Updated: 7:10 p.m.
The Bengals are on pace to ring up more yardage than the 1988 swashbuckling AFC champions and the most in the Marvin Lewis era, and one of the reasons why indicated Thursday he's feeling upbeat about playing Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in Baltimore.
Rookie running back Giovani Bernard, who missed most of the fourth quarter with an injured rib last Thursday night in Miami, has been limited both Wednesday and Thursday. Before Thursday's practice he was asked about his first matchup with playmaking Ravens back Ray Rice.
The 5-9, 205-pound Bernard shares a lot of the same attributes as the 5-8, 212-pound Rice beyond their size when it comes to quickness, elusiveness and pass catching.
"I've heard that," Bernard said of the comparisons. "I think the big thing for me is just playing how I play. Try not to mimic my game after anybody. But he's a great player. It's always good to be compared to somebody that's been in the league and doing it for a while."
The duo may not be at peak performance with Bernard playing for the first time since his rib injury and Rice not being able to put together a typical stretch after he suffered a hip injury early in the season. Rice has just 259 yards in nine games on 97 carries while Bernard has 361 on just 81 carries.
Bernard has helped put the Bengals on pace for 6,083 yards, the most since the '88 club went for 6,057 and 407 off the 1986 club record. It would smash the best effort in Lewis's 11 seasons, which is 5,730 by the 2005 AFC North champs.
Bernard had the play of the season on his tying 35-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter when he swept right, made three tacklers miss, reversed and made three more Dolphins miss on the left sideline before cutting back to the middle and running through one more tackle before somersaulting into the end zone.
Bernard shrugged. He can't remember much about it and when he watched it on tape he didn't wow himself.
"The biggest thing for a running back is getting into the end zone no matter how you have do it. Jump into the end zone, whatever you have to do to get into the end zone, that's what a running back has to do.
"I was stumbling (on the finish). Why not just get into the end zone without having to run anymore? I wasn't trying to flip. I was stumbling so I was trying to reach out (to the end zone)."
Bernard committed the cardinal sin by giving up yards to get yards. But he also did what the best ones can do and turn a negative into a positive. And he had help from quarterback Andy Dalton turning into a pulling guard.
"You just have to feel comfortable with what you're doing, like Barry Sanders in his time," said Bernard, who'd rather drop names than the ball. "He was one of those who lost a lot of yards to gain a lot of yards. There's times when it's going to be like that, but the biggest thing is getting positive yards. Instinct kind of took me the opposite way, and I was able to just break out and the lead blockers out ahead of me did a great job.
"I always see (Dalton) out there blocking, and with any situation, he's always out there trying to help out. Even with him being a body presence, he's been doing a good job. It's always good to see guys like that helping on a big run."
It was Cincinnati's longest touchdown run since Cedric Benson clinched the 2011 opener with a 39-yard run and lifted Bernard to 4.5 yards per carry.
After Thursday's practice offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said Bernard has "proven he probably should get more touches," but the Bengals aren't ready to give him a huge amount of carries.
Asked when Bernard might become the feature back, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said "when Coach (Marvin) Lewis" says so, but the Bengals aren't looking to displace BenJarvus Green-Ellis. So it sounds like it is going to remain by committee.
"Benny's only averaging what he's averaging (3.2 per carry) as a running back. (But) he has different carries than Gio has. He has a lot of first-down carries. Also a lot of short-yardage carries. Maybe those numbers are skewed a little bit, but he's still a tough runner inside and he does a good job on pass protection. People see the flash runs Gio has, but the meat and potatoes runs that Benny has had, he's had some good runs also. I don't want to discount Benny for what he's done because Gio had some really special runs."
And there is also the James Brooks factor. The 5-10, 180-pound Brooks, the most versatile back in Bengals history, always griped about getting more touches, but head coach Sam Wyche was afraid of getting him beat up.
That discussion has already started in Baltimore after six seasons of double-duty work and now Rice is averaging 2.7 yards per carry with a sore hip.
"Eighty-five or 90 percent of the teams in the league have two or three running backs that they use. So I think it's important to have two or three. These games are physical man, these 16 games. You play on a Sunday and a Thursday, then go to Baltimore and Cleveland, its non-stop," Gruden said.
"So to say we're going to give the ball to Gio 25 times each week is kind of unrealistic. He needs spelling. He needs a bigger back in there like BenJarvus to take 10, 12, 15 carries and a game … it keeps him fresh, too. Some of these guys, it's important for them to be fresh, fast. That's the way he is. He needs to have full stamina and be fresh coming out of the backfield running fast because that's what he is. If he's tired after his 17th, 18th carry and all of a sudden he becomes a 4.8 guy and tired, he becomes an ordinary guy."
Gruden shook his head as he went through the roll call of his unit.
"Benny gets frustrated sometimes when he comes out. Gio probably wants more catches, touches. Marvin Jones deserves more catches. (Andrew Hawkins) needs some. (Dane) Sanzenbacher sure deserves some more. Tyler (Eifert) should get more catches. (Jermaine) Gresham (wants) more catches. We only have one ball. We're trying to spread it out.
"The big thing is when your number is called to take advantage of it and that's the one thing Gio has done is every time his number has been called so far he has taken major advantage of his reps. When that happens, that's when guys like that get more and more as the season goes on."
But don't look for any 25-carry games soon. If ever.
"To see the splash plays that Gio makes and people say give it to him every time, but that's not going to happen for a while," Gruden said. "But it's good to see him come on as a rookie."
For the moment, Bernard is thinking about trying to help the defense as the injuries pile up for the Bengals.
"All season, we've kind of had that. Defense has been our big brother kind of thing," Bernard said. "We have to step up. We've been able to do that a couple of times here and there, but our biggest thing is just being consistent with it and limiting turnovers. Every time we start to turn the ball over a lot in a game, that's usually when we lose. For us, it's just doing that and eliminating the turnovers and playing smart on offense."
So far, the Bengals have looked pretty smart when they give the ball to Bernard.
DUELING DALTON: If the offense is going to lift the defense the next few weeks, it has to keep getting the kind of performance on third down from Dalton that it got in Miami, when he was 10 of 15 for 173 yards on the way to converting seven third downs of at least nine yards. And, like Gruden said, the Bengals didn't get a third-and-one from Green-Ellis, a situation BJGE is 18 of 21 as a Bengal.
"That was very encouraging and that's what it is going to take for us to take that next leap – making plays and keeping drives alive. That's a major step in progress," said Gruden, who wasn't ready to rip Dalton for his three-pick game.
"I thought he played very well with the exception of two nightmarish throws. You can't leave outbreaking routes to the inside. A.J. (Green) could have come out of the one a little better but still had he thrown the ball near the sideline like he should have it would have been incomplete or A.J. would have caught it. On the other one it's either a first down or a touchdown.
"Those are the ones you remember but when you look at some of the other throws he had on third-and-10 he stood in the pocket and made good throws. We had five or six drops. I thought we played pretty well but quarterbacks are graded on final performance and when you lose they see the glaring mistakes. Had we won everyone would have liked that he threw for 300-plus yards again. Those mistakes are something consistent good quarterbacks do not make."
RAVENOUS DEFENSE: It's funny how it goes. The Bengals have beaten defenses this year in the Bills and Jets that are styled on what Rex Ryan left the Ravens in Baltimore. But it turns out the Bill and Jets are playing more like the Ravens than the Ravens are playing like the old Ravens. Without Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed and the addition of another excellent pass rusher in Elvis Dumervil to pair with Terrell Suggs, the Ravens aren't so much into the all-out blitzing and massive deception.
But they still bring major heat with their sacks per pass third-best in the NFL.
"They still have the ability to rush and get after the quarterback," Gruden said. "With their pass rushers on the edge they don't need to (blitz) with (Elvis) Dumervil and (Terrell) Suggs and (Haloti) Ngata inside and (Arthur) Jones is rushing inside. They don't have to blitz a lot to get pressure. They have 25 sacks and they're still in the top two in red zone defense. They do a great job schematically."
WHIT RETURNS, GRESHAM SITS: Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who missed Thursday night's game after aggravating his knee 11 days ago against the Jets, appeared on the field for the first time this week. But middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (knee, concussion), tight end Jermaine Gresham (groin) and defensive tackle Devon Still (elbow) didn't. Maualuga and Still appear to be out for Sunday, but Gresham may have suffered a setback. He worked limited Wednesday. Middle linebacker Michael Boley and right guard Kevin Zeitler were limited for the second straight day with hamstring issues.