After the Bengals offensive line got done pushing the Ravens back for 4.6 yards per carry on 28 runs Monday night, people were looking around wondering the last time they'd seen something like that out of the running game.
You'd have to go back to 2009, but a lot farther than that to remember an MMA run like the one running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis busted on fourth-and-one from the Ravens 6 to score the only Bengals touchdown. Not in the Marvin Lewis era. You'd have to go back before that, to the Corey Dillon heyday.
But it wasn't just that Green-Ellis carried three Ravens into the end zone with him. It was Clint Boling in his first NFL start at left guard pushing Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe with him.
"If you can run straight ahead and get movement that is the one concern that you have against Baltimore is they are very strong at the point of attack," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said after Thursday's practice. "To get movement on them is a good sign for us. That should carry us over, give us some confidence going in. Cleveland is a different style of defense, they do a lot more penetrating, but hopefully the same thing will happen."
If there was a difference Monday night in the running game, that was it. While the Bengals say they have made nothing more than the annual offseason adjustments and tweaks in the running game, the biggest change was how they simply finished blocks and runs.
"We made some changes here and there," said running back Brian Leonard, "but when you get down to it, it is just getting on your man ... just getting on guys and finishing guys and blocking them. That's how it went in the first game."
The Bengals would love it to continue in the second game Sunday during the Paul Brown Stadium opener (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) because the running game has defined the Cleveland series ever since the Browns came back into the NFL in 1999. And the Bengals are coming off three straight 100-yard efforts by Cedric Benson against Cleveland.
But those three 100-yarders are one of only four in the last 23 games as the running game grew stagnant. That's why during the offseason the Bengals made the move from Benson to Green-Ellis and went with more athletic guards.
In Green-Ellis the Bengals get a younger man and a consummate pro that runs in the tracks of the playbook. The film shows that Benson is a more powerful runner, but the Law Firm is more under control and more likely to keep his feet.
Not only has Green-Ellis never fumbled—ever—but of his 181 carries last season just 21 went for negative yards. On Monday against the Ravens ravenous defense, he didn't have a negative carry or one for zero yards on his 18 attempts for 91 yards.
The O-line liked blocking for Benson, a no-frills runner himself.
"I think there are differences," Leonard said. "I think Green-Ellis is a little more patient. He sees the hole and hits it hard. Cedric, when he saw the hole, he put his head down and ran as hard as he could and tried to run someone over and he'd punish people.
"I don't think Green-Ellis is as much of a punisher, but he sees more and makes some good cuts. Slow to, fast through. That's what we say. Slow to the line and fast through it. If you're patient, the holes will open up, you find your hole and you can go."
For the first time since he arrived from New England, Green-Ellis looked up from the grindstone this week and said he doesn't like labels. That's what is happening, of course, now that he converted all four of his short-yardage runs against the Ravens. Two on third down and two on fourth, including that screensaver of his chin and the ball on the goal line.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth says the offensive line is just doing its thing.
"It really doesn't ever change for us. It doesn't matter who the back is or how they run, our plans don't change. It's just nice to see him run in there and make people miss and get the extra, tough yards," Whitworth said. "He does that thing you see out of other good backs in short-yardage situations where you need to get those yards. He has great balance. He doesn't just fall down or just run into people. He's able to keep his balance and keep his feet churning and move them, and when you can do that as a back, it also gives us time to help him and push the pile and do all those things that help you get those extra yards."
The arrival of Green-Ellis has coincided nicely with the emergence of Cincinnati's two young guards, Boling and rookie right guard Kevin Zeitler, the first college guard the Bengals ever took in the first round.
Upgrading the athleticism inside had been the idea behind drafting Zeitler and signing Panthers veteran Travelle Wharton in exchange for letting Nate Livings go to the Cowboys in free agency. When Wharton went down with an ACL on the third snap of the preseason, Boling was promoted. And while the Bengals had high hopes for him when he came out of Georgia in the fourth round in 2011, he has played so well so quickly they think they may have two future elite guards on their hands.
According to NFL stats, the Bengals ran seven times Monday night behind right guard, second most in the NFL, for 7.57 yards per carry, fifth best, and went four times behind left guard for 4.5 yards per, also fifth best.
"They're younger, more agile guys," Whitworth said. "They're not quite as big, so they're going to run around and be able to get on guys and maintain blocks maybe a little longer just because of their speed and just being young guys and having young legs and all of those things, being a little lighter. The main thing is we go in there and have that attitude that we're going to finish plays every play. That's going to help us run the ball effectively."
Whitworth has been particularly impressed with Boling. After starting the first three games of his career last season before going to the bench, Boling, Whitworth believes, began to learn how to use his intelligence and strength in the pro game.
"As tremendous of a run as it was for BenJarvus, you've also got a guy like Clint who was able to maintain on his guy while the guy is trying to tackle BenJarvus," Whitworth said of the TD. "He's pushing his guy while BenJarvus is fighting to get in the end zone, and they all end up falling in the end zone. You've got to play like that. Clint does a great job of just sustaining and keeping his legs moving, and BenJarvus does too and they get in the end zone."
That's what offensive coordinator Jay Gruden wants to do now:
Sustain that yards per carry.
He's looking for BJGE to pick up his pass protection, but he loves how he ran the ball.
"We had some different blocking techniques and schemes here and there. I just think the guys came off the ball and did a good job at the point of attack," Gruden said. "We had some really good double teams with Zeitler and (right tackle) Andre (Smith), they did a good job, the inside cutoffs were good. When we flipped and ran the other way it was just a good all-around blocking by everybody for the most part. We had a couple lapses here and there, maybe a receiver didn't pick up a force, (Haloti) Ngata might have got some penetration. But for the most part I was pleased with the running game. It's just we couldn't really stick with it because we got down in a hole there in the middle of the third quarter. That was one of the bright spots for sure."
The Bengals need it to be bright Sunday. Of the 26 games the Bengals and Browns have played since '99, the Bengals have had a 100-yard rusher in 16 of them and are 14-2.