The last time Cincinnati played New England was in 2010, before nearly three-fourths of the players on the current Bengals roster had joined the team.
Two of those players, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis and kick/punt returner Brandon Tate, were Patriots at the time, so Sunday’s game at Paul Brown Stadium will be their first chance to go against their former team.
“It’s just another team we have to prepare for,” Green-Ellis said. “The only difference is I know some of the guys and they know me as well. I’m good friends with 10-20 guys over there. We still talk from time to time, holidays. It’s not just a business relationship, we had a personal relationship. But Sunday is business.”
Thus far in 2013, business has not been good for Green-Ellis, who is averaging 2.7 yards per carry and has been stopped on a few key short-yardage plays, including the fourth-and-1 on the Cleveland 7 last week.
But he’s not alone. The entire running game has struggled, averaging 83.8 yards per game, which ranks 22nd in the NFL.
The running attack got off to a slow start in 2012 as well before finding a rhythm in the second half of the regular season and guiding the Bengals to a 7-1 record and a wild-card berth.
But even with all 11 starters back on offense and a new, dynamic weapon in rookie running back Giovani Bernard, the production has plummeted. Bernard is averaging 4.6 yards per rush, but he’s being handed the ball only eight times per game.
“We probably have to stick with it a little more,” offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. “We haven’t done a very good job of popping any big ones, haven’t gotten the big 9-, 10-, 12-, 15-yard runs, and that’s something we’ve got to try to grow to.”
The inability to run the ball effectively has had ripple effects through the offense as opponents are able to move more defenders out of the box and into coverage.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth said no one’s confidence has been shaken by the slow start, and that a little patience will go a long way in rectifying the issue.
“Houston’s a great example,” Whitworth said. “They run it every week. They might gain three yards a play for two quarters, then they hit a quarter where they catch a 19-, a 20-, a 30- or a 40-yard run and they all of a sudden take the game over.
“The one thing about the run game is the only way to stop it once a team gets rolling is to adjust,” he continued. “And if you have to adjust, most times it means coverage-wise and you lose the good coverages you like to be in. That’s when receivers start to get open.”
New England will bring the league’s 11th-ranked run defense to town Sunday, but the Patriots will be without a big reason for that success after perennial Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork was placed on season-ending injured reserve on Thursday with an Achilles injury.
“Obviously they’re going to miss Vince, his leadership on and off the field, but from a football standpoint they have guys that are ready to go,” Green-Ellis said. “The guys that play behind him are doing a good job, as you can see from last week. When Vince went down, they came in the game and did a good job. So we’ll have our hands full with whoever is in there.”
The goal moving forward is to get opposing teams to say the same thing about the Bengals by getting both Green-Ellis and Bernard rolling on a more consistent basis.
Patriots (4-0) at Bengals (2-2), 1 p.m., CBS, 700-AM, 1530-AM, 102.7-FM, 104.7-FM