Backs supply camp heat


Rex Burkhead

The Bengals ran a whopping 72 plays in Thursday night's preseason opener in Atlanta and nearly ran it twice as many times as they threw it, but no one is saying they're emphasizing the running game more than last year.

"Since we had a lead and it was working, we stuck with it; it is what it is," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said after Saturday's practice. "We try to emphasize it, but some teams are really, really, really good against the run."

Never mind Pittsburgh and Baltimore. There is Chicago in the opener Sept. 8. Not to mention Mike Zimmer's Bengals.

"How'd you like to try and run it against Rey Maualuga, James Harrison and Vontaze Burfict every day?" Gruden asked of the linebackers.

But there is a bit of a difference these days around Paul Brown Stadium. The two drafted Bengals running backs look like seasoned veterans ready to make an impact. And not only that, but Giovani Bernard and Rex Burkhead have been joined by actual seasoned backs like Cedric Peerman and Daniel Herron.

After Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, good luck cutting it to four backs. Even though head coach Marvin Lewis is confident he can cut right now at any spot.

"If I walk in the room and tell the DB coaches I need five guys, they've got to give me five guys. That's the way it is every day," Lewis said. "And players realize that. If we walk in and say we've got to cut five guys today, I'd go around the room and I've got to get a guy from each position, we could do that, yes. We always can. We're prepared to do that every day."

Yet Lewis even sounds thankful he's got three more games before he has to bring out The Grim Reaper.

"But we get to play more games and guys get a chance to practice and play so they can show they belong as a part of that group to stay," he said.

And it sounds like those players will get their shots. After the Bengals threw it five straight times in the first offense's last and unsuccessful drive Thursday, they ended up mauling the Falcons on the ground with 5.3 yards per carry.

"We've got a great running back by committee going here and we want to get them as many touches as possible," Gruden said.

Not only are the backs poised, but so are the blockers. Gruden says that right tackle Andre Smith, known as one of the league's best run players, is the best he's seen him in three years. Gruden used a bigger diet of double tight ends, rolling out the formation on the first four plays. And people are still buzzing about the pancakes fullback John Conner cooked up as he gutted through a tweaked ankle in the second half Thursday.

Gruden gave it to the 5-9, 205-pound Bernard two straight times from the 5-yard line and was rewarded with a touchdown that seemed to symbolize the kind of physicality and mindset Lewis likes to write about on T-shirts.

"No doubt we were going to run one of our staple plays and try to bang them," Gruden said. "We got good movement. John Connor poured it up in there. We got good movement on the right side and our puller got up in there and Gio stuck it up in there and got the yards. Good to see."

Not only that, but the head coach has last season engrained in his mind. That will happen when Lewis saw his team pull itself out of a nasty 3-5 hole once it got the running game greased and went on to finish 7-1.

"I think we kind of righted ourselves last year when we began to run the ball more productively," Lewis said. "Sometimes you throw it to run it, and we're going to have to do that. But we also have to be able to run it when we need to run it. That's going to be important, yes.

"The sequencing of the calling and the way it came off the chart, we may have thrown the ball the first play of the drive (Thursday night). But I think we ran the ball pretty much, which is what I wanted to get done. I thought it was important for us to establish and work the line of scrimmage."

Bernard, the first running back taken in the draft, and Burkhead, as heralded as a sixth-round pick can be, lived up to their advanced notices. Bernard ended up with just 28 yards on 10 carries, but he showed the moves that haven't been seen in these parts in years.

(And don't underestimate Bernard's two-yard run with 1:32 left in the first half from the Falcons 42. He dashed right through a lot of backwash on a stretch play that took just five seconds to run by the time he got out of bounds. The Bengals needed those ticks because Bernard banged in from the 1 with two seconds left.)

"(It) was terribly blocked but he made the first down and got out of bounds and stopped the clock; it was a great run," Gruden said. "Sometimes those two-yard runs are as good as 20-yard runs because that moved the chains instead of us having to make a decision on third-and-1 possibly giving the ball back and punting; we continue the drive and get points out of it.

"There's a couple things he'll want to clear up, but for the most part he ran pretty hard and had a couple catches, which is important. We got him out in space on some draws and tried to get him out there on some screens and a couple routes out of the backfield, which he can do better at. I think it's a great start for him."

Burkhead isn't getting the play in Hard Knocks that Bernard is getting. And the anonymous camp seems just fine with him after an offseason he became one of the more recognizable faces in sport because of his fight to raise the awareness of pediatric brain cancer with his good friend Jack Hoffman.

Bernard is taking heat for driving the minivan of his girlfriend's mother. Meanwhile, Burkhead is going to be quietly tooling around Cincinnati in his 2010 Mazda. His dad, Rick Burkhead, drove it from their Texas home and stopped in Atlanta for the game to see Rex pound it nine times for 52 yards. Then he finished off the journey in time to watch practice Saturday.

"He's reliable. He's always in the right spot," quarterback Andy Dalton said of Rex Burkhead. "He knows what he's doing. He gets the tough yardage. It's fun to watch him.

"We feel like we've got the right guys and the right scheme to (run it). We just have to go execute it. Right now we're trying to evaluate everybody. Evaluate the backs. I thought we did a good job. In the second half Rex was doing a good job. (Daniel Herron) came in and ran the ball well. Ced Peerman. There's a lot of competition back there."

Burkhead knows that versatility is going to help him and even though he didn't catch a ball Thursday, he can. And the competition, where five backs had at least one carry of six yards, is no surprise.

"It's the NFL. You expect competition and a lot of people," Burkhead said. "You compete every single day just trying to get better."

Lewis is also used to it because he's gone through a decade of final cuts.

"It's just the business we're in that at any point we have to be prepared to say these are the keepers right now, these are the guys who would make the football team right now, and unfortunately these are players we'd have to let go," he said. "That's not a bad thing. That's part of what my job is daily."

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