Bernard was already known as one of the top receiving running backs entering the NFL, according to draft analysis from NFL.com:
"Reliable receiver. Quick initial move after the catch frequently makes the first man miss, especially when trailing."
Instantly, Bernard was compared to some of the high-profile pass-catching running backs in the league. The most telling comparisons were from head coach Marvin Lewis during an interview on Bengals.com:
What everybody doesn't understand, when you look at Ray Rice when he was a young player, this guy is already a little taller, a little heavier. The only difference in the two of them is Ray's arms were two inches longer. If that matters. We're looking at comparisons of (Doug) Martin, and the back down in Jacksonville (Maurice Jones-Drew), and those kind of guys with that kind of stature. Everybody sees where they are now, but you also look at physically where they started out, and I think Gio’s got special ability that way.
Comparing Bernard to the likes of the dangerous Ray Rice is quite a bold statement.
It was not long before the media began to erupt with speculation about Bernard's role in the Bengals' West Coast offense.
This time, the media got it right. The Bengals' coaching staff came away significantly impressed with Bernard's abilities as a wide receiver in certain formations. Via Bengals.com, running backs coach Hue Jackson had some heavy praise for Bernard's skills in this area:
"He's so natural catching the ball. He can catch it like a receiver. I knew he could catch it really well, but I wouldn't be surprised if he could go out there and line up outside and catch balls like some other guys can because he has that skill set."
Now that Bernard has officially seen time at wide receiver during the Bengals' offseason workouts, what can we expect to see from him this season?
There will be plays designed for Bernard as a receiver in the Bengals offense, much like the aforementioned Rice in Baltimore. Since these two players have been compared by Lewis, it only seems fitting to use Rice as an example of what Bernard could potentially bring to this ever-changing Bengals offense.
During the 2011 season, the Baltimore Ravens faced the New York Jets in a Week 4 battle of stout defenses. This is the type of game in which the coaching staff needs to do whatever possible to exploit any soft spot in the opposing defense.
Rice was used to do just that during this game.
The Ravens line up in shotgun formation with a four-wide receiver set and Rice in the backfield. Rice motions out wide to the weak side to empty the backfield. The Jets safety follows Rice across the formation, which shows quarterback Joe Flacco the coverage and the great matchup for his running back.
Now that Rice has motioned across, the defense is showing man coverage across the field with two high safeties playing the deep halves of the field.
The Ravens have a great play in store for this defensive scheme. The outside receivers will run go-routes to grab the attention of the two-high safeties. The slot receivers will run routes underneath and over the top of Rice to allow a nice hole to open up across the middle in man coverage.
The play works perfectly. Rice makes the catch across the middle with plenty of room to maneuver after the reception—that is, if he can shake the defender assigned to him.
He breaks the tackle and keeps his balance, all the while keeping his vision upfield in an effort to find a running lane.
Rice gets to the outside quickly and picks up a blocker in the process. Much like Bernard, one of Rice's strengths is his vision when he has the ball in his hands. Rice notices defenders closing in from the middle of the field. He decides to cut off the outside hip of his blocker for extra yardage.
Now Rice notices that he has finally been corralled. He stays in bounds and lowers his shoulder for a few extra yards after contact.
This stellar run after the catch nets Rice a total of 52 yards on the reception—quite an explosive play for any offense.
If the Bengals intend to use Bernard in this same fashion, the offense could see a much-needed improvement in its explosiveness. This type of dynamic pass-catching running back does not come around often, and could be just what the Bengals need to take the next step and claim a spot as one of the NFL's elite teams.
All screen shots courtesy of NFL Game Rewind.
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