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Saturday, January 4, 2014
Could Bernard be Bengals' game-changer?

By Coley Harvey

CINCINNATI -- For the past month, I've been struck by something Cincinnati Bengals rookie running back Giovani Bernard said just after rushing for a career-high 99 yards in a home blowout win against Indianapolis.

"The biggest thing that I try to do is just [get] all-purpose yards," Bernard said to reporters after his personal record-setting performance. "It's not the rushing, it's not the receiving -- it's a combination of the two. That's something I've always wanted to concentrate on this entire season."

He could not have cared less about setting a personal high running the football. He was proudest of the career-high 148 yards he tallied both on the ground and in the air.

Giovani Bernard
Giovani Bernard hopes to impact Sunday's game against the Chargers as a runner and a receiver.
Bernard might be a running back by title, but he thinks of himself as much more. He's a pass-catcher, a route-runner, a pile-mover and an ankle-breaker all mixed into one. It's that combination that has the Bengals confident in his playmaking ability, and one that has helped him lead them to a division championship and a third-straight playoff berth.

The Bengals host the Chargers at 1 p.m. Sunday in the first round of the AFC playoffs.

"Yeah, he's pretty good," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. "He can do everything -- catch the ball, run the ball between the tackles, outside. We're fortunate to have him."

As we've outlined before, the Bengals are more productive with Bernard on the field compared to when the bigger, more power-running, short-yardage playing BenJarvus Green-Ellis is in the game.

Ahead of this weekend's matchup against San Diego, though, there's another reason for the Bengals to be thankful they have Bernard. When it comes to defending receivers out of the backfield, the Chargers were the league's worst team during the regular season. According to ESPN Stats & Info, they allowed an NFL-worst 8.7 yards per pass attempt to running backs. Bernard didn't account for many of those yards, though. Targeted twice, he caught just one pass for a 9-yard gain in the Dec. 1 game in San Diego. Still, the fact he can catch passes out of the backfield makes him a possible game-changer for the Bengals.

That day, the Bengals were more focused on running the ball than spreading it around using screen passes. Bernard and Green-Ellis led a 164-yard rushing attack that was the team's best of the season. Thanks to one A.J. Green reception and three subsequent Green-Ellis runs, the Bengals converted four first downs on a four-minute drive to end the game.

Such a rushing performance could be considerably more difficult for Cincinnati this week. The Bengals will be going against a Chargers defense that has linebackers Jarret Johnson and Melvin Ingram back. Both missed the first game, leaving big gaps at the defense's second level that Green-Ellis and Bernard were able to routinely expose.

The returns of Johnson and ingram coincided with comparatively better team performances against the run. Three of the past four teams the Chargers have played rushed for less than 100 yards, including the Denver Broncos, who had 18 in a loss. San Diego still isn't pleased with that performance from its run defense, so the Bengals could face hazardous rushing conditions.

For that reason, don't be surprised if the Bengals don't run as much as they did in the first meeting. Also, don't be surprised if they try to set up play-action and screen-catching opportunities for Bernard.

The goal for Bernard each week is 150 total yards. If 100 of those yards come in the air, that's fine by him. If 100 of them come on the ground, that's fine, too. So far, he hasn't reached 150. The closest he has come is 148, which he picked up against the Colts the week after the win against San Diego. It's one of three times this season he has gone over the 100-yard plateau in rushing and receiving.

In an effort to help predict how a 150-yard playoff performance might benefit the Bengals, I took a look back at the past five regular seasons and past four postseasons to see how other teams have performed when their running backs have totaled 150 yards rushing and receiving.

Since 2009, teams entering Saturday were 5-3 in the postseason when a ballcarrier topped the 150-total-yard mark. Four of those games belong to Houston's Arian Foster, who had 182 and 174 yards, respectively, in first-round wins against the Bengals the previous two postseasons.

Since 2009, teams were 176-86-1 in the regular season when a ballcarrier hit the 150-total-yard plateau.

Overall, the Bengals are 1-3 since 2009 when a back like Foster hits that mark against them. They are 2-3 overall when they have a back do it to another team. In 2009, Cedric Benson totaled more than 150 yards twice, including once in the playoffs. Bernard Scott had 151 total yards in Week 11 of that year. One season later, Benson had 163 and 150 against the Browns and Buccaneers, respectively.

All of this is to say that Bernard is right. He has to be focused on both running and receiving the football this postseason. And as a fresh-legged rookie who led all first-year backs in receiving, he ought to be among Gruden's primary options against the Chargers.