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Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard Key versus Colts

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Jeremy Hill will need to lead the charge if the Bengals are to conquer Andrew Luck and, simultaneously, their own playoff woes on Sunday. Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

When the Cincinnati Bengals meet the Indianapolis Colts this Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, no positional group will be more important than the running backs.  Prior to the start of this season, the Bengals wanted to make a point of improving their rushing attack while increasing the offense’s reliance upon it.  This wasn’t the case in Week Seven when these teams met.

The Bengals got behind early and faced numerous third down situations in the game.  Because of this, the Bengals chose to “air it out” in an effort to overcome the Colts.  The plan clearly did not work as the Bengals were shutout for the first time since 2009 en route to a 27-0 defeat.  This weekend, the Bengals should employ a different approach on offense and the running backs may prove to be the game’s deciding factor.

In Week Seven, the Bengals had yet to employ Jeremy Hill as the team’s lead back.  Since making this choice, the Bengals running attack his flourished.  Jeremy Hill has been one of the league’s leading rushers since becoming the team’s starter.  On the year, he is averaging over five yards per carry and has become the focal point of the Bengals’ attack.

This week, Jeremy Hill will be especially important for several reasons.  The Colts’ defense has been capable against the pass, but can be exposed when defending the run.  On the year, the Colts rank only 18th against the run, so the Bengals must take advantage of this opportunity.

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Jeremy Hill’s penchant for getting the extra yard or two at the end of his runs will be key.  The Colts rank second in the NFL when defending on third downs as they’ve allowed teams to convert only 33.3% of the third down opportunities; for reference, the Buffalo Bills rank first at 33.2%, so the two are virtually tied.  When facing a defense that is so stingy, it’s key to give yourself short yardage situations when facing third downs.  Jeremy Hill’s ability to gain yards consistently will be key towards putting the Bengals in favorable situations.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, Jeremy Hill may be the Bengals key defender on Sunday.  No, that’s not a typo, key defender.  Jeremy Hill’s ability to run effectively will aid the Bengals when trying to combat Andrew Luck and the Colts potent offense.  The Colts rank fourth in the NFL for time of possession.  This means their defense stays rested while the offense enjoys lots of time and opportunities to put points on the board while the opposing team defends too often and enjoys little time with the ball.  In the teams’ first matchup, the Bengals asked their defense to be on the field way too often, which made them weary and vulnerable.  This coming Sunday, the Bengals must do more to help their defense and Jeremy Hill will be key in this effort.

The complement to Jeremy Hill in the backfield is fellow running back Giovani Bernard.  On Sunday, the Bengals will need Bernard to step up and produce both when running the ball and receiving.  They’ll need him to be particularly special as, if A.J. Green plays, he’ll likely be less than 100% after sustaining a concussion in Week 17.

Giovani Bernard’s versatility will be another key factor for the Bengals during this week’s Wild Card round. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Bernard is the kind of player who can give defenses fits when trying to deal with all the ways he can impact a game.  The Colts possess a good pass defending linebacker in Jerrell Freeman and a quality third corner in Darius Butler.  Yet, Bernard’s presence will give Colts defensive coordinator Greg Manusky fits.

If the Bengals employ both Hill and Bernard on the field together, Manusky will have to decide if he wants to utilize Butler to specifically match up with Bernard.  If he does so, the defense will open up a bit, which will allow Jeremy Hill more space to run.  If he tries to cover Bernard with Freeman, he may find that Freeman is a step too slow when trying to deal with Bernard’s speed and quickness.

Bernard’s receiving ability likens that of a Wes Welker type.  His ability to work in the slot and gain meaningful yards without traveling 15-20 yards down the field will also aid the Bengals tremendously.  Like Hill’s ability to gain the short yardage, Giovani Bernard could help the Bengals defeat the Colts’ on third downs.  Bernard can help “move the chains” while also taking time off the clock and hence, away from Andrew Luck.

This Sunday, the Bengals will attempt to overcome their playoff woes since Andy Dalton took over the helm.  The team has now qualified for the playoffs four years in a row, yet they haven’t found any success.  Dalton has been particularly bad in these instances, so relying on him to lead the offensive charge seems like a fool’s errand at this point.  With that in mind, Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard will need to bring their “A” game on Sunday if the Bengals are to silence the doubters just a bit.

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