Monthly Archives: July 2014

Bengals factoid: Running back touches

Now that we’ve explored how the Cincinnati Bengals might spread passes to receivers under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, let’s take a look at how they might coordinate touches for their running backs.

In the story linked above, we used receptions — not targeted plays — to compare how often Jackson’s offenses in Oakland saw receivers and running backs catching passes. The split indicated that running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill ought to brace for numerous receiving opportunities this fall. Assuming Jackson keeps elements that worked for the Raiders, the Bengals could easily have two running backs with 25 or more catches this season.

Bernard

Mark Zerof/USA TODAY Sports
With Hue Jackson’s plan to increase the pace of the Bengals’ offense, it’s safe to assume that Giovani Bernard sees at least 275 touches this season.

Coupled with the rushing the Bengals are expected to do, those 50 passes could be key elements in an offense that’s expected to be explosive and productive.

We’ll begin Friday’s factoid with this figure: 450.

Cincinnati’s top two ballcarriers, Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, had 450 touches combined on offense last season. Bernard barely edged his fellow back, getting 226 touches compared to Green-Ellis’ 224. Bernard’s came from his 170 rushes and 56 receptions. Green-Ellis’ came from his 220 rushes and four receptions. Put them all together and you get 450 rushes and receptions from the two of them.

For now, it isn’t clear exactly how many options the Bengals will have at running back, or how often they might use them all. Green-Ellis appears on the bubble as we enter Thursday’s start of training camp. Rex Burkhead and Cedric Peerman also appear to be in the mix. Hill and Bernard certainly are and figure to at least be the top two options at the position this year. The big question from a production standpoint is if they’ll get significant help from Green-Ellis, Peerman or Burkhead, too.

The reason the amount of running back touches is an issue is because Jackson, in the seven months he’s been offensive coordinator, has stressed how he wants to increase the amount of carries his backs have. He wants his offense to be more physical than the Bengals were overall last year. He wants the passing game to develop off the running game; not the opposite.

That’s why it’s easy to assume that Bernard might not only get 200 carries this year, but it’s easy to assume that he may in fact hit 250 or more. Hill, too, could hit the 200-carry plateau if he’s one of the primary backs used this season. It’s possible to believe Bernard could have 275 or more offensive touches, and Hill could have somewhere in the neighborhood of 230 or 240. Combine those, and they could easily have more than 500.

But again, that’s only if they are the primary ballcarriers. It’s possible that Green-Ellis, Peerman or Burkhead could have significant enough touches to keep Bernard and Hill’s combined numbers well under 500.

Which leads me to this: Is it really important how many touches any of the running backs in this offense get? Probably not. Remember, we’re talking about an offense that hinges on its multiplicity of playmaking options. As former offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was apt to say, “there’s only one ball.” With A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu poised for productive seasons at receiver and the tight end tandem of Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert hoping for better production and more effective play, there are only going to be so many opportunities for running backs. And that’s even if they do as Jackson wants, and run more plays per game than they did last season.

Jackson hopes his group is able to get more plays off per drive and per game. But how many more plays will they be running? Last season Cincinnati ranked sixth in the NFL in snaps with 1,097. The Lions led the league with 1,156. Even assuming the Bengals run 1,200 plays next season, they’ll still be sharing the bulk of their touches between two or three running backs, three to four receivers and two tight ends. Those odds make it increasingly difficult for a back like Bernard to have 300 or more individual touches. Not saying that won’t happen, but if it does, expect someone else’s production to take a hit.

One Raiders back came close to 300 when Jackson coached in Oakland. Michael Bush had 293 in 2011. Darren McFadden had 260 in only 13 games in 2010. He had a chance to go over the 300-touch plateau had he played the whole season. Under Gruden in 2012, Green-Ellis got exactly 300 when he rushed 278 times and caught 22 passes for the Bengals.

Only nine running backs in the NFL had more than 300 touches last season. LeSean McCoy paced all with 366 rushes and receptions. Knowshon Moreno, who played for a playmaker-rich Denver team that was similar to Cincinnati’s, had 301. He also was the only Broncos running back to have more than 125 carries. Remember, the Bengals had two with more than 170 last year and should have two this year who will go beyond that number again.

That just goes to show that a talented and deep offense like Denver’s had trouble getting a premier back to 300 touches. If Bernard somehow gets there this year, he’ll likely barely do so, too.

No change in Jermichael Finley’s status yet

Jermichael FinleyJeff Hanisch/USA TODAY Sports

Free-agent tight end Jermichael Finley has not played since he sustained a bruised spinal cord on Oct. 20 against the Cleveland Browns.

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Nothing has changed between the Green Bay Packers and free-agent tight end Jermichael Finley, who is attempting to continue his career following neck fusion surgery last fall, but he is scheduled to meet with team physician Dr. Pat McKenzie for the second time in the last seven weeks.

However, an NFL source told ESPN.com that Finley’s tweet did not mean the Packers had cleared Finley medically or were in negotiations with him. The source said “there’s nothing going on” with Finley and the Packers in terms of contract talks.

Finley last met with the Packers’ medical staff on May 28 in what was described at the time by a source close to the situation as “a formality” because Finley had not checked in with the Packers recently.

According to USA Today, Finley was expected to undergo more tests this week. It is possible Finley’s meeting with McKenzie is to review those results.

Finley, 27, has not played since he sustained a bruised spinal cord on Oct. 20 against the Cleveland Browns. That injury left him momentarily without movement or feeling in his extremities. Finley underwent surgery on Nov. 14 to fuse together the C-3 and C-4 vertebrae in his neck. That was the same fusion that former Packers safety Nick Collins had following his 2011 neck injury. The Packers released Collins the following offseason because their doctors, including McKenzie, did not believe it was safe for him to continue his career. Collins has not played since.

The surgeon who performed Finley’s fusion, Dr. Joseph Maroon, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ doctor, has reportedly cleared Finley for football activities. Since becoming a free agent in March, Finley also has visited the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots, but neither team offered him a contract.

However, according to USA Today, the Steelers offered Finley a contract that he said included “money [that] ain’t what it’s supposed to be.”

Finley, who completed a two-year, $14 million contract, has a disability insurance policy that could pay him $10 million tax free if he is unable to resume his career.

The Packers don’t have a clear-cut starter if Finley does not return. However, rookie third-round pick Richard Rodgers was impressive enough during the offseason practices that he is a strong candidate for the job.

NFLMostMemorable plays getting serious

Whoever did the seeding for ESPN.com’s Most Memorable NFL plays project seems to have done an OK job. The final eight plays include four No. 1 seeds, two No. 2 seeds, a No. 3 and one resilient No. 7.

I’m not totally sure on the big-picture appeal of DeSean Jackson’s 2012 game-winning punt return — other than the fact that it happened just two years ago — but it has already upset two of the most well-known plays in NFL history. It dispatched Earnest Byner’s fumble in the 1987 AFC Championship Game in the first round, and in the second round, it put to bed Marcus Allen’s weaving touchdown run in Super Bowl XVIII.

DeSean Jackson

Drew Hallowell/Philadelphia Eagles/Getty Images
DeSean Jackson’s game-winning punt return continues to advance as a No. 7 seed.

You would think its run will end here in the third round, considering it’s up against one of the greatest catches ever made in the Super Bowl — David Tyree’s grab for the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII — but we’ve been wrong before. Instead, let’s consider two other matchups to keep an eye on as this tournament rolls on:

49ers vs. Seahawks: There is no more bitter rivalry in today’s NFL than the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks. Fan allegiance surely will play a role in whether The Catch or the Beastquake advances to the semifinals. What’s more memorable? A leaping touchdown catch with 38 seconds remaining that put the 49ers into the Super Bowl? Or a winding, tackle-breaking, adrenaline-laced rushing touchdown in the divisional playoff game? Consider that 33 years later, there is still only one “Catch.” Lynch’s run was spectacular and could well have the same staying power. But it didn’t mean as much to his team at the time. My vote is for The Catch, but Seahawks fans might have something to say about that in Wednesday’s voting.

Immaculate Reception vs. Music City Miracle: If nothing else, we have a fun matchup of totally improbable plays. In 1972, Harris scooped up a pass that had been deflected more than 10 yards — presumably without hitting the ground — and scored the winning touchdown in a divisional play game against the Oakland Raiders. Twenty-seven years later, the Tennessee Titans won a playoff game on a lateraled kickoff return in the final seconds. We might never see a playoff game end in either fashion again. The Immaculate Reception has stood for decades as one of the NFL’s most famous plays, but we might never see a team win a playoff game the way the Titans did again. This project wouldn’t be complete without the Immaculate Reception approaching the finals, but the Music City Miracle is formidable challenger.

Countdown to camp: Running backs

Montee Ball

AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

Montee Ball enters training camp atop the running back depth chart.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — You can’t blame a guy with the football résumé Montee Ball has for feeling the way he does.

But Ball, who has been promoted to the No. 1 spot on the depth chart at running back for the Denver Broncos, thinks the ever-increasing reports of the demise of the NFL running back are premature. He believes there is plenty of room for some grind-it-out work, even in a fast-paced, throw-it-around, pass-first attack like the Broncos have.

“I’ve said it before, but I think it’s still a premier job — to play running back in the NFL,” Ball said. “I think there’s a role there, a job to be done that can impact the offense. It’s needed.”

The Broncos certainly agree, even with all they did with the ball in the air last season, and did not hesitate to clear the way to make Ball the starter this offseason. But the rest of the position group remains among the biggest questions on the Super Bowl hopefuls’ depth chart.

And over the next week, we’ll take a position-by-position look at where things stand with the team.

Today: Running backs.

How many coming to camp: 7

How many the Broncos will keep: After dabbling with the idea of a fullback in recent seasons — the Broncos even traded for one (Chris Gronkowski) in 2012 — they did not carry one on the roster last season.

And while they have tinkered with the idea of Virgil Green lining up in the backfield as both a blocker and ball carrier, they do not have a true fullback on this roster either. They kept five running backs in 2011 and four in both ’12 and ’13.

It is a youthful group overall, with Ronnie Hillman, who is entering his third season, the most experienced player at the position. The Broncos figure to keep four when all is said and done in the preseason, but they don’t have much size — just two of the seven backs in camp are heavier than 215 pounds — so Green could become the de facto fourth back if they feel they need a roster spot elsewhere.

The guy to watch: Ball showed every reason the Broncos have promoted him into the lead role during offseason workouts. While the proof will always be in how things go when the pads are on, he showed good vision in the noncontact work, a comfort level as a receiver that showed he’s moved past the limited work he did at Wisconsin in that part of an offense and an improved sense of where to be in pass protection.

He projects to have a big year. But the guy who could help the Broncos’ cause, as well, is the last guy to earn the offseason promotion to the top spot, and that’s Hillman, who didn’t keep the job until the end of training camp last year.

Hillman — who came into the league as one of the youngest players in the 2012 draft, having played just two college seasons, including as a true freshman at San Diego State — has plenty of talent. And from the Broncos’ perspective, he is their best home run threat at the position.

But plenty of folks don’t always make the most of talent, and he didn’t approach things the way the Broncos had hoped last season. It showed in both his play and playing time, as he was even a game-day inactive at times last season. However, Hillman said all the right things this offseason and looked better on the field, as well, in recent months.

The Broncos need the potential pop he can give the offense, and if he doesn’t give it to them, that would be a hefty third-round pick who didn’t work out.

Break it down: The bottom line is the Broncos, because of the way they play offense out of a three-wide-receiver look much of the time, consistently see lighter formations with as few as six players in the box.

They didn’t always take advantage of that in the run game last season, especially in the red zone, and would like to this time around. That takes an offense that is already the highest scoring in league history and gives it an unnerving ability to close out games or score touchdowns when there isn’t much room for receivers to work. Knowshon Moreno had the best season of his career in 2013, but the Broncos came away believing they left a lot of rushing yardage on the table because they either didn’t block those smaller formations well enough or run well enough if there was room to work.

Also, there is the matter of pass protection, and the guy who shows he’s the most consistent — it’s how Moreno got, and kept, the top job last year on the way to 1,000 yards rushing and 60 receptions — will be the guy who gets the third-down snaps or the second-and-long plays as well.

“Protecting Peyton Manning is huge, just huge,” Ball said. “We all know that.”