Giovani Bernard's performance sends Bengals' message to Jeremy Hill

CINCINNATI -- Jeremy Hill spent the final 22 minutes, 53 seconds of Sunday's Cincinnati Bengals home opener in an unfamiliar spot.

He was on the sidelines, standing next to coaches.

From deep behind the clear visor of his black- and orange-striped helmet, Hill tried to avoid entertaining the many thoughts in his head that were too deep for the moment. But it wasn't easy.

Benched for committing the gravest of football sins -- turning the ball over not once, but twice -- the starting running back was relegated to spending the closing minutes of a tight game serving as cheerleader for an impressive Giovani Bernard, while also thinking hard about how he had to prevent turning these activities into a weekly occurrence. The fumbles that led to his benching had been a relatively foreign concept in the days before he settled into a Bengals uniform.

But now they are.

"You could definitely start saying it's an issue," Hill said of his seven fumbles through 18 career NFL games. "I can be happy and in denial about it, but it's definitely become an issue and it has to get fixed."

Hill had only one fumble in two seasons at LSU, and it didn't result in a turnover.

With the Bengals' division schedule on the horizon, this is a good time for Hill to try to solve the crisis. If he lets another couple of turnovers slip out of his grasp at Baltimore next Sunday, the Bengals might not have only a win or a loss on the line, but they could be staring at a lost opportunity to earn a playoff berth or a higher playoff seeding. At this stage, the margin of error shrinks. As the season goes on, it gets progressively smaller.

Hill understands that, saying, "I've just got to continue to keep pounding, keep grinding and try to get it all fixed."

Bernard's 20-carry, 123-yard performance in Sunday's 24-19 Bengals win helped hammer that point home to Hill. When they replaced Hill in the third quarter with Bernard, they sent their second-year starter a message he received loudly and clearly. With the Bengals in the enviable position of having another young, capable back who could slide in and take over for their star, there was little reason for them to run the risk of running Hill back out for another potential turnover.

"We can't have the back fumbling the football," coach Marvin Lewis said. "Jeremy's a talented young player and we've got to keep the football. That wasn't part of his deal last year and we can't let it creep in."

It actually was part of Hill's game -- he had five as a rookie last season. Bothered by them, he vowed this past preseason to make 2015 a fumble-free year.

As troubling as the turnovers were, what was most noteworthy otherwise for the Bengals was that Bernard ran the way he did in 2013. With a series of runs through defenders and some physical carries, Bernard showed flashes of what he was before injuries had him metaphorically limping through much of last season.

If the new Bernard is back to playing the way he did as a rookie and Hill can do a better job holding onto the football, the two-back setup the Bengals have spent the past two years dreaming about could be at hand.