The Bengals offensive line, anchored by center Russell Bodine, has yet to allow a sack and is generating 4.5 yards per rush.
Now that's how you win a playoff game.
A grand total of 623 days after the Bengals offense struggled in a 27-10 Wild Card loss, they won their 2015 Paul Brown Stadium opener over the same San Diego Chargers on the same turf with a stunning array of versatility in their playbook and depth chart
When Hue Jackson was named offensive coordinator about a week after that game in 2014, he went to work on diversifying the running game and the spoils could be found in the fourth quarter of Sunday's 24-19 victory. With their 1,000-yard big back benched because of fumbleitis, 5-9, 205-pound Giovani Bernard came off the bench and punched the Chargers in the mouth busting power plays and veering behind zones for 66 of his 123 yards.
Meanwhile, the running game allowed quarterback Andy Dalton to perform at his GCL point guard best, hitting nine different receivers for three touchdowns. Not only did he find wide receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones and tight end Tyler Eifert cleanly beating one-on-one coverage for touchdowns, Dalton also hit rookie tackle Jake Fisher for 31 yards on a tackle-eligible play that woke up the echoes of Sam Wyche and Anthony Munoz.
Although Munoz, the Bengals Hall of Fame left tackle, caught seven passes in his career and four for touchdowns, his longest went only 12 yards. Fisher's first catch since dear old West High in Traverse City, Mich., is now the longest ever by a Bengals lineman.
An offense that has been called a Pandora's Box teemed with reality Sunday.
"It's fantastic," Jones said. "We've been saying it since we started this thing. Who do you guard? We have a lot of people that bring different attributes to the game and we'll expose it."
The Wild Card strategy of 51 passes went to the bottom of the deck. The Bengals were dealing from strength on Sunday against a San Diego front line that, on average, weighed about 35 pounds less than the Bengals top six offensive linemen.
"Hue's thing is we're going to run whatever play during the week or game that's going to win," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "And today we did all of the above. (The Wild Card) did come to mind that this is a team you have to run the ball against. You have to be almost stubborn with it. We had some success and Gio did a great job. We knew all week they were going to find a way to get an eighth guy (in the box) somewhere before we snapped the ball. That's what they did well against us in the playoff game that we probably didn't adjust to. They had an extra guy always run down in the box right when we snapped it. The back has to make them miss. There's nothing else to do about it. Gio did a great job of it."
Cincinnati Bengals host the San Diego Chargers in week 2 of the regular season.
So instead of the two backs carrying just 20 times on mostly zones like the last time they played the Chargers, Bernard ran 20 on his own and along with Hill's 10 carries for 39 yards, the meter read 175 yards at nearly four yards per pop on 36 carries, making the Bengals 31-3-1 in the Green-Dalton Era when they run it at least 30 times.
Exhibit A with a first down on the Chargers 38 and the Bengals clinging to a 17-13 lead with 10:54 left and trying to stave off the irrepressible Philip Rivers: skating on a zone run behind Whitworth and left guard Clint Boling, Bernard shot through the hole and then juked cornerback Jason Verrett from here to Malibu. Verrett went inside with him, but couldn't come back out with him and Bernard rambled for 26 yards.
Then the Bengals switched gears and ran a power on the next snap with the left side pulling and Bernard squeezing through on a 12-yard touchdown run to the right that was called back for rookie tight end Tyler Kroft's hold.
But it shows the back-to-back variety of Jackson's run game.
As Whitworth hooted in the background of Bernard's meeting with the press, Bernard smiled and said, "There's my man Whit." Bernard said it's easy to run both power and zone when you get the room.
"(The line does) a great job. It's all up to them," Bernard said. "That's how this run game works. Coach Jackson does that. He puts a lot of pressure on those guys to create the gaps for us up front. They always show up."
No worries for Kroft. Marvin Jones had what could have been a crushing illegal procedure call on third down from the 4, but no worries for him, either. On the next snap, tight end Tyler Eifert, split wide to the right, fried 5-9 Chargers cornerback Brandon Flowers when he beat him inside and kept running for a nine-yard TD catch with 8:49 left in the game that proved to be the winning score.
Poor Flowers. It was the third time in the game he was beaten one-on one for a touchdown a week after he had safety help to stop the Lions' Calvin Johnson.
No help here. Not when you line up these guys where you line them up. Eifert was split wide. When Jones caught the longest play of the season, a 45-yard floater down the middle for a touchdown, he was lined up in tight. When Green started the scoring 2:09 into the game on a 16-yard-go-get-it-climb-the-lader throw from Dalton, Green was in the slot.
Sure, Green's eyes bulged at the one-on-one look. But not surprised it was coming to him.
"I knew it was coming to me. We work on that all the time," Green said.
That's the idea. Getting them one-on-one and away from help.
"There were different times where they would do different things to try to take different guys away (from the play); it wasn't like they were just singled up all the time," Dalton said. "But I think when you try to take away one guy and double him, it leaves other potential guys with one-on-one (situations)."
Green has an even simpler explanation.
"We have so many weapons," Green said. "They can't just take me away or match Marvin on the lesser corner because Marvin's a great receiver. I think they just played their base coverage and tried to beat us with a lot of blitzes . . We can do what we want out there. It's Andy's decision to make the best matchup. You can see that. Tyler, me, Marv, it doesn't matter."
Eifert now has three touchdowns and is now officially bidding to have the most touchdowns in a season by a Bengals tight end since Rodney Holman had nine in 1989. On Sunday he led the Bengals for the second straight week with 49 receiving yards, but Jones had 48 and Green 45.
Isn't Dalton good when he's dishing and not driving? He's got five TDs, no picks and a passer rating of 120.4. Not only that, his machine is purring like Who-Dey. When the safety came down in the box on first-and-10 from the Chargers 45 leaving Flowers on Jones, Dalton checked the pass and sent Jones long.
"Andy made a good check and throw," Jones said. "It was just me and him. That's what all our receivers want. When you see it on the field, you go, 'oooh.' If we know we have something, we'll exploit it. Why wouldn't you want one-on-one coverage if you have the pieces we have?"
Fisher may even get some attention now after the most evil of Jackson's ploys. He put him as a tackle eligible on the left side of an unbalanced line with Whitworth flipped to the right. After faking a run to Bernard. Dalton saw Fisher leaking wide open about 10 yards down field and lofted it to him for 21 more to the Chargers 16 to set up a field goal.
"He's a great athlete,' said Green, shaking his head, after he told the 306-pound Fisher to sidestep the safety.
"Make him miss, get in the end zone, score. I mean come on!" Dalton told him in jest.
Fisher, who is used when they go with six linemen, was as animated as he's been since he arrived in the second round. He made one of those catches in training camp. Now the image of him lumbering down the left sideline with no one near him is burned in the mind of the next 14 defensive coordinators the Bengals face.
"Just catch the damn ball,' said Fisher of his thoughts. "I don't know if I was the first option, but I caught the ball and made some yards after catch.
That has to make Jackson smile. That's not his No. 1 wide receiver, but his back-up left tackle.