Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu lined up in the backfield six times last season; once as a quarterback, five times as a halfback. We all remember the great touchdown pass to AJ Green against the Washington Redskins, but Sanu also carried the football five times for 15 yards. Clearly not gaudy rushing totals, but let’s examine at how Sanu’s ability to line-up in the backfield can impact games.
His first carry came against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third quarter of week seven on this second-and-11 play. The Steelers only saw this look only once. Ryan Whalen was wide right, with Hawkins in the left slot and A.J. Green wide left. With four receivers and Gresham on the field, the Steelers responded with five in the box and only one down lineman. They used five defensive backs, five linebackers (Brad Kiesel lined up at right outside linebacker), and a nose tackle to mirror Cincinnati's speed – not necessarily ideal to stop a running play that the Steelers didn’t seem ready for.
Jermaine Gresham, Andrew Whitworth, and Clint Boling stared at 10 or more yards of space in front of them. With this alignment, the decision to counter Sanu behind Whitworth and a pulling Kevin Zeitler was the perfect play call.
The fortunate break for the Bengals was the Steelers dropping into Cover 2 on the play. James Harrison vacates the middle of the field during zone assignment, while Larry Foote identifies the run. Whitworth will find Foote, but Harrison rotating out of the running lane and Woodley rushing on the left edge creates a massive hole.
Trevor Robinson and Clint Boling seal Ziggy Hood inside, allowing Zeitler and Whitworth to get upfield. This play probably should have gained more than the seven yards that it did, but Hood managed to disengage from his block and fall on Sanu. Had Boling won the battle against Hood and pushed him away from Sanu, the run would have gone for two or three more yards.
Gresham won his block against Brad Keisel, but Hood shoves Boling back into the running lane as he prepares to disengage from the block. Safety Ryan Clark approaches unblocked, but ends up missing the tackle.
Zietler failed to engage with a defender and didn’t impact the play, turning around looking for someone to block. Sanu gives up at least 80 pounds to Hood and cannot wriggle free of his bear hug. If it wasn’t Hood, Foote would have made the play several yards later.
The Steelers’ pre-snap alignment made this Andy Dalton audible a huge success. Recognizing the overload of linebackers to his right, and diagnosing zone (or expecting a zone blitz on the ride), Sanu’s misdirection picked up a nice chunk of yardage.
On the very next play, Dalton found the versatile Sanu in the middle of the field for a 17-yard gain. They would go on to settle for a 48-yard Nugent field goal on this drive, thanks in no small part to Sanu’s contributions.
The Bengals used this package against the Giants in week 10, the Chiefs in week 11, and the Raiders in week 12 before Sanu was lost for the year. Against the Giants, Sanu successfully converted a third down during the Bengals’ third possession of the game; they punted later during the series.
Against the Raiders, Sanu’s effort and vision made the play work. In that case it wasn’t blocking or an imbalanced defense, but Sanu’s playmaking ability that converted a third-and-four. We find a similar defensive alignment here with a different offensive formation from the Bengals. A.J. Green appears to be on an island, wide left. On the right, respectively, Gresham, Whalen, and Brandon Tate are bunched tight to the right. The Raiders respond with five defensive backs (there’s a free safety deep), three linebackers on the left side of the defense, and three defensive linemen.
Despite the favorable alignment, the Raiders defense is expecting a run and unlike the Steelers in week seven, they react quickly. All five offensive linemen are engaged with the three defensive linemen. With the Raiders’ linebackers and safeties reacting quickly, at this point you would probably expect the play to end at or near the line of scrimmage.
When Sanu takes the handoff, the picture doesn’t look much better. He’s got three options that all look like they will run right into Oakland defenders:
But then, something magical happens. He gets in behind his blockers and suddenly, the defensive pursuit has no clear path to the ball carrier. To improve matters, Boling is now one-on-one with Desmond Bryant (90), and Trevor Robinson is freed up to engage Miles Burris (56). Tyvon Branch (33) is running himself out of the play. Do you see what Mohamed Sanu sees?
Look at that big, beautiful cut-back lane. Andre Smith, Zietler, and Gresham have done a fantastic job sealing the weak side of the play, and Sanu notices it as he realizes he’s moving backwards, eight yards away from the first down marker at the 30-yardline.
But the cutback alone is not quite enough. Several remaining defenders really want to stop Sanu from progressing further. Tommy Kelly (93, left) and Phillip Wheeler (52, middle) are closing in.
Kelly is too slow, and Wheeler has only started to break down into tackling form at the 28-yardline. Sanu feels the first down and lowers his head to take Wheeler on.
As he falls forward, Sanu picks up the first down, setting the tone for what would be a Bengals blowout. Sanu made this play by waiting for his lane to open up. His patience helped create a cutback lane, his vision identified the route to the first down, and his athleticism executed a cutback and powered to the 29-yardline.
To reward his third down heroics, Jay Gruden called Sanu’s number on a fade on first-and-goal with 3:05 left in the first quarter, and I think you all remember the spectacular catch he made there:
That is what Mohamed Sanu brings to the table. His versatility, patience, knack for playmaking in the running game, matchup problems that he creates in the backfield, and his red zone ability. All of which were unavailable to Andy Dalton and Gruden for the rest of the season. Now, with a full off-season, he’ll be back in the arsenal with new weapons Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard.