BENGALS RB GIOVANI BERNARD VS. LIONS RB REGGIE BUSH
Old School vs. New School. Heisman Trophy vs. Brian Piccolo Award. 2006 Friday Night Lights debut vs. 2013 Breaking Bad finale. PAC-12 vs. ACC. Second pick in the draft vs. second round.
They are different episodes of the same matchup nightmare. The 5-9, 208-pound Bernard, still 21 years old, and the 6-0, 203-pound Bush, 28 and in his eighth season, drive defensive coordinators mad with their ability to eat up the spaces of their Xs and Os.
"Just get in the end zone. I don't want to get tackled. As a running back, if you cannot get tackled and go forward, you're going to score," Bernard says. "Just play two-hand touch and just don't let them touch me and if I can do that. I'm all right."
Each has 20 catches out of the backfield this season. Each has caught two touchdowns. Bush is third in the NFL with 637 scrimmage yards. Bernard leads all rookies from scrimmage with 438. Bush leads the NFL averaging 12 yards after he's made the catch. Bernard is second with more than 10 yards per YAC and has captured Bengaldom with an array of almost cartoonish-now-you-see-him-now you-don't-beep-beep-Road-Runner moves.
Different versions, but they have enough of the same eye-popping skill sets that Bengals running back coach Hue Jackson has put Bush on the computer so Bernard can watch.
"Not so Gio will be like him," Jackson says. "Any time any guys can watch other guys that have some of the same characteristics you see in yourself, it helps to watch a guy like Reggie that has done it year after year and has some skins on the wall. I would tell any player who plays in open space, who can run and catch and block and do those things that (Bush does), he's a good guy to watch."
Jackson, working with offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, has never been shy about throwing to his backs. When Jackson was the Raiders offensive coordinator in 2010, the elusive Darren McFadden caught 47 balls for 507 yards. When McFadden got hurt the next season when Jackson was the head coach, the Raiders got the ball 37 times to Michael Bush and 27 more to Marcel Reece.
"We look at some of his route-running, his ability to change directions," Jackson says of Reggie Bush. "Acceleration. His ability to catch the ball and finish runs. He's playing as well as I've seen him play. He's playing tremendous."
Bernard jokes he didn't like Bush growing up because at the time Bush was winning the Heisman Trophy for USC, Bernard's brother Yvenson was running the ball for conference rival Oregon State.
"But he's a great player; a great role model for a lot of guys out there," Bernard says. "I don't model my game after anybody out there. All I can do is just be myself. He's definitely a guy that's been able to do great plays throughout his time and he's a guy known for his shiftiness and a guy that's known for making big plays. So my hand is out to him. He's a great running back."
Bush has noticed Bernard on the highlights and politely says he'll come over to introduce himself.
(How could Bush miss Sunday's highlight? Off a shovel pass from quarterback Andy Dalton at the Bills 16, Bernard made one linebacker disappear under the turf before making three more defenders miss as he zigzagged for a TD.)
But with the type of season he's having, fans may have to reacquaint themselves with Bush in his first year with the Lions. He's not a rotational receiver like he was when he came into the league with the Saints as the second player drafted in 2006, albeit a productive one for five seasons, and he's not primarily a runner like he was in Miami the previous two seasons.
Now he's the man doing a little bit of everything, leading the team with 78 carries (to Joique Bell's 53) and averaging 4.8 yards per carry while second to Pro Bowl wide receiver Calvin Johnson in receiving yards.
Jackson, who left as USC's offensive coordinator before Bush arrived, knows him through his close friend Kennedy Pola, one of Bush's college position coaches.
"Once a Trojan, always a Trojan. I still keep up with them. I know Reggie and know of him," Jackson says. "He's having his best season in my mind. They're doing a great job getting him the ball. It's the best I've seen him."
Dave Lapham, the Bengals radio analyst who dates to James Brooks, also thinks Bush is in the top form of his NFL career.
"When you see Bush, I think he's faster. But I don't think he's quicker. Gio is really quick with short-space quickness," Lapham says. "When Reggie gets going, Reggie has that extra gear. Gio gets to top speed quickly, but when Reggie is in the open he can put it up a notch. But when it's all said and done, they can do the same type of things."
Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer says it's the best he's seen Bush run through the tackles and in Wednesday's conference call with the Cincinnati media Bush acknowledged Detroit's up-tempo spread attack of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan fits him like no pro system has.
"It's a running back's dream. It's a spread-out offense and having Calvin Johnson makes my job a lot easier. I just think with the system and the way we run the ball, the way we throw the ball, the way we spread the ball out, it's a perfect fit for somebody like me," Bush said. "I got kind of extreme of both sides -- in New Orleans I caught the ball a lot and didn't run it as much and in Miami I ran the ball a lot and didn't catch it as much. Now, here, I feel it's a perfect balance."
The Bengals feel just as blessed with Bernard. Both teams are virtually on pace to join only the 2011 New Orleans Saints with six receivers with at least 500 yards. Bernard projects to 53 catches, two behind James Brooks's club record for backs, as well as 568 receiving yards, 120 yards from Brooks's franchise-best for a back.
In half the games, Bernard has taken more snaps than the starting back, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but Bernard has 29 fewer carries with 58 fewer yards.
"Gio's been a pro," Jackson says. "He's prepared, he asks great questions. You see the same thing out there on game days. The ability to go make plays. That's why we drafted him. He can catch, he can run it, he can pass protect, he does whatever it takes to win. Those are the kind of guys you want."
For years the Bengals have gone into games against backs like Bush and Darren Sproles with not much of an answer on offense. Bernard has revved up his huddle.
"I can't even tell you how many times when I'm blocking and he catches the ball and it's like, 'Oh, there he goes,' " says center Kyle Cook. "Last week he did it, Pittsburgh he did it. There's a lot of times where he catches the ball and it's like, 'go get it buddy.'
"He's a great playmaker. Obviously he's learning as he goes, he's doing great things so far. Hopefully he'll just keep on improving. It's a really good two-headed effort with him and BenJarvus and how they play off each other and the different things you can do."
As head coach Marvin Lewis says, "He's making it a big field right now, and he's mowing the grass down as he goes."
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth has been looking for a guy like Bernard ever since he came into the league with Bush in 2006. If Bernard keeps up with his average receiving yards of 34 per game, he'll finish next Sunday with 235 yards, more than any back in every Bengals season since 2006 but one.
"It's awesome. Been wanting a guy like that forever. It's been tough," Whitworth says. "You watch a lot of teams that have that kind of guy. You watch a lot of teams that have that kind of guy. It just shows you what a weapon he is for an offense. You look at New Orleans, Jimmy Graham is a great football player. If they didn't have Darren Sproles, Jimmy Graham wouldn't be who he is because people would just take him out of the game plan. They can't sometimes because Darren Sproles is such an electrifying guy. He almost creates all the opportunities for Jimmy Graham.
"Honestly, with Gio, knowing the kid he is and how much it means to him and how talented he is, I don't think it surprises a lot of us on offense because he's one of those guys that you almost just say man, I hope he gets the ball because if he gets it and has some space he's going to do something with it."
Bernard shrugs at all the talk. For him, it's merely a game of touch football as he rewinds his thoughts during Sunday's improbable run.
When Bernard turned with the ball, he made the move on linebacker Nigel Bradham, who corkscrewed himself into the turf. He knew he was there. "That's why I made a cut; I had a feeling," Bernard says. "You just kind of know. It's like a quarterback. He feels pressure, that's why he rolls out, or if the quarterback feels like somebody is about to tackle him, he'll take the ball down and run. It's more of a presence. When you go out on your route, you look and you kind of see the whole field so you kind of know who's there and who's not. It's not like they're going to go disappear. Kind of having a feel for the game."