CINCINNATI -- One thing offenses at all levels of football consistently preach is balance.
The Cincinnati Bengals were no different this year.
Four games into the season -- that ended with Sunday's 27-10 wild-card loss to the San Diego Chargers -- offensive coordinator Jay Gruden harped on the virtues of offensive balance while insisting the team was still searching for an identity. In the weeks that followed, his players publicly pleaded for their running game to be considered every bit as important as the passing game was.
Offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth campaigned hardest to incorporate the run. Over the final eight games of the regular season, the Bengals ran the ball more than 30 times in a game seven times. In the first eight contests, they topped the 30-carry mark only three times.
On Sunday, in their biggest game of the season, the Bengals only rushed 25 times. That's remarkably low considering how their 38 rushes for 164 yards were a key reason why they beat San Diego in Week 14.
So, did the Bengals run enough against the Chargers on Sunday?
Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis says "no."
"I don't care if it's a passing league or not, like I've said since the beginning of time, when the playoffs start, championship teams are built off running the football and stopping the run," Green-Ellis said. "Those things you've got to do. I don't care if they keep changing the rules or if they keep becoming a passing league.
"That's playoff football."
Green-Ellis supported his claim by bringing up his hometown New Orleans Saints. Sure, a game-winning field goal clinched the Saints' playoff victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday, but Mark Ingram's 97-yard rushing performance helped keep them in the ballgame, he said. Against the Bengals, San Diego's three-man rushing team of Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown also factored in that win, he said. They combined for a 196-yard team rushing attack.
"They ran the ball well and they won the game," Green-Ellis said. "That's just how it goes. If you play good defense and don't have turnovers, that's the recipe [for success] since football started."
Cincinnati committed four turnovers, and its defense gave up a season-high in rushing yards. The last time a team had more than 150 rushing yards in a game on the ground against the Bengals was on Halloween night when the Miami Dolphins held on for a 22-20 overtime win. That was only the second time all season that Cincinnati's typically stout defense allowed that many rushing yards in a game.
But the Bengals defense aside, this playoff loss was the result of what the Bengals didn't do when they had the ball. For the third straight postseason, they failed to keep running.
"You would have thought we'd learn from Houston," center Kyle Cook said.
Cincinnati's two previous postseason losses -- both wild-card round defeats -- came at Houston.
The Bengals ran 35 times total in those two games. Circumstances in the 2011 game were much like they were for most of the fourth quarter Sunday. In that first postseason meeting against the Texans, the Bengals trailed the entire second half, going down by as much as 14 entering the final period. Against San Diego, they were down just seven entering the fourth quarter. Last year, they only trailed at halftime, 9-7.
"It's tough because you want to say you'd love to run the ball every play, but when you're down that many points late in the game or when it's 17-10, you're really looking for a big shot to get you back in it," Cook said.
It seemed that against the Chargers the Bengals were committed to employing as many big shots as they could until one stuck. One almost did.
Among quarterback Andy Dalton's 31 fourth-quarter passing attempts was a deep pass to A.J. Green down the near sideline. With about six minutes remaining in a 10-point game, a possible catch likely would have given the Bengals the ball inside the 10 with a chance to score. With another hold by their defense, the Bengals could have had a potentially game-tying or game-winning drive in the closing minutes.
But that didn't happen.
What did happen was this: The Bengals got predictable. The same offensive line that entered the game wanting to be the aggressor ended up playing back on its heels, constantly trying to protect Dalton from consistent blitzes and pass rushes. Instead of pushing piles forward, the line was caught off guard as linebackers and defensive linemen pushed it back hard.
That resulted in a flustered Dalton who escaped the pocket once on a third-down scramble before fumbling as he dove for extra yards. That was the same Dalton who later threw an interception off his back foot, and one more that a linebacker read all the way.
"We've got to be a better team in those type of situations and knowing what type of environment we're going into," Green-Ellis said. "I mean, we just have to do a better job of attacking them where we can beat them at."
When asking whether the Bengals ran enough Sunday, consider these numbers:
43.8: The percentage of all plays this regular season that were Bengals runs.
32.9: The percentage of all plays in Sunday's wild card game that were Bengals runs.
36.3: The percentage of all plays this regular season that were runs by Bengals running backs.
26.3: The percentage of all plays in Sunday's wild card game that were runs by Bengals running backs.
25.0: The percentage of all plays in the Bengals' last three postseason trips/losses that were runs by Bengals running backs.
You would have thought the Bengals learned from Houston. In the postseason, an offense has to run. Yet again, when the Bengals needed it most, their offensive balance disappeared.