Giovani Bernard was born during James Brooks'z last season with the Bengals, so suffice to say no one on this team remembers how much the pint-sized, four-time Pro Bowler meant to that Super Bowl offense. And Bernard was still in high school in Florida when the Ravens drafted Ray Rice out of Rutgers in 2008, so it figures he didn't grow up emulating Baltimore's matchup nightmare.
But after Bernard's career game charged the Bengals 42-21 victory over the Colts on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, those were the two names buzzing around the Rookie of the Year candidate.
"I think back to 2008 when Ray Rice was a rookie," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said. "Some of his runs—low to the ground with his hands down—that's who we kind of liken Gio to as we evaluated him out of college."
After racing to a career-high 99 yards on 12 carries and adding four backbreaking catches for 49 yards, Bernard is on pace to pass Brooks in the Bengals record book for most catches by a Bengals running back with 58. With his 620 rushing yards, Bernard moved to within 42 of fellow running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis's team-high 662 as the Bennie and The Jet backfield prepares to wreak even more havoc down the stretch.
"For me, it's just going out there and being myself. I'm not trying to be anybody else," Bernard said. "I'm just trying to be Giovani Bernard … I guess my biggest asset is understanding what I have to do to help the team win."
On Sunday that meant exploiting the man-to-man Colts pass coverage as well as taking advantage of the retooled Bengals offensive line that has put a huge bite into the running game. A Bernard touch was at the center of three of the six scoring drives:
» A 22-yard catch fried Colts linebacker Jerrell Freeman in space, followed by a 14-yard run behind a pulling line to the right put the ball on the Colts 9 and set up Green-Ellis's controversial one-yard touchdown run to make it 14-0 with 1:06 left in the half.
» A 20-yard sprint on a massive toss sweep left obliterated a second-and-15 on the first series of the second half and set up Green-Ellis's one-yard touchdown run that made it 21-0.
» Bernard slashed inside for four yards each on first and second down before Dalton couldn't wait to pitch a third-and-two to him in the flat, where middle linebacker Pat Angerer had no shot and Bernard left him in the dust with a stiff arm for a 21-yard play that set up another one-yard TD, this one a wide-open pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham for the score that cooled off Andrew Luck and put the Bengals back up, 28-14, with 18 minutes left in the game.
"That's their fault. We want that matchup, we knew we had the matchups," Bernard said of the no-brainers in the middle against linebackers who have no chance against a 5-9, 205-pound dynamo. "There are certain calls I know I'm first on the read … you've got to get open, you've got to win."
Bernard has won enough to lead all AFC rookies in all-purpose yards and rush yards and trails only Green Bay's Eddie Lacy in both in the NFL. The gift keeps on giving. Bernard is the last thing the Bengals got for Carson Palmer, a second-round pick back in April. Just imagine how hard of a time the backers had trying to see him through 6-7, 320-pound left guard Andrew Whitworth on that sweep.
"He's able to read and anticipate where he wants to go with the ball and he doesn't hesitate," Whitworth said. "He can catch it and he can run it. There's no doubt teams have a hard time seeing him through anybody. He's one of those guys along the lines of Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew. As small as he is, the physicality and speed he plays with, he's a tough matchup."
A decade after he helped the tandem of Bengals wide receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh become one of the tops in the league, running backs coach Hue Jackson is doing the same with Bernard and Green-Ellis as he shepherds Bernard through the first-year ups and downs. Jackson feels like the game is beginning to slow down for Bernard so he can speed up.
"You don't want to force the big runs. It was just repetition. It wasn't a specific time. Even in practice I'm trying to be more patient," Bernard said. "Coach Jackson has helped me grow as an NFL player. It's not the sense of being more patient, it's more not trying to create big plays. Not trying to do it all by yourself. Just letting the guys in front of you work. Just doing what you have to do to let the team win."