Opportunity can come at any moment for backups in the NFL. Back in December 2015, backup quarterback AJ McCarron found himself at the helm of a 10-2 Bengals team when Andy Dalton injured his thumb. The backup quarterback played fairly well to end that season. Now, one year later, McCarron’s experience and youth make him an attractive trade piece for the Bengals, as he could soon be given the keys to another organization as a starting quarterback. All due to an injury to Dalton.
This year, running back Giovani Bernard went down with a torn ACL, giving backup Rex Burkhead an opportunity to take his snaps for the last six weeks of the season. Then, Jeremy Hill was ruled out of the season finale with a knee injury of his own, making Burkhead the undisputed starting tailback of the team. That is something he probably should’ve been all year.
Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens’ second ranked run defense, Burkhead and the Bengals offensive line played in a way that we haven’t quite seen all year: naturally, as if it was the perfect match of personnel between ball-carrier and blockers. We only saw bits and pieces of this cohesion in the weeks prior, but it all came together when Burkhead received 27 carries this week. Let’s breakdown the film:
- 13:39 left in the first quarter
- Ball on the Bengals’ 47 yard-line
Right out of the gate, Burkhead made his first carry his longest of the game:
Nothing really stands out on this play because everything is executed to perfection. Andrew Whitworth and T.J. Johnson execute a deuce block on Timmy Jernigan (#99), Russell Bodine keeps Burkhead clean off Brandon Williams’ (#98) backside presence, and Kevin Zeitler pulls perfectly around the formation to meet Patrick Onwuasor (#48) in the second level. But when you have a tailback that has a downfield mentality, and trusts his blocks, it makes a good play look great. Burkhead follows Zeitler and gets skinny through the crease he made. He then uses his balance to stay upright and gain extra yardage. Only two minutes had gone by in this game and Burkhead already made a play Hill can’t make.
- 15:00 left in the third quarter
- Ball on the Bengals’ 25 yard-line
Let’s fast forward to the second half. Burkhead makes things happen on the first play out of halftime:
It’s the same personnel, with a slightly different blocking scheme as the previous play. Instead of having the backside guard, Johnson in this case, pull around the formation, they have him double team the nose tackle with Bodine, which takes him out of the play. On the far end, C.J. Uzomah handles his one-on-one and turns his man away from the hole. After Zeitler chips Jake Fisher’s man and takes care of the playside linebacker, all that’s left is for Fisher to seal his man off. Fisher initially loses positioning as the 3-Tech reads Burkhead looking to cut back inside, but Burkhead seamlessly jukes back outside, not only helping Fisher recover, but getting the backside defenders to sink into his blockers. The blocking was already good, but with one move, Burkhead made his running lane even wider.
- 4:44 left in the fourth quarter
- Ball on the Ravens’ 25 yard-line
Late in the game, Burkhead was wearing down the Ravens’ front seven, and using patience that you normally see from Le’Veon Bell:
This is up there for one of my favorite running plays of the year. The first thing you see is Burkhead attack and press the line of scrimmage. His aggression-turned-patience helps set up a great Trey Hopkins block on Brandon Williams, and leverages that side of the Ravens’ defense toward the opposite direction of Burkhead’s eventual path. This is what offensive lineman love about running backs, they’re working their butts off to pave a path for you, the least you could do is be patient and explode through the holes they make. These are five quality yards that accumulate due to Burkhead and the offensive line’s mutual trust of each other doing their jobs.
- 3:15 left in the fourth quarter
- Ball on the Ravens’ 13 yard-line
Later in that same drive, Burkhead displayed maybe his best attribute:
The one common theme from all 74 of Burkhead’s carries this year, was how hard he ran them. And I guarantee you, his lineman appreciate that more than anything. On this play, Fisher does a good job of sealing and turning his man away from the hole, and Ryan Hewitt successfully finds Albert McClellan (#50) to make the left side of Burkhead’s hole. But the thing you notice is how aggressive Burkhead runs through the hole he was given, and how hard he finishes the run. Two plays later, Burkhead found the endzone for the second time that day, and the notion that he can be a prominent tailback in an NFL offense really kicked in.
The problem is, it probably won’t be the Bengals’ offense that he becomes a prominent member of. That is a shame, because I haven’t seen the offensive line look better with either Giovani Bernard or Jeremy Hill against this quality of an opponent this season. The offensive line played very well against the Ravens, but you see how a running back can make an offensive line look better than it is. Wherever Burkhead ends up, he’ll always run hard for the guys in front of him, and if he does end up leaving Cincinnati, that will be what the Bengals offensive line will miss most.