With a wintry mix and a balmy 35 playoff-like degrees in the early forecast for Sunday's X-L AFC match of division leaders at Paul Brown Stadium between the Bengals and Colts, Cincinnati broke out its running game just in time last Sunday in San Diego's 75-degree greenhouse.
"You have to. We had two back-to-back (bad-weather games) the last couple games," Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said Monday, sounding like a Weather Channel reporter shivering on the banks of the Ohio River.
"At Baltimore, the winds were very difficult to throw the ball and the home game here against Cleveland, it was hard to throw the ball in the rain and the wind. We figured the last four games, we have an opportunity for four bad-weather games. So establishing some kind of running game is going to be important to keep the clock moving, keep our defense off the field and try to get something."
Marvin Lewis's two AFC North title teams have had higher-ranked running games, but never a tandem that broke 1,500 yards as the Bengals try to win that third one with the freshest 1-2 punch they've had since Lewis's first season 10 years ago.
And BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard are on pace to be the club's most potent 1-2 punch since James Brooks and Ickey Woods ran the Bengals to the AFC title 25 years ago. Projected to rack up 695 yards on 159 carries in his rookie season, Bernard would end up with the most yards by the club's second-leading rusher since Brooks went for 931 yards in '88 to back Woods' rookie run of 1,066.
Green-Ellis, headed to 819 on 235 carries, won't gain 1,000 like he did last season. But he's on pace to end up with 43 fewer carries and he was fresh enough to bang for 36 yards on the last seven plays Sunday as the offensive line obliterated the final 4:43 of the 17-10 victory over the Chargers.
"I didn't really take it into consideration, but it felt like the start of the season again," Green-Ellis said Monday of the bye. "My legs aren't feeling it today. We'll see how it feels tomorrow. But as of now everything's good to go.
"In a perfect world that would be the plan (splitting carries). Hopefully we take some of the wear and tear off both of our bodies. That's the ultimate goal when you get around this time of year that we're still fresh and the defenses are not as fresh. Other teams aren't as fresh as we are, so even their backs are taking more of the load and hopefully they're wearing down and we're still good to go."
With Corey Dillon rooting on Rudi Johnson in 2003, the Bengals ran for 1,498 yards with Johnson just missing out on 1,000 yards with 957 on 215 carries and Dillon's final 138 carries as a Bengal netting 541. The tandem of Johnson (170) and Kenny Watson (178) in 2007 accounted for 1,260 yards on 348 carries, but The Law Firm and the G-Man are on pace for 1,514 on 374 carries.
The run-game aficionados haven't been pleased with Cincinnati's pass-run ratio this season. Even during Sunday's game when the Bengals ran it 38 times and threw it 23, eyebrows were raised after they got their first touchdown pounding for 47 yards on six carries on a drive that ended with Green-Ellis walking in from four yards out over the right side. But the Bengals opened the next series on their own 14 with no backs and threw an incompletion on the way to a three-and-out.
But then again, that TD drive started on a nine-yard pass to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu and that's where Gruden is coming from. He's trying to win on first down to prevent the gargantuan third-and-longs of the previous three games.
On Sunday the Bengals had seven third downs of just three yards or less. They made six of them and Gruden felt good enough to run it five of the times, all successful. The five third downs of longer than three yards to go failed.
"It's going to be different every week. You play Baltimore, they have (Haloti) Ngata and Terrell Suggs and it will be difficult. But it's a mindset you have to have," Gruden said. "You bank on your guys getting a little bit of movement and the back taking a guy, maybe an unblocked guy in the hole and carrying him for three or four yards and keeping you in positive down and distance and not losing yards. That was a good thing about it.
"We had one play in there, we ran a lead weak and we didn't block it well and we missed the cut but we still gained a yard or two, which enabled us to run it on third and (four) and we got the first down to end the game. So as long as we can avoid the negative and zero-yard plays in the run game, then we have a chance to continue to run it. But when it's second-and-11, second-and-12, it would be hard to convince me to run it again and get to third-and-8 and then what?"
But there's no question that how the Bengals set up with one of the NFL's top combination of defense and special teams units, when they run the ball they win. And while they are ranked 18th in the NFL in the run this season, the Bengals have two backs that can impact games. The Law Firm did it so well in San Diego he's got a new nickname.
"I get a lot of that Mariano Rivera stuff. People call me 'The Closer.' I guess I'm getting a new nickname," said BJGE, belying his New England roots. "It's fun. Obviously you like to have the ball in your hands to close out games. I just want to continue to play well and try to win games for the team; that's my ultimate goal."
Bernard showed how he did it by getting the Bengals into overtime in back-to-back weeks with two breathtaking touchdown runs in the fourth quarter.
And don't worry about the rookie wall for the 5-9, 205-pound Bernard. He could stand a few more carries. He's on pace for 159 after two seasons at North Carolina he ran it 239 times as a freshman and 184 times last season.
"I'm not going to say there is a wall. Everybody in the NFL hits a point where they say, 'OK, we have this amount of games left and we have to churn it out,' " Bernard said. "You're not going to feel great every game. You're not going to feel how you did coming into the season, so you're just going to have to turn it up that much more. I'm not going to say there's a rookie wall. I haven't hit one. I just realize every game you're not going to feel 100 percent.
"The bye definitely helped tremendously. It helps everyone here. It kind of gives us a little time to relax and get our minds off football and freshen up our bodies and come out full speed. That's what we wanted to do against San Diego, and we did that."
Like Rivera, Green-Ellis has had to overcome giving up a few dingers. Especially Sunday's fumble converting a third-and-one into the red zone and giving the Chargers new life with nearly seven minutes left in the game. But he came back two minutes later to take it out on the defense with seven fastball runs.
"When you give up one of those, it's like you have something burning inside of you that you didn't even know you had. You just get a lot more energy and power," Green-Ellis said. "Obviously when you mess up, you feel like you owe people. I felt like I owed the other 52 guys on the team, and I owed the whole Cincinnati Bengals organization and staff and all of our fans.
"When you hold the ball, you have the fate of the team in your hands. And if you lose it, it basically means you let everyone down. When you mess up like that, you've got to come back and show some aggression and take your pain out on the other team."
This isn't The Law Firm's first trial. He was the meat-and-potatoes guy for the lavish Xs-and-Os of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in his Patriotic days, so he's been around a few stretch runs in the AFC weather.
"It's always important that we stay balanced because we might get a windy game. You never know what the weather might be," BJGE said. "It might be snowy or rainy like we played against New England. We just have to be prepared for all the elements and make sure we're doing our part to bring to the table a good running game, a good passing game, a stout defense and good special teams."
The run game has to be on the team's mind. In the final four games, the Bengals play one defense that's not in the lower half of the league against the run. The Ravens are ranked sixth, but the Colts are 28th, the Vikings 23rd and the Steelers 18th.
"If you're one-sided in the running game and you're playing a team that can really stop the run—and there are teams that can really, really make it difficult to run—then you're going to be in trouble because you can't throw," Gruden said. "If you're just a throwing team and you play in bad-weather games and you say 'OK, now we're going to run the ball,' it's tough.
"But we've been really grinding on these guys about balance and being able to run and throw. We have enough quick passes and play-actions that we feel we can win a lot of different ways offensively, not to mention (special teams coordinator) Darrin Simmons and (Mike) Zimmer's defense will do a lot of help for us."