NFL Nation: Giovani Bernard

PITTSBURGH -- Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson … and Andy Dalton.

All seven have something important in common, yet the last one, in one big way, is not like the others.

If the Cincinnati Bengals are going to buck history and win a playoff game, they will need him to be. If they are going to win multiple playoff games across these next five weeks, as they so desperately hope to do, Dalton must be just like them.

Good teams rely on good quarterbacks.

By playoff standards, you can't say Cincinnati has one of those right now.

Dalton proved Sunday night in a 27-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field -- just as he often has this season and across the previous three -- that he still has a ways to go before he can consider himself among the best at his position.

Sure, he has had a few successes these past four seasons. With 40 regular-season wins for an average of 10 per year and four straight playoff berths, the Bengals have operated quite well under Dalton's guidance for 17 weeks each year.

But it's in Week 18, in the playoffs, when problems have arisen. The Bengals simply haven't been anywhere near as good in the postseason as they can be, and Dalton and Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green are big reasons why. If the Bengals can't resolve the postseason problems they have with those two -- not to mention the communication issues that have cropped up between the pair in recent weeks -- they could be right back on the wrong end of another playoff appearance next week at Indianapolis.

They've been on the losing side of wild-card playoff games three straight years.

"You have to win now," Dalton said. "We understand that."

It was hard to tell Cincinnati's offense grasped that concept Sunday night after it turned the ball over three times, including twice when Dalton tossed interceptions while targeting Green. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the quarterback has more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (six) when throwing in the receiver's direction this season.

Before Sunday, the Bengals won back-to-back games against Cleveland and Denver by masking Dalton's mistakes. No one affiliated with the team will publicly say it, but the game plans in those games hinged on easing the pressure on Dalton and putting it on the running backs. Rookie Jeremy Hill paced a rushing attack that put the Bengals beyond 200 yards in each of the two wins.

In Sunday's loss to the Steelers, though, Hill gained exactly 100 yards, and Dalton and Giovani Bernard combined to collect 16 just more. It wasn't a bad rushing attack, but it wasn't a potent enough scheme to cover Dalton's miscues. With the playoffs now here, the Bengals can't solely rely on their running backs to ease the quarterback's load. They need him to play the best football of his career.

They need him to be closer to the seven mentioned earlier; all playoff-experienced quarterbacks with Super Bowl rings on their resumes.

While Dalton may not have the Lombardi Trophy the others do, he is like them in the sense that he's in this year's postseason. Just like them, he has a chance to make it to Arizona for the league championship.

If he's going to make it there, he simply has to show up, perform and play as near to perfect as possible.

That's because in the playoffs, good teams rely on good quarterbacks.

After loss, Bengals are 'On to Indy'

December, 29, 2014
PITTSBURGH -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 27-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers:

'On to Indy:' Two Bengals took a page out of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick's playbook minutes after Sunday night's loss when they cautioned an approaching reporter about the questions they were going to answer. Running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill made it clear they weren't in the mood of discussing the regular-season finale. Instead, they were training their minds and mouths for next Sunday's wild-card playoff game at Indianapolis. "We're on to Indy," both said twice. It was a reference to Belichick's "We're on to Cincinnati" quip that was made the week the Patriots were playing the Bengals, just days after they were embarrassed by the Chiefs, 41-14.

'Time to change it:' Already, the questions about the Bengals' lack of playoff victories are coming. And safety George Iloka has the same response to them as he did two weeks ago about the inquiries referencing the Bengals' struggles in prime time. Before the Bengals beat Denver on Monday and lost at Pittsburgh, they were 2-6 at night. They now are 3-7. "Like I said about the prime time -- if it's annoying, if it bugs you, you've got to change it," Iloka said. "If you don't like it, you've got to change it." The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season and are 0-5 in the postseason under Marvin Lewis.

Nelson's no comment: As players and coaches from both teams were shaking hands moments after Sunday's game, Bengals safety Reggie Nelson and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin exchanged barbs. Nelson hit Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell low at the end of a 19-yard reception in the third quarter, and Bell hyperextended his right knee. Neither wanted to comment much about it after the game. In the Bengals' locker room, Nelson held his ground, rebuffing reporters who tried to sneak in questions about the fracas.

Quick Take: Bengals at Colts

December, 29, 2014
» Wild-Card Round: Schedule » AFC: BAL-PIT | CIN-IND » NFC: DET-DAL | ARI-CAR

Three things to know about the Cincinnati Bengals' 1:05 p.m. ET matchup Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts in an AFC wild-card game at Lucas Oil Stadium:

1. Shut out Bengals seek redemption: After being unable to answer the Colts in a 27-0 loss in October, the Bengals will be seeking redemption Sunday when they travel to Indianapolis for the second time this year. Offensively, they couldn't get in any rhythm, with quarterback Andy Dalton going 18-for-38 for 126 yards. Cincinnati's offense was regularly in third-and-long in that game, which helped lead to a 1-for-13 showing on the pivotal downs. Defensively, the Bengals had few answers for Indianapolis' three-man running back rotation.

2. Run game rebound: Part of the Bengals' potential redemption hinges upon how well they are able to run and how regularly they mix the pass, play-action and run all together. In the past three weeks, they rushed for more than 100 yards in one game, and more than 200 in two others. In the first meeting against the Colts, the Bengals had just 32 rushing yards. Also, they are out to prove they know how to run in the postseason after having Dalton pass 51 times in last year's wild-card loss under former offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.

3. Wild-card winner -- finally? It has been nearly 24 years since the Bengals won a playoff game. Since Marvin Lewis became head coach in 2003, the Bengals are 0-5 in the postseason. Will this be the year they finally get a postseason win?

W2W4: Bengals vs. Steelers

December, 28, 2014
PITTSBURGH -- A few storylines to watch Sunday night when the Cincinnati Bengals visit the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field in a game that will determine the AFC North champion:

Countering Bell's counter: One of the most effective plays for the Steelers in the teams' previous meeting three weeks ago was the counter run to the left. It's the same play running back Le'Veon Bell scored on when he sprinted down the far sideline for a 22-yard touchdown that helped propel Pittsburgh to the 42-21 victory. A staple of their offensive scheme that day, the Steelers kept calling upon Bell to step right once and finish of the misdirection to his left behind a pulling right guard and a sealed backside lane from other blockers. It was such a successful play against Cincinnati that in the last two weeks, the Bengals' offense incorporated the play more into its system. As far as Sunday's game, it might make sense for the Steelers to go away from the counter and try to beat Cincinnati with a different play, but don't be surprised if it gets run early. Until the Bengals can prove they can consistently stop it, the Steelers may as well keep running it. How well the Bengals shut down Bell early, especially on first and second down, could dictate how successful they are defensively all night.

Finishing the drill: While it's all about shutting down the run early and forcing the Steelers into being one-dimensional, the Bengals also have to make sure they finish this game. They had a lead entering the fourth quarter three weeks ago before a lost fumble, mis-fits on several Bell runs and bad coverage on a long touchdown pass on a running down helped Pittsburgh score 25 unanswered points to come back and win the game, 42-21. There was no message preached more in defensive meeting rooms this week than this: finish the drill. Defensive end Wallace Gilberry told me earlier this week he believed the defense lost intensity and focus throughout the fourth quarter. Running back Jeremy Hill and quarterback Andy Dalton both were quick to acknowledge that the miscue on the handoff between them that led to the game-turning turnover was on their minds this week. They vowed to avoid giving the ball up at all costs. Watch for how much the Bengals limit turnovers and keep a close eye on how well they play in the fourth quarter as they try to finish like they did in Monday's win over Denver.

Reserves could be key: Thanks to a flu bug that swept throughout the team this week, Bengals backups could be key to the team's success Sunday night. Eight players appeared at some point this week on the injury report, including Dalton, whose health had dramatically improved by Friday. Cornerback and return specialist Adam Jones will be one player to watch, though. He got sick Friday and didn't practice. Veteran Terence Newman also missed every day of practice because of the illness. If either is unable to play or is limited, third-year player Dre Kirkpatrick likely will see his share of action. If Jones can't return punts, look for Brandon Tate to do so. If something happens to him, running back Giovani Bernard would play the position after taking Jones' spot on return teams in practice Friday.
CINCINNATI -- Since Week 9, Jeremy Hill leads all running backs -- with at least 70 carries in that time span -- in rushing average.

He also has seen his number of carries per game more than double and his yards per game more than triple in the past eight weeks.

Not only has the Cincinnati Bengals rookie been good, but he has been really good. So why does it seem like he's only emerged in recent weeks? Why wasn't the Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate doing this all along?

[+] EnlargeJeremy Hill
Aaron Doster/USA TODAY SportsSince Week 9, rookie Jeremy Hill has helped the Bengals rank second in the NFL in rushing yards.
Because it appears that's the way offensive coordinator Hue Jackson drew it up.

Asked earlier this week if the timing of Hill's emergence was planned, Jackson smiled at reporters before saying, "I'll let you guys make that assumption."

It wasn't until three weeks ago that Hill was declared the decided feature back in a rushing offense whose base scheme has changed often as the year has progressed. Originally, Jackson was adamant about employing a two-back system with Giovani Bernard, who is in his second season. He also was adamant about the smaller, shiftier Bernard remaining in the role of starter.

But that didn't last.

After ranking 21st in rushing yards through the first eight weeks, and after exposing Bernard to brutal punishment both in the screen-passing and interior-running games, the Bengals were forced into changing things up. After a series of hard hits, Bernard was forced to take three weeks off to rest his body. That's when Cincinnati made Hill its lead back.

With rushing totals of 148 and 152 yards in two of the three games Bernard missed, it became clear Hill could take on the added responsibility. Since Hill's Week 9 role expansion, the Bengals have ranked second in rushing yards only to Seattle. Overall, they enter Week 17 with the NFL's fifth-ranked rushing offense. By the end of Week 8, the unit was 16th in the league.

At 1,024 yards, Hill is one of nine players to have gone over the 1,000-yard rushing mark this season. He's also the 10th in Bengals history to have that many yards in a season.

"I promised you guys at some point in time I would run the ball. That's who I am," Jackson said. "You guys are starting to see the fruits of the labor. I didn't have to tell the players, I didn't have to tell anybody when I think that time is. But I knew when it was coming."

Jackson had a path mapped out for Hill following the draft in May. The former running backs coach leaned on benchmarks Bernard hit as a rookie last season when he wasn't the coordinator.

"That takes time and you have to season some guys and put guys in trial and error a little bit before you can really trust them in certain situations," Jackson said. "It's rough out there and we play against some of the best defenders in the world and you have to be very careful sometimes about putting people in situations where they may not have success."

It was around Week 7 or 8 when Jackson believed Hill finally had the seasoning to become a bigger part of the offense. Yes, the fumbles remain an issue -- Hill has three in the past two games and was part of another three weeks ago on a botched handoff with quarterback Andy Dalton -- but he has otherwise performed well. Still, Jackson wants more.

"I'm not going to stand up here and beat our chest and tell you we're King Kong yet, because we're not," Jackson said. "We've still got work to do."
CINCINNATI -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 37-28 win over the Denver Broncos:

A handful of footballs: Nearly an hour after he picked off Peyton Manning for the last time in a steady rain shower, Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick walked through locker room with his hands full of clothes and footballs. He had just answered the last question of an unexpected whirlwind postgame interview session. He apparently was in such a good mood he didn't finish putting the shirt on he was going to wear. As he smiled and said goodbye to a few passersby, he walked out into the chilly night in a tank top and shorts ... and with the two footballs. They weren't official game balls, but they were offerings to recognize his two-interception game. Both pickoffs came in the final three minutes.

Bernard offers respect: It could be easy for a once-rising star who lately has gotten outshined by a rookie to sulk and be bitter toward the player who has taken his limelight. But Giovani Bernard has decided not to be that way. He didn't have to do it, but Bernard gave respect to Jeremy Hill. As he got ready to leave late Monday night, Bernard navigated behind the slew of reporters that were standing at the locker next to him, turned toward his locker neighbor and tapped on him on the arm. When he got Hill's attention, he gave him a fist bump and congratulated him on his night. Hill rushed for 147 yards, becoming the third rookie in league history to have four 140-yard rushing performances in a season. Bernard, whose role has been diminished the last two weeks, had 81 total yards (36 rushing and 45 receiving).

Glad Green was hurt? Veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth wasn't pleased Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green had to go through a painful injury, but he was happy to see how his young teammates responded to it. With their superstar wideout sidelined with an arm injury suffered during an early Broncos pick-six, the Bengals responded. "I loved it," Whitworth said. "Sure, it's a negative feeling at the time it happened, but the way guys just kind of buckled their chinstraps and just said, 'All right, we're going to win this thing one way or another,' that's something that I had not seen these young guys do in the past. I loved the resiliency. I love the attitude of that."
CINCINNATI -- Given how difficult it has been at times for the Cincinnati Bengals to get their running game going, the following might come as a surprise.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Hill
AP Photo/David RichardThe Bengals' run-game fortunes took a turn for the better when Jeremy Hill took over for Giovani Bernard.
Bengals rushers are currently on pace to have their best season in the Marvin Lewis era.

The numbers are straightforward. If the Bengals across the next two weeks continue running the way they have all year, they will gain more yards in a season since before Lewis took over as head coach in 2003. It's also possible they will have a higher rushing average than in any other season in the last 12. They also will have a higher first-down conversion percentage running the ball than at any previous point under Lewis' tenure.

Already, one Bengals season rushing mark under the coach has been set. Cincinnati's 18 rushing touchdowns is more than it has had in any year since 1999 and is just five shy of tying the franchise record.

Earlier this week, offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth emphatically said he felt the Bengals were running better than was perceived. Out to see if he was right, we crunched the numbers:
  • The Bengals' current 4.28 yards per carry is tied for their second-highest mark after 15 weeks in the last 14 seasons. If they finish the season averaging that number, they will set a record under Lewis. It'll be the highest yards per carry average for them since 2000, when they averaged 4.7. That was the same year Corey Dillon rushed for 1,435 yards, the third-highest season tally in franchise history.
  • Cincinnati's current 1,824 yards also is its most through 15 weeks since 2009, when it had 1,840. On pace to finish this season with 2,084 yards, the Bengals would have the most rushing yards in a season since 2000, when they had 2,314. They did go over 2,000 yards in 2009 but settled at 2,056.
  • As of now, the Bengals have converted first downs on 24.6 percent of their rushes. That's tied for the best first-down production via the run since 2002, when they also had a rushing first-down conversion rating of 24.6 percent.
  • The Bengals' 18 rushing touchdowns this season already are more than any other Lewis-led team. The previous high was 15, set in 2005. The franchise mark of 23 was hit in 1985, 1986 and 1998.

So, why does the perception exist that the Bengals haven't run well this season?

It's probably because at the beginning of the year, they didn't. One small part of the issue was that the run had trouble getting established because the Bengals were on the losing end of two blowouts through the first seven weeks. Forced to pass to get back into those games, they abandoned the run much earlier than they have in recent weeks.

Consider this:
  • Across the first eight weeks, the Bengals ranked 21st in rushing yards (780) and 22nd in rushing average (3.96 yards per carry).
  • Since Week 9, they rank second in rushing yards (1,044) to Seattle (1,324) and seventh in rushing average (4.56).

What's been the pivotal change to the running game since Week 9?

Jeremy Hill. That was the week the rookie took over for Giovani Bernard, starting three straight games while Bernard rested a series of injuries. Named the AFC's Offensive Player of the Week on Wednesday, Hill on Sunday had his third game with 140 yards or more on the ground since Week 8.

Even after Bernard eventually returned, Hill's playing time increased, and so did the Bengals' rushing production.

It would be wise for them to keep giving him the ball.
CLEVELAND -- This one was for the nationally televised embarrassment at Paul Brown Stadium last month.

It was for all the reporters and talking heads who spent more time this week talking about Johnny Manziel and a host of comments involving him -- both controversial and not -- than the men charged to defend him.

It was for the Nugent family, and the Jackson one, too.

It was for the playoffs.

While the rest of the NFL spent the past seven days discussing the various ways the Cleveland Browns might be motivated to beat their bitter rivals to the south, very little was said about what might be driving the Cincinnati Bengals as they sought a key late-season AFC North victory.

Turns out, they had a lot more boiling underneath the surface than was initially apparent.

Playing loose, yet aggressive and with the exact physicality that long has been a hallmark of play in the AFC North, the Bengals exacted revenge, silenced critics and maintained a slim division lead. In their most complete win of the season, a 30-0 road blowout, it was evident how downright dominant they can be.

Credit a meeting in Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's office for making it possible.

A day after they had been informed Jackson's father died, running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill were called into the coach's office Wednesday. He told them he was changing up the running back rotation. Bernard was no longer the starter. The second-year rusher was being replaced by the bigger, slightly more physical Hill.

The rookie didn't disappoint.

"Once Hue let me know what my role was going to be and how much the team was going to depend on me this week, I really took it on myself to really embellish that and really take that in and really just take advantage of it," Hill said. "I knew we were going to have to run the football to be successful."

The Bengals ran 45 times for 244 yards in a performance that mimicked the Brown's 52-carry performance in a 24-3 win against the Bengals on a Thursday night in Cincinnati last month. Hill was the bell cow Sunday, gaining 148 yards on 25 carries. The game's first drive was marked by his six carries, including a 2-yard touchdown run.

"The defense fed off that," offensive guard Kevin Zeitler said.

Cincinnati forced a three-and-out on the Browns' ensuing possession. The one after that, Bengals defensive end Wallace Gilberry got quickly in the backfield and brought down Manziel for the first of many stops on the rookie quarterback behind the line of scrimmage. In his first career start, Manziel had trouble avoiding striped helmets.

"This ain't college. This is the NFL," defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "You don't have college kids chasing you. You've got some grown men that have kids and who are out here trying to feed their families. It's a lot faster than college."

Along with their solid offensive and defensive performance, the Bengals also got a perfect 3-for-3 day from kicker Mike Nugent, who was given the game ball. The 10-year veteran played for the first time since the sudden death of his father, Daniel, last Monday.

As the Bengals prepare for a Monday night matchup with Denver, it's important they hold on to their identity as a truly physical football team. It simply is who they must be.

Rapid Reaction: Cincinnati Bengals

December, 14, 2014

CLEVELAND -- A few thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 30-0 victory over the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium:

What it means: When they found out they would have to prepare for rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel this week, the Bengals had no idea what to expect. They knew all about Manziel's exploits as a Heisman Trophy winner, but since he hadn't started an NFL game yet and only had 17 snaps of regular-season film, preparing for him was difficult. Would he still be apt to escape the pocket and run when he probably would be better served to pass? Would he be a good passer? Deep down, it didn't matter much to the Bengals, who completely overwhelmed the young quarterback. Manziel was sacked three times, threw two interceptions and compiled a 27.3 passer rating. Overall, the Bengals, still on the playoff bubble, had a truly physical win in their first road shutout since December 2008. The Bengals' last three road shutouts have all come in Cleveland.

Big boost from D: Clearly, Cincinnati's defense trended upward this week after giving up 25 points in a fourth-quarter collapse last week against Pittsburgh. In addition to stifling Manziel, the Bengals quieted the Browns' run. Cleveland finished with 107 total yards. They had 98 entering their one-play last drive.

Game ball: Five weeks after he said the Browns weren't very good following their 24-3 win against Cincinnati, Bengals rookie running back Jeremy Hill let his play do the emphatic talking Sunday. He ran 25 times for 148 yards and two touchdowns in the win. He set the tone early in the game, too, putting up two rushing scores before halftime. At the end of one of them, a Browns fan pushed Hill's helmet down when the back tried to leap into the stands where a couple of Bengals fans had lured him over. It was clearly a statement type of performance for Hill, who had just 55 yards in the teams' last meeting at the start of November. His fellow running back, Giovani Bernard, finished the game with 79 yards on 15 carries after being demoted earlier this week from the No. 1 back duties.

Kirkpatrick breaks out: Placed down on the Bengals' depth chart behind three 30-something former first-round picks, third-year cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick has been itching for a chance to prove himself in the secondary. He has admitted in the past to being a little frustrated by his placement on the depth chart. On Sunday, he had plenty of chances to prove himself. Aside from a 32-yard pass he allowed to Josh Gordon, Kirkpatrick played well, intercepting a pass and deflecting another. On the first-half pickoff, he made a great read when Manziel rolled left and stared down that side of the field. After dropping off his receiver, Kirkpatrick changed direction and sprinted in front of him as Manziel threw his way. On the ensuing drive, the Bengals took a 10-0 lead on a 44-yard Mike Nugent field goal, one of three he had six days after his father died suddenly.

What's next? Cincinnati will get an extra day off this week as its push for the postseason continues. The Bengals welcome the Denver Broncos to Paul Brown Stadium next Monday night for their home finale on ESPN. It will be their first game against the defending AFC champions since 2012, when the Broncos won 31-23. Denver also has won the past four meetings, and is the winner of 12 of the last 15. With help in Week 17, a win against Denver could give the Bengals the AFC's No. 2 seed.
CINCINNATI -- Could Giovani Bernard's days as the Cincinnati Bengals' primary running back be numbered?

It's possible.

Angered with the way his backfield rotation has gone this season, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson hinted Wednesday at a possible shakeup coming to the group that might include going away from the two-back system he and others have lauded since the offseason.

Instead, he appears to favor implementing a one-back scheme.

"That's what I'm kind of used to," Jackson said. "I'm used to having one guy kind of dominate some carries because, in order for backs to be really good, they've got to get lathered up to play. You've got to get a feel for the game.

"We have two capable guys and they're different guys and we'll let it play itself out, but we have a pretty good idea which way we're headed."

Asked if that meant he was leaning toward having one premier back, Jackson said, "We'll see."

Logic stands to reason that if the Bengals start going in the direction of a one-back system, rookie Jeremy Hill would be the back they turn to.

Of the Bengals' two starting ball carriers, Hill has the most yards and a higher rushing average. In the three games in which he was the feature back while Bernard rested from a series of injuries, Hill stole the show. Twice in that three-week stretch he topped the 150-yard mark.

Since Bernard's return to the rotation three games ago, the pair has mostly split duties, although Hill has slightly more touches. He also has rushed for 62 yards more than Bernard on six more carries and gained on average a full yard more than Bernard, notching 4.4 yards per carry compared to his colleague's 3.4.

With the end of the season looming, the Bengals are hoping to stave off desperate charges by the other teams in the AFC North, including Sunday's opponent, Cleveland. They also are looking for any offensive boost that they can take. Cincinnati currently ranks 10th in rushing offense.

"It's not giving me the results I want," Jackson said. "At the end of the day, it's all about results."

So does that mean Hill will soon assume the role of the Bengals' primary running back? We'll just have to see how the snaps and touches break down this weekend.

CINCINNATI -- Near the end of a 20-minute session with reporters in his office Monday afternoon, Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson unloaded on running back Jeremy Hill, prodding the rookie to focus on blocking better and running through more tackles.

On Thursday, speaking for the first time since Jackson's comments, Hill told he agreed with his coach. He knew his 13-carry, 40-yard rushing performance in Sunday's 14-13 win over Tampa Bay wasn't very good. He plans on responding to Jackson with his play Sunday when the Bengals host the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"After that game, we all knew as a team we could have run the ball a little better," Hill said. "Everyone was a little frustrated about that. But we're on to the next game. We're confident going into this game. We have a good run plan for this week, so I'm sure I'll have a chance to redeem myself."

Jackson's diatribe began after he was asked about the assessment Hill provided a reporter Sunday, following the Bengals' comparatively mediocre rushing efforts. The way Hill saw it moments after the game, whenever quarterback Andy Dalton would make a check at the line, the Buccaneers would bring up a safety, making it hard for the Bengals to match up enough blockers on defenders to clear holes in the running game.

As a result, Hill and fellow back Giovani Bernard were routinely met by a wall of defenders who weren't going to let them pass.

"I don't know what Jeremy says," Jackson said, when asked about the back's analysis. "They weren't responding to Andy's check.

"Jeremy don't play quarterback. What Jeremy needs to do is run the ball. What Jeremy wants to do -- I don't care if it's eight men or seven men -- break tackles, OK? That's what running backs do. They break tackles and that's it. At the end of the day, his job is to run through somebody and come out the other side and go find a way to score, period. So all his drop-down, who did this, did what -- that ain't his call."

Rest assured, this wasn't the first time Hill heard Jackson go off about how he needed to break more tackles. It's been a recurring plea of Jackson's throughout the season, even on weeks when his backs do a good job plowing through defenses and picking up big gains.

"It's not a big deal," Hill said about the criticism. "I'm used to that. As I say, I'm really my biggest self critic. I accept coaching very well. I don't care how hard the coaching is on me, I'll still be way harder on myself because I know what I'm capable of. I expect a lot more out of myself, and last week I could have done a lot more."

The 40-yard performance was a little jarring considering Hill rushed for 87 the week before at Houston in a game in which he shared touches with Bernard, who had just returned from injury. While Bernard was out for three games, Hill racked up 361 yards on the ground. That included two 150-yard rushing games.

"I have aspirations of those guys being extremely special," Jackson said. "And if you want to be considered that, you have to make those plays, and the play isn't when everybody's blocked. It's when it's not blocked right, it's when things are a little cloudy. That's when you've got to find a way to make a play, and that's what I'm searching for all the time."

Steelers vs. Bengals preview

December, 4, 2014

When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday. Where: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati. TV: CBS

December football is here.

In the regularly contentious AFC North, close games turn competitive and there's an added concern that weather could play a role in dictating schemes and the outcome. Forget the "12th Man," in this part of the country Old Man Winter is the extra element that can either be a benefit or a detriment in these always physical late-year contests.

Ahead of the first of two end-of-season meetings between these longtime foes, we turn to ESPN Pittsburgh Steelers reporter Scott Brown and ESPN Cincinnati Bengals reporter Coley Harvey to preview Sunday's matchup:

Harvey: We'll let you answer the first one, Scott. With December's unpredictable weather now here, the big question is should teams run more or pass more? Running back Le'Veon Bell has been an answer for Pittsburgh much of the season, but I seem to remember something about Ben Roethlisberger throwing 12 touchdowns in two games. How heavy might the Steelers lean on his arm the rest of the season, especially if conditions are poor?

Brown: I expect the offense to run through Bell here in December and not just because the weather will add varying degrees of difficulty to throwing the ball extensively. Bell has been an absolute stud and he is the only player in the NFL with at least 1,000 rushing yards and 600 receiving yards. Bell is so valuable to the Steelers that they cannot take him off the field, leading to questions of whether they are going to wear him out. They will deal with that problem after the season since there is no proven depth behind Bell at running back, and since the Steelers need to win three of their last four games to give themselves a realistic shot of making the playoffs. Roethlisberger has been mired in a bit of a slump, but he is too good of a quarterback not to play well down the stretch. The Steelers would love to strike a balance between running and throwing that will keep defenses on their heels, and that is probably the formula to them finishing strong and returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

Speaking of the playoffs, Coley, the Bengals are in excellent position to reach the postseason for a fourth consecutive year, but there are still questions about how far Andy Dalton can take them. What's your assessment of where he is at this point of his career and whether he is the guy to lead them deep into the playoffs?

Harvey: While the Bengals won't admit it, Scott -- their extension of his contract earlier this summer is a sign of that -- there is uncertainty about whether he's the guy upon whose shoulders you can ride a deep postseason run. He keeps showing signs of inconsistency. One week, he's the best quarterback this side of the Ohio River, and the next, he looks like the worst to have played the game. Cincinnati's 10-4 December record since Dalton became the starter in 2011 is a testament to him knowing how to win with a lot of pressure on the line. But he still hasn't shown he can consistently handle the big, prime-time stage. He can take a big step toward proving that in three weeks when the Bengals play the Broncos on a Monday night. As for where Dalton is in his career, I'd say he's taken significant leaps this season, both as a player, and a leader. While he didn't play his best Sunday at Tampa Bay, the fact he gutted out a winning performance while feeling sick earned a lot of respect in the locker room.

Brett Keisel's loss earlier this week was a big blow to a defense that rallied around the vet. In what ways will his absence affect Pittsburgh, namely with the Bengals still tinkering with the right tackle position following Andre Smith's own season-ending injury? Keisel certainly would have exploited a Bengals' weakness there.

Brown: It's a shame what happened to Keisel, not only because of how well he had been playing but also how much he has meant to the Steelers for so long. Keisel embodies their blue-collar ethos and he is the consummate professional in everything he does, including dealing with the media. He is a huge loss, especially on a defensive line that may be without starting nose tackle Steve McLendon for another week as he works to regain strength in the shoulder that has been a recurring problem for the fourth-year veteran. With Keisel out, it is time for rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt to assert himself. The second-round draft pick already has an NFL body and is immensely talented. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau raved about him during training camp and has continued to say Tuitt is going to be a big-time player in this league. Keisel had blocked Tuitt from playing time but now that he's out, the former Notre Dame standout has to emerge in the last quarter of the season.

Coley, like Bell, Jeremy Hill is another young back who has emerged this season. Has he overtaken Giovani Bernard as the Bengals' top back, and what are their respective roles?

Harvey: That appears to be the case looking strictly at numbers from last week's game -- Hill had 17 touches and Bernard only had 11. Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson contends he's still easing Bernard back into the flow of things after a series of injuries kept him out for three games earlier this season. This will be Bernard's third game since his return. As far as their roles, the Bengals use both in similar ways. Both can run between the tackles. Both can hit the edge and go. Bernard has the edge in receiving, although he hasn't been used in that regard much lately. I think you'll see the backs alternate drives through the first three quarters, but by the fourth, Hill will reprise his role grinding out late yards as "the closer," especially if the Bengals are leading.

Scott, how prepared is LeBeau's defense for the possibility of misdirection and gadget plays? The Bengals used three consecutive such plays to get their offense on track last Sunday, and it worked. Many here thought that by running them, the Bengals may also have been trying to get LeBeau to think about a few extra things this week.

Brown: Unfortunately for LeBeau, he has enough to worry about following a 35-32 loss to the New Orleans Saints. The run defense sprung major leaks in that game, and the Steelers did not build on a strong start as far as pressuring Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who torched them for five passing touchdowns. Dalton is not Brees, but if the Steelers cannot stop the run their defense just doesn't work, and the Bengals will burn a suspect secondary with play-action passes. The Steelers certainly have to be on guard for gadget plays, especially since the Bengals have a very capable thrower in receiver Mohamed Sanu. But, again, if the Steelers cannot stop the run, they have no chance of winning unless they outscore the Bengals.

Steelers fans were screaming for Pittsburgh to use its first-round draft pick on a cornerback. They bypassed Darqueze Dennard and he ended up in Cincinnati. How has he looked, and a bigger picture question, what is the biggest reason for why the Bengals have allowed an NFL-low 11 touchdown passes?

Harvey: Steelers fans wanted a corner and Bengals fans wanted linebacker Ryan Shazier. Looks like the two players are in the wrong cities! Dennard has looked great in the time he's been on the field -- which has been seldom. He's only played 46 defensive snaps all season, and he missed two games due to various injuries. In his brief defensive action, he has six tackles, one sack and a deflected pass. Special teams is where he's been a star. One of the Bengals' featured gunners, he has regularly gotten downfield to help keep Cincinnati's net punting yards in check. You won't see much Dennard this season because the Bengals have four other former first-round pick cornerbacks who were already here. As for why Cincinnati's kept its passing touchdowns low? The Bengals' defense, namely safety George Iloka, has done a great job clinging to its philosophy of not letting passes get over their heads. Solid pressure up front has helped, too.

Bengals vs. Buccaneers preview

November, 28, 2014
When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla. TV: CBS

At 7-3-1, the Cincinnati Bengals lead the AFC North. Barely.

Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore each are 7-4. The Bengals are in the thick of a playoff race in what might be the league's toughest division.

On Sunday, the Bengals will play another playoff contender. Seriously, the 2-9 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in the playoff hunt in the shockingly weak NFC South. The Bucs are only two games behind Atlanta and New Orleans in the win column.

ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and ESPN Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas preview Sunday’s matchup:

Harvey: Pat, this is so weird to me: The Bucs, with two wins, still are technically in the NFC South playoff hunt because the division is so bad. I know recently you said that the team needed to start thinking about next year, but what do you sense the players’ approach is about still possibly trying to sneak into the postseason?

Yasinskas: Even the Bucs are amazed that they technically still are in the division race. Coach Lovie Smith has made it clear the Bucs are playing to win and aren't planning to look at young players to get ready for next season. I think that really is the only approach Smith can take. His team is only two games off the division lead, so the Bucs might as well play to win.

The Bengals lost coordinators Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer to head-coaching jobs in the offseason, but it doesn't seem as if they've missed a beat. How have they adapted to the changes?

Harvey: Well, Pat, I wouldn't quite say the haven't "missed a beat." You and the Buccaneers just happen to be getting ready to see them at the right time. Three weeks ago at home on a Thursday night against the Browns, the offense and the defense looked as if they had just been handed Hue Jackson's and Paul Guenther's new schemes about an hour before kickoff. They didn't run much in that game; they didn't pass well; and they didn't stop the run at all. In fact, until two weeks ago, the Bengals had allowed seven straight 100-yard rushing performances by opposing offenses. They ranked 31st in rush defense coming out of the 24-3 loss to the Browns. They have since turned it around with two 75-yards-and-under performances to rank 27th. Still not great, but progress.

Overall, though, the Bengals have adapted well to the changes at coordinator. Through the first three games, they looked unstoppable on both sides of the ball and were 3-0. Injuries later handcuffed them, with key players Vontaze Burfict, A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard and Andre Smith among those occasionally hurt. Now that they’re healthier, the Bengals have shown at New Orleans and Houston the past two weeks that they have a full grasp of Jackson's and Guenther's systems.

It's clear Josh McCown wears his heart on his sleeve. And although there were no tears after his homecoming loss in Chicago on Sunday, how much could that loss in particular weigh on him entering this week?

Yasinskas: Knowing McCown, he'll use what happened in Chicago as a motivating factor. The Chicago game was extra important to McCown because of his past there, but he wound up playing perhaps his worst game of the year. But I can't see McCown pouting about it. He's a pro's pro, and he'll be trying hard to bounce back from a bad game.

The Bengals have been running the ball especially well. Why have they been so successful on the ground?

Harvey: They are, in a word, "stubborn." That was the word Jackson used earlier this season after his backs carried the ball 12 times in a 27-0 loss at Indianapolis (another game neither side showed up for). He indicated then that, although the score eventually dictated the Bengals needed to pass to get back into that game, he still thought, in retrospect, that he abandoned the run way too soon. What we've seen in three of the past four games is a stubbornness when it comes to running the ball.

Since their 12-carry day at Indy, the Bengals have averaged 31.8 rushes per game. Whether down by a few or ahead in a close contest, the Bengals have made more of a concerted effort to keep feeding their backs. And those backs, namely rookie Jeremy Hill, have rewarded them. When Bernard missed three straight games recently, Hill rushed for 361 yards in his place, going for more than 150 yards in two games. Now both backs are healthy again, and there is clearly a renewed focus on running the ball. In Sunday's win at Houston, they rushed 43 times.

I see Michael Johnson's production is down in Tampa Bay this year. He hasn't much looked like a defensive end worth $9 million a year. What has led to his poor play, and is there still confidence that he could be the team's future defensive cornerstone?

Yasinskas: Johnson's lack of production is a bit misleading. He has been injured virtually all season. He played through an ankle injury early on and is playing with a broken hand right now. That has limited his playing time. But Johnson is getting close to being fully healthy, and the Bucs remain optimistic about his future.

Speaking of Johnson, who has taken his place at defensive end, and how has that worked out for the Bengals?

Harvey: Johnson's replacement, so to speak, has been Carlos Dunlap, a fifth-year player who helped Johnson bookend the defensive line the past four seasons. Dunlap was already a solid player, but he has emerged as the line's star now that Johnson is gone. It isn't just on the field that Dunlap has replicated his former teammate -- he's closing in on potential career highs in tackles (48 currently) and sacks (5.5 currently) -- he has done it off the field, too. In Cincinnati, the Carlos Dunlap Foundation has become the most recognized of the team's player charities, and he has taken a more active role in working with underprivileged children and treating them to experiences such as a Cincinnati Reds game. As you well know, Pat, Johnson remains quite active in the community in his hometown of Selma, Alabama.

Dunlap isn't doing it all himself, though. Wallace Gilberry also has had an impactful year in the Bengals’ pass rush, as has the Bengals' most-tenured player, veteran Robert Geathers, who missed all but two games last year because of an injury.

HOUSTON -- Late November has arrived, and for teams that call cities north of the Mason-Dixon Line home, that means one thing:

"We've got to get our run going."

Credit that quote to Cincinnati Bengals receiver A.J. Green who uttered it after Sunday afternoon's 22-13 road win over the Houston Texans.

Like many of his teammates, Green's instant analysis of the victory was this: Cincinnati's offense was back in rhythm.

"The offensive line played great. The running backs played great. Everybody played great," Green added.

He played great, too, catching a career-high 12 passes for 121 yards.

But with the harsh realities of winter looming, Green wasn't thinking much about his performance. He instead was focused on the balance his offense exhibited; balance it will soon need. In two weeks, Mother Nature will force it. Wind, rain and snow could make passing difficult the rest of the year.

Of course, Houston doesn't qualify as one of the aforementioned northern cities, and neither will next week's Bengals locale -- Tampa, Florida. But with their past four games in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, it was a good time to start showing the offense extends beyond Green and quarterback Andy Dalton.

As part of their preparations for December, the Bengals got physical Sunday. No drive better showcased that than the one that led to their first touchdown.

"It was big for the game as far as momentum," rookie running back Jeremy Hill said.

Plain and simple, the first-quarter drive set the right tone.

The series started quite inconsequentially. After the Bengals gained 3 yards on the ground and threw an incomplete pass, it looked like they would open the game with a second straight punt.

But when Mohamed Sanu darted into the middle of the field and caught a 10-yard pass for a first down, the Bengals' most physical and balanced drive of the season began.

Ten plays later, it ended with Sanu muscling his way through a cornerback and into the end zone for a 6-yard touchdown reception.

In between, the Bengals got six runs into the middle of the field from Hill and Giovani Bernard, including back-to-back big gains. One play after Bernard gashed the Texans' interior, sprinting and spinning for 19 yards, Hill picked up 13.

Offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said many of those yards were produced by overzealous defensive linemen who were getting out of position.

"They take a lot of chances," Whitworth said of the Texans' front. "A lot of the plays [J.J. Watt] makes are doing stuff you don't normally do in that situation; jumping around a block or those kind of things. So it's feast or famine. When the right team has the right play calling and you do that, it's going to break out."

Mix Hill and Bernard's combined 6 carries for 47 yards with Dalton's 5-for-6, 46-yard showing, and you had a perfectly balanced 94-yard drive.

"We had everything clicking. When you get drives like that, it kind of gives you confidence further into the game and gets a feel, especially for [offensive coordinator] Hue [Jackson] -- he gets a feel for what types of plays are working," Hill said.

As they move forward, the Bengals need more long, balanced drives to continue setting a much-needed physical tone.
CINCINNATI -- In the past three games that Giovani Bernard has appeared in, the small-in-stature Cincinnati Bengals running back took a series of punishing blows.

The culmination of the hits resulted in him missing the past three weeks as he rested hip and clavicle injuries.

 Of the more painful and vicious tackles he took, none came inside the tackle box. All were on the outer edge, either as he was catching a pass or finishing a run that went out wide.

Still, the perception persists that Bernard's injuries were the result of him being worn down because of the supposed high rate of runs he has had into the middle of the field. The widespread belief is that his recent physical abuse stems from pounding the ball into the middle of his offensive line.

It's false.

But even if that was true, Bernard vowed this week to continue running the football the same way he has before. If he has to run inside, he'll keep going inside. If he has to get hit running outside, so be it.

"I play football," Bernard said. "I know the consequences of playing football, and I love the game. I don't worry about that.

"If you ask a lot of running backs, they don't preferably like to just be able to do one thing. We're built to do whatever the coaches want us to do. One guy may be able to do something better than the other guy, and we just leave that in the coaches' hands."

When you see Bernard lined up in the backfield Sunday at Houston, don't automatically assume he's going to be running a stretch play to the right or left.

"Everybody says, 'Well, just run him on the edge,'" offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said, echoing Bernard. "Well, you can get hit on the edge, too, just as well as you can get hit up the middle. You're going to get hit. That's just the way it goes."

He, too, plans on utilizing Bernard both inside and out. He won't shy away from calling for plays in either direction.

It bears mentioning that Bernard has more overall rushes into the interior of the field this season than he did as a rookie at this point last year. Through seven games (that's all Bernard has played this season), 85 of his 109 total carries this year have gone between the tackles. That means 78 percent of his runs have gone up the middle. Through seven games last season, he only had 53 carries into the middle of the field. With 67 total rushes, that meant 79.1 percent of his runs went up the middle.

Percentage-wise, he rushed inside slightly more last year at this point.

Production-wise, Bernard has fared much better running in the middle of the field this year than he did in 2013. Of his total rushing yards, 80.4 percent this year have come up the middle, as have all five of his rushing touchdowns. After seven games last year, only 41.4 percent of Bernard's yards came from inside carries, and only one of his four rushing touchdowns went that direction, too.

"Every running back has a [set] number of hits in their career. You just have to find ways to limit as many shots as you can take," Bernard said. "Whether that, sometimes, is being smart and running out of bounds or getting down when you know you've got 10 guys on your back. You just have to know when to turn it on."