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How the Bengals should scheme to get Joe Mixon more involved in the pass game

We broke down 11 running backs in 16 games over the last three seasons to find ways the Bengals could better utilize their running backs in the passing game.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Bengals fans have been pleading since 2017 for the team to feed Joe Mixon the ball. They finally got the breakout performance they were waiting for as Mixon ran the ball 21 times for 123 yards and two touchdowns in Week 8 against the Buccaneers. But are the Bengals still not getting enough out of Mixon?

Mixon is a talented pass-catcher, but despite the absence of Giovani Bernard he only had three receptions against the Buccaneers. As of Week 8, Mixon and Bernard have only combined for 33 receptions on the season. With Bernard expected to return from injury following the bye, the Bengals need to find a way to best-utilize both players. The Bengals would be wise to create opportunities in the pass game for these talented backs.

I broke down 11 running backs in 16 games from the last three seasons to find ways the Bengals could better utilize Mixon and Bernard in the pass game. Here are some ideas.

Here’s a pretty simple look from the Giants to get the ball in the hands of Saquon Barkley. They free release him (no pass protection responsibility) and allow him to use his athletic ability to get inside leverage and get open for an easy reception. Getting the ball to a Mixon or Bernard is about what they can do after the catch. Running a play like this can be even more effective against a zone coverage where the back may be able to find a soft spot in which they have plenty of room to run after the catch.

The running back doesn’t have to free release to make plays in the pass game. Christian McCaffrey is slow to get out on this rep, but this creates more space as the Falcons’ defense drops deep in zone coverage.

Todd Gurley shows on this rep how short passes to running backs can pay big dividends. Gurley has as step on the defender and Jared Goff puts the ball where he can catch it in stride. This allows Gurley to turn up field and make this short pass a big play for the Rams. In today’s NFL, running backs don’t carry the ball with the same volume as they did in year’s past. In order to make the fullest use out of a top back like Gurley or Mixon, offensive coordinators need to scheme to get them the ball in the pass game.

This is a simple swing pass to Alvin Kamara, but it puts the ball in his hands in a position where he can use his athletic ability to make a play. Mixon and Bernard are both excellent in this position. Mixon looks great on the edge on tosses and counter plays. This would be a great way to utilize his athletic ability.

Here the swing by Melvin Gordon is intended to affect the linebacker by causing him to extend. If he widens with Gordon, it would open up the crossing route. The linebacker hesitates so Philip Rivers delivers the ball to Gordon for an easy gain.

This play works on a similar concept. The drag clears out the inside linebacker, which creates space for Tarik Cohen to catch the ball for a touchdown. The Bengals run a number of in-cutting routes with A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd in particular. A play like this would build off of those plays and be a great complement to allow Mixon and Bernard to make plays in the pass game.

The Bengals’ lack of screens is criminal. This is a simple middle screen that Cohen turns into a big play. Running more screens has the added advantage of slowing down the pass rush.

This play is both a play action pass and a screen. This is the kind of creative play design that coaches like Sean McVay and Andy Reid have become famous for. As linebackers recognize a play action pass, they often turn and run to get into their pass drop. That opens up space underneath for Gurley with blockers in front of him.

Here, Kamara is lined up as a wide receiver, and Drew Brees simply throws him the ball right away. The wide receivers block the closest defensive backs and offensive linemen release downfield for blocks as well. With Bernard returning, the Bengals should look to get both players on the field at once, and one way to do that is by lining up one or both at wide receiver. Lining Mixon up at receiver would also allow the Bengals to motion him and give him the ball on jet sweeps, utilizing his speed on the edge.

A simple concept in the passing game is getting defenders to move in one direction and then sending a receiver to the evacuated space. Here, the receiver runs the slant and Kamara free releases to the flat. The cornerback follows the slant, which opens Kamara up for a quick gain. This would be another great opportunity to get Mixon the ball on the edge.

This is really the same concept, but from a different look. The Bears are in a tight bunch set with three receivers on the bottom of the screen. With all three lined up so tightly, the defense needs to be concerned with these receivers releasing in different directions, crossing each other and picking the defense. Essentially, that is what they do, but instead of setting picking defenders to open up one of the receivers, the play is designed to open up the running back. One of the receivers releases vertically, the other two release inside and hitch up, creating a wall that the defenders have to get around to get to the outside. Cohen releases up the middle, then cuts to the right and is open with space in the flat. This is great play design and would create a great opportunity for Mixon.

Gurley is lined up at receiver here and runs the arrow route to the outside while the two receivers outside of him release up field. Again, this leaves the defense creating enough room for Gurley to be wide open for a touchdown.

Running backs can get in on the other side of the slant/out concept. Here, Kamara is lined up wide on the bottom of the screen and runs a slant. The slot receiver runs an out route, pulling the defender away and creating space for Kamara to catch and run after the catch.

Let’s move on to a team that’s always getting creative.

You guessed it, it’s the Patriots. Here, they motion James White to a stack position over wide receiver Chris Hogan. This is a great route by White who starts his release inside of Hogan, then jump-cuts to toe outside, before releasing inside on the drag. This is an excellent example of a running back using his unique skill set to get open in the pass game. Mixon’s jump-cuts as a runner are very impressive, but they could also help him get open in the pass game.

Now let’s take a look at the Falcons. Tevin Coleman motions out to a receiver position at the top of the screen. The tight end releases vertically, and Coleman cuts inside of him, opening him up for a big play.

On the very next play, Devonta Freeman motions out and looks to get cutting inside on a slant route. Having just given up a big play to a running back on an in-cutting route, the Broncos are primed to play this route and the defender jumps inside. Freeman then whips back to the outside for the reception on this excellent complimentary play.

Another great complement to the slant route is the sluggo route. The sluggo is a slant-and-go. The Bengals will see Chargers back Austin Ekeler later this year, and here he runs the sluggo perfectly at the top of the screen. He takes a couple of quick steps to the slant, then releases vertically outside of the corner and is open for the deep pass in the endzone. The Bengals should be lining Mixon and Bernard up at receiver. As the slant route is a common route for running backs lined up at receiver to run, running complementary routes such as the whip (above) and the sluggo will create opportunities for Mixon and Bernard to use their agility to create big plays.

Running a wheel route from the backfield creates a huge home run opportunity for an offense. Here the Bears use play action than Cohen wheels up the sideline as the receivers take the cornerback and middle safety out of the play by releasing vertically in the seams. This ensures that Cohen is matched up man-to-man with a linebacker, which predictably results in a touchdown for the Bears. This is another play that could be huge for Mixon or Bernard. It fits well with their skill set and gives the Bengals potential for a big play.

Here is another big play on a wheel by Cohen; this time he is line up as the third receiver. It is a post/wheel concept with the number one receiver (the furthest outside) running the post, the number two receiver running a hitch, and Cohen running the wheel from the number three position. Again, this is a huge play for Cohen and the Bears as the cornerback chases the post, leaving Cohen wide open.

On this play Ekeler free releases to the single receiver side and is covered man to man by a linebacker. He runs a corner route for a touchdown. Again, it is about the matchup. When teams are in man coverage the Bengals can get a mismatch by free releasing a running back. Running a deep route against a less athletic defender allows Ekeler to get wide open for the score and Mixon and Bernard could do the same.

In a league where offenses are exploding, the Bengals need to keep up. Tyler Eifert is out for the season, John Ross is frequently injured, and now A.J. Green is expected to miss multiple games. That means the Bengals need to find ways to get the ball to other playmakers. Having Mixon and Bernard on the field together and getting both extensively involved in the passing game could give the Bengals offense what it needs to be among the top units in the league.