While Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard isn't expected to start this season, the rookie second-round draft pick will have a vital role -- addressing one of the bigger weaknesses in the offense.
The Bengals want Bernard to turn the running back position into a playmaking option in the passing game. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bengals were the only team in the NFL not to get a 20-yard reception out of its running backs.
The key to getting big plays out of running backs is not throwing the ball downfield to them. It's the running back's ability to create plays in space. This offseason, the Bengals have been working screen passes to Bernard. Last season, Cincinnati running backs combined for 260 yards after the catch. In comparison, the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Rice had 507 yards after the catch.
“He’s got great hands and makes people miss on the second level,” Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said of Bernard earlier this offseason. “Andy [Dalton] needs some of those short passes that turn into 25-yard gains. It’s a lot easier on a quarterback. Instead of grinding out every first down with the exception of throwing one deep to A.J. [Green] every now and then, we need some guys to get better running after the catch and breaking tackles after contact."
The Bengals didn't even try to get their running backs involved in the passing game last season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bengals targeted running backs 57 times, which was the third fewest in the NFL. Only the Washington Redskins (55) and Indianapolis Colts (50) had less than Cincinnati.
Bernard was an effective receiver at North Carolina, catching 92 passes over his last two seasons. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who is expected to start at running back for a second straight season, had 22 receptions last season, which were a career high.
This is becoming more of a trend in the AFC North. Rice and the Cleveland Browns' Trent Richardson are frequent targets in the passing game. Rice has averaged 69.5 catches over the past four seasons, and Richardson caught 51 passes as a rookie last season. The Pittsburgh Steelers also played up the fact that Le'Veon Bell is a three-down back after they drafted him in the second round this year.