Efficiency, not bulk, key to Bengals' carries

CINCINNATI -- The season was barely a week over before Hue Jackson, in his new role as the Cincinnati Bengals' offensive coordinator, made it known he had plans for the Bengals to run and run some more.

Physicality ought to be the name of the game, and at crucial times last season, Cincinnati's offense lacked it.

But it wasn't just last season. Too often in some of the bigger games the Bengals played during the three seasons that new Washington head coach Jay Gruden spent as the team's offensive coordinator, the play calling inexplicably got too conservative, and the execution struggled as a result.

Naturally Jackson, who spent 2013 as Cincinnati's running backs coach, won't publicly agree with such specific charges, but he will admit that assertive, physical play escaped the offense at key moments during the year. That's why he felt it important to emphasize that style of play during his introductory news conference the day after Gruden left.

"What I need to do is unleash these guys," Jackson said. "We're going to try and create an environment for these guys to be great. That's what [head coach] Marvin [Lewis] is all about. We know we need to run the football. We want to run the football. That's where it starts. That's what he preaches."

It's statements like those that have made the Bengals' proposed expanded rushing attack a matter of conversation in quarters outside Paul Brown Stadium. The debates have been so fierce that we decided to devote this week's ESPN.com Bengals poll to asking readers how often they thought the team's running backs ought to run the ball under Jackson. Last season, Cincinnati's running backs averaged 24.9 carries per game. The Bengals' overall rushes per game average was higher, at 30.1, when rushes from quarterback Andy Dalton and receivers were added to the mix.

Dalton also attempted 36.6 passes per game, the eighth-highest average among quarterbacks with 10 or more starts.

Most who voted in that poll believed the Bengals ought to barely tweak their rushing production as it pertained to the running backs. By 2 p.m. ET, 42 percent of the nearly 600 people who voted said Cincinnati's backs ought to run the football 30 times per game under Jackson. Another 37 percent thought the running backs should have 35 carries a game, while 11 percent wanted 40 carries a contest. Only eight percent believed the Bengals' 2013 average of 25 carries per game should stick in 2014, while just two percent believed fewer than 25 carries a game ought to be an option.

Again, all of those numbers suggest a good portion of readers believe very little should change with respect to the Bengals' running back load.

The ones who picked the 30-carry average had it right. Twenty-five carries is too low, 35 is too many and 40 is unnecessarily astronomical.

It's clear something has to change with respect to the Bengals' run-game production, but ballooning carries won't do it. Efficiency, not bulk, will be the key to getting the type of general physicality that Jackson seeks.

The Bengals have to pick their moments better. On so many occasions early in ballgames this past season, they got into rushing routines. It was all but a given that BenJarvus Green-Ellis would open a series with a first-down run between the tackles.

There were other times when the Bengals would abandon the run altogether far too early, pinning their hopes on Dalton's right arm to either hold a lead or bring them through a comeback. That was especially true in Cincinnati's last three playoff games, ones the Bengals lost despite either leading or trailing by one score at halftime. Even though they were well in each of those games at the start of the second halves, they averaged just 20 rushes as a team in each of those games.

What made the decision to go away from the run in those games doubly alarming was the fact the Bengals averaged four or more yards per carry in all three of them. In the closest of the three, they averaged 5.0 yards on 16 carries. A 29-yard run in that game and a 19-yard touchdown in another, provided temporary sparks, too.

During the 2013 regular season, running efficiency was an issue as the Bengals compiled a modest 3.7 yards per rush average. Only four teams had worse averages.

Such difficulty made it easy to go away from the ground game early in down sequences, often leading to longer third downs that required passes. Those struggles also made it easy to completely dismiss the rushing attack and doubt the overall value in exploiting it more often. But that's where the modified bulk comes in. Under Jackson, don't expect the Bengals to completely abandon the run if it doesn't work early.

At about 30 carries per game, Cincinnati's tandem of Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard will average roughly 15 touches. In the games this past season in which at least one of the two players ran the ball 15 times, the Bengals were 6-1. Including the playoff loss to San Diego, they were 5-5 in all other contests.

With both rushers and their contrasting styles averaging so many carries, one has to imagine that chunk plays will come. One also has to imagine that those 30 running back carries will translate to more effective offensive balance that will better free up Dalton in the passing game. His pass attempt numbers won't decrease dramatically with a more emphasized running game, but his efficiency should increase because defenses will have to better respect his running game and the threat of play-action passes.

The bulk of a rushing load can be important, but a more efficient running game is the real difference here. It can lead to a more efficient quarterback, which in turn can lead to an even better offense, and with this defense, ought to make Cincinnati contend for a repeat division title.