On a whole, the Cincinnati Bengals struggled to run the football in 2017. The team average was a measly 3.6 YPC. The longest run of the season was 25 yards, and they scored a total of six rushing TDs.
–Giovani Bernard led the pack with a respectable 4.4 YPC. His 105 carries were the fewest Gio has received when being available for all 16 games during his five-year career. This happened because of the arrival of second-round sensation Joe Mixon. Bernard led all Bengals RBs in targets with 60. He finished the season with 458 rushing and 389 receiving yards on 43 receptions.
-Mixon started seven games and was active for 14 total games. He also let all Bengals RBs with three fumbles. Additionally, Mixon led the team in carries (178) rushing yards (626), rushing TDs (4), yards per game (44.7) and attempts per game (12.7). These numbers would have been slightly better had Cincinnati’s offense as a whole not been so abysmal last season.
Mixon had just one carry over 20 yards and four receptions over 10 yards. At a certain point within in his seven starts, why did his “talent” and ability not take over and explode more? Is game script to blame? Still one would think getting Mixon out in space should have been an option. It is fairly obvious whatever they were doing was not working. Mixon did have a 67-yard reception versus the worst defense of the modern age (Colts). Mixon also torched the Browns for 165 yards scrimmage in week 11, but only had two other games where he broke the 100-yard mark from scrimmage (Colts & Packers).
-The residual work went to between-the-tackles pounder Jeremy Hill. Hill was only active for seven games all starts. Hill saw 37 carries for 117 yards, and he had four receptions for 16 yards.
-Former Atlanta Falcons fifth rounder Brian Hill was active for six games. (Other) Hill saw 11 carries for 37 yards, and he had two receptions for 36 yards.
Are there reasons to believe that the Bengals should have a better running game in 2018? What positive steps have been taken? What should you realistically expect?
The two main reasons that they will be better are the drafting of first-round Center Billy Price and fourth round slasher-back Mark Walton.
-Price is an Ohio State product, and he should know a few things about run blocking. He is a former defensive lineman who graded out (PFF) as the fifth best center in the nation for 2017. Price was two time all-Big ten selection and unanimous All-American in 2017. Also in 2017 Price was the Big Ten offensive lineman of the year and Rimington trophy winner.
-Walton is another one of those “productive when healthy” Miami Hurricanes RBs. After 1,117 rushing yards and 15 total TDs as a sophomore much was expected of Walton in 2017. An injured ankle limited him to just five games. He did rush for 428 yards on 56 carries (7.6 YPC) in those five games.
Because Walton is only 5’10” and 205 pounds many will dismiss him as a third-down back. I disagree with this assumption. You just don’t see that Walton is that small on film. Or at the very least it does not seem to limit him. **If possible I try to go into a film session not knowing a player’s specs. That way I don’t assume anything.**
People will also harp on Walton’s 4.60 40-time at the combine. It’s hard to imagine Walton being at full speed less than six months removed from season-ending ankle surgery. I am very realistic, and I don’t have dreams of Walton running in low 4.2s. However, I realize it could take a full calendar year before that ankle is right and he fully trusts it enough to push off at full throttle.
Cincinnati also traded for veteran left tackle Cordy Glenn. Glenn had spent his entire career with the Bills. It was certainly a bold move as the Bengals moved back nine picks in round one (2018) to complete the deal. The soon to be 29 year old Glenn was also hampered by foot and ankle issues that cost him ten games in 2017, after missing five games in 2016.
Glenn is there to protect Andy Dalton’s backside first and foremost. He is a true left tackle, and he is paid like one. Even still, his veteran presence should shore up a unit that was lacking in both facets of the game in 2017.
Mixon is the incumbent starter for 2018. He should see the vast majority of the work. Year two will be huge for Mixon’s future financial gains. It should determine if he is a flash-in-the-pan or a next level player! In spite of the offensive line woes, I expected a lot more out Mixon as a rookie. Many (not me) were screaming that Mixon would have been the first RB off the board if not for his off-the-field troubles.
Mixon’s rookie tape showed a lot of jump cut abilities. His nearly 230-pound frame is also very agile. Those same skills will help him be more successful with a better group blocking for him. You can realistically expect about 30-50 carries than his 178 attempts as a rookie. His targets, however, might be more limited. He converted 30 or 34 targets in 2017. That is a great catch percentage yet he saw no targets deeper than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage. Mixon saw only three third-down targets. Of his 34 targets, 23 (67.6%) came with seven to 10 yards to go on the respective down.
Therefore it is feasible that if Bengals are a better offensive team, Mixon could, in fact, receive fewer targets and more carries. This can simply be explained by having a conservative offensive approach. Example: Typically you run on the ball on first and second down if you have the lead especially in the second half.
You will also want to sprinkle in a few deep shots to keep the defense guessing. You are not going to be sending your RB1 or on wheel routes and swing screens unless it is necessary. I also do not think Mixon will be split out wide or lining up in the slot. They have far too warm bodies at WR in camp for Mixon to be considered for such a role. If you disagree with my statement about Bengals being better offensively in 2018, then you probably think Mixon will be a top-flight Top Five RB. You could be right, and I will look forward to reading your article with an open mind this preseason.
The “elder statesmen” Giovani Bernard is 26 years old. Like it or not that is a senior citizen in cumulative RB years. Some will likely argue that Bernard has only 688 carries in 71 career games. That is, however, is still 9.7 attempts per game. Those of you that think of him as pass catcher might be surprised to know that he only averages 3.2 receptions per contest and that number was just 2.7 during the 2017 season.
Bernard also has a major injury on his permanent record, and his rushing yards per game have slowly dropped from 52.3 per in 2014 to 45.6 per in 2015; to 33.7 per in 2016; and finally 28.6 per last year. The obvious answer here is that he received fewer carries which is true. If you acknowledge that, you also must realize that older backs such as Bernard receive less of a workload for a reason. Those reasons can range from things like age to durability. Consistency, effectiveness, and lack of vision may also season that pot.
The one big looming matter with this Bengals RB trio could be what will 2019 bring. Bernard is owned significantly less guaranteed money so it might be a foregone conclusion that he will be cut. Our own Jason Waltner of the Capology 101 podcast believes Bernard could be cut this summer. Walton would need to look fully healthy and serviceable in the preseason for this to make sense.
Cincinnati could save 3 million dollars if Bernard is cut before the 2017 season starts. The Bengals would have to pony up 1.5 million to get out of his current situation. As Mr. Waltner put it “four million for a part-time back is a bit pricey.” My friend and Bengals writer @John_Sheeran of CincyJungle.com believes otherwise when I ask him about the chances of this happening, “I’d say a minuscule chance. They typically don’t let go of guys with multiple years left on their deals. or even one year left unless they drastically underperform or often injured.”