BenJarvus Green-Ellis was thought to be an upgrade over Cedric Benson, but now we've gotten a chance to see just how much of one he is.
As a member of the New England Patriots, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis was an afterthought. He was the necessary evil of an offense borne of the passing game, meant to change the pace of games, keep defenses (somewhat) guessing and to burn clock when the Patriots had the lead.
This is all well and good, of course, but it didn't maximize Green-Ellis' talents. Green-Ellis was simply thought of as a plodding, up-the-middle back, useful on short yardage plays and the occasional third-down pass. "Dynamic" was not a way to describe his play in New England.
It's not necessarily the word to describe what he's done for the Cincinnati Bengals over the last two weeks either, but he's far more valuable to his new team than he was to his old, and he may have just found the place where his talents can be maximized.
Green-Ellis was brought in as a replacement for the unreliable, underperforming Cedric Benson but the thought was that he'd not be a true No. 1 back. The plan was for him to split carries with Bernard Scott and provide the pass-heavy Bengals will a more multidimensional run game.
However, Scott has been sidelined with a hand injury thus far and though he's recently returned to practice and could indeed play in Week 3 against the Washington Redskins, the Bengals have looked fine enough on the grounds that Green-Ellis can indeed carry the load should he have to.
Only once has Green-Ellis had over 1,000 yards rushing in a season—2010, when he had 1,008 yards on 229 carries. Despite his strong year, the Patriots decided to invest themselves even more heavily in being a passing offense in 2011, and Green-Ellis' carries dipped to 181 for 667 yards. (It didn't help his cause, either, that they began amassing specialized backs who rotated in and out.)
So far this season, Green-Ellis has 39 carries for 166 yards. If the approximately 20 carries-per-game average keeps up throughout the year (and the subsequent 83 rushing yards), that means Green-Ellis on pace for 320 touches and over 1,300 yards on the season.
Though Scott's return will eat into these carries, there also seems to be little reason as to why he should take more than five to eight carries away from Green-Ellis this season considering the Bengals' success on the ground thus far.
Green-Ellis had 91 rush yards in the Bengals' season-opening loss to the Baltimore Ravens—a feat few backs have accomplished against such a strong defense. He added 75 on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, which could have been better, considering LeSean McCoy had 110 on them the previous week. But Green-Ellis isn't McCoy—and he also isn't the one-dimensional plodder his outings with the Patriots may have had you believe.
For his strength, Green-Ellis does have speed. He doesn't have make-you-miss speed, but he has a lot more in common with someone like Trent Richardson than you'd think. Green-Ellis can run between the tackles with ease in Cincinnati, something many thought not all that possible considering the interior of the line is not what the Bengals had in mind just a few weeks ago.
Of Green-Ellis' 18 rush attempts in Week 1, eight of them were run between the left guard and tackle for a total of 32 yards, with 11 yards after contact. One went for four yards between the left guard and center, three went for 17 yards between the center and right guard, and one went for 13 yards between the right guard and tackle (stats courtesy Pro Football Focus, subscription required).
According to Pro Football Focus, most of Green-Ellis' success against the Browns also came through the middle of the line. He had one four-yard run between the left tackle and guard, four runs for 25 yards (and 11 yards after contact) between the left guard and center, five runs for 13 yards between the center and right guard and two runs for six yards between the right guard and right tackle.
These are smallish gains, to be sure, but they're effective, especially when we're talking about picking up second- and third-and-short. Green-Ellis has also had some positive runs on the edge as well, mainly on the right—six of them for 26 yards, in fact.
So far this year, Green-Ellis is averaging 4.3 yards per carry. In his two best seasons in New England, he averaged 4.4, but was used less often and thus was viewed as less effective or impactful. He's also had four passes thrown his way this year for 34 yards. Last year in New England, he caught only nine. His best receiving season came in 2010, with 12. Clearly, he'll be catching more passes out of the backfield than he did in New England.
Not only has Green-Ellis never fumbled as a pro, he's caught every pass thrown his way thus far this year. Reliability is at a premium when it comes to running backs, and now Green-Ellis is proving his hands are just as sharp when he's catching passes as when he's carrying the ball.
Green-Ellis had just two games last season with 20 or more carries. This year, if this keeps up, Green-Ellis might have two games with fewer than 20 touches. Being a member of the Bengals has highlighted his versatility far better than when he was with the Patriots, and it's clear that he's not just a marginal back best suited to taking a backseat to the passing game.
Cincinnati is Green-Ellis' new home, and it appears to be thus far a perfect fit. There's nothing better than when the right player and the right team meet at the absolute best time. But clearly, Green-Ellis is the back the Bengals may not have even known they needed until it was time for him to take the field.