Print and Go Back ESPN.com: AFC North [Print without images]

Friday, May 16, 2014
Could the Bengals use three RBs this year?

By Coley Harvey

CINCINNATI -- Consider this Running Backs Day on the Bengals blog.

We'll have another item pertaining to Cincinnati's ball carriers later, but before we get into them, let's take a look at the possibility of the Bengals employing a three-running back system. It's an option for them after picking former LSU running back Jeremy Hill in the draft. With Hill in the fold, the Bengals could employ a three-back rotation that would include Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

The key word there, though, is could.

Hue Jackson
Raiders running backs had a large role in the passing game when Hue Jackson was the offensive coordinator in Oakland.
At this point, there seems to be a good chance that Green-Ellis will be cut before September. Green-Ellis struggled to break big runs and attack the hole quickly last season. He's also entering the final year of his three-year deal and could give the Bengals a cap savings of $2.5 million if he is let go. For now, though, the Bengals remain committed to having him on the roster and have said they will make sure he gets every opportunity to prove he belongs.

If Green-Ellis stays, is there precedent for the Bengals to run an offense that would allow three backs of differing styles to be rotated in regularly?

Maybe.

Before we get into that precedent, let's just quickly recap what the Bengals' backfield looks like. Behind the triumvirate of Bernard, Green-Ellis and Hill are backups Cedric Peerman and Rex Burkhead. Peerman's greatest asset has been his work on special teams. He'll likely see time on the Bengals' return units again this season. Burkhead, the 2013 draftee who was inactive most of last season, is hoping to crack the running back rotation this year.

Along with those two, the Bengals will go into organized training acitivies (OTAs) later this month with undrafted free-agent backs Jeff Scott and James Wilder Jr. Ryan Hewitt and Nikita Whitlock also were brought in as fullbacks/H-backs, and could be used in offseason practices in blocking roles similar to the ones Orson Charles and Tyler Eifert had last season.

The bottom line is the Bengals have a crowded backfield still two months ahead of preseason camp. Some cuts will be made.

And a three-man rotation might not be out of the realm of possibility.

To get an idea of whether a three-man rotation could work, we looked at the last offenses newly promoted offensive coordinator Hue Jackson led. Specifically, we checked out the Oakland Raiders' 2010 and 2011 offenses to see how often three running backs and three-back packages were used (see chart below). Jackson was the Raiders' offensive coordinator in 2010, and was elevated to head coach in 2011.

Oakland used five running backs regularly in both seasons. Darren McFadden was the primary ball carrier both years, just as Bernard figures to be that player for the Bengals this coming season. Cincinnati hopes that Bernard avoids McFadden's fate. The Raiders back was injured in both seasons. He appeared in 13 games in 2010 and only seven the following year.

Even without McFadden, the Raiders already were using running back Michael Bush and fullback Marcel Reese in complementary roles. Both were change-of-pace runners, called upon to move the pile between the tackles more regularly than McFadden. All three played key roles in the passing game. In 2010, the trio combined to catch 90 passes. The next season, they had 83 combined.

Cincinnati's top two backs, Bernard and Green-Ellis, had 67 combined receptions in the regular season and postseason. Unlike the relative receiving balance the Raiders' backs had in Jackson's offenses, the Bengals mostly passed to Bernard. He caught all but four of the passes thrown to Bengals running backs last year.

In Hill, the Bengals have added an additional receiving threat out of the backfield. It shouldn't be too surprising if the Bengals' top three backs collect 80-90 passes this season, and if Hill and Bernard have a nice split of them. At LSU last season, Hill caught 18 passes in an offense that also featured receiver Odell Beckham. Only Beckham and fellow receiver Jarvis Landry had more catches.

All of this suggests that the possibility of a three-back rotation this fall is a very real one.