Josh Kirkendall, one of the talented superbloggers at CincyJungle.com, found a little nugget from the fine chaps at Football Outsiders that got me thinking about the running game. We know that the Bengals intend to re-return to the running game, and that a productive running game will be the key to any success they find this year (just like 2009). So this little bit of analysis from FO was a bit concerning and got me thinking.
After re-signing center Ryan Cook, left guard Nate Livings, right tackle Dennis Roland, and running back Cedric Benson, the Bengals enter 2011 with the same run offense contributors as they had in 2010. Continuity is usually a good thing. In Cincinnati’s case, however, they’re continuing with players who produced the NFL’s fourth-worst run offense last season, most of the blame for which falls on Benson. Out of 23 running backs who carried the ball more than 200 times in 2010, Benson was next-to-last in DYAR. Furthermore, except for 2009, he’s ranked no higher than 42nd in DYAR among all qualifying backs over the past four seasons.
(sidebar: Kyle Cook, fellas, not Ryan Cook.)
Like nearly everything, the running game never got on track last year. After promising a continuation of the run-first approach that brought a sweep of the AFC North and a playoff appearance, the Bengals proceeded to make 162 more passing attempts than running attempts. The running game netted 567 fewer yards (on 87 fewer attempts), dropping 0.5 yards-per-carry.
Contrary to instinct, we can’t primarily blame the loss of production on the O-line because the personnel was essentially the same. In 2009 the line consisted of LT Whitworth, LG Livings, C Cook, RG Williams, and RT Roland/Collins. In 2010 the line featured LT Whitworth, LG Livings, C Cook, RG Williams, and RT Collins/Roland/Smith. And the 2011 depth chart currently has LT Whitworth, LG Livings, C Cook, RG Williams, and RT Smith as the first team. Our issues with Livings aside (and I am hoping like crazy that Clint Boling takes the starting spot from him), the line has been consistent in personnel.
So where do we point for the loss of production in 2010? FO clearly points to Cedric. And he does bear some of the blame. His seven fumbles were a career high. And since there is never a good time for a fumble, he clearly cost a weak offense precious opportunities. Cedric acknowledged this to Joe Reedy shortly after re-signing this year, saying:
“It’s a simple thing. You’ve got to keep it tight to your body at all times. There really is no excuse for it. I’ve really just got to keep the ball tight and close to me at all times. I may have gotten a little lackadaisical with that last season trying to make things happen or trying to do things that I didn’t need to do. At times I was trying to make a play when all I needed to do was put my pads down and move forward.”
Let’s hope he puts those ideas to use. But I think there are other factors that contributed to the decline in run production in 2010 which, if addressed, will give the Bengals’ running game a better chance than FO forecasts… even with Nate Livings.
1. Opportunities. Cedric loves being the hammer, and he has that ability to wear down defenses. Jay Gruden needs to dial him up regularly, and he has given every indication that he will. Andy Dalton will need him to run well. The better Benson is, the better Dalton can be as a rookie. He can give the team a far better chance to win than the talking heads are giving them right now if he runs often and holds on to the ball.
This is also why I am hoping that the Bengals can find a way to hang on to the hard-running Cedric Peerman. Scott and Finley are shifty and quick, but the Bengals will need another power runner if Benson should get injured. Losing him without someone to replace that power will quickly let the air out of the tires of a running game that needs to maintain traction.
2. A fullback. Jeremi Johnson led the way for Cedric in 2009, but with Jeremi’s constant weight issues, the team did not keep a fullback in 2010. (J.P. Foschi was listed as a FB/TE on the 2010 roster, but let’s not kid ourselves here.) The Bengals have Chris Pressley in camp as a fullback, and they would be wise to let him clear lanes for Cedric this year.
3. The unbalanced line. The Bengals used the unbalanced line regularly in 2009, and it was usually effective. There is nothing wrong with occasionally showing the run and daring teams to stop it. They can be open with it by using Roland again, or hide it some by using Gresham or Scaife. Fans enjoy the power game too, so use it.
4. Blocking wide receivers. T.O. may have been important in the passing game, but he was zero help to the running game. He was even less likely to block a corner than Chad was, which I believe is one reason why Cedric had very few big runs. Having young receivers this year who are willing to stay locked on their man can only help.
Combine these things with Cedric keeping the ball high and tight, as well as not trying to do too much, and the Bengals could maximize their win potential this year, maybe picking closer to #10 than to #1 in the 2012 draft.