Since Giovani Bernard tore his ACL on Nov. 20 against Buffalo, Burkhead has been the team’s most effective rusher.
In the last five games, Burkhead has 186 rushing yards, which is only slightly less than Jeremy Hill’s 217 despite the fact Hill has carried 87 times to Burkhead’s 41.
Saturday night in Houston, Burkhead had a career-high 12 carries for 42 yards while Hill rushed seven times for 8 yards. Burkhead’s longest run of the game was 9 yards on the final play from scrimmage, setting up 43-yard field goal attempt to win the game, which Randy Bullock missed.
“I wish I could have done more, maybe scored a touchdown there or something, but I just tried to put the team in position to win and it didn’t happen for us,” Burkhead said. “It felt good getting into a rhythm for sure. The more plays you run, the game slows down for you. It felt good to get those carries and be running around out on the field. It doesn’t have to be a carry. It can be a catch or just pass pro. Once you start playing more and get into a rhythm, it helps you out.”
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Burkhead, who also leads the Bengals with 12 special teams tackles, could see his role increase further Sunday against the Ravens with Hill missing practice the last two days with a knee injury.
Limited to just 13 carries and 17 receptions in his first three years after the Bengals took him in the sixth round out of Nebraska, Burkhead surely has increased his value over the last month and a half.
“I feel like I have, but I also feel like there’s a lot more I can do,” he said. “I feel like I’m just getting started and hopefully can do more down the road. I haven’t had these opportunities in the past. I’m definitely sad for Gio and his situation but still excited for my opportunity. It’s been fun. I’m enjoying it as much as I can and just trying to relish it.”
The question for the Bengals heading into the offseason isn’t whether Burkhead is capable of contributing, it’s if there is room for him in a backfield with Hill and Bernard.
“I don’t know that answer,” Burkhead said. “I don’t think that’s a question for me.”
The Bengals may not know the answer either, given that Hill, who will be entering the final year of his contract in 2017, has struggled since rushing for 1,124 yards as a rookie with a 5.1 average. And any time a player like Bernard is dealing with ACL rehab, there is an uncertainty about how quickly he can recover and whether he will be the same back once he does.
Regardless of what the future holds for Hill and Bernard, Burkhead knows Sunday could be his last with the Bengals.
“It really hasn’t crept into my mind yet,” he said. “I’m just kind of focusing on my assignments right now and what I’m supposed to do this week. I’m sure right when the game ends, though, I’ll probably be thinking about it.”