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Film Breakdown: Analyzing the Most Important Play in the Bengals' Offensive Playbook

This is a big reason why Cincinnati's offense is starting to take off.

Joe Mixon ran for 165 yards in the Bengals’ 31 point shellacking of the Steelers in Week 12. This incredible performance from the run game was the best of Mixon’s career thus far. He not only beat the Steelers with volume, but he also efficient. He averaged 5.9 yards per carry, which is fantastic. 

The run game completely dominated Pittsburgh from the opening snap. The Bengals ran the ball with a diverse group of concepts along with their staple run play, wide zone. Let’s dive into the film to see the different run concepts and a look at this wide zone play.

Wide Zone

The wide zone play is the staple of the Bengals' under center offense. Frank Pollack and Zac Taylor will run that play into any front in any situation. They clearly preferred to run wide zone to the left side into Alex Highsmith rather than having to deal with T.J. Watt on the right side. When they wanted to run to the right side they were pulling players and making things difficult for Watt to get involved, which is a smart game plan.

During the offseason, I did a long article just on wide zone so be sure to check that out [read it here]

The Bengals executed the wide zone to perfection on Sunday against the Steelers.

The Bengals executed the wide zone to perfection on Sunday against the Steelers.

The abbreviated description is essentially this: wide zone is a run play where the offensive line will displace the front of the defense horizontally, the running back aims for the outside hip of the tight end [or ghost tight end if it is to the open side] then makes one cut based off of the leverage of the defense. Pollack wants to define the read for the running back so that they can play fast without guessing. 

Here is the first example of the play against the Steelers. The running back’s read starts with the last guy on the line of scrimmage. If he is outside of the tight end’s block, then the back moves to his next read inside on the line. This can go all the way back to off of the backside of the entire line. If the end to the play side crashes inside and takes that away, then the back should bounce it to the outside. This is probably easier to see with some examples, but keep this play art in mind when watching.

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Let’s start by examining the offensive line on this play. There are two key combo blocks on this play, one to the playside 4i and the other to the nose tackle. Quinton Spain and Jonah Williams blast the 4i back into the lap of the linebacker making it an easy block to come off and seal. Hakeem Adeniji and Trey Hopkins are able to work together to seal off Cam Heyward at nose tackle and Hopkins is able to get a piece of the backside linebacker to make sure he does not make this play.

Next, we can analyze Mixon’s run. He starts his read with C.J. Uzomah’s block on the end. The end fights to stay outside of the block, so Mixon moves to his second read on the run. His next read is the 4i who is also outside leveraged on the block. The next read for him is the nose tackle, which is inside leverage. With the 4i on the outside and the nose tackle on the inside, there is a hole for him to run through. Mixon runs through the arm tackle and is in the open field. From there he subtly influences the corner that Ja’Marr Chase is blocking with a step towards the outside. This makes the corner move and makes the block that Chase is giving easier. The defense finally catches him near midfield, but Mixon is strong and runs for an additional five yards after contact.

Here is another example of the Bengals running wide zone to the left early in the game. It’s another great run. Instead of being in an odd front with a head-up nose tackle, the Steelers are playing an over front here with a shaded nose tackle. Highsmith stays to the outside of the tackle, the nose tackle gets sealed off, and Spain gets just enough of the linebacker to spring Mixon into the open field. This becomes in a nice 5-6 yard run and a first down for the Bengals.

It has become a talking point about utilizing motion at the snap and while I think that the conversation sometimes gets overstated, the Bengals' usage of jet motion under center has been a welcome addition to their run game. 

On this play, they use the jet motion to the playside to expand the strong safety out of the box. Even though Terrell Edmunds makes the tackle here, he cannot come crashing down to blow the play up because he is first playing the jet motion. Spain and Williams are the highlights of this play. Spain’s adjustment to Heyward stunting to the inside is fantastic. He seals him to create a hole for Mixon to run through. This is the definition of “defining the read for the running back." Williams gives a good bump to the end and then climbs up and seals the linebacker. This gives Mixon a runway that he takes for nearly seven yards.

While the first three plays in this section have gone to the playside and been easier reads for Mixon, this one is not. He gets all the way back to the backside C gap outside of the left tackle on this run. 

Watt sets a harder edge than Highsmith which makes this a bit more difficult of a run for Mixon. If Watt isn’t so tight to the play side, then maybe he can hit the front side A gap to the right of Hopkins on this run. 

One of Mixon’s best traits is his patience. With no panic, he stops, makes a jump cut, and runs to the outside of the left tackle. He finishes by driving forward for extra yardage through contact and picks up a good gain of about seven yards. Watt being able to set that harder edge is one reason that the Bengals preferred running this to the left side, but to keep the defense honest, they had to run to this side once in a while. Mixon is able to counter Watt’s run-stopping ability with his own vision and patience so that these runs are still able to go for solid gains.

Another wide zone to the left side that results in a big gain off of the blocks of Williams and Spain. Williams does a nice job to seal off Highsmith so that he cannot get back into the play; Spain does a fantastic job on the linebacker to drive him downfield. He also sustains the block which is huge and something that the Bengals have been missing on these blocks. The real highlight for me on this play ,however, is Hopkins. Hopkins is able to reach Heyward who is at 1T [1-technique] to the playside. Hopkins has had his issues this season off of the torn ACL last year. This block gives me hope that he is past these issues. This is an extremely high level play from him to reach Heyward on his own and then turn to seal him off from this play. On this play, he looked like the Hopkins we're used to seeing at center.

This play is all Mixon. This is a high level example of exactly what he does best. He pushes forward and then comes to a complete stop looking for somewhere to run. He uses his excellent vision to find a hole all the way on the backside D gap outside of the tight end. 

To even make that work, he still has to make a defender miss which he does with a little juke move that left James Pierre grasping at air. Then Mixon accelerates and flies down the field with Ja’Marr Chase leading the way. He does get caught from behind, but it end up being his longest run of the season on what is essentially a broken play. There are not very many running backs in the NFL that can make this play work. It requires elite patience, vision, and then the ability to make someone miss and accelerate downfield. Those are all areas in which Mixon excels as a running back.

In the second half, the Steelers started to sell out to stop the Bengals' wide zone. They clearly told their backside ends that if they see this play, they do not need to contain the boot to the backside. Here it works out because Joe Burrow handed the ball off to Mixon, but the Bengals coaching staff and Burrow saw this as well and knew immediately how to make the defense pay.

This is exactly what the Bengals needed to do once the Steelers started to leave their boot contain responsibilities. Everyone in yellow fell for the fake hand-off to Mixon and they even tackle him. Burrow is clean and able to make this throw because the backside end is crashing down to help stop the run. This is an example of taking the easy stuff that comes with wide zone. Burrow has every receiver in a one-on-one match-up and can just pick the one he likes the most. Easy throw and catch for nearly a touchdown.

Wide zone is the bread and butter of the Bengals' offense. Every team needs a run concept that they can hang their hat on and for the Bengals, this is that concept. They are able to run this into multiple fronts, situations, and to either side with great success. 

This play will be key to the Bengals success going forward and should be heavily featured against a Chargers team that likes to play in light boxes. This team can beat teams in multiple ways and that could be huge when it comes time to play some of these great teams in January. 

Not only can they throw the ball all over a defense with their young, talented quarterback and his elite group of weapons, but they can also run the ball against teams with great success. This creates an offense that is difficult to stop and the wide zone concept is one of the biggest reasons for that.

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