- Coley Harvey, ESPN Staff Writer
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This all started with Hue Jackson.
The day the Cincinnati Bengals' position coach was formally elevated to offensive coordinator, the Bengals planted the seed of their forthcoming physicality. After the Bengals struggled to find an offensive identity at times in 2013, Jackson was determined to make sure they found one long before a down was played in 2014.
"We know we need to run the football. We want to run the football," Jackson told reporters the January day he was promoted.
He added, "What I need to do is unleash these guys."
If that last statement doesn't convince you of Jackson's plans to force-feed defenses a ground game that can open up timely passing opportunities, I don't know what will. Not only does he want to run more, but he wants to run more efficiently. If he wants to see his running backs' yards-per-carry average increase from its 3.65 mark that ranked 28th in the league in 2013, Jackson will need to incorporate plays that not only better allow his offensive linemen to push around defenders at the line of scrimmage but also get receivers and tight ends blocking deep downfield on edge rushes that can turn into the types of big gains he routinely saw as a coordinator and head coach in Oakland.
Jackson's theory is that the more a team runs and the better it runs, the better and more effective it can be in the play-action and deep-passing games. Lanes open downfield when linebackers and safeties start rushing up to stack the box against the run, setting up other big plays. For that to happen, though, his offense has to be physical from the first snap.
Of course, a player's physicality can't be objectively quantified. There is no such metric. The only way we can see how physically a running back runs is by looking at his yards after contact. Was he good at making defenders miss? Did he have a good stiff-arm? Does he often break tackles? The yards after contact statistic won't answer those questions fully, but it can provide some evidence as to just how well the running back can carry a pile.
When it comes to the yards-after-contact eyeball test, Bernard and Green-Ellis passed with flying colors last season. It was common for Bernard to juke multiple defenders out of their shoes as he ripped off big gains. His 35-yard touchdown run at Miami on Halloween was the perfect example of that. He broke a tackle near the line of scrimmage, slipped another, spun around, reversed course, dodged another tackle as he ran horizontally across the field before cutting up a sideline and using his blockers to weave around the Dolphins' defense. He punctuated the run with a flip into the end zone.
Green-Ellis' speed doesn't make him quite an elusive runner, but he did carry multiple piles for additional yards after being hit last season. Because he's more of a short-yardage back, contact is exactly what the veteran seeks. So, yes, just by looking at them, the two backs look like physical runners.
But if we use yards after contact as a way of measuring their physical play, we see that Bernard and Green-Ellis weren't as physical as some of their counterparts in other cities.
Overall, the Bengals ran for 708 yards after contact last season, good enough for 14th in the NFL. Their average of 1.47 yards after contact per carry ranked 27th.
By looking at short-yardage, third-down and goal-line statistics, we can also see how physically a team runs. The numbers show that when it came to converting third downs, the Bengals weren't all that good. Overall, they ranked 24th in third-down conversion, turning only 43.9 percent of their third downs into first downs. That low figure primarily can be explained by the high rate of third-and-longs the Bengals had. Of their 225 third-down chances last season, 164 came with them needing 4 or more yards to reach the first-down marker.
As poorly as the Bengals were at converting third downs, they really weren't very good when using the run to get first downs. They ranked 24th in converting third-and-longs with the run, doing so only 19.2 percent of the time. When needing 3 yards or fewer on third downs, they used the run to get first downs 64.5 percent of the time. They ranked 19th in doing that.
If we go by the numbers alone, we see the Bengals weren't very physical in third-down conversion scenarios. On the goal line, however, they were. They ranked second in goal-to-go efficiency, ending up with touchdowns on 22 of their 25 goal-to-go drives. They ran the ball during each scoring drive and finished 10 of those drives with running plays.
One of the biggest keys to a running game's success is blocking. At times last season, the Bengals did it well at every level; from backs blocking for backs to receivers setting the edges to linemen opening holes. At times they didn't. How well a team blocks can directly affect how well it runs and, in turn, how physical the running backs are.
When the Bengals set out to improve upon their yards-per-carry average from last season, they will need to make blocking their primary point of emphasis. Jackson's past comments seem to suggest he's thinking along those lines, too. For as hard as it may have looked like Bernard and Green-Ellis ran last season, the numbers show that they could have had even greater production. Fewer third-and-longs also could put them in more advantageous running scenarios, allowing them to get unleashed in just the way their offensive coordinator wants.