Before the Bengals packed their bags for London three weeks ago, they had just ran for 33 yards against the Jaguars. It was the second straight game that the offense ran for that exact yardage, and their rushing offense was at what seemed to be an all-time low.
Cincinnati obviously lost that game against Jacksonville and lost again to Los Angeles in London, but that contest overseas featured a slight revival in the ground attack. Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard ran for 97 yards on a combined 20 carries and while the rest of the team entered the bye week on a low note, at least the running backs had some positive momentum going for them.
That momentum seemed to carry over into the start of the second half of the season. In Ryan Finley’s first ever start this past Sunday, the Bengals duo at running back scampered for 122 yards on 34 carries. Efficiency-wise, 3.58 yards per carry isn’t much to boast about, but relative to the results we were seeing from the first seven weeks, it’s at least noteworthy.
Just look at the difference in rushing success rate for Mixon and Bernard before and after the Rams game:
- Weeks 1-7: 37% success rate
- Weeks 8 and 10: 52% success rate
Now, success rate is a tricky metric because, like yards per carry, it doesn’t complete capture a running back’s individual ability. But it does provide more context for the rushing game as a whole compared to yards per carry.
Situationally, the run game has improved, and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan was asked what the reason for that was:
“To be a good running team in the NFL, you have to be able to run all the schemes. You can’t just sit in one the whole game. People will beat you. It’s just the nature of how good defensive coaches go and good defensive schemes. To run strictly zone plays all the time is probably not realistic. We’ve definitely put a heavier emphasis on some of the gap schemes and some perimeter game and things like that. It’s helped us. It’s gotten Joe in spots where he’s good and it’s gotten our guys in spots where they’ve been good. We’re going to find ways to put our guys in position to be successful. And I think we have the last two games in the run game. We’ve gotten to that point where we feel pretty good about how we’re going about the scheme.”
Callahan is the son of Washington’s current interim head coach Bill Callahan, who is a fiend for implementing zone blocking into the offense he’s a part of. Obviously, son would take after farther in this case, but young Brian realized that his current personnel may not fit to the scheme he’s comfortable with.
A coach basing scheme around personnel, not personnel around scheme, is a coach that knows what he’s doing. It may’ve taken half the season, but the Bengals are helping out their offensive line by not asking them to be the athletes they aren’t when running zone 24/7.
That’s the true difference between zone and gap blocking (which I meant to explain in the video below but forgot). In zone, you’re blocking a designated cluster of defenders. On that designed zone play, if the blocker is covered at the snap by a defender, they’ll block the man in that gap. If they’re uncovered, they may perform a combo block on the frontside defender they’re closest to or just go straight to the second level. And each blocker starts with the same drive step to get out in front of the defender so the back can run towards his first read.
In gap, or man blocking, you’re assigned a gap and block in a more vertical sense, whereas zone is lateral by nature. The first step in gap blocking is with your inside foot in order to drive defenders out of the gap, hence the name. You also get pulling lineman in power concepts and combo blocks with the guard and center (Ace block) or with the guard and tackle (Deuce block) where the frontside blocker then climbs towards the second level. The most common play is called DUO, where you have an Ace and a Deuce block on the interior defensive lineman.
These concepts and the clear shift from an offense based around zone plays were evident in Sunday’s game, where Mixon and Bernard were involved in gap-style blocking concepts that we haven’t seen very much of this year. There were six plays from the first half of the game—before the game got too much out of hand—that showcase the newfound growth and the familiar struggles of the offensive line and its relationship with the running backs.
Again, it’s far from perfect, but this is why former offensive line coach Frank Pollack had Joe Mixon as the AFC rushing champion last year. Pollack, like Callahan, is well-versed in zone schemes and tried to fit that same square peg in the round hole known as the Bengals’ offensive line. Eventually, he and then offensive coordinator Bill Lazor opted to run more power, more duo, among other concepts and adjust to whatever strengths that version of the offensive line had.
With an equally putrid offensive line, Pollack helped generate results for Mixon—results that the Bengals offense would’ve killed for earlier this season.
And it’s fair to assume that Pollack’s replacement, Jim Turner, was involved in this recent renaissance. Head coach Zac Taylor leans heavily on Turner and the trio of Taylor, Callahan and Turner are the minds behind the offense we see every Sunday.
The offense we’ll continue to see will be based around the game with a rookie quarterback under center, and while that isn’t exactly a recipe for success, it’ll help determine what we’re dealing with up front going forward. And that, from an evaluation perspective, is progress.