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Might be time for Bengals to pick a feature back

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CINCINNATI — Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has two options, but there’s really only one choice.

The time share in the Bengals backfield has kept Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill active, but it’s prevented either from being effective, which is why Jackson indicated Wednesday it may be time to employ a feature back.

“I’m used to having one guy kind of dominate some carries,” Jackson said. “In order for backs to be really good, they’ve got to get lathered up to play. You’ve got to get a feel for the game.

“We have two capable guys, and they’re different guys and we’ll let it play itself out, but I think we have a pretty good idea which way we’re headed.”

So, too, does anyone remotely familiar with how numbers work.

Hill, the rookie from LSU, has 729 yards on 152 carries for a 4.8 average this season, while Bernard has 557 yards on 142 attempts for a 3.9 average in his second season.

Hill was his most effective in the three games Bernard missed with hip and clavicle injuries. He carried 24 times for 154 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-23 victory against Jacksonville, and two weeks later he rushed 27 times for 152 yards at New Orleans.

That’s lathered up.

In the middle contest of Bernard’s three-game absence — the 24-3 loss to Cleveland — Hill ran 12 times for 55 yards (4.6), but the Browns forced the Bengals to abandon the run by jumping out to such a large lead.

A similar situation occurred Sunday in the loss to Pittsburgh when the Steelers exploded for 25 fourth-quarter points. The Bengals finished with only 86 rushing yards, 20 of which came on a read-option touchdown sprint by quarterback Andy Dalton.

“It’s not giving me the results I want,” Jackson said of the running game. “Normally in a game like that in the fourth quarter is when you start running the ball. We were ahead and all of a sudden we thought we had a chance to make some hay there in the end. I hate to say this: That’s the other side. That’s when you start running, you look at a runner and all the rushes start to happen. We didn’t get a chance to have that happen.”

Hill was by far the more effective runner against the Steelers, gaining 46 yards on eight carries (5.8) with a long of 15. Meanwhile Bernard managed just 17 yards on six attempts (2.8), with his longest covering four yards.

“I thought we did some good things earlier in the game and as the game progressed, there were some other things that we had going pretty good and then you look up and it’s the fourth quarter and you’ve only rushed it this much and then all of a sudden, the score changed,” Jackson said. “So at the end of the day, we’ve just got to do it better. We want to be on the other side of that marker being able to run the ball to finish the game.”

Not to mention finishing the season. The Bengals are clinging to a half-game lead in the AFC North with road games remaining against division opponents Cleveland (Sunday) and Pittsburgh (Week 17) sandwiched around a Monday night home contest against Denver.

Less than ideal weather conditions are likely to await the team in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, which increase the importance of having a running game. And regardless of the forecast for the Denver game, the ability to run the ball and the clock is always an effective weapon against Peyton Manning.

In the three games since Bernard’s return, the shared workload has resulted in him rushing 33 times for 111 yards and a 3.4 average, while Hill has 39 attempts for 173 yards and a 4.4 average.

Asked if the recent results and importance of the upcoming games means the switch to a one-back switch is imminent, Jackson simply smiled and said “We’ll see.”


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