Giovani Bernard is looking to muscle back into the lineup.
Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson knew he would be faced with this question sooner or later and with running back Giovani Bernard coming off what he calls a "tremendous,' practice on Wednesday, it may as well be now.
Jeremy Hill leads all NFL rookie running backs with 556 yards and 715 yards from scrimmage and the Bengals are 3-0 when he carries at least 15 times. Meanwhile Bernard, the sophomore back who averages one highlight clip per game, is getting his body put back together for the stretch run.
When he got hurt three games ago, Bernard was averaging 19 touches per game. Since then, Hill has averaged 22.
So who gets the ball?
On Wednesday with Jackson looking to ease Bernard back into the lineup, he says both. But he won't name a starter and he also says Hill has earned more plays.
"I think he deserves it. And I think with Gio just coming back, it's going to be hard for me to just say let's just thrust him in there again and let him go again," Jackson said. "I think we've got to work him back into our process and how we do things. What will determine that is just how fast and how we think he is ready to go."
Jackson admitted he wants to take care of the 5-7, 205-pound Bernard's body, but when he hears people balk about Bernard getting the ball inside and fretting about his durability he disagrees.
"A lot of people say he can't run over there or he can't (run here)," Jackson said. "You're going to get hit in pro football no matter where you run or how you catch it. Everybody says, well, just run him on the edge. Well, you can get hit on the edge too just as well as you can get hit up the middle. You're going to get hit, that's just the way it goes. So as we get him back and we know he's back and we get him back integrated, we'll have a process for him."
But Jackson also says, "I think my concern is keeping him healthy, whatever that means,' and that sounds like Hill is getting the bulk of the carries until Bernard's hip and shoulder click back into place.
Now may be a good time to point out that the most prolific running back when it came to running and catching in Bengals history, 5-10, 180-pound James Brooks, averaged just 14 touches per game and still went to four Pro Bowls. He went to the most Pro Bowls by a Bengals running back averaging 11.4 rushes and 2.5 catches per game.
"I think Jeremy has done a tremendous job and he earns the right to play, there's no question about that. But it's always good to have two really good runners," Jackson said. "What I see now is a situation where we have two really fine runners and whoever starts the game, I don't think that will matter. I don't think either one of them feels that way. I think everybody wants to play, but who walks out there first, I don't think that will really matter."
Certainly Hill isn't thinking that way even though he's got rookie of the year numbers.
"That's something that's an end of the season type thing," Hill said. "Once you're going week to week, you don't really think about it. You just have such a big challenge every Sunday you have to prepare for in a short amount of time. It's really hard to think about that type of stuff. You just think about that in the offseason and think about the things you could have done maybe to help yourself that way.
"Especially being in the situation I'm in, not being the every-down guy. I really didn't think I would have a chance to get that. I've just been focused on helping this team win and doing what I can to help the team. I never really thought I'd be it the conversation for that type of stuff."
But the Bengals drafted Hill for this kind of December and this AFC North kind of race. At 230 pounds, Hill offers that southern fried version of Pittsburgh Le'Veon Bell's big-back 951 yards that are second in the NFL. Running is what he does and he's in a rhythm.
"Most definitely. What I've been saying since Day 1 is run the football," Hill said. "Everyone knows I can do that. It's just the other little things I've been trying to focus on and get better at to help this team – play fakes, helping Andy in the play-action game, things of that nature. It's the little things that help this team get better. Running the football, no one here is really stressing about that. It's just the little things."
And Hill has done enough of those little things to keep playing. Between Hill (36) and rookie fullback Ryan Hewitt (33), they are perfect in pass-block snaps.
It sounds like more and more, this is a tandem the rest of the way when it comes to health, weather, and the race.
"I'm a realist. What I mean by that is I want to make sure Gio is totally ready to go and you guys know how I feel about him. He's one of the best players on our football team," Jackson said. " At the same time, one of my other jobs is to make sure that he's prepared and ready to go and can handle the stress of playing in a big-time football game. He had a significant injury and he's back, so let's just see where he is and we'll go from there."