Running back Jeremy Hill is the face of a physical running game.
The shoulder pads come on Sunday in training camp for the first time in 2015 and so does a Bengals offense that lives up front and thrives downhill. At least ever since Hue Jackson got his hands on the running game last year as the offensive coordinator.
In conjunction with long-time offensive line coach Paul Alexander, Jackson diversified the running game by ladling in a large helping of power plays and sprinkling in zone read calls to go with their staple of zone blocking. When rookie Jeremy Hill emerged as the league's leading rusher in the second half of last season, the Bengals finished No. 6 in the league in rushing, their highest in head coach Marvin Lewis' dozen seasons.
Now with the tackles in the best shape of their careers, all five offensive line starters intact, Jitterbug Giovani Bernard healthy, and Hill vowing to become a leader in the Andrew Whitworth mold, the Bengals have the ability y to smash their way back to a fifth straight playoff berth.
"It's not so much we've got a lot more plays, but he's made the running game the focal point of the offense," says Whitworth, the 10-year left tackle. "Now in every game we go in intending to run the ball. That didn't used to be our intention.
"Once you make it the focus, you have to have diversity. You just can't do one thing," Whitworth says. "Hue said we're going to run the ball better than we have in the last three or four years. He wasn't going to tolerate anything less."
Drafting a running back in the second round in 2013 (Bernard) and 2014 (Hill) matched the desire. Whitworth says the 6-1, 235-pound Hill is the best back he's played with in the NFL. If the line is the heart of the running game, the athletic, in-front-of-his-pads-5.1-per Hill is the poster.
"Rudi (Johnson) was at the back end and Ced (Benson) was a big, violent back, but Jeremy probably has a better skill set," Whitworth says of his LSU descendant. "He's a big back who runs like a little back."
Hill has been taking note of guys like Whitworth and right tackle Andre Smith. Both have come into camp in animal shape. Whitworth says he's at his lightest since he was an LSU freshman and Smith is coming off his season-ending triceps tear 23 pounds lighter and prepared to practice for the third straight day.
"Those guys are flying around. That's something that other guys see,' says left guard Clint Boling.
Hill calls Whitworth "the heartbeat of the team," but his first memory of him as a teammate is already indelible.
"He texted me within an hour of when I got drafted welcoming me to the team. That was huge," Hill says. "I'll never forget that until the day I die because you remember everything about your draft day. Stuff like that goes a long way.
"I see myself trying to progress that way (as a leader), definitely not vocally but the things I do every day with the running backs and especially the rookies. I soaked in a lot of knowledge from the veteran guys as a rookie. You can't be selfish. You have to pass on that knowledge. You never know how long you're going to be in this league. I don't want to take anything for granted, leading by example. I want to be remembered that way."
Boling, working on a new five-year contract, is easing into a more senior role and last year Jackson heaped praise on Smith for coming out of his shell as more of a talker and leader. The face of the offense, once peach fuzz with rookies A.J. Green and Andy Dalton, is suddenly wise whiskers.
On Saturday, the 28-year-old Smith told reporters he was sick of being mediocre. Boling thinks that perception of Smith, circa the 2009 NFL Draft, is ancient and way off base.
Cincinnati Bengals host training camp at Paul Brown Stadium practice fields 08/02/2015
"I've seen very few guys with as much natural talent as Andre," Boling says. "He's big, lean, he's got quick feet. And he's just so powerful. Look at how hard he's worked to come back from his injury. When you come into this league, you get labeled and it seems hard to get rid of that label no matter what. When he came in he got hurt and he was a little heavy and that's a hard persona to shake. But I feel like he's done enough to shake that persona."
Smith, like the Bengals, is at his best mauling in the running game. But he can move, too. They all can, which plays into Jackson's power game of pulling his guards, Boling from the left and Kevin Zeitler from the right. What was once a rare sight is pretty frequent these days.
"One of the things Hue does really well is he has a big playbook and he emphasizes the whole thing," Boling says. "Kevin is a big powerful guy that can move. I like being in space, but we can also do a bunch of things."
The pads are finally on. So is the Bengals offense.
"We're a down-hill, hard-nosed, tough team and we run the ball and stop the run," Boling says. "That's what you have to do in the AFC North.
"We've been messing around in OTAs and the first few days here," Boling says. "When you wear the pads, it gets fun again."