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Bills-Bengals playoff preview: Cincinnati’s running game

We know Joe Burrow is good, but is the offense balanced?

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Baltimore Ravens v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills will likely face their biggest challenge of the season this Sunday when they host the Cincinnati Bengals in the Divisional Round of the 2022 NFL Playoffs. Vegas seems to believe in the Bills, but there’s a lot of media and fan chatter that’s confident in the Bengals.

Should we cower in fear? Or should we deliver a Kevin Costner-esque speech to villagers hiding in the forest? That even a young boy can learn to find the weak points of your enemies. We’re gonna do the second thing, and I’m gonna cross my dang fingers that at least one of you gets that reference.

What do the stats say?

Don’t worry. There’ll be a few GIFs, but I’m gonna make you work for ‘em this week as we dive into the aggregate stats for the Bengals’ 2022 season. For those of you who might be new to the Skarekrow Stylings of analysis, or if you need a refresher on this, let me link you to my “Rule Of Four” explainer. It’s right here.

For the short version, Top 10 and Bottom 10 lists are complete and utter hogwash in a grouping of 32 teams. I’m sorry I used such strong language, but it’s better to be honest here. The Rule Of Four looks to make a better rule of thumb. The top four teams in a given stat are considered the “very good” or “elite” tier, and the bottom four “very bad” or “opposite of elite” tier. For no particular reason, the bottom four would be the 29-32 spots.

Here are some raw numbers for the Bengals, with league ranks and averages:

  • The Bengals run for 95.5 yards per game. That’s 29th in the league, with an average of 126.1
  • They rush for 3.83 yards per play. That’s also 29th in the league, with an average of 4.46
  • Their primary back, Joe Mixon, is averaging 3.9 yards per carry (32nd of 41 qualifying backs)
  • Samaje Perine is slightly better at 4.1 yards per carry, but receives half the chances
  • Joe Burrow isn’t helping things out, averaging 3.4 yards per carry
  • These are all regular-season stats, but I dare you to go look at what they did against the Ravens (hint: they did not improve)

Let’s dive into play direction a little bit with a chart.

I left their defensive stats in, just in case you’re curious (plus the graphic just looks better with it). I’ll focus on the left side, though. Of note, looking at the number of plays run in each direction and relative ranking, it’s intriguing that the Bengals rarely even try to run to the edges. They’re low average in most places, but for some reason love running behind their right guard.

When it comes to average gain, they’re surprisingly adequate toward the right end — of which they rarely attempt. Is that number low enough where an outlier like Mixon, by way of example, running for 40 yards in that direction might throw it off? Yes.

Toward the left end, I can see why they don’t like to do that. No one is worse at it. The left tackle isn’t much better. On the rest of the field, they hover around average.

This is what was accomplished with a pretty stable offensive line. Starting tackle La’el Collins is on Injured Reserve after an injury a few weeks ago. Other starting tackle Jonah Williams, and right guard Alex Cappa did not participate in practice on Wednesday or Thursday. Neither are currently expected to play, per most sources.

Bengals run game

Play 1: I double dog dare you

Mixon will likely see the bulk of carries, so let’s take a look at his two longest runs of the season to see if the Bengals could find a way to get the run game going. In our first clip, Mixon carried it 31 yards, not quite to a touchdown.

This occurred way back in Week 1. The Pittsburgh Steelers crowded the line, with nearly everyone in the box. Despite the numbers advantage at the line, Cincinnati managed to create a running lane. As noted above, that puts Mixon behind nearly everyone, and it’s a footrace against Minkah Fitzpatrick. I think it’s telling that this isn’t a touchdown.

Play 2: Whose tackle is it, anyway?

In Week 14 against the Cleveland Browns, the Bengals set up this run to the right end. At the pause, Cleveland had a 4:2 numbers advantage on that side, and it looked like a sure-fire stop after a moderate gain. Instead, some sloppy tackling and a bit of hesitation to attack lead to Mixon slipping by all four. Kudos to the Bengals for the solid blocking. John Johnson came streaking across the field to make the tackle.

In summary

A couple quick thoughts here. First of all, yes, the Bengals seem to be pretty bad, overall, running the ball. Second, even a team that’s pretty bad at a thing will be good at it occasionally. The Bills boast an average run defense by many metrics as well — meaning they don’t have the current pedigree to get arrogant.

I think defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier does an overall great job play-calling, but the 31-yarder is something we’ve seen the Bills do before and allow a long gain. I’m also not shocking anyone when I say that missed tackles have also bitten the Bills where it counts. In general, Buffalo should be able to focus more attention on the passing game, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be burn-proof in the run game.

With all that said, when the Buffalo Nickel defense has forced teams to be one-dimensional, they’ve done very well for themselves. If the Bills can do that on Sunday...