Who Has the Edge in Cincinnati Bengals' Running Back Battle?

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Who Has the Edge in Cincinnati Bengals' Running Back Battle?
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bengals running back situation in 2013 is taking on a far different look than in years past. For the first time—in what seems like an eternity—the Bengals have decided to go with a true committee approach in the backfield.

Plans of this nature had been in the works earlier in the Marvin Lewis era; however, due to unfortunate circumstances, they never came to fruition.

This year, incumbent starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis will be paired with the exciting addition of rookie Giovani Bernard to complete a "thunder and lightning" approach to the Bengals' running game.

Both of these players have vastly different running styles, and the Bengals coaching staff thinks that they are a perfect combination and coexistence will be easy. However, one thing remains uncertain—how many opportunities will each of these players get once the regular season begins?

The battle for the starting position on the Bengals' roster is not in jeopardy. Green-Ellis will remain at the top of the Bengals' depth chart. However, this does not mean that he will receive the highest amount of playing time.

Let's take a look at how well each of these running backs is faring in the 2013 preseason to get a better idea of who has the edge to receive more time on the field as the new season gets underway.

 

BenJarvus Green-Ellis

Green-Ellis showed during the 2012 season that although he is not the sexy choice to have in the Bengals' backfield, he is very reliable. Despite his plodding running style, Green-Ellis is invaluable in short-yardage situations. He led the NFL in 3rd-and-1 rushing conversions last season, with a total of 14.

Green-Ellis had a quiet 1,000-yard season in 2012.

Another asset that Green-Ellis brings to the backfield is his prowess in pass protection. In 2012, he was given a positive-1.5 overall grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Even with his limited snaps in the 2013 preseason, he was given a positive-0.4 grade.

This is extremely important given that quarterback Andy Dalton was sacked 46 times last season. Dalton is known for holding on to the ball a little too long sometimes, and keeping a running back who is skilled in pass protection only improves the quarterback's chances of staying upright.

On the downside, Green-Ellis does not have an explosive burst through the line and is rather on the slow side, making him relatively easy to take down despite his powerful frame. He does not have the agility to make smooth cuts that force defenders to miss, and he is not a constant threat to go the distance when he breaks out into space.

His inabilities in these aspects of running the football have been very apparent so far in the 2013 preseason. This is reflected in his preseason rushing totals. Green-Ellis has now rushed eight times for 19 yards for a dismal 2.5-yards-per-carry average.

During one run in particular, Green-Ellis lines up as the deep back in the I-formation against the Dallas Cowboys.

 

Green-Ellis is supposed to follow fullback John Conner around the outside on the strong side. However, Green-Ellis' focus is on the interior of the line; it seems as though he believes he can cut back to the inside instead.

 

He attempts to cut back inside, but his lack of agility renders him virtually immobile. It only takes a split second for Cowboys defenders to close in and take him down for a four-yard loss.

 

That type of play is devastating to an offense. Losing four yards on a first down has the capability to easily and completely stall a drive. For as many things as Green-Ellis does well, his lack of explosiveness and agility is his downfall.

After a mediocre season rushing the football in 2012—they finished 18th overall in the NFL—the Bengals coaching staff looked to revamp the versatility of the rushing attack heading into 2013.

Enter Giovani Bernard.

 

Giovani Bernard

Taken with the 37th-overall selection in the 2013 NFL draft, expectations for Bernard began to soar. The long awaited speed back that the Bengals had been lacking had finally arrived.

It seems to have been difficult for most to temper expectations of Bernard, especially after what he has done thus far during the preseason—23 attempts (4.5 YPC average) for 104 yards and two touchdowns. Not to mention his versatility as a receiver—six receptions (leads team) for 55 yards.

Bernard is already off to a fast start in the NFL.

In fact, Bernard's versatility was so apparent, it was already documented here earlier this preseason. Even Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has been impressed, giving Bernard a positive-2.2 overall rating so far in the 2013 preseason—the highest overall grade of any Bengals running back.

This rookie seems to be the antithesis of his counterpart in the Bengals' backfield. His explosiveness, shiftiness, versatility, great hands and ability to break into the open field consistently are the very opposite of Green-Ellis.

Bernard has even begun to master the short-yardage situations of the NFL. He already has two one-yard rushing touchdowns in the preseason. His ability to make himself small and squeeze through tight windows makes him valuable in these situations.

So, with all of these great qualities, why can the Bengals not afford to play Bernard on every down in every series?

Pass protection.

This is the one aspect of the game in which Bernard has constantly struggled since emerging in the NFL. Looking at the Bengals offense as a whole, Bernard ranks second lowest on the team in pass protection with an overall grade of negative-1.0 from Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

Protecting Dalton is of the utmost importance to this team. The Bengals simply cannot afford to put their quarterback in harm's way, which is exactly what they are doing with Bernard in the backfield.

One such example occurred during Week 2 of the preseason against the Tennessee Titans.

Bernard is lined up in the single-back set here and is tasked with blocking linebacker Moise Fokou.

 

Fokou comes on a delayed blitz as Bernard steps up to fill the hole that has been opened by the defensive line. Notice that as Dalton goes through his progressions, he looks away from the side of the blitz.

 

Fokou manhandles Bernard, pushing him so deep into the pocket that the linebacker is able to make contact with Dalton before the ball is released.

 

As Dalton releases the football, his arm is struck, causing a wobbly, errant pass that falls incomplete in the middle of the field. This is a scary situation; not only because of the hit on Dalton, but also because of the possibility for a turnover.

 

If the Bengals are going to improve their offense this season, the first step they must take is to avoid unnecessary turnovers. As long as Bernard increases the threat in that area, he will continue to lose touches to Green-Ellis.

Obviously, Bernard will get his fair share of reps with the offense once the regular season begins. In fact, if he shows improvement in his ability to pass protect going forward, he may end up finding himself in a more featured role in Cincinnati's backfield.

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Until then, the bulk of the work will be handed to Green-Ellis. He may not be near as flashy as Bernard, but he is far less of a liability at this juncture.

A realistic option as a split between these two running backs right now would be a 60/40 split in favor of Green-Ellis. To put this into perspective, the Bengals' running backs rushed the ball 359 times in 2012. Taking all of this into consideration, this split would give Green-Ellis and Bernard roughly 216 and 143 carries, respectively, in 2013.

However, factoring in Bernard's versatility as a viable receiving threat, there should be plenty of times when both of these backs see the field together—Green-Ellis in the backfield and Bernard split out wide. This adds to the amount of time that Bernard will spend on the field.

If Bernard's pass protection improves as well, it is almost certain that he will see more collective action in 2013 than Green-Ellis. If that is the case, Bernard looks to have a primary feature-back role in Cincinnati sooner than expected.

 

Screen shorts courtesy of NFL Preseason Live.

  

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