CINCINNATI — BenJarvus Green-Ellis didn’t suit up for the Cincinnati Bengals’ practice on Tuesday. He wore black sweatpants and a gray hooded sweatshirt, running by himself at one end of the University of Cincinnati’s covered football field while everyone else ran plays.
It’s another challenge for an offense that’s hit the wall.
Green-Ellis had a sore hamstring during pregame warm-ups and sat out a 23-17 win over Baltimore on Sunday, leaving Cincinnati with questions about its top runner heading into a playoff game Saturday at Houston.
Coach Marvin Lewis wouldn’t discuss the status of Green-Ellis, who spent most of the open locker room period away from the media in the trainer’s room.
“We’re going to prepare to run the ball like we do every week and hopefully BenJarvus is healthy,” offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said after practice. “He’s got a little twinge right now, but it looks like he’s going to be fine. It will be important to us.
“We have other backs also that can run the ball. We’re not going to change our plan at all. It never varies. We have a good run plan going in, but Houston’s a good run defense as we all know. It’s going to be important to try to force the issue.”
Lately, other defenses have forced the issue and forced the Bengals to find other ways to score.
The Bengals managed only 14 yards on 16 carries during a 13-10 win in Pittsburgh, one of the most feeble showings in franchise history. With Green-Ellis watching from the sideline on Sunday, Cincinnati ran for only 47 yards during the win over a Baltimore team resting most of its stars for the playoffs.
Asked about the state of the running game on Tuesday, left tackle Andrew Whitworth paused a few seconds before answering.
“Well, I think we’ve made strides throughout the year to make it better, and we’ve had ups and downs with it,” Whitworth said. “But that’s the nature of the NFL. I think every week every team has ups and downs with it.
“I think the key in the playoffs, honestly, is to score points. I don’t care if it’s the running game, the passing game or running the ball backward. That will be the ultimate goal: Be able to run the ball efficiently and throw and catch the ball and be able to put up enough points to win.”
Cincinnati doesn’t want to repeat what happened in its playoff game at Houston last year. The Bengals had to rely heavily on then-rookie quarterback Andy Dalton during a 31-10 loss. Dalton threw three interceptions, including J.J. Watt’s 29-yard return for a touchdown just before halftime.
One problem was that Cincinnati had trouble running the ball. Cedric Benson managed only 14 yards on seven carries, and Dalton finished as the second-leading rusher with 17 yards on three scrambles. He wound up throwing 42 times.
“It’s going to be a great test for us, and we’ve just got to do a good job of mixing what we do and trying not to make Andy throw the ball 35, 40 times with seven-step drops, because it will be not fun,” Gruden said.
The Bengals couldn’t run the ball consistently at the start of the season with three new players in the middle of the line. Once they settled in and Green-Ellis got going, the Bengals started winning. They ran for more than 100 yards in five consecutive games, helping Cincinnati win seven of its last eight overall.
In the last two games, the defense scored the important touchdowns — Leon Hall and Carlos Dunlap returned interceptions for scores. The offense managed only one touchdown in those two games.
Cincinnati hasn’t had a rushing touchdown since Dalton scrambled for one in the third quarter of a win in Philadelphia on Dec. 13.
“We’ve won 10 games, so we’re happy about that,” Gruden said. “We’re happy we’re in the position we’re in. But I don’t think anybody has played to the standard that we expect — offensive line, receivers, quarterbacks, coordinators. We expect to be great, and we haven’t reached that yet.”
NOTES: The Bengals rented the University of Cincinnati’s covered practice field for the second time in two weeks with temperatures below freezing. … All that Lewis would say about Green-Ellis is “He’ll be fine at some point.” Green-Ellis ran for 1,094 yards during the season on 278 carries. Cedric Peerman was second with 258 yards on 36 carries.