No kidding around with Bengals run game

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Jeremy Hill showed he's got some moves to go with his power in Sunday's home debut.

Giovani Bernard, that 22-year-old geezer, shook his head as he recalled rookie running back Jeremy Hill's dance after his first NFL touchdown in Sunday's 24-10 victory over the Falcons in the Paul Brown Stadium opener.

"I'm a low key guy. He's a young stallion," Bernard said. "We'll figure out something. I'm the wise old man."

It doesn't take a withered  sage to figure out the Bengals have their most dynamic pair of running backs since, dare we breathe it, James Brooks and Elbert Woods before these kids were born. Or maybe when Corey Dillon was on his way out and Rudi Johnson was on his way up in head coach Marvin Lewis' first season of 2003.

Whatever it is, Bernard put on another scintillating YouTube job with 169 all-purpose yards while Hill banged away for 74 yards on 15 carries. It's not exactly "Thunder and Lightning," since there are times Bernard can grind it, like when he bowled for a four-yard touchdown run,  and Hill can juke it, like he did for 18 yards after a catch  when he made estimable safety William Moore miss in the middle of the field.

 But "Fire and Rain," give the Bengals the final, crucial elements they've needed for a well-rounded offense.

And in the hands of offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, it won't be shoved to the backburner. With their two starting wide receivers and two of their tight ends shelved, it was time for Jackson to display the personality he's always on his players to show.

So he pounded it at a Falcons defense that finished next to last against the run and is transitioning to new coordinator Mike Nolan. And Jackson kept his foot on the gas. When the rubber cleared from the PBS turf, the Bengals had rushed it 45 times for 170 yards and their most attempts in the Green-Dalton Era. Bernard's 27 carries were also the most under quarterback Andy Dalton and the most since Cedric Benson carried 31 of those 45 times in 19-17 victory over Cleveland in December of 2010.

And for once, just once with the running game the Bengals took a lead, milked the clock, avoided any fourth-quarter histrionics, and eased to a workmanlike win.

"When you get in those situations, second half with the lead or a four-minute situation, you've got to be able to run the ball," Dalton said. "The backs did a good job. There were a lot of big lanes to run in that the line gave them. There's been an emphasis on the run and we did a good job of that today."

Even if three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green hadn't left with a right toe injury, that probably would have been the plan.

"We knew this was a defense we could run on and it started early, we ran the ball early. And it worked," said Bernard, who got it five times on the Bengals' first drive. "Guys are moving the pile. It's more of a mindset more than anything."

And more than anything, it has helped take the heat off Dalton. In the first two games, the Bengals have run it 71 times and thrown it 61 times while Dalton has hit 65.6 percent of his passes at an NFL-leading 9.1 yards per throw without an interception.

And without Green, wide receiver Marvin Jones, and tight end Tyler Eifert for much of it.

But there has been the 5-9, 205-pound Bernard and the 6-1, 230-pound Hill, the youngest guy on the roster who won't turn 22 until the day after his sixth NFL game.

"Obviously he's bigger than me. I'm faster than him. I'll take that one. But he's a great back," Bernard said. "We're not fighting for whatever. We want to help the team win. We both have that mindset and that's good to have. It's not about one guy getting more carries than the other. It's about helping the team win."

Bernard was his usual intoxicating self with crowd-pleasing runs off escape valve passes. The first one, a 24-yarder catch-and-run spiced by a hurdle, was the product of a wondrous shovel flip from Dalton in the face of a blitz. The second came as Dalton was about to get sacked, but he dumped it to Bernard in the middle of field and he jetted to the left sideline and plucked 46 yards from thin air.

"I'm going to call my attorney right now. I'm going to sue him," said a smiling Jackson as he walked out of the locker room, the victim of one of Bernard bolts along the sideline.

"His eyes got so big as I was going out of bounds. He looked so scared," Bernard said. "He didn't know what to do. He was a running backs coach I figured he'd be able get out of the way. He got salty."

So did the Bengals running game early in the second half when they had a first-and-10 from the 10. The Bengals put in the dagger on three straight Hill runs. Five yards. Four yards. One yard for his first NFL touchdown when right tackle Andre Smith moved to left guard, left guard Clint Boling went to right tackle and nose tackle Domata Peko came off the bench to lead him through at fullback.

"I'm not leaving from behind him," Hill said. "This week was the first time we practiced it and it was great to have him in there. Guys get out of the way when he's coming down hill. I'm going to stay right behind him every time."

The sequence showed the running game's versatility. A power with Boling pulling from left guard. A zone. The down-hill mash. More depth? The Bengals didn't miss a beat when arguably their best lineman in the preseason, right guard Kevin Zeitler, went out for the rest of the game with a calf injury clearing the way for Bernard's four-yard touchdown run late in the first half. Mike Pollak came off the bench and helped the Bengals pound it.

"We just have a lot of depth on this team. We continue not to blink," Bernard said. "(Injuries are) going to happen. You have to have the next guy step up. Things like that are going to happen…That's football. At the end of the day we just have to continue to do what we're doing. Just keep hammering at the door and eventually it will happen."

When Hill hammered down that door from one yard out, he offered his dance.

"The 'South Dallas Swag.' It's something for my boys back home," Hill said. "I just tried to have a little fun, which I always try to do."

He may be young, but he knows how he got there.

"We want to mix it up. We want to hit guys from different angles," Hill said. "I don't think Hue has two plays where he says we're going to run this every time. Today we mixed it up. We had a lot of zone plays, gap schemes, a lot of tosses. We just mixed it up. A lot of (shot) gun runs as well. We had those guys on their heels and that's why we rushed for so many yards today."

The Bengals are 2-0 for the first time since the de facto captains, Whitworth and Peko, were rookies in 2006. But Whitworth knew what it meant to get there this way. And when he came back after bruising his knee early in the fourth quarter, the circle of just what this roster has in youth and leadership was complete.

"To play like this without A.J., Marvin and Tyler is a good sign," Whitworth said. "If we continue to play with that kind of attitude and that kind of force (with a) full arsenal, we'll be a tough team to beat."

Bernard, who was 14 when the Bengals were last 2-0 and just starting to get those moves, is still young enough that he says he never gets amazed by any of his plays.

"I've got to do what I can do to stay on the team," he said.

But it looks like the kids are going to be here for a while.

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