Bengals Can Use Running Game to Work Around AJ McCarron Injury vs. Ravens

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistDecember 30, 2015

With AJ McCarron hurt, Cincinnati has to turn to the running game in Week 17.
With AJ McCarron hurt, Cincinnati has to turn to the running game in Week 17.Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

If it feels like the world is falling apart around the Cincinnati Bengals, well, that's because it is.

The Bengals lost Andy Dalton to a freak injury, and though it wasn't ideal to be without their starter for long, the team did just fine with backup AJ McCarron under center.

After a week of prep, the Alabama product managed the game well in a road win against San Francisco before he took to Monday Night Football against the Denver Broncos and carved up one of the league's best defenses for a half with the help of outstanding calls by the coaching staff.

McCarron too, went down with a freak injury while attempting to make up for a mistake.

Down in overtime, McCarron took his eyes off the snap for a glance at the defense and missed the ball, then injured his nonthrowing wrist in the scrum for the loose ball to follow. NFL Network's Ian Rapoport followed with details from his MRI Tuesday:

Ian Rapoport @RapSheet

#Bengals QB AJ McCarron's wrist sprain is significant, I'm told. Since it's the left, he's intent on going. Won't know for sure until later

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ESPN.com's Ed Werder provided details about the team's plan: "Bengals coach Marvin Lewis and his coaching staff are preparing with the expectation that McCarron plays Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, a team source told Werder."

Translation? It's time for the running game to come alive.

Cincinnati showed flashes of a strong ground game in the first half against the Broncos. The numbers weren't pretty, not with Jeremy Hill finishing with 19 carries for 63 yards and Giovani Bernard eight for 14, but what the backs did do against an elite defense was keep the offense in 3rd-and-short situations, helping the team to rack up 15 chain-moving plays on a little more than 30 plays.

If the team's intent on trotting out McCarron, which it should be with the lottery-type odds suggesting the team can still secure a first-round bye, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson needs to keep the chances he takes a hit minimal.

In brief terms, the passes need to be quick-hitting, like they were in the first half Monday, and the runs need to be effective, unpredictable and make sense, like the first half Monday.

Baltimore's certainly exploitable on the ground, though one wouldn't know it by looking at the first encounter between these two teams back in Week 3, a 28-24 victory for the Bengals.

There, Dalton gunned for 383 yards and a trio of scores, two of them going to A.J. Green, who caught 10 passes for 227 yards to go with the scores. Cincinnati as a whole rushed for 86 yards on a 2.8 yard-per-carry average. 

But Baltimore hasn't seemed anything special in recent weeks against the run. Kansas City delivered a 34-14 beating to the Ravens while rushing for 113 yards and a score, only asking Alex Smith to attempt 25 passes. And while the Ravens just pulled off a stunning upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers, DeAngelo Williams managed 100 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

What the Steelers don't have is an elite defense. Cincinnati's still the top scoring defense in the league at 17.5 points per game permitted. The unit had to deal with Joe Flacco, Justin Forsett and Steve Smith in the first encounter with the Ravens—they're all now lost for the season.

There shouldn't be any doubt these Bengals at home can shut up a Ryan Mallett-led offense.

No, the worry is the offense. Really, it's the coaching staff, which seemed to tread water in the second half of Monday's game. The running game couldn't protect the lead because it never really had a chance, morphing into a predictable, almost Bob Bratkowski-ish mess of year's past while the passing game also decided to curl up in a ball and surrender.

It's a mistake that cannot happen again. All year observers have suggested in polite fashion that Cincinnati should go back to a run-first approach, maybe not because of the two talented backs on the roster, but because it's been the identity of the franchise for so long.

The coaching staff didn't listen, which is fine. They undoubtedly know best, hence the 11 wins, AFC North crown and playoff berth.

Cincinnati needs Jeremy Hil and others to carry the offense with another quarterback hurt.
Cincinnati needs Jeremy Hil and others to carry the offense with another quarterback hurt.Eric Risberg/Associated Press

But now would be the time, if ever. McCarron can't take hits in Week 17, a surefire physical AFC North contest. He absolutely cannot break free and risk himself as a runner because the only time the ground game can pick up big yardage is when the defense forgets to account for him.

There's redemption available for the Bengals next weekend after what might have been one of the clumsiest collapses in franchise history. With a second quarterback injured, it starts with the running game, push from the offensive line provided.

Down two quarterbacks thanks to the individual trying to make up for mistakes, the only way the Cincinnati coaching staff can hurt itself now is by keeping away from a run-heavy approach. While unfortunate it has taken these circumstances to force the staff's hand, somebody once said better late than never.

Provided the dominoes fall correctly, that might just be the case here for the Bengals.

Stats courtesy of NFL.com and are accurate as of December 29. All advanced metrics courtesy of Pro Football Focus.

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