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Bengals Weekly Lineman: What a hot-n-cold run game looks like

Joe Mixon and the offensive line struggled to get things going in New York.

NFL: OCT 31 Bengals at Jets Photo by Joshua Sarner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Football never ceases to surprise.

No preconception was safe after the New York Jets took down the Cincinnati Bengals. 11-point road favorites don’t always end up covering that massive spread, but they at least win straight up most of the time. In fact, only 19 other teams lost as road favorites of 11 points or more in last 40 years before Sunday, per stathead.com.

The last time it happened was last year, when the Bengals beat the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football.

That game was shocking, but I think a better parallel to Sunday’s loss came in Week 8 of last season. The AFC South-leading Tennessee Titans came into Cincinnati as 7.5 point favorites the day after Halloween. Their offense was clicking on all cylinders as Ryan Tannehill was leading all quarterbacks in EPA/play, and Derrick Henry was 663 yards into his 2,000-yard season.

The Bengals of 2020 had talent and potential, they just didn’t have enough to produce with any consistency. Because of this, no one gave them a chance against Tannehill and Henry, especially after suffering a demoralizing loss the week prior against the Cleveland Browns. Low and behold, the Bengals got the Titans to fall into their trap.

Sometimes you’re the Titans, and sometimes you’re the Jets. Ironically, the Titans are the only other team to lose to the Jets this year.

Being massive road favorites usually indicates a notable talent disparity. The Jets didn’t have much hope on paper offensively (and Mike White proved that to be a farce). That was where we all believed the gap was. If there was one area that New York could compete, it would be with their defensive line.

This still didn’t sway me from believing Joe Mixon would dominate in this game.

Mixon had a relatively quiet month of October after the offense relied on him for most of September. An ankle injury suffered in Week 4 limited him the following week, and he was an afterthought during the rout in Baltimore. But we saw what Mixon was capable of the month prior.

The plan to ride Mixon until Joe Burrow got comfortable was fairly obvious, and the offense remained true to that identity for the first four weeks. Mixon was second in the league in attempts and third in yards through Week 4. They were also 20th in EPA/rush and 23rd in success rate. What they sacrificed in efficiency and support from the analytics community, they bought what they believed to be time for Burrow to start feeling like himself again by limiting his drop backs and feeding their $50 million back.

Burrow has since looked like his old self, but entering this past week, you’d think that he shouldn’t have to play his absolute best in order to beat the Jets. This is a perfect game for a fully healthy Mixon to put the offense on his back, as there would be no pressure to put up 30+ points. It’s Mike White, what’s he gonna do, throw for 400 yards and three touchdowns?

As the game became a shootout, it became clearer and clearer that Mixon wasn’t going to have that kind of day. On top of their offensive success, the Jets’ defensive line was unsurprisingly stout against the run. Mixon’s first three attempts were all stuffed at the line of scrimmage, which foreshadowed his 2.36 yards per carry by the end of the day. He ended up tying a season-low with 33 yards, but he ran the ball four more times than he did when he ran for just 33 yards against the Green Bay Packers.

The main aspect yards per carry doesn’t portray very well is consistency. If you gain 10 yards on 19 carries, your average is barely above .5 yards. But a 90-yard touchdown run on your next carry boosts that average all the way up to five yards. It’s misleading due to a lack of context.

Mixon’s 2.36 yards per carry against the Jets is a season-low, but his 43% success rate, the percentage of runs that gain positive EPA, is his third-highest of the year. Only against the Jacksonville Jaguars (56%) and Detroit Lions (44%) was he more successful per attempt. Go figure with that opposition.

The most basic way to sum this up is that when the Jets stopped Mixon, they stopped him. But Mixon was still able to churn out positive plays on nearly half of his carries, he just didn’t create any real explosive plays on them.

For this week’s video, I wanted to examine his blocking to get to the bottom of this contrast.

Of all the things that led to the Bengals losing, producing an ineffective run game is not at the top of the list. At least it shouldn’t be. But when the unexpected inexplicably occurs, the little things tend to conglomerate into a mass of incompetence too great to overcome.

Mixon and the offensive line struggling to achieve consistency against a struggling Jets defense was just another surprise from Sunday. Another lesson to be learned going forward.