Jan 4, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill (32) celebrates with running back Giovani Bernard (25) after scoring a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts in the first quarter in the 2014 AFC Wild Card playoff football game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
The Cincinnati Bengals have done a nice job over the past few years to assemble a backfield with the potential to be dominant. Lead by sophomore Jeremy Hill, the Bengals have their “bell cow” back to lead the team’s power running system. Hill finished 2014 posting 1,124 yards (on 222 attempts) and nine touchdowns, yet he spent much of the year as the team’s primary backup to Giovani Bernard. When starting, Hill rushed like he was meant to be one of the best. Adding to his potential, Hill caught 27 passes for 215 yards and seven first downs. He’s a dual-threat running back who is also big enough to withstand the rigors of playing in the NFL.
Backup Giovani Bernard is basically a misnomer. Bernard is a highly talented, dual-threat running back who is capable of breaking big time runs.
He was born to play in a dynamic role. Having him run the ball 18-20 times per game would only serve to limit his potential as an offensive weapon. When given solid blocking, Bernard is able to hit the hole, and from there, anything is possible. Getting 10 carries a game is perfect. Meanwhile, the other 5-10 touches should come in the form of receptions.
Bernard can be a devastating receiver. Catching passes in space allows this third-year running back to capitalize on his greatest assets: speed and agility. Bernard’s tackle avoiding moves keeps him free of bodies that serve to slow him down. And once he hits the defense’s third level, it may as well be over, as Bernard is big enough to break tackles from members of the secondary. Giovani Bernard is one of the league’s best up-and-coming weapons and is worthy of being called one of the league’s best “reserves” if that is how he must be labeled.
The Bengals’ backfield includes fullback Ryan Hewitt. Hewitt had an excellent rookie campaign, one so good that his team already considers him amongst the league’s best. He is a great blocker in space and has soft hands to boot. His presence forces defense to respect the run, which opens up the field for play-action passes. Having another year like 2014 means Hewitt could demand more snaps in the coming season.
Rounding out the group is increasingly looking like running back Rex Burkhead. Burkhead impressed coaches with his work ethic during practices over his first two seasons. Last year when injuries struck the team, Burkhead was kept on the game day roster and produced despite his limited opportunities. He managed to block a Jaguars’ punt with a nice outside-inside move in Week Nine.
Burkhead impressed so much that he earned the opportunity to produce in the team’s playoff game, albeit again due to injury. He ran for a 23-yard gain in the early part of the game, caught three passes for 34 yards, and even lined up as a tight end.
This year, the Bengals have already started to experiment with Burkhead in the slot as a receiver. Burkhead’s presence creates a crowded backfield, so what will the Bengals do to involve all these players in the offense? How about utilizing the three-back sets?
When employing this set, the Bengals could have any combination of these four backs on the field at the same time. Regardless of the specific combination of backs, the set would offer the offense a litany of options. What does a defense do when Hill, Bernard, and Hewitt are on the field. All three players can catch the ball, yet the team could execute a power running play by lining up Hill behind Hewitt. The team could also run the option play or a play-action pass. The defense would have to defend the short part of the field out of respect for the runs and screen pass. This would open up the deep part of the field for A.J. Green and, let’s say, Tyler Eifert up the seam (it could also be Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, or rookie tight end Tyler Kroft).
If the Bengals wanted to include Rex Burkhead, they could still run similar options, yet demand the defense’s attention in a different way. Burkhead would be a better blocker than Bernard, would be more of a dynamic threat than Hewitt, and could act in Hill’s role if necessary. The team would enjoy different options, yet have the talent on the field to remain equally as effective.
Utilizing the three-back set would allow the Bengals to confound defenses and, hence, open up options for players all over the field. Each of these three players demands that defenses “push up” in an effort to account for their presence in the backfield, which would open up the field for two receivers.
The unit would also have the man power to deal with an eight-man defensive front; and few defenses would dare to let A.J. Green go one-on-one against a cornerback meaning whoever is lucky enough to be the second receiver would automatically be one-on-one with his defender. Hue Jackson would love exploiting that opportunity with his dynamic group of weapons.
The dynamism of the offense would be compelling and could control the clock in an effort to rest the defense, so everybody wins. It seems the three-back set could be vital for the Bengals in 2015.