With a new center, rookie right guard and inexperienced left guard, the Cincinnati Bengals hit the ground plodding in 2012, averaging a mere 3.7 yards per carry through the first nine games.
But three weeks after their bye week, the run game developed a rhythm and chemistry that saw the Bengals rush for at least 128 yards in five consecutive games with an average of 5.1 yards per carry on the way to four wins that fueled their run to the playoffs.
The record and stats revert to zero heading into 2013, of course. But that doesn’t mean the run game has to hit the reset button on the momentum, confidence and camaraderie it established in the second half last year.
“Hopefully we can carry that over,” said left guard Clint Boling, who only had three starts as a rookie in 2011 before starting all 16 games last year.
“I hope we can keep that going from last year because we ran the ball well,” Boling added. “I think one game it kind of clicked, and then after that we kept the momentum going.”
That click came in Kansas City, when the Bengals rushed for 189 yards as BenJarvus Green-Ellis recorded his first 100-yard game of the season.
Boling, rookie right guard Kevin Zeitler were playing alongside rookie center Trevor Robinson for the third game after Robinson took the starting job from 10-year veteran Jeff Faine, who was signed a week before the season opener when Kyle Cook was placed on injured reserve-recall.
That grouping on the interior line meshed well, and the results followed. Green-Ellis rushed for more than 100 yards in three consecutive games and four of the next five.
But momentum can dissolve as quickly as it appears – as evidenced by the team rushing for just 14 yards in Week 16 at Pittsburgh and 47 in the meaningless season finale against Baltimore – but chemistry and unity have staying power.
And that’s what the Bengals are banking on heading into this season as the starters are set, the teamwork is tested and the expectations are elevating.
“It’s important that everyone knows a little bit about what everyone else is doing and what they are thinking, and I feel like that’s where we are,” said Zeitler,who like Boling started all 16 games last year. “There’s no guarantee the momentum will continue, but last year showed us what we can do, that we can put up gigantic rushing numbers. Now we just have to get it going from the start this year.”
Thanks to an infusion of youthful energy from Giovani Bernard, the first running back taken in April’s draft, the Bengals are averaging 5.6 yards per carry in the preseason. And that’s without starting left tackle Andrew Whitworth playing a single snap while he recovers from offseason knee surgery.
“We’ve got to keep it going,” said Cook, who started the final two regular season games as well as the playoff game last year. “Even though preseason games don’t count, obviously the things you do in those games is going to correlate through the season, so you want to keep building and keep getting better.
“We had some issues last year, but obviously we were able to over them,” he continued. “God forbid nothing happens this year and everyone stays healthy and we’re good to go.”
There has been a lot of talk about all the targets quarterback Andy Dalton has to throw to this year, and maybe there will be games where the Bengals eschew the rush and mostly take to the air. But an improved running game could be the key to not only getting into the playoffs, but beyond the first round for the first time in 22 years.
“Personally I do not care what we are, a running team or a passing team,” Zeitler said. “I just want to move the ball efficiently. Whatever is working, I will do it. Our job is to make sure whatever is called works.”
Who: Indianapolis Colts (2-1) at Cincinnati Bengals (2-1)
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati
TV: Tape delay on Ch. 45 (11 p.m.) and Ch. 12 (11:35 p.m.)
Radio: 700 AM, 1530 AM, 102.7 FM, 104.7 FM