Football is a team sport, and when one person struggles, it can spread around a team pretty fast.
In some cases, that simply means one player surprisingly struggling because of another player’s weaknesses or deficiencies. A case in point here would be Kevin Zeitler, who hasn’t had the kind of season we’re accustomed to seeing of him as a stud at right guard.
Zeitler has typically ranked among Pro Football Focus’ top 10 guards, but currently ranks 21st this season. He was had a few good games this year; he was PFF’s top-ranked guard in Week 6, but, he was ranked down into the 30s coming into that same game.
A big reason for that drop-off isn’t Zeitler’s play as much as it is playing next to a right tackle struggling mightily in Cedric Ogbuehi. That was evident this past week when Ogbuehi was finally benched in favor of veteran Eric Winston. There’s no question that Ogbuehi’s struggles have hurt Zeitler this season, but at least it’s not hurting his playing time.
That is the case with fullback/h-back Ryan Hewitt. Now in his third season with the team, Hewitt’s role in the offense is at an all-time low. Through six games, Hewitt has been on the field for just 79 offensive snaps, or an average of 13.2 per game.
That’s about 20-percent of the total offensive snaps this season. Hewitt played in 35.6 percent of the snaps in 2015 and 43.8 percent in 2014. In four games this season, Hewitt failed to even hit 10 snaps on offense. He’s played in a combined 15 snaps during the Bengals’ current two-game losing streak.
All of this begs the question of why Hewitt isn’t seeing more snaps? After all, heading into the 2015 season, the Bengals thought that they might have the NFL’s best fullback on their roster. And, right before the 2016 season, they signed him to a three-year contract extension, keeping him in Cincinnati through the 2019 season and paying him $7,500,000.
The former undrafted free agent out of Stanford exceeded most people’s expectations by continuing to block well and improving as a pass catcher. Why all of the sudden is he rarely seeing the field, especially given that Tyler Eifert isn’t playing?
You can actually get a good idea of the answer in his snap count trend this season. The two games when Hewitt played the most came in Week 3 vs Denver and Week 4 vs Miami. Those were easily the two best games the offensive line has had this season, and that allowed for Hewitt to be in the game and be effective.
The offensive line is what matters, and when it struggles, everyone behind them does as well. So when you have a decent fullback/h-back behind a below average offensive line, he makes no impact.
That’s why the Bengals have been taking Hewitt out to add another tight end (Tyler Kroft/C.J. Uzomah) or wide receiver (Tyler Boyd) to help spread defenses out.
Hewitt, or any fullback for that matter, being in the game just draws another defender into box and makes it harder for a struggling offensive line to win.
In other words, having a fullback is useless if your offensive line sucks. That’s why the Bengals have been playing Hewitt less, because he isn’t good enough to help a struggling offensive line perform better.
But when the line has played well, Hewitt has been able to get on the field with more frequency. In Week 3 vs Denver, Dalton was sacked four times, but the line played well throughout, allowing just two sacks in the first 56 minutes before allowing two in the final drive when the Bengals were down 29-17.
They then allowed just one the next week in a 22-7 win over the Dolphins. The Bengals also ran the ball well in both games with 220 yards and two scores on 66 runs (3.0 ypc). Even that doesn’t look great, but it’s the best two-game span running the ball that Cincinnati has had this season.
In fact, Cincinnati has hit 20 rushing attempts (Weeks 1-2, 5) three times this season and Hewitt had a whopping 21 combined snaps in those three games.
If the Bengals can’t run the ball behind their offense line, there’s no sense having a fullback to just draw another defender into the box, thus increasing the chances one of the lineman misses their blocks and allows a tackle for loss or no gain.
But then why did the Bengals sign Hewitt to an extension this offseason?
It’s simple really: They thought the line would still play at the high level we saw in each of the past two seasons, and thus, Hewitt would continue to be a big factor in the offense.
No one foresaw the line struggling as much as it has thus far, and as long as the unit continues to struggle, we probably won’t see much of Hewitt.