After an awful start to the 2019 season, the Cincinnati Bengals running game finally got going in the final 8 games. Although fans were hoping the team would upgrade the position in the offseason, this positive trajectory and the return of Jonah Williams from injury provided hope.
Unfortunately the Bengals struggled to get anything going in the run game in the first three weeks of 2020.
That changed in Week 4.
The Bengals had an excellent day running the ball against the Jaguars defense. Joe Mixon led the team with 25 carries for 151 yards and two touchdowns, but it wasn’t just about Mixon. The blocking by the offensive line, tight ends, and wide receivers showed massive improvement.
Let’t take a look at how the Bengals got the run game going.
One of the biggest changes in the second half of 2019 was how much they ran the toss play. Although have continued to feature it in the beginning of the 2020 season, they had not found the same success with it until now.
In this clip the Jaguars are running a “Pirate” stunt with the defensive end and defensive tackle to the left stunting to the inside. This aids tight end Drew Sample and left tackle Jonah Williams as they engage on their down blocks.
Left guard Michael Jordan pulls to the outside and kicks out the force player. Center Trey Hopkins follows him to pick up the linebacker. Hopkins gets where he needs to be, but is not able to stay engaged with the linebacker for long.
On the backside, right guard Alex Redmond cuts the defensive tackle and right tackle Bobby Hart does a great job climbing up to the backside linebacker and engaging on the block.
Mixon cuts to the inside and is tackled just short of the end zone.
The offensive line looked excellent on this play. The only issue with the line was that Hopkins who should have maintained his block longer. Sample also fell off his block a little early. Both Hopkins’s and Sample’s blocking responsibilities were closing on Mixon as the safety made the tackle.
The previous toss was to the strong side of the formation. This is the weak side toss, although the Bengals cheat a little by motioning the tight end to the weak side.
This was a great move because some of the early issues they have had with the toss play have been the result of poor crack blocks from wide receivers. The motion puts Sample in position to down-block on the defensive end once again
This time Williams pulls to lead to the outside and kick out the defensive back. He shows great athleticism on this play. Jordan attempts to cut the linebacker and at least succeeds in tripping him up. Hopkins and Hart each reach block a defensive lineman to cut off pursuit. Redmond works up to the backside linebacker and does enough to slow him up. This is a tough block because the linebacker is flowing quickly away from him. On another toss play Redmond didn’t quite get there and committed a hold. Making contact without committing the hold is a win.
The final block that warrants mention is from wide receiver Auden Tate, who does a great job blocking the safety outside.
This play was good for 21 yards.
Here is another weak side run, that happened a few plays earlier.
Motion once again played a large role, as it got the defense moving to the play side and helped to setup the cutback.
Williams kicks out to block the defensive end. Jordan and Hopkins got some serious movement on the combo block. Jordan is a little late to come off, but that may be by design since the play is designed to cut back.
Why do I say it is designed to cut back? Because of what Sample does.
This is an “insert” play where he is in an h-back position and comes inside to block the backside linebacker. This allows Redmond and Hart to stay on the first level and block the defensive linemen. Redmond blocks to the right, Sample comes in and blocks the linebacker to the left and Mixon cuts right between their blocks.
That leaves one defender, but Tyler Boyd comes in and blocks him and Mixon cuts outside of the block for a gain of 10.
Consistency has been a big issue for the Bengals offensive line. Even if four guys do a great job, one guy missing his block can completely derail a play.
This is particularly true with a running back like Mixon who is known for his patience.
On this play Williams does a great job with his block on the defensive end. Hopkins and Jordan are working a combo block up to the linebacker.
Because the linebacker looks to fill the B-gap, Jordan comes off to block him and Mixon looks to cut back.
Redmond and Hart have a combo block on the backside. The defensive tackle stunts to the inside, so Redmond pushes him right through the A-Gap. The linebacker loops to the outside, to play Joe Burrow in case he keeps the ball. Hart comes starts to come off, but there is no one there to block.
Despite the fact that the defensive end is trying to stunt inside, Sample does a great job cutting him off with the sift block.
There is a blitzer coming off of the edge who his unaccounted for, but Mixon gets real skinny and sneaks behind Redmond’s block just before the blitzer can get there.
He makes one man miss in the open field and is off to the races for a 23-yard touchdown.
Jet sweeps played a big role in opening up the run game last weekend. One reason is that they slow down the backside pursuit on other run plays.
Boyd, Giovani Bernard, and Alex Erickson all got involved with jet sweeps. In this clip Tee Higgins runs for a 13-yard gain.
Can you run play action passes even if you aren’t running the ball effectively? Sure.
Does it work better when you are running the ball well? Absolutely.
The Bengals’ success running the ball and their lead on the score board combined to make the run game a greater threat. Unlike previous weeks the Bengals had the whole playbook available to them in the second half. This allowed them to run the ball and run the play action pass.
The pass protection overall was improved, but it was particularly effective on play action passes. Play action passes not only impact the defenders in coverage, they slow down the pass rushers.
This is why Zac Taylor emphasizes the need to score early and to be balanced offensively.
The offensive line performed much better against the Jaguars than they had in weeks past. In the first three weeks they were challenged with top defensive linemen like Joey Bosa, Myles Garrett, and Fletcher Cox.
This week the Bengals did not face as great of a challenge. They need to build on this success because they will be facing greater challenges as the season goes on.