Benson gets Bengals’ running game in gear
CINCINNATI — Cedric Benson can get Carson Palmer gushing.
Palmer likes the attitude that the gritty running back brings to the Cincinnati Bengals offense. He loves the way he goes all-out on every play at practice. He admires the way Benson has, in less than a year, woven himself into the fabric of the team.
Best of all, Palmer likes what happens when Benson has a big game. In those situations, the Bengals are perfect.
Benson ran for 141 yards in a 31-24 victory at Green Bay on Sunday, getting Cincinnati’s struggling offense up-and-running. It was the fourth time in his two seasons with the Bengals that Benson has run for 100 yards. All four times, the Bengals have won.
And it’s not a fluky statistic. The Bengals’ high-tech passing offense can be easily contained when opponents don’t have to worry about Benson running free. The Bengals (1-1) spent much of the offseason trying to upgrade a running game that was one of the NFL’s worst last season.
Benson is the focal point.
‘‘His will and his drive is something we feed off offensively,’’ Palmer said.
Want to get a gauge on how the offense is doing? Count Benson’s yards.
The Bengals signed him as a free agent last September when their group of running backs was virtually wiped out by injuries. His first 100-yard game came against Jacksonville and ended the Bengals’ 0-8 run of futility to start the season. He ran for 171 yards against Cleveland and 111 against Kansas City in the last two games, both wins.
He was on his way to another 100-yard game at halftime in the opener against Denver this season, picking up 55 yards. The Bengals gave him the ball only six times in the second half, and the Broncos used a tipped, 87-yard catch by Brandon Stokley to pull out a 12-7 win in the closing seconds.
Cincinnati wasn’t about to let that happen again. In Green Bay, Benson remained front-and-center.
‘‘One of the main keys to this one is in the second half, we stayed with it and with some of the things that worked in the first half,’’ Benson said on Monday. ‘‘We kept pounding and put the pressure on. Last week in the second half, we might’ve shied away from those things. That could be the difference.’’
Benson converted a pair of third downs in the second half, running for eight and 14 yards to keep drives going. The Bengals converted 9 of their 14 third-down chances overall, which allowed them to pull ahead in the second half.
‘‘That’s really the biggest difference,’’ offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said. ‘‘We had some successful runs against Denver, but we couldn’t convert the third downs. Yesterday, we converted the heck out of third downs — almost 70 percent — and that gave us the chance to keep drives going and run the ball more.’’
The effects are far-reaching.
An offense that failed to score until the final 38 seconds against Denver was able to move the ball consistently against the Packers. Once Benson got going, Palmer started faking handoffs and throwing to receivers who were getting open with the defense more worried about the run.
On Cincinnati’s opening drive, Benson carried the ball on four of five plays. On the next play, Palmer found Laveranues Coles open in the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown — the defense came up expecting another run.
‘‘When the running game gets going, it frees us up and gives an opportunity to do things,’’ Benson said. ‘‘Like the first touchdown to Laveranues. It was play-action. The safeties and linebackers bit, and it was picture-perfect.’’
Just like that 4-0 record.
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