CINCINNATI – Giovani Bernard headed up the field, saw Atlanta Falcons defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi in his way, and did a high-hurdle move to clear him.
It's hard to catch Bernard in space. And it's going to be tough to keep up with the Cincinnati Bengals' offense if he and running mate Jeremy Hill continue developing as the dual-threat backfield that left Atlanta grasping and gasping.
Bernard was the Bengals' top runner and pass catcher, and Hill scored his first touchdown during a 24-10 victory against the Falcons. The Bengals (2-0) stayed undefeated even though their offense was hit hard by injuries to the receivers and tight ends.
Their two young runners were more than enough to carry on.
"We feel confident in whoever we are," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "It's the effort, it's the attitude, it's the intangibles and we feel like there's not a phase of the game we can't do if we play that way."
And the two young running backs are quickly turning into something special.
Bernard moved into the starting role this season, his second in the NFL, and had his breakout game. He carried a career-high 27 times for 90 yards and caught a team-high five passes for a career-best 79 yards.
"I think he's one of the better backs in the league at catching the ball and getting into the open field," said Hill, a second-round pick who carried 15 times for 74 yards, both career highs.
When Bernard got free, he was tough to grab. The Falcons had trouble getting their hands on him as he twisted and hurdled.
"I just try to make plays, man," the 5-foot-9, 208-pound running back said. "At the end of the day, as long as you can make plays whichever way you can — whether it's with a spin or hurdle or just running through people — you just have to be able to make plays."
Their opening drive on Sunday showed their versatility. The running backs got the ball on each of the first eight plays — Bernard ran five times and caught one pass, Hill carried once and caught a pass.
Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green left during the opening drive because he aggravated an injured toe on his right foot, which limited him in practice during the week. Cincinnati already was missing tight end Tyler Eifert and receiver Marvin Jones because of injuries.
Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson decided to let the runners lead the way. Jackson has been emphasizing the running game more this season to take some pressure off Andy Dalton and become more balanced on offense.
Cincinnati is no longer reliant on Dalton-to-Green to win games.
"I think that is what they envisioned when they drafted me, for Gio and I to be a one-two punch," Hill said. "I think he and I complement each other well. Anytime he got a little tired, I came in and spelled him. And he did the same thing for me.
"I think we are really starting to build some chemistry together. We are going to be a duo to be dealt with this year. I'm excited and really looking forward to it."
By | Joe Kay