Will Bengals work RBs into passing game?

March, 21, 2014
Mar 21
5:59
PM ET
CINCINNATI -- By now, you probably are well aware of the Cincinnati Bengals' push to run the ball and to design their offense to thrive off physicality, not finesse.

Head coach Marvin Lewis has spoken often about it. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has, too. Some Bengals players have also spoken out in support of the change in offensive philosophy, including most recently, new backup quarterback Jason Campbell.

Campbell
"I don't care how good you throw the football," Campbell said, "you still have to be able to run the football."

While all of that ought to help balance the Bengals' offense and make the team more successful overall, there's still something I'm a little curious about. With plans for using their backs more extensively, how much will the Bengals use them in the passing game?

If Jackson's time as an offensive coordinator is any indication, a physical offense features running backs who can catch, too.

In his two seasons with the Oakland Raiders (he was the offensive coordinator in 2010 and the head coach in 2011), Jackson's running backs ranked seventh in the league in receptions, catching more than 90 passes both years. They combined to catch 93 in 2010 and had 90 in 2011.

As the article linked above indicates, Campbell started at quarterback for Oakland both seasons. He and other Raiders quarterbacks spread those completions around to five tailbacks and fullbacks in each year.

Cincinnati's starting quarterback, Andy Dalton, completed passes to only two of his running backs last season. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard combined to have just 60 receptions during the regular season. The year before, Green-Ellis and three others caught 37 passes.

The Bengals' 60 running back receptions in 2013 ranked 24th in the league. When it came to passing to their receivers, though, they ranked ninth, completing 215 passes to their wideouts. Even with Bernard in their backfield, the Bengals were more apt than most other teams to let their passing game rely on A.J. Green and the rest of the Bengals' receivers.

NFL teams in 2013 averaged 177 passes to receivers and 75 to running backs. That means backs across the league caught 29.8 percent of their team's passes last year, while Bengals backs caught only 21.8 percent of theirs.

As the Bengals begin shifting to an offensive scheme that's designed to incorporate more runs and play actions than in recent years, they have good reason to modify their passing game.

Teams typically counter prolific rushing attacks by stacking the line of scrimmage with so many defenders that a back's running lanes vanish. Occasional blitzes can negatively effect some running plays, as well as put pressure on the quarterback when in passing situations. The best way to overcome those blitzes are to get running backs and receivers involved in the passing game by throwing them screens or flares. As defenders sprint into the backfield, running backs running those routes can slip past the over-pursuit and catch balls that can put them into space where they can run untouched for several yards.

When the back has the speed and elusiveness of Bernard, those gains can be even bigger. Darren McFadden, Michael Bush and Marcel Reece were all different runners for Jackson in Oakland, but made a habit of catching passes and generating big gains after them in 2010 and 2011.

The time Jackson spent with those three seems proof enough that even for a team dedicated to running the ball -- the Raiders, by the way, finished second in rushing in 2010 -- a simple pass out of the backfield can be just as important.

Coley Harvey

ESPN Cincinnati Bengals reporter

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