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Bengals rookie report: Hot start for Carl Lawson; Joe Mixon flashes but still eyes breakout game

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A recap of what each first-year player has done so far through five games.

Cincinnati Bengals v Cleveland Browns

In the bye week, we reflect. Eight of the Bengals nine rookies have taken snaps so far this season. One has started a game, one has scored a touchdown, one leads all rookies at his position in an important stat. Here’s our rookie report for the Bengals first five weeks leading up to the bye week.

John Ross

The beginning of Ross’s career can be summed up in one play so far:

Ross took five snaps in the only game he’s appeared in so far this year, and hasn’t seen the field since this play. He didn’t return to this game as punishment from the lost fumble, which I addressed in that game’s rookie report. He didn’t dress in the following three games due to a nagging knee injury that originally kept him out of Week 1.

As far as we know, we’re not sure when Ross will return to the field, but he did dress for practice this week. With no Tyler Eifert for the rest of the year and Tyler Boyd sidelined, for the time being, Ross being healthy for this week’s game against the Steelers is even more crucial. But if he can’t go 100%, don’t expect to see out there.

Joe Mixon

For all five games so far, Mixon has received the most touches in each contest, as he is the de facto starting running back in this offense, easing many concerns of his potential lack of playing time so early in the season. The new issue, however, is that his utilization has been rendered inept due to mismatch of scheme and personnel, and therefore execution from his offensive line.

Run blocking has been arguably the Bengals biggest problems thus far, but how much has it affected Mixon’s production. To find out how much, I went and compared Mixon’s five game start to Jeremy Hill’s and Giovani Bernard’s respective first five games in their rookie years: (numbers come from pro-football-reference.com’s play index tool)

Traditional Stats Through Weeks 1-5 of Rookie Season

Player Year Games Attempts Yards Yards/Attempt Touchdowns
Player Year Games Attempts Yards Yards/Attempt Touchdowns
Jeremy Hill 2014 4 28 133 4.75 2
Giovani Bernard 2013 5 45 209 4.64 2
Joe Mixon 2017 5 67 187 2.79 1

Hill and Bernard were each the backup to start off their careers, and didn’t receive as sizable of a workload in the beginning compared to Mixon, but looking deeper into quality of runs, the picture becomes clear in terms of identifying the issue with Mixon.

Runs Ending with Positive Yardage

Player Att Yds Y/A TD 1D
Player Att Yds Y/A TD 1D
Jeremy Hill 26 139 5.35 2 8
Giovani Bernard 41 217 5.29 2 8
Joe Mixon 49 226 4.61 1 15

Runs Ending with Negative or Zero Yardage

Player Att Yds Y/A
Player Att Yds Y/A
Jeremy Hill 2 -6 -3.00
Giovani Bernard 4 -8 -2.00
Joe Mixon 18 -39 -2.17

Anybody can point out the outlier here. Mixon is getting tackled behind the line of scrimmage at an alarming rate, and quite consistently too as well. Just look at the team totals for this year so far:

2017 Bengals Runs Gaining Negative or Zero Yardage

Player Attempts Yards Yards/Attempt
Player Attempts Yards Yards/Attempt
Joe Mixon 18 -39 -2.17
Andy Dalton 7 -6 -0.86
Jeremy Hill 3 -5 -1.67
Giovani Bernard 2 -5 -2.5
Alex Erickson 1 -6 -6
Totals 31 -61 -1.97

If there was any doubt that this is mostly Mixon’s fault, it’s really not that simple. Mixon has shown when he can press the line of scrimmage and have the opportunity to see lanes develop in front of him; he can make the most of the space he’s given.

Creator and founder of RBscout.com Adam Spinks has charted every carry of the the running backs shown below and calculated the average yards per carry before and after the “potential tackle point” which is “the initial spot a defender is judged to be in a tackling position on the running back the running back is expected to be tackled”. Where Mixon ranks in both metrics is very telling:

If Mixon is ranked last among these 28 backs in “offensive line yards” and 8th in “running back yards,” it means he makes much more than what he’s given. His differential between the two is greater than any other back listed.

Why is this? Just like how his negative runs show, Because of how disastrous his negative runs have been.

Negative or Zero Yardage Runs from Weeks 1-5

Team Year TFL AYL
Team Year TFL AYL
Bengals 2017 31 -1.97
Bengals 2016 31 -1.19
Bengals 2015 31 -0.87
Bengals 2014 24 -1.04
Bengals 2013 25 -1.36
Averages 28.4 -1.29

At around this time, it can be expected that the Bengals allow right around 28 tackles for loss based on their performance from the previous four years, but they’re losing so much more yards per tackle for loss. And they are almost exclusively involving Mixon:

One of the biggest goals for the Bengals coming out of this bye week is to try and make their first level blocking as serviceable as possible for Mixon. We’ve seen him create on his own, but it’s not doing him any good when defensive lineman are constantly penetrating on the runs they use with Mixon most often.

Jordan Willis

The forgotten edge rusher to someone whom we’ll get to pretty soon, Willis coming into the bye week has his first start and first sack under his belt as a part of one of the best pass rushing units in the league.

After seeing over half the total snaps on defense the first two games, Willis’ snap percentage dwindled down to 37.69% through the following three games, which is just behind Chris Smith’s 38.28% as of now. How Michael Johnson is used as an interior lineman more going forward should benefit Willis as he figures to get more snaps at right defensive end as a result.

Carl Lawson

There were 18 edge rushers drafted ahead of Lawson in the 2017 NFL Draft, zero of them have as many sacks as Lawson does through Week 6.

Early returns on Lawson as a fourth-round pick look very promising. In the offseason, he was first on the field at OTA’s as an off-ball linebacker, but then started to take more and more practice reps as a pass rusher, where he would earn rare praise as a rookie from head coach Marvin Lewis.

Lawson took some snaps at LB to start in the preseason, but once he started producing on the line of scrimmage, he’s been a defensive end only, and the decision to let him be who he was in college has paid off. Funny how that works.

Lawson is second on the team in sacks only behind the great Geno Atkins with 3.5, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if those two continue to race each other for the team lead all season long.

Josh Malone

The Bengals second fourth-round draft pick has been someone we haven’t heard from since August. Malone has been inactive all season long as the team’s seventh receiver, and there’s been no word on when he will see the field.

Ross has missed the last few games, and Malone still remained on the sidelines without pads on. Malone is in a similar position to Cody Core last year. Core was inactive the first several weeks of the year and was only activated to play special teams in relief of then-special teamer James Wright when he went down with injury.

One could assume it would now take a Core injury to get Malone activated. That shouldn’t be the only reason, as neither Core nor starter Brandon LaFell have looked very impressive thus far. Seeing what Malone can do would be beneficial for the offense going forward.

Ryan Glasgow

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise in the entire draft class, Glasgow has been a key cog in the Bengals rotation on the defensive line. Through the first five games, he is only one snap behind Pat Sims with 108 and is well ahead of Andrew Billings’s 41 snaps, and his play as a run defender has improved gradually because of it.

Having Geno Atkins on the sidelines is something you want as little as possible, but having Glasgow come in for him on run downs has been more effective than some may’ve expected. Billings should see more snaps as the season goes on, and how that affects Glasgow’s playing time should be interesting.

Jordan Evans, Cethan Carter and Hardy Nickerson

If Malone is this year’s Cody Core, then Evans is this year’s Clayton Fejedelem. Evans has seen the field almost exclusively for special teams, and has done okay in that role. The past two weeks since Vontaze Burfict returned from injury, only Nick Vigil and Burfict have played more than 50% of the time on defense, with Vincent Rey and Kevin Minter both playing less than a third of the time in that time span. This defense wants to return to operate with two linebackers as their base, which really limits Evans’s role as anything other than special teams.

This goes for Nickerson especially, who was brought back to the team’s 53 man roster this week with the move of Tyler Eifert to injured reserve. Nickerson was a nice story this offseason went from a dark horse roster candidate that actually found himself on the final 53. How long he stays on the roster entirely depends on what other injuries the team finds themselves having to adjust the roster for.

Finally, Carter has seen his offensive snap count gradually increase as the number of healthy tight ends on the roster slowly declined. Only Carter and Tyler Kroft have remained healthy at the position for the entire season so far, and Carter has primarily seen the field as the offense’s Ryan Hewitt replacement at H-back.

Coming up

Vontaze Burfict’s 12 tackle outing in 2012, Giovani Bernard’s two-touchdown home debut in 2013 and Tyler Boyd’s 78-yard homecoming last year are some of the notable recent rookie performances against the Pittsburgh Steelers. And the 2017 class has a couple of players ready to breakout against the Bengals biggest rival. Will Ross return to the field? Will Mixon finally see daylight? The Bengals could use both weapons to show out against one of the best defenses in the league.