Before Marvin Lewis took over as Cincinnati Bengals head coach in 2003, the franchise had been mired in futility for more than a decade, failing to finish with a winning record in each of the previous 12 seasons. Considering that fact, what Lewis has done in Cincinnati -- four playoff appearances in nine years, including three in the last four -- is pretty impressive. However, if the Bengals are going to take the next step and become legitimate Super Bowl contenders, their running game must improve, and Lewis knows it.
"I have to do a better job of getting us to be able to run the football better; you have to flat out run the ball effectively," he said.
While the Bengals' four playoff appearances in the Lewis era are nice, they have not won a postseason game under their current head coach. In Cincinnati's four Wild Card losses, the team has rushed for an average of 102.8 yards, eclipsing 84 yards in a game just once. This season, the Bengals rushed for 80 yards in a 19-13 loss to the Houston Texans.
Looking at this year's Super Bowl participants, it's clear that a running game is a necessity for prolonged success. The San Francisco 49ers are averaging 236.0 rushing yards per game in the postseason, while the Baltimore Ravens are picking up 148.7 yards on the ground. San Francisco and Baltimore have combined for 10 rushing touchdowns in the playoffs.
The Bengals have received pretty good production from running backs in recent years, but Cincinnati hasn't had a star in quite some time. From 2004-06, Rudi Johnson filled that role, rushing for at least 1,309 yards and 12 touchdowns in three straight seasons. Since Johnson moved on to the Detroit Lions before the 2007 season, Cincinnati has struggled to find a go-to guy. The hope was that former Bears first-round pick Cedric Benson would step up, but that never really happened. Benson rushed for 4,176 yards over four seasons in Cincinnati, but he couldn't replicate Johnson's scoring production, finding the end zone 21 times, compared to Johnson's 36 over his impressive three-year stretch.
This season, the Bengals employed BenJarvus Green-Ellis as their top back, and he responded with 1,094 yards and six touchdowns. Like Benson, those numbers aren't bad, but the problem for the Bengals is that they aren't really complimented by a secondary back, a common feature in today's NFL. For the most part, the top rushing teams in the league this season either had a legitimate secondary back or a mobile quarterback to take some pressure off the primary back. Without a legitimate star who can shoulder the entire load, like Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, the lack of a second option in the running game hurts. The Bengals' secondary back, Cedric Peerman, totaled just 36 carries in 10 games, accounting for three or fewer rushes in six games. For Cincinnati, finding the back to compliment its leading rusher may be more important than trying to find a star.
No matter the means to the end, Cincinnati obviously needs to improve its running game. In wins this year, the Bengals rushed for an average of 114.3 yards per game, and in losses, the team averaged 100.3 yards. Clearly, the better Cincinnati runs the ball, the more likely the Bengals come away with a victory.