Right there in the middle of the football fray – in the numbing cold and light snow, surrounded by a roaring crowd of 62,507 and 11 amped-up defenders, all larger than him, all wishing they could bulldoze his annoying presence into the turf – Giovani Bernard heard the big man’s hopeless lament:
The Bengals running back was all but giggling as he recounted the episode in the dressing room following Cincinnati’s 42-28 victory over the Indianapolis Colts Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
“Maybe it was No. 50 on the pass across the middle,” the 5-foot-8 ½ inch rookie said of Jerrell Freeman, the Colts’ 6-foot, 240 pound linebacker. “I could hear him right there in the middle of the play, saying ‘Oh crap!!!’ I knew I had him beat inside. And after the play he was like, ‘You’re a shifty dude … da … duh-da … duh-da.’
“And 51 (Colts linebacker Pat Angerer) was saying it, too. A couple times out there I had guys talking to me, saying ‘Oh you’re so quick.’ You’re this, you’re that … whatever. It’s always a good thing if I can do that, if I can just go out there and play tough and keep them off balance and get them talking.
“That’s something I pride myself in being able to do – make mismatches out there. If I can get them 1-on-1, it can happen.”
That scenario played right into the mantra coach Marvin Lewis hammered into his team all week before the game with the Colts, who like the Bengals, came into Sunday with an 8-4 record and intentions of better positioning themselves for the playoffs.
“Coach Lewis talked about how, if we could win the 1-on-1 battles across the board, then we’d win the war,” Bernard said.
The Bengals did that in glorious fashion Sunday – and no Cincinnati player won his 1-on-1 battles better than Bernard.
He averaged 8.3 yards per carry, rushing 12 times for 99 yards. That’s the best output by a Bengal back this season. He caught four passes for another 49 yards for a 12.3 yards-per-catch average
His running – coupled with the 48 power yards of BenJarvus Green-Ellis – was the difference in the game. The Bengals Mutt and Jeff combo established a ground game for Cincinnati and opened up the offense, allowing quarterback Andy Dalton to pick apart the Colts defense for 275 passing yards, three TD passes and no turnovers or sacks.
The Colts defense was kept on its heels thanks to the constant threat presented by Bernard, who is second on the team in both rushing and receptions. Sunday, he made big play after big play. He ran over left guard for 19 yards, caught a pass over the middle for 22 yards, ran up the middle for 18, around left end for 20.
After a while the Colts defenders were doing more than just talking to him.
With 4:08 left in the third quarter Bernard caught a short pass on the left side from Dalton and began to scamper. He stiff-armed Angerer out of the way for a 21-yard run. That’s when Colts safety LaRon Landry bulldogged him out of bounds by grabbing his face mask and flipping him toward the sideline while yanking off his helmet.
That drew a penalty – 15 yards for unnecessary roughness – and instantly the Bengals were on the Colts’ six yard line. Two plays later they scored.
“I hope I frustrated them,” Bernard said with a grin. “It means I can get them off their game, that I’m doing something good.”
The 208-pound Bernard does so many good things on the field, beginning with those elusive moves.
“A running back has to have moves,” he smiled. “If you don’t have moves at running back its gonna be a tough day for you.
“You’ve got to be able to shift gears, too. Sometimes go down to first, then kick it into third if you get into the open field. Hopefully you can even hit fifth gear, but that doesn’t happen too much in the NFL.
He said the position – for him – comes down to instinct: “Sure the position is a lot instructional and concept kinda stuff. You gotta go here, you gotta go there. But once you get the ball in your hands, instinct kinda takes over. Hopefully you’ve got good instincts.”
They were good enough that when Bernard was coming out of North Carolina, Marvin Lewis was reminded of another small, prolific back.
“I think back to 2008 when (Baltimore’s) Ray Rice was a rookie. Some of the runs Ray had were low to the ground. He’d start here and go there. Well, Gio was kinda like him as we evaluated him coming out.”
No one praised Bernard more after the game than Andrew Whitworth, the Bengals 6-foot-7, 335-pound veteran offensive lineman. The team’s Pro Bowl left tackle last season, he played left guard Sunday and often had Bernard running behind him.
“He’s just a dynamic back,” Whitworth said. “He’s good in space, can catch the ball out of the backfield and he’s a physical runner for as small as he is. He’s one of those guys you just get in the middle of the pack and let him do the rest.”
Whitworth admitted when Bernard hunches down and begins to run behind his big linemen defenders have a tough time seeing him, much less tackling him.
“You’re seeing this trend around the league,” Whitworth said. “Guys are small enough you have trouble seeing them. And they run low enough so if you don’t get low as a defender to tackle him, it’s hard to get him on the ground.
“But when he’s low he’s agile and a big man down that low isn’t. So he can make you miss. With that whole mix, it’s tough 1-on-1. Real tough and there’s just not a lot a bigger man can do sometimes.”
… Except utter a hopeless lament: