Upon further review, tape of the Bengals' fifth straight win Sunday against Seattle played well after several viewings, enough however to give head coach Marvin Lewis some pause. He's still being a tough critic, with some mixed reviews when it comes to the overall play of his unbeaten team.
In the long run, Lewis wants success in the regular season, and the postseason. But he's not forwarding his thoughts because, in the short term, he wants his team to run the football better.
“After viewing the tape from yesterday, nothing really changed," Lewis said. "We have to do a better job offensively, running the football when we need to, and limiting the penalties that set us back."
It's a serious style point that kept the coach on rewind in the film room. The Bengals are winning despite a surprising lack of traction in the running game. That's forcing quarterback Andy Dalton to the air more than preferable.
It's not like the Bengals aren't trying to run the football. They are, with mixed results.
The Bengals rank second in the league with 155 rushing attempts, one behind league leader Atlanta. But they haven't been going anywhere, forcing Dalton to take matters into his own hands. The Bengals' longest run of the season is 28 yards with a pair of backs, Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, both of whom had touchdowns runs of 80 yards or longer last season.
Fast forward to Sunday's 27-24 home win over Seattle. The Bengals averaged 3.5 yards per carry, 1.8 when they didn't give the ball to Bernard, who ran 15 times for 80 yards. The team totaled just 109 yards on the ground.
Despite that, the Bengals rank seventh in the league with 621 yards rushing. They rank 21st with 4.0 yards per carry. Bernard is helping the average with 5.5 yards per rush, third in the NFL among running backs. He has 69 carries for 377 yards, sixth in the NFL.
Hill is averaging a disappointing 3.0 yards on 58 carries for 176. He's not helping in between the 20s, but the team is expecting that to change. Hill was clearly better at the end of last season after getting revved up the first half of the schedule. So far, the explosiveness hasn't been there. Hill's longest run has been for 11 yards.
The Bengals' backfield is tied for the second-most fumbles in the league with three. That's the bugaboo that has limited the effectiveness of Hill, a second-year back who has struggled moving the chains while coughing up the football. He has two fumbles. Last year, he had four, the seventh-most in the league among running backs. Despite his handle issues, Hill continues to give the offense a solid red-zone and end zone threat with five touchdowns, second among league backs.
But the Bengals aren't tolerating Hill's fumbling after the problem cropped up later last season. As a result, they are giving the ball more than expected to the sure-handed Bernard, who's taken advantage of the opportunity much like Hill took advantage of Bernard's 2014 injuries en route to becoming a sensation the second half of last season.
The mediocrity in the run game thus far after Bernard has put the onus on Dalton, who finally could be emerging as an upper-tier quarterback following some up-and-down seasons during his first four years. For the fifth-season QB, skill and opportunity are intersecting at the corner of First and Ten for the Bengals, who rank fourth in the league in scoring and first in total offense with 2,107 yards. Their per-game average of 421.4 ranks second to New England (423.8).
With what they believe are two capable backs, the Bengals want the passing attack to complement the running game. The less-is-more plan for Dalton in some respects is going according to plan. He ranks 14th in the NFL with 160 passing attempts. That's near the bottom of the top half of the league's passers. He's second with 1,518 passing yards because he ranks second with 9.49 yards per attempt.
The Bengals want their identity in the rugged AFC North Division to be that of a run-based team. They want to run the ball effectively and keep opposing offenses off the field. They want to stop the run, forcing opponents to the air, where more risk is involved, and potential sacks and turnovers await for the Cincinnati defense, which features NFL sacks co-leader Carlos Dunlap. He has five sacks, which is tied with Detroit's Ezekiel Ansah.
Lewis said the lack of a powerful running game to date "causes us to throw a little bit more than we’d like. We also can’t have the turnovers. The two turnovers (Sunday) were a six-point swing before the end of the first half, and later a fumble returned for a touchdown. Those are huge plays in the football game."
The negative factors weren't enough to cost them the game. But the Bengals want to fire up the running attack, just the same, so that the lack of it won't cost them their season.