough to (judge) him in the first couple of games. He didn't have a full series. I don't think we've yet to see some of the special things Bernard has."
Scott acknowledges that the game is a lot faster here than in Division II. If that's the one thing he's trying to adjust to it's the speed of the game. Of everybody.
"Even the D-linemen. That's the big difference," Scott said.
Wait until he sees the Ravens front seven, most of whom are big enough to play the line and fast enough to drop and blitz. Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer says they have MVP candidates at every level with Terrell Suggs on the line, Ray Lewis at middle linebacker and Ed Reed at safety. The word is that the Ravens in the first year under Mattison aren't as hectic before the snap as they were under Rex Ryan.
"They don't do quite as much moving around and walking guys around. They do sometimes in certain situations, but they're just a really good unit," Palmer said this week. "Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Ray three guys who could be MVPs of the league all on one team. Then, you sprinkle in some playmakers all over the place with (Haloti) Ngata and Jarret Johnson. There's a lot of really good players on that defense. They're very sound. They're not taking quite as many chances. They're playing really well as a unit and covering for each other when they have to, but also not getting out of place very often. I said a little bit ago, we have our hands full offensively.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who gets one of those MVPs in Suggs, doesn't see much change.
"They're still really good. They still look like they're all over the place," Whitworth said. "I think they're a little less confusing sometimes. But for the most part I still think they do a lot of the same stuff as far as the way they play. Those guys play the same way."
Which is to say 120 miles per hour?
"Oh yeah," Whitworth said.
It sounds like an assignment for a bell cow. With 34 carries in two AFC North games, that computes to Benson not getting sore until the 26th carry Sunday.
"If I get 20 carries, if I carry it that much, that obviously means we're successful in the run game," Benson said. "You work hard to be the best you can be and contribute to the team. When you get the ball in your hands, it's like the best feeling on the planet."