The Cincinnati Bengals had a dismal 2007 season, but no aspect of the team was more disappointing than its running game. In a year in which no team outside of the top 20 in the league in rushing made the playoffs, the Bengals finished 24th in the NFL with 97.2 yards per game.
The problems started up front for Cincinnati as the injuries coupled with the free-agent departure of guard Eric Steinbach and the retirement of long-time center Rich Braham, left the offensive line in shambles.
Injuries also played a part in starting running back Rudi Johnson's decline. The team finished 28th in yards per carry, with Johnson in the middle of the mess. He had his worst year as a pro, averaging 2.9 yards per try, producing 497 yards and scoring four times. Johnson hurt his hamstring early one and was sidelined five games. When the Bengals made the playoffs in 2005, Johnson was a key cog as he ran for 1,458 yards.
Without a ground game the Bengals became too one-dimensional last year and there was no greater evidence of this than Carson Palmer's career-high 20 interceptions.
Can Johnson turn it around in 2008?
That remains to be seen. There is no doubt that Johnson's game took a hit when he dropped 20 pounds in an effort to get faster, but instead it made it difficult for him to break the tackles that he had early on.
The franchise has invested a first round and second round pick on running backs in recent years to serve as insurance and to provide depth to the backfield, but have to get a return on their investment as both Chris Perry and Kenny Irons have been hit by injuries.
The Bengals' coaching staff is thrilled with the health and progress of Perry, who practiced in full during a recent minicamp. Perry hasn't played since 2006 when he fractured and dislocated his ankle.
"Chris Perry has had a good spring and worked very hard to get back and overcome the injuries he's had," Marvin Lewis recently told CBSSports.com. "So I think we're going into training camp with the four guys we have; we'll let them compete; and then we'll see what happens."
Perry could be the x-factor for the team's success this year, but he has only managed to play in 22 games in four-year career, so to say that durability is a concern is a huge understatement. When healthy, Perry is nice change-of-pace back and a weapon as a receiver out of the backfield. Unlike Johnson, Perry has the ability to make the big plays too.
Irons is not expected to be ready for the start of training camp in July. He
tore an anterior cruciate ligament last August and missed the 2007
season. It's too early to tell, but Irons may not be much of factor again this season.
Journeyman Kenny Watson was the team's leading rusher last season as he finished with 178 carries for 763 yards and seven touchdowns, all career-highs. He also added 52 catches for 374 yards, which are career marks. Watson did most of his damage because Rudi Johnson (hamstring) missed five games during the season. It will be interesting to see how Watson fits into the picture in 2008 with the other running backs healthy.
DeDe Dorsey was electrifying in his limited action too. He landed in Cincinnati after being cut loose by the Colts and quickly caught the attention of fans by averaging 8.7 yards per carry.
The team did not draft a running back as expected, but they did take a look at free-agent Shaun Alexander, but opted to stick with what they have. Don't be surprised though if Alexander gets another look if the Bengals are not happy with what they see early on in camp and the former NFL MVP remains unsigned.
If the Bengals are going to have any chance at a winning season and the playoffs in 2008, they must do better on the ground.
Fantasy Football, NFL