Running On Full

The Bengals are open the training camp portion of 2008 this week, the prelude to the regular season opener at Baltimore on Sept. 7. Leading up to Sunday's reporting date at Georgetown College will take a look at some of the issues facing the team as it seeks to rebound from last season's 7-9 disappointment. Today: Improving the rushing offense.

The edict went out soon after the Bengals put the finishing touches on the 2007 season. There were many things that Marvin Lewis wanted to see his team do better in the coming year but right at the top of that list was rebuilding the running game.

The Bengals averaged a meager 97.3 yards rushing per game last season, the organization's worst showing since 1995.

"I take ownership of that statement as an offensive lineman," said center Eric Ghiaciuc about his head coach's desire to be better at running the ball. "I don't want to say it's personal but it is because that's a challenge to me and it's a challenge to all of the offensive linemen. It's not an unfair challenge. It's not unfair. We need to run the ball better and we've been working extremely hard this offseason to do that. We've talked about it every day, about running the football better by making good blocks and we've got to maintain that focus and mindset because we know that we want to win more games."

The Bengals were held to fewer than 100 yards rushing in 11 games last season. They won just three of those games. In the other five games they averaged 161.8 yards and won four times.

Rudi Johnson was coming off the best three-year stretch any running back had ever had in franchise history but a hamstring injury suffered in a Week 3 loss at Seattle forced Johnson to miss five games and limited him in several others. Kenny Watson filled in ably during Johnson's absence, rushing for a career-high 763 yards and seven touchdowns but there was a lack of depth last season without Johnson and Chris Perry, who missed the entire season while recovering from a broken ankle suffered in 2006.

Heading into training camp this year the running game is much healthier across the board. Tackles Levi Jones and Willie Anderson are as close to 100 percent as any veteran linemen can be, while Johnson and Perry participated in offseason workouts without any setbacks.

The Bengals are also excited about adding Ben Utecht in free agency as the second tight end behind Reggie Kelly. Utecht is a two-way threat at tight end; while he is expected to help in the passing game by creating mismatches downfield he is also an experienced in-line blocker. That was his most important role in three seasons with Indianapolis.

"People can say what they want to say but I was hurt the whole year after getting 120 yards (at Cleveland in Week 2)," said Johnson, who will turn 29 on Oct. 1. "Once I get my body in shape and ready to go, where I want it to be, then everything will take care of itself."

Even though Johnson was limited to 497 yards last season he was able to move into the No. 3 spot on the team's all-time rushing list and needs just 706 yards to surpass James Brooks for the second spot behind Corey Dillon's total of 8,061 yards. He is 351 rushing attempts behind Dillon for the most in franchise history.

Perry is the intriguing ingredient to the run game. While Johnson is best when he is able to run straight ahead and make yardage after first contact, Perry has the ability to break longer runs with speed and quickness to the outside that the Bengals have lacked the past couple of seasons. He is also the team's best receiving threat coming out of the backfield when he is healthy. Unfortunately for Perry health is always a question. He has played in just 22 games since the Bengals selected him in the first round in 2004.

He played in 14 of those games in 2005 when he averaged 4.6 yards per carry backing up Johnson and caught 51 passes.

Fullback Jeremi Johnson got a commitment from the team two years ago in the form of a long-term extension but he was battling a weight issue this spring. The coaching staff moved Dan Coats from tight end to fullback while Johnson works on getting into shape.

The bottom line is that Lewis and his staff are backing up their talk about improving the running game on the practice field.

"We need to line up and be a physical team," said Watson. "That means we need to control the line of scrimmage and as backs we need to do a better job of running and creating bigger runs. That's our part of the deal. I think that's good because any time they talk about running the ball more, about being more physical, we like to hear that stuff."

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