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Film Room: Bengals rushing issues stem from poor second-level blocking

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Seattle’s linebackers had an easy day disrupting Cincinnati’s rushing game.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Seattle Seahawks Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Mixon led the AFC in rushing last year, and with new head coach and offensive play-caller Zac Taylor coming in from the Rams, it was expected that this offense would continue to run through Mixon (no pun intended). That is not what happened against the Seahawks in Seattle.

Mixon had a mere 6 carries for 10 years before leaving the game with an injury. The Bengals as a whole ran the ball 14 times for 34 yards total.

So what happened?

The Bengals’ offensive line has been widely criticized and for good reason, but they handled the defensive line pretty well in this game. The problem was that the Bengals rarely even attempted blocks on the second level of the defense.

Let’s take a look at the film.

Yes, Drew Sample looks just plain bad in this first clip, but it is not his man who makes the tackle. It is the middle linebacker Bobby Wagner. Why does Wagner make the tackle? Because he is unblocked. Right tackle Bobby Hart and right guard John Miller should be combo blocking the defensive tackle, with one releasing for Wagner, but it never happens. Wagner is arguably the best linebacker in football, and they are letting him run free. What could go wrong?

The above was not an isolated problem, nor was it one that can be blamed on Hart and Hart alone. In this clip, center Trey Hopkins comes off the ball and gets a great push on the nose tackle. It is such a great push in fact that the nose tackle ends up out wide, where left guard Michael Jordan should take over the block and Hopkins should work up to the middle linebacker. Once again, this doesn’t happen and the linebacker makes the play at the line of scrimmage.

In the next clip the Bengals do get up to the linebacker and the results are much better.

Like the play above, the center and left guard are combo-ing the defensive tackle to the middle linebacker, but this time Hopkins releases and gets to the linebacker. It isn’t a particularly great block, but Hopkins at least gets his body on the linebacker and gives the running back something to cut off of.

The result is an 11-yard run for Giovani Bernard, which accounts for nearly a third of the Bengals’ total rushing yards for the day. If they had been able to do this the entire game, runs that were stopped at the line of scrimmage could have gone for 4-5 yards a pop. That adds up pretty quickly.

Not blocking the middle linebacker was the biggest problem, but they also failed to block the outside linebackers. They ran several RPOs where the receivers ran routes instead of blocking them. RPOs can be extremely productive plays, but the issue was that the outside linebacker was often lined up too close to the box and playing the run first.

This clip is one of many examples. Linebacker Mychal Kendricks completely ignores Damion Willis as he runs an out route. Mixon runs for a few yards, but it could have been a bigger gain if Willis had attempted to scoop out a block.

In this case the safety rolled down late to account for Willis, allowing Kendricks to play the run aggressively. Issues like this should not occur as teams will learn to respect the Bengals pass game after this performance and as the Bengals offensive reads and adjustments develop.


In a nutshell, the Bengals are too focused on blocking the defensive line and not getting to the second level fast enough. If the first-level blocking is reminiscent of this game for the entire season, correcting this issue is the first step to getting their run game where it needs to be.