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How the Bengals retooled their running game

Cincinnati uses angles to their advantage in the ground game

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Cincinnati Bengals v Buffalo Bills Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Week 6 of the 2022 NFL season feels like a lifetime ago.

If you can remember back that far, the Cincinnati Bengals were 2-3, coming off a loss on Sunday Night Football to the Baltimore Ravens, and the vultures were circling. A deluge of stories was written debating whether the Bengals were the latest victim of the dreaded “Super Bowl hangover,” and chuckleheads like me were wondering what was wrong with their offense.

Fast-forward to now, and the Bengals are on the cusp of their second-straight Super Bowl. So much for hangovers.

Regarding that offense, a major sticking point was their running game. Through five games, the Bengals were struggling to run the football and were searching for answers. As Week 6 beckoned, the Bengals had the fourth-worst success rate in the league on running plays, and the fourth-worst Expected Points Added per Rushing Attempt:

Since then? The Bengals had one of the best running games in the league. In Weeks 6 through 18, Cincinnati completely reversed their fortunes in the run game, posting the fourth-best EPA/A in the NFL during that stretch — better than even the San Francisco 49ers — and the seventh-best success rate in the NFL:

This is a trend that has continued into the postseason. Out of all the playoff teams, the Bengals have posted the fifth-best EPA/A in the running game, and have the third-best success rate on running plays over their two playoff victories.

One factor that many, including this author, pointed to was their lack of a shotgun running game. Early in the year, the Bengals were a pretty easy offense to figure out: If Burrow was under center, they were running the football. If he was in the shotgun, they were throwing it. After the Bengals started 0-2, these numbers stood out:

Cincinnati, at least from a run/pass perspective, is pretty easy to figure out. If Burrow is in the shotgun, odds are they are going to throw. Against Pittsburgh in Week 1, Cincinnati attempted just two passing plays with Burrow aligned under center. Of their 70 passing plays, 68 of those occurred with Burrow in the shotgun.

That trend largely continued into Week 2. Of their 46 passing plays, Burrow was in the shotgun for 39 of them.

When the Bengals did try to run out of shotgun during that early-season stretch, the results were mixed at best. According to Sports Info Solutions, the Bengals averaged 4.4 yards per attempt when running out of shotgun during their 2-3 start, and they averaged 0.02 EPA/A on those runs.

Since then? Cincinnati has averaged 4.9 yards per attempt on shotgun runs, and their 0.09 EPA/A on those designs is good for eighth-best in the NFL.

In their march to a second-straight AFC Championship Game, the Bengals broke some of their own tendencies and found a recipe for success on the ground. That culminated in last week’s win over the Buffalo Bills, where the Bengals racked up 172 yards on the ground, with Joe Mixon rushing for over 100 yards for the first time since Week 9.

How have the Bengals transformed their running game? By leaning into more gap and power designs, rather than the zone-blocking concepts that were staples of their offense in recent years:

According to SIS, since Week 6 the Bengals have run the third-most gap and power designs out of the shotgun in the league.

What do these designs look like on the field? Take this run from Mixon against the Panthers in Week 9:

This is a GT Counter design, with left tackle Jonah Williams and rookie left guard Cordell Volson pulling in front of the running back. Mixon uses counter footwork on the play, taking a step to his left before aiming to the right side. The back settles in behind the pullers and rips off a 29-yard gain.

One of the things the Bengals have done so well in the running game in recent weeks is set up advantageous angles for their blockers, and this play is a prime example. Volson is the first puller, and he takes on the defensive end. Williams climbs through the hole, and when linebacker Frankie Luvu steps into the hole, the left tackle handles the linebacker, giving Mixon a path into the secondary.

Those advantageous angles show up on this 14-yard run from Samaje Perine against the Cleveland Browns in Week 14. Watch as the three interior linemen all move in unison, creating a huge lane for Perine in the run game:

Against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 19, the Bengals found continued success with designs like these, setting up good blocking angles for the guys up front and creating space for the backs. On this design, often termed Crunch, you see Volson, right guard Max Scharping, and tight end Hayden Hurst work in unison from right to left, creating a wave in front of Mixon:

Then there was last week when the Bengals set up those angles in the snow. Perhaps the best example is this lead power design, which sees right tackle Hakeem Adeniji pull in front of Mixon to the left side:

Of course, standing in the Bengals’ way of that second-straight Super Bowl are the Kansas City Chiefs. Over the next few days, a lot will be written and said about Patrick Mahomes’ right ankle, Joe Burrow’s success against the Chiefs the past two years, and the passing games from both teams.

But back in Week 13, when Cincinnati won 27-24, their running game played a big role. The Bengals racked up 152 yards on the ground, their third-highest total all season.

And some of the designs we just saw were part of their game plan that afternoon. For example, here are the Bengals running Crunch against the Chiefs from Week 13:

Back in Week 13, Mixon was inactive with a concussion, so it was Perine who carried the load for Cincinnati. Now, Mixon is back, and the Bengals have a reworked run game they refined throughout the course of the season.

There are a number of storylines to watch in this game Sunday night. But the Bengals’ running game — and the angles they create up front — should be at the top of your watch list.