Bengals won't back down in AFC North

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Jeremy Hill had the best rushing day by a Bengals rookie since Corey Dillon.

This is what they mean by depth.

Last week the Bengals didn't have their best wide receiver in A.J. Green and got a No. 1 effort out of Mohamed Sanu in a 125-yard display during the win over Baltimore. On Sunday they didn't have starting running back Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill delivered the best day by a Bengals rookie running back in 17 years with 154 yards in Sunday's 33-23 victory over Jacksonville before the biggest crowd of the year at Paul Brown Stadium.   

"I understand this opportunity, how fragile it is," said Hill after his 60-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter kept the Bengals at arm's length in the tightest division race in the history of the post-merger NFL.

"You see it in this locker room, guys just getting chances. And guys that don't take advantage. I see the chance in front of me. It's the opportunity of a lifetime."

With the first place Bengals having the quickest turnaround of their season in Thursday night's game at PBS (8:25-Cincinnati's Channel 5), Hill figures to get another chance with Bernard resting a variety of nicks and the 5-3 Browns barging into their first prime-time appearance against their in-state rivals in 24 years.

After 6-3 Pittsburgh crawled within percentage points of the Bengals with Sunday night's victory over the 5-4 Ravens, Hill finds himself going off tackle in the first division race since the league aligned into the AFC and NFC in 1970 where every team has a winning record this late in the season.

It's one of the reasons he took a long, slow walk off the field.

"A big win at home. It keeps us on top of the division," Hill said. "It's a blessing."

It may have been a blessing, but it wasn't pretty and is there anything in the AFC North that is? The Bengals survived one of those inexplicable Andy Dalton turnovers, 132 rushing yards by the Jaguars, and Jacksonville's 173 yards on kick returns to post their 14th straight PBS game without a loss before 60,057.

And a big reason they survived is because they had that big AFC North back in the tradition of Jerome Bettis and Jamal Lewis that can steer contenders through rugged defenses, cold weather, and just plain off days. It is also a bow to their own Who Dey tradition. In  1997 the ultimate big back, Corey Dillon, broke the NFL rookie rushing record with 246 yards, and it was the best day since Cedric Benson big backed for 189 five years ago.

Hill and Dillon are now the only rookie backs in franchise history to rush for at least 150 yards and two touchdowns in a game.

"We knew we had a challenge. They've got a good defense and they played pretty well,' said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "We were able to keep our head and keep pounding away against a team like that.  We let them in the game a little bit and when you do that you know you're going to have an all-day sucker."

The Bengals' inability to put the Jags away despite forging a 19-3 lead in the third quarter and a 26-10 lead in the fourth quarter obscured the fact they moved the ball at will on one of the best defenses in the league in the month of October. The Jags were tied for sixth in total yards and 12th in rushing yards and the Bengals put up 423 and 191, respectively, in scoring four touchdowns against a team that had allowed three in the last four games.

When Hill scored from one yard out to make it 19-3 less than five minutes into the second half, it was one of three red-zone touchdowns the Bengals knocked in on four tries against the NFL's best red-zone defense.

Sanu had one of those for the game's first touchdown, a 19-yard laser from quarterback Andy Dalton on a slant out of the slot against one-on-one on the way to another 95 yards.  That was courtesy of Green lining up outside of him. After watching Green get the other red-zone touchdown on an 18-yarder in the second half, Sanu sees a bright future. He admitted the offense can play a lot better, but there's also only so much a defense can do with Green.

"Things open up for the whole offense," Sanu said. "The running game, the passing game. Everything gets open. You have to account for A.J."

Hill showed how nimble he is for a 6-1, 230-pound man on his one-yarder when he stretched out safety Josh Evans and then put his foot in the ground and cut inside him.

"He can run physical and run with agility, he's tough," said Whitworth, who had to allude to old friend Corey Dillon and Steelers nemesis Jerome Bettis. "He's not as big as "The Bus," but he's a big back. He's a hard runner and athletic like Corey Dillon and those guys. The ability to run physically and also from side to side."

Whitworth is one of those LSU heroes that Hill watched growing up in Baton Rouge and the two are always talking. With Bernard down, Whitworth was in his ear this week, talking about what the Bengals had accomplished with big backs like Benson helping lead that division sweep of 2009.

"He was talking about that attacking, downhill style, just kind of comparing it to where they were when they had Cedric and guys like that," Hill said. "That's that stuff that happened especially on the long run. It's great talking to a guy like Whit because he's been doing it for a long time and he's got all that experience and it's a big advantage that he went to the same college."

So maybe it's no coincidence that Hill had the most yards by a Bengals back since that '09 season, when Benson put a hurt on his buddies from Chicago in the Ced Bowl. Many of them came on the defining play of the game and proved to be a formidable answer to the Jags cutting the lead to 26-23 with 8:13 left in the game.

On the next snap, the Bengals went power and pulled right guard Mike Pollak to the right perimeter. While he kicked out the cornerback, fullback Ryan Hewitt made one of his many big blocks on the day and took out linebacker J.T. Thomas III. Hill did the rest, cutting inside Hewitt and veering down the sideline, where he simply outran Evans in the 30-yard dash to show off the same big-back speed when he hauled down Ravens linebacker Darryl Smith from behind last week.

"We got the look we wanted. We had run the play earlier in the game. It was a huge play for us," Hewitt said. "It's hard to pre-determine. You have to have a back that can read it at the time and he did…He did exactly what he does every day in practice. It didn't surprise anyone at all."

This is something else they mean by depth. Hewitt, an undrafted rookie out of Stanford, had another big day blocking and just for good measure, he caught a seven-yard pass on third-and-six with 2:10 left to basically kill the clock.

More depth. Right tackle Andre Smith tried to come back into the game after spraining his ankle on Sanu's touchdown catch early in the second quarter. But after one series he said he couldn't "sit down,' and get leverage against the pass rushers, so veteran Marshall Newhouse finished and he was in on the 60-yard spring.

"It was pretty much all the offensive line. It was all green," Hill said. "It was an amazing block. Fullbacks don't get much love, but he's been doing all the dirty work. Every team needs that type of guy."

Hill prides himself on being his own biggest critic and he said he hasn't read the fullback blocks well this season and has hurt the team. Whitworth will like to hear that.

"He just has to keep going back and see how he can get better. He's got the talent," Whitworth said. "As long as he keeps his head down and just remembers to be physical first, he's a tough back to stop."

Hill has been listening.

"Physical first and everything will take care of itself. That's just my style," Hill said. "That's why they brought me here."

At least for the Bengals, the AFC North race is officially off and running in the big back division.

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