Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Bengals Burkhead makes the most of his first career start

Free agent running back likely will draw interest from other teams

By Laurel Pfahler
January 1, 2017

Rex Burkhead knew he had to make the most of the opportunity he waited four years to get, especially with his future up in the air.

The fourth-year Cincinnati Bengals running back earned his first career start Sunday with Jeremy Hill inactive and quickly proved he belonged.

Burkhead, who is a free agent this offseason, enjoyed a career day with 119 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 27 carries to lead the Bengals to a 27-10 win over Baltimore in the season finale at Paul Brown Stadium. The Ravens had the second-best rush defense in the league.

“It was huge, very important,” Burkhead said of the timing of his best game. “I’m not going to kind of back down and say it’s not. It is. I’m excited for the future, and I like Cincinnati. I love it here. I hope I stay here, but we’ll see what happens.”

Since Giovani Bernard tore his ACL on Nov. 20 against Buffalo, Burkhead has been the team’s most effective rusher, but he was still playing behind Jeremy Hill until a knee injury limited Hill’s production in a 12-10 loss to Houston on Dec. 24.

Burkhead had 186 yards on 41 carries in his last five games before Sunday, including 12 carries for 42 yards at Houston. He had 54 yards on 11 carries in the first half against Baltimore.

“What a beast,” tight end C.J. Uzomah said. “That’s incredible. Rex is one of the guys everyone knows busts his butt every day, knows his assignments, fundamentally sound on special teams and offense. His number was called and he performed. I don’t think there was anyone more happy than the O-line for him. In the huddle everyone was like, C’mon, Rex. Get you one. Let’s go.’ We played hard for him and I’m happy to see he had the day he did.”

Burkhead’s first carry went for 17 yards, and it was smooth-sailing from there.

He put the Bengals on the board that first drive, scoring on a 5-yard run and dive to the end zone for his first score of the season and just his second career rushing touchdown.

“You kind of get into the zone,” Burkhead said. “Things start to slow down for you, and it kind of takes you back to when you were younger getting a bunch of touches and carries. It was fun. It was good to be out there with the guys for a lot of plays, and like I said, the offensive line did a tremendous job.”

The last time Burkhead had more than 20 carries was while playing at Nebraska.

The Bengals took him in the sixth round of the 2013 draft, and he saw action on offense in just 10 games combined his first two seasons. He had four carries last year and began this season in a bigger role on special teams with Cedric Peerman out.

“I’ve been waiting four years for it, I guess, and I was just ready to let loose,” Burkhead said. “It was a great opportunity today. The team did a great job. The offensive line did a tremendous job, Andy (Dalton) did a great job checking run plays and it was fun. I’ve just been waiting for it, and I just tried to catch the moment.”

Burkhead also capped off the scoring with a 5-yard run behind Ryan Hewitt’s block with 2:20 left. Including his 25 yards receiving, he finished with 144 yards from scrimmage in his first 100-yard rushing performance.

“Rex Burkhead showed he’s a No. 1 back in this league,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “The rush defense for (the Ravens) is tremendous. For him to run it like he did today — unfortunately for the Bengals, he’s a free man and I’m sure teams are going to turn that film on and there is a lot of teams that are interested in Rex Burkhead.”

Hill and Bernard are both set to return next season, but Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said “there is no question” Burkhead is a guy he would like to have going forward.

“He has continued to do what I think everybody expected Rex to do with every opportunity he has been given,” Lewis said. “He did a really good job today of running the football. He was decisive and ran the ball downhill and that’s what we are looking for. He stayed true to the plan all day, and that was great.”

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