Matchup of the Game: Bengals trying to re-capture run

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      Giovani Bernard has big workload for Sunday.

       Bengals RT Andre Smith vs. Bears DE Akiem Hicks

The Bengals running game lives with new faces in a familiar style on a down-hill track that has revived the offensive line. Now less than a week after its best game on the ground against a Pittsburgh defense in 13 years, they try to keep it going Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) without starting running back Joe Mixon against a vulnerable Bears front seven that is missing some teeth with injuries.

"We've always been good running downhill," says running back Giovani Bernard, who has been around long enough to have been in backfields with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Brian Hill. "Straight at teams. Once we get away from that, teams can kind of know what we're doing, but we just line up and play football at that point. That downhill AFC North kind of football is just something we've always been good at."

Despite a season-high 152 yards against the Browns and Monday night's second-best 130 against the Steelers in fitting AFC North style, the Bengals are still on pace to have their worst rushing season in history. It shows you how bad it was early. But the last two games came against a defense leading the NFL in yards per rush and a defense that hadn't allowed them 130 yards rushing since 2004.

Maybe the biggest thing to come out of the last two weeks is that yes, Virginia, the offensive linemen are good enough to play in the league.

Since right tackle Jake Fisher's heart surgery put an end to the tackle rotation Nov. 12, the line began to come together. According to profootballfocus.com, veteran right tackle Andre Smith has done what you think he'd do and since then he hasn't given up sack. Left tackle Cedric   Ogbuehi, left for dead on the bust pile a month ago, has allowed a sack, a hit, and two hurries in the last three games. Compare that to the first three games of two sacks and 12 hits. Not the standard. But better.

"I think they're good enough to play in the league," says Dave Lapham, the Bengals long-time radio analyst. "We knew Andre was. I think Ced is showing it … His graph is going up and that's a good thing … He's shown some toughness … From where they were earlier in the year, they're a lot better. The down-hill factor the last two weeks has been immense."

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Joe Mixon has squared his shoulders to the line of scrimmage the last few games.

Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor is glad they're talking about Ogbuehi. "I hope people are seeing that," he says, although he says the mechanics of the run game haven't changed all that much and he's leaving his playbook open.

"There isn't a lot that's new," Lazor says. "I think the matchups with some of the teams we were playing and their styles afforded it. It made sense to run more of our inside stuff. It has (worked) for two weeks. It's like everything. You evaluate. We still have everything. You just make a decision on it. I think Pittsburgh stunts the line so much and plays so laterally as a defensive line that if you go laterally, too, you've got issues. Even when you look back on last year when we had the most success is going right at (the Steelers)."

Lapham thinks the way they've attacked the line of scrimmage north and south has helped not only the tackles' pass protection, but also the protection in the interior. Since Nov. 12 in Tennessee, Dalton has been sacked six times in the four games. Compare that to 14 in the first four.

Lapham even liked the body language after they went deep on third-and-two early in the game Monday and didn't convert.

"Ogbuehi is athletic and about as good as you're going to get in space," Lapham says. "I think at some point you have to establish the point of attack and control the line of scrimmage. I think they felt like they were doing that pretty well. When they were coming off the field on third-and-two and not running the ball, they looked frustrated. They wanted to run the ball. You get six yards on first down, you want to run it … You have to look at the backs, too. If you commit to going downhill you have to square your shoulders to the line of scrimmage. Both Joe and Gio have really been hammering it up in there."

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They ran it well enough that there were some hoping they ran it more and when's the last time that happened? They ran it eight times in the second half compared to 14 in the first half with some eyes opened when they dropped back to pass the first three plays of the half.  But that's a good vibe.

The 3-9 Bears sure aren't the Steelers. Like the Steelers, who played three different middle linebackers Monday, they are banged up in the font seven, and while they aren't as good as Pittsburgh they are in the middle of the pack when it comes to allowing points (14) and yards (16).

Some believe the Bears have the most multiple defense the Bengals play this season. On first  and second down they show various forms of three-man and four-man fronts and they'll offer a five-man look on passing downs. The Bengals think their run game is multiple, too, and they can point to Monday night when they lost the 230-pound Mixon (concussion) in the second quarter and didn't miss a beat with the 5-9, 205-pound Bernard.

Bernard racked up 77 yards and 13 carries for his busiest day in more than a year and with Mixon out for Bears he's ready for more of the same. Bernard wouldn't rule out 20 carries and why not? His career-high is 27. With Jeremy Hill on injured reserve, his backup, rookie Brian Hill, may very well end up with his first NFL carry.

"That's the thing about Gio," says left guard Clint Boling. "He does whatever they ask him to do.  He's a very versatile guy. He can make a lot of the same runs."

A lot of the big runs lately have been behind fullback Ryan Hewitt, which has been a throw-back to his busy days during his first two seasons in the league in 2014 and 2015, when he took 43 and 35 percent of the snaps, respectively.

In the last three games Hewitt is getting about 20 percent of the snaps compared to 10 percent earlier this this season before he got hurt. Hewitt's presence is a sign they're going more downhill because the backs are usually running right behind him out of the I formation.

"We've always known Ryan is that kind of down-hill blocker that will open things for you," Bernard says. "Even when there's nothing there, he's going to smash somebody. He's always been that type of player."

The Bengals are hoping that mentality is at that point of attack again Sunday.

 

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