Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard has been one of the top performers from this year's NFL draft class, and he had one of the best rookie performances in Week 14. He was one of five players named to the weekly Pepsi Next Rookie of the Week award for his effort against the Indianapolis Colts, which included 99 yards rushing and 49 yards receiving.
He's been a pivotal player for the Bengals this year, and here are five takeaways from his latest performance, and why they bode well for the Bengals heading into the postseason.
As mentioned, Bernard had 99 yards on the ground and 49 more through the air. That's 148 total yards, and he has steadily increased his production over the course of this season.
"I think back to 2008 when Ray Rice was a rookie," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said via Bengals.com. "Some of his runs—low to the ground with his hands down—that’s who we kind of liken Gio to as we evaluated him out of college.”
According to Ryan Lester of B/R, Bernard is averaging 78.7 total yards and 0.5 touchdowns per game, but he has increased that to 99.8 total yards and 0.6 touchdowns in his past five games.
He's too shifty for any normal linebacker to cover him, and often demands a defensive back cover him when he runs a pass-route. That leaves one less defender in the defensive backfield to prevent All-Pro receiver A.J. Green from getting behind the defense for big plays.
Bernard isn't focused on just racking up yards. Instead, he wants to do what he can to help his team continue to win. According to Pro Football Focus, Bernard continues to grade positively in pass protection, where he’s only allowed four quarterback disruptions on 78 pass blocks.
That tends to be the biggest weakness of rookie running backs, but he's doing well enough at that to earn more playing time going forward, and he should become the featured weapon in this offense once the playoffs begin.
PFF (subscription required) also rates Bernard as the second-best running back, primarily because of his all-around game, as well as his lack of mistakes. He's one of only six running backs to grade highly in both running and receiving the ball, as well as blocking.
"For me, it's just going out there and being myself. I'm not trying to be anybody else," Bernard said via Bengals.com. "I'm just trying to be Giovani Bernard … I guess my biggest asset is understanding what I have to do to help the team win."
Bernard has also been great at not putting the ball on the ground when he gets his touches. He has only one fumble this year in 131 rushing attempts and only three drops in the 54 passes targeted for him.
He doesn't do any one thing better than every other back, but he does everything well enough that he doesn't have any obvious weaknesses in his game.
Because Bernard is a threat on the ground and through the air, that allows him to pick up yards, keep the clock moving and keep the opposing offense on the sideline.
On Sunday, Bernard accounted for eight first downs. That allowed Cincinnati to dominate the time-of-possession battle by almost 15 minutes.
That's almost an entire quarter, and that's exactly what the Bengals will need if they make it to the playoffs and face a team like the Denver Broncos.
Stopping an elite QB like Peyton Manning is simple: keep him on the sideline. Bernard helps the Bengals do just that.
Rookie of the Year?
There's no question that Bernard has done enough to put himself in the conversation for the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year award, and he'll likely be among the two or three rookies to receive the most votes for the honor.
But based on recent trends, this award tends to go to QBs:
That trend will end this year, as Geno Smith of the New York Jets, Mike Glennon of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and E.J. Manuel of the Buffalo Bills are the only starting rookie QBs, but all have been too inconsistent to warrant enough votes to win this award.
But the edge Bernard has over those two is that his team will likely be in the postseason as well as win double-digit games and even potentially host one or more playoff games.
As with most sports, awards tend to go to players on winning teams, and that might be the deciding factor for Bernard in a narrow race for offensive ROY. He needs to finish the season strong to secure it, and with big games against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens left, he'll have ample opportunity to do just that.