When the Cincinnati Bengals went into training camp, it seemed like their run game plans were fairly cut-and-dried. Under run-friendly offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, second-year back Giovani Bernard and rookie Jeremy Hill both seemed poised for heavy workloads, while veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis settled into a veteran mentor backup role.
But after the Bengals' first preseason game, a 41-39 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, it looks like the Bengals have a problem on their hands—a good one. Their stable of backs appears to be deeper than anyone thought.
In total, the Bengals had 180 rushing yards on 32 combined attempts. Take away the six rushes for 68 yards by third-string quarterback Matt Scott and the Bengals' backs had 26 rushing attempts, yielding 112 yards, with a collective yards-per-carry average of 4.3.
Though Hill was the most impressive, with six carries netting him 36 yards, other backs turned heads. Rex Burkhead had five carries for 21 yards; Cedric Peerman had five carries for 20; James Wilder Jr. had seven yards on his two carries.
|Bengals Running Backs, Preseason Week 1|
|Name||Atts.||Rush Yds.||YPC||Rec.||Rec. Yds.|
|James Wilder Jr.||2||7||3.5||1||4|
These might seem like workaday numbers when it comes to NFL running backs, but they were all earned with surprising bursts of speed, agility and power. Thinning the herd at the position could prove difficult once the Bengals have to reduce their roster.
Not only did these backs contribute in the run game, but they also did a little work in the passing game as receivers and blockers. They assisted the offensive line to the tune of just two sacks taken by Cincinnati's quarterbacks, and Bernard, Burkhead and Wilder each had a reception.
Plus, there is the special teams factor to consider. Peerman has long been a star on special teams, which has helped him stick around despite having only eight carries for 17 yards last year. However, he does have a career yards-per-carry average of 5.6; he's been a victim of the depth chart more than he's been a weak running back.
Burkhead, too, is burdened mainly by the depth chart and his second-year status. However, he was a standout rusher and receiver in college at Nebraska, carrying the ball 635 times for 3,329 yards and 30 scores and catching 60 passes for 507 yards and five more touchdowns.
Each of these running backs is making a case for why he should remain on the roster and get significant playing time in an offense that is more run-heavy than it was under Jay Gruden.
However, the Bengals are highly unlikely to keep five backs on the 53-man roster, which means the battle between Peerman, Burkhead and Wilder, in particular, will certainly be heating up over the remainder of training camp and the next three preseason games.
This battle could also affect Green-Ellis, who was considered to have a relatively safe roster spot despite his diminished role. He's been working as the third- and fourth-string running back this summer, though he was the team's rushing leader last year.
Initially, it seemed that Green-Ellis' future in Cincinnati was a decision the team was largely going to leave in Green-Ellis' hands. But now that the team has a growing embarrassment of riches (and youth) at the position, he's pushing the edges of the dreaded roster bubble. The Bengals might have to trade veteran leadership for dynamic playmaking.
Regardless of which Bengals backs stick and which don't, it's clear the position is one of strength. While the focus has been on Hill, Bernard and Green-Ellis, it looks like the preseason intrigue will lie lower on the depth chart.
The solution to this welcomed problem will be a win-win for the Bengals no matter which direction they choose to take.