The reconstruction of the Cincinnati Bengals’ offensive line from center to right tackle became the franchise’s biggest project of the 2022 offseason.
Instead of relying on underwhelming incumbents, development of low-round picks, or the entire NFL Draft in general, the Bengals went on the offensive and left the first week of free agency with three quality starters; a trio of Ted Karras at center, Alex Cappa at right guard, and La’el Collins at right tackle.
On the surface, an offensive line with better personnel was set to protect Joe Burrow from taking 70 more sacks in a single season. But protection goes beyond preventing the quarterback from getting hit. The shared skillsets between all three acquisitions suggested that while pass blocking would improve, run blocking would see the biggest jump from the 2021 season.
Anyone who watched the first four games of the year could tell the pieces didn’t quite fit at first.
Cincinnati’s run game was a catastrophe during a rocky first month of the season, and there wasn’t an underlying reason as to why. If we were to put the problems in chronological order, it would look something like this:
- Karras and Cappa were much better gap-scheme blockers for their previous teams, and their athletic profiles (lack of explosion) backed this up. They didn’t quite fit offensive line coach Frank Pollack’s wide zone scheme right out of the gate.
- Cappa and Collins missed ample training camp practice time due to injury and didn’t start practicing with the starters until a couple weeks before the season.
- Collins’ injury, specifically, wouldn’t be fully healed by the end of the preseason, and he’s been playing through it since. The team has taken measures to keep him fresh over the course of the season.
- The Bengals’ offense tried marrying their wide zone run game with a pass game based out of the shotgun, leading to opposing defenses keying in on complete predictability, and rendering the run game even more useless.
This doesn’t even account for Jonah Williams’ inconsistencies and Cordell Volson’s inexperience at left tackle and left guard, respectively. And then there was the actual running back. Joe Mixon was creating next to nothing on his own, making him a total product of the blocking in front of him.
Every individual factor has weight in the equation. But talent has to win out eventually, right? Mixon and his newest blockers were too good to not put it all together.
We started to see growth in Week 5 against the Baltimore Ravens. Despite ugly stretches of the team’s 19-17 loss under the primetime lights, Mixon had an efficient outing thanks to a total shift in scheme. Pollack deployed gap-scheme runs out of shotgun to better mesh the two phases of the offense. This continued the next week against the New Orleans Saints, and officially became the new standard in the weeks that followed.
From Weeks 5-8, Mixon averaged 4.6 yards per carry with 71% of his 39 attempts happening behind gap blocking. The progress was welcomed, but there was another step to be had from Mixon and the right side of the line.
The shift from zone to gap was the smart move, but you never want to stay one-dimensional for too long. The more you can do as a unit, the less predictable you’ll be from a defender’s point of view. If you can execute a variety of concepts with equal effectiveness, the defense will quickly run out of ways to stop you.
Last Sunday, the first time all season, Cincinnati had success on the ground regardless of scheme. They witnessed this trio of Karras, Cappa, and Collins perform up to their collective standards, and Mixon followed suit.
The three lineman produced run-blocking grades of 68.8, 80.3, and 76.8, respectively, in an absolutely clinical performance against the Carolina Panthers. As an offense, 70% of their run plays were successful—a jump from the 50% mark they were at from the previous four weeks, and most notably, Mixon himself nearly ran as many zone plays (7) as he did during those previous contests (10).
This is such a huge step for the offense. If they can go out and have success regardless of scheme, then most of the team’s limitations no longer apply.
These reps were exactly what the Bengals paid for back in March.