Bengals Boom-ing on the ground


Daniel Herron

The Law Firm, and his clerk, rookie Giovani Bernard, look to be the only roster locks in the backfield. With 11 days left before final cuts, Bengals running backs coach Hue Jackson is like that candidate waiting for the last precinct to come in.

Too close to call.

The Bengals figure to keep four running backs and the irony is that in the end it's probably going to come down how they play special teams rather than run the ball.

And at fullback, it's either Orson Charles or John Conner. That's got to be the most riveting, bare-knuckled competition on the roster because it is simply two men on a wrestling mat for the job.

"They're close. They're doing a good job. These last two weeks will be telling for that position," Jackson said after Monday's practice at Springboro High School. "When you run for the yards we've run for, (the fullbacks have) obviously done a good job. There are still technical things to clean up. Playing lower and being more physical because that's what that position brings. That position didn't play a lot. Between the two of them they took 20 plays. So when they get their shots, you've got to be right on."

What can be deciphered after two games, though, is that the Bengals are serious about running the ball. Head coach Marvin Lewis appears to have pushed his message across that Cincinnati's 7-1 finish last year coincided with the best running performances of the year.

Jackson, the new running backs coach who is also Lewis's special assistant, built the backbone of his offense on the run during his two seasons in Oakland as the offensive coordinator and head coach, and it appears that fits right in with what offensive coordinator Jay Gruden wants to accomplish this preseason.

After two games the Bengals have rushed it 74 times and thrown it 59, numbers that have to be taken with a grain of salt because quarterback Andy Dalton has played only five series. But that projects to 148 runs and 118 passes for the four preseason games, compared to last year when they ran it 105 times and passed it 133.

Of course, last year the Bengals rushed for a measly 3.2 yards per carry and at this point they're at 5.7 and going with what works. Take away swashbuckling Josh Johnson's carries and they are still at 5.1 per.

"Still ain't enough. The nuts and bolts of football is running," Jackson said. "We're on the right track. We're working at it. When teams start game-planning for us, that's when it gets hard. We have to find a way to make yards."

Lewis, Gruden, Jackson and offensive line coach Paul Alexander have to like what they've seen when it comes to attitude about the run.

"You have to create it each and every day. You have to line up and be willing to be those kinds of people," Jackson said. "(The numbers are) OK. That's good. I expect it, but I want more. Our guys can make plays and uncommon plays."

With The Law Firm, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, getting the most snaps Monday he's had from scrimmage in a practice since before the opener, the Bengals look like they're going into Saturday night's dress rehearsal in Dallas (8 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) ready to play all their starters for the first half and maybe beyond.

After BJGE and Bernard, it looks like two sports are available for veterans Cedric Peerman and Daniel "Boom" Herron, and sixth-rounder Rex Burkhead. All three have lit it up, particularly Herron with his 40-yard-reverese-field touchdown run Saturday night against Tennessee to go with his 6.5-yard average per carry on 17 attempts in the two games.

But this isn't paint-by-the-numbers.

While Herron flashed late last season as a rookie when he had a hand in two blocked punts, Peerman has played for three seasons at the special teams most important position behind the kicker, punter and long snapper as the quarterback on the punt and punt return teams.

Last year the Bengals finished first in the NFL when it came to combining the special teams' top 10 categories and Peerman was a big reason for it running two successful fake punts and finishing fourth in special teams tackles.

Burkhead is backing up Peerman in those spots, so where does that leave Herron in the special teams derby? Tough to say. But then, paring the roster is a fuzzy, big-picture deal that doesn't come into focus until the cuts are in after Lewis and Bengals president Mike Brown have had the input from the coaches and scouts.  

"That's for Mike, Marvin and the organization," Jackson said. "Whoever they give me to coach, that's my job."

What we do know is all three have been quite impressive running the ball. Herron is a powerful grinder known for moving the chains with patience and well-placed bursts.

"I think he's improved a lot. He's made big plays in games. He makes them in practice. I'm not surprised by anything he's doing because he works at it," said Jackson, outlining Herron's improvements. "I think just playing at this level. Just how physical the game is for the back and playing as fast and as violent as he can play as a runner and doing the same thing in pass protection and he's done that."

Burkhead flashed the quickness that didn't show up in his 40-yard times when he took off on a 22-yard run around the right edge Saturday night and he's averaging 5.5 yards on 15 carries. His tape at Nebraska is full of him catching the ball, so the Bengals know he can do that even though he's only got one catch so far.

"He can run. He really can. He has quick feet. I don't know what his timed speed is, but I know he's faster on the football field," Jackson said. "From Benny all the way down to whoever people think the last guy might be, these guys have done a tremendous job."

Herron is another guy that plays faster on the field than the track.

"Absolutely. I just think there are a lot of guys who time good or time bad, but they've got to play football," Jackson said. "We like football players. We wish they had all that other stuff, but only a few of these guys are that way, that have all the criteria you look for. But what you see on tape is usually what you get. That's what we're seeing and that's what we're getting."

What the Bengals have going on at fullback is really a microcosm of what's going on at all the other spots across the roster.

"There were no assignment errors or anything like that. The guys are playing hard," Jackson said of Saturday night. "What we've got to do is play hard and play smart on top of doing the things we think it takes to win games and they're both doing that. I'm sure somebody will separate themselves."

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