How Joe Mixon and the Bengals Upset the Bills
NFL Conference Championship - The Cincinnati Bengals went into Buffalo and manhandled the Bills in the snow for a 27-10 win. The win sends the Bengals back to the AFC Championship Game for the second straight year. The defense was probably the biggest highlight, holding Josh Allen and company to just 10 points, but the biggest surprise had to be the Bengals offensive line. With three starters out with injuries, the patched-together unit played one of its best games of the season on the big stage. It was a strong performance by an offensive line that had a lot of doubters going into last weekend, including me.
The Bengals offensive line controlled the Bills front seven from the opening kickoff. Cincy received the ball to start the game and went right down the field for an opening touchdown. That first drive really set the energy for the entire game.
The first thing I want to highlight was the first big play of the game for Cincy and the one that really kickstarted the aforementioned opening drive.
The key to the play is rookie left guard Cordell Volson (67). He's executing what's called a "wipe" block on the nose. I'm guessing this is a man protection scheme from the Bengals where Volson is actually looking at the defensive back over the slot because they have identified him as the most likely blitzer, not the middle linebacker over the ball. So Volson and the center are responsible for the nose guard and that nickelback.
Once Volson sets and he sees there's nothing threatening him outside, he goes back to help his center. But the key is that he doesn't just settle in and half-ass double-team the nose guard. He turns it into a drive block to displace the nose guard from his rush lane and create a ton of space for Joe Burrow to step up. That's the wipe block—he's not just falling back inside and helping out the center, he's actively distorting the defense's pass rush to create a seam for Burrow to run through. While Burrow is stepping up, he finds a man downfield, so he doesn't run it, but opening holes for a mobile quarterback to escape through is a big positive of man protection as opposed to slide protection.
I also want to praise Jackson Carman (79) here at left tackle. I thought he looked a little awkward pass-blocking in space last week but he looked so much better this week. I think bad weather really helps offensive tackles; it really slows down a defensive lineman's get-off and makes it harder to change direction. Still, this just looks like a much smoother pass set than what we saw from Carman last week.
The next play I wanted to highlight was an outside zone where Burrow pitched it to Joe Mixon instead of handing it off. It's still basic outside zone everywhere else.
The first thing you're going to see on any successful zone run that hits to the play side is someone on the defense gets reached. That means a blocker gets to the gap that the defender is responsible for first, and seals that defender inside. On this play, both the defensive end and defensive tackle get reached to the play side.
Let's start with the 3-technique. Right guard Max Scharping (74) is quick off the snap and gets his helmet outside immediately. The defender probably feels like Scharping took off too wide and can be beaten on the back side. If, as a defensive lineman, you're going to try and beat your man backdoor (meaning you run through behind him) you better at least make the back widen his course. Otherwise you have abandoned your gap for absolutely no reason. Here the Bills defensive tackle tries to beat the guard backside, but look at Joe Mixon (28)—he never has to flatten or widen his course an inch. He stays straight on his initial path to the tight end's outside foot and never has to veer off it. The defensive tackle takes himself completely out of the play.
The play-side combination between the tight end (Mitchell Wilcox, 84) and right tackle (Hakeem Adeniji, 77) is tremendous. The defensive end is playing Wilcox head up. Wilcox does a good job of stepping outside that defensive end's frame and making him declare a gap. If you stay down the middle of that defensive end, you allow him to almost play two gaps, and you muddy up the read for the tackle that is helping you. By immediately getting to the defender's outside shoulder, Wilcox makes it clear that the defensive end is playing the C gap. So Wilcox extends his arms to open up the defensive end's shoulders and create space for Adeniji to come in and get his helmet to the defender's outside number. Adeniji gets his head across and reaches the defensive end and Wilcox climbs to the linebacker. Absolutely textbook stuff.
One thing that doesn't get discussed enough is that pass protection schemes would be terrible if they had to account for every defender. If you want your offensive linemen to have a chance to block anyone effectively, you can't have them responsible for all 11 guys. You have to limit them to one or two possible options before the snap or have them responsible for a single gap. Otherwise they aren't in a position to set confidently and put themselves in a good position to stop the league's best pass-rushers.
There are only so many ways to block a double A-gap pressure look from empty, and all of them are going to leave at least one guy on the line of scrimmage unaccounted for if everyone comes. You can set softly and try to read who is going to blitz, but the problem with that is you have a bunch of guys playing tentatively waiting to see what the defense does.
What the Bengals do is say screw it, we're going full slide, and if anyone comes off the left edge he's unblocked. There's a decent chance that you'll waste a guy blocking a gap that no one blitzes through, but the upshot is that it's easy for offensive linemen to only have to block one gap. So your protection should be really solid everywhere else. Also, as far as hot reads go, "anyone who rushes outside the left tackle is unblocked" is very easy for receivers and the quarterback to remember. You sacrifice optimal coverage for sound blocking and everyone being on the same page.
So on this play, the Bills end up only rushing three, and the Bengals can only account for two of those three because they guessed wrong and slid the offensive line into the drop.
This is pretty much the worst case scenario for full slide vs. double A-gap pressure. But the unblocked guy still has to come all the way from the edge, and Burrow knows he has to beat him with the throw. I guarantee if the first read is covered, this ball is going out of bounds. Again, it's not ideal, but it makes your offensive line much more effective at pass-blocking when they know they only have one gap to protect. And even when the worst possible thing happens (the Bills drop eight and you don't account for one of only three rushers), you can generate a positive play.
The Bengals threw a touchdown a couple of plays later and never looked back. Like I said before, that first drive really set the stage for the rest of the game. It felt like Buffalo was playing catch-up the whole time and any time they seemed to bring Cincinnati within striking distance, the Bengals put together a drive or got a stop. When it came to putting together those key drives, I thought the running game was every bit as important as Burrow and the wide receivers.
Before we get into anything up front on this next play, I just want to say what a great job of scheming this is. Obviously, you still have to block it, but this thing was set up to go right from the snap. The Bengals bring Ja'Marr Chase into the backfield in motion (they did that multiple times on Sunday), and it accomplishes a couple of things. First, it gets everyone on defense looking at Chase. When you put a player as fast and dynamic as Chase into motion with that kind of pace, it draws the defense's attention. Secondly, it forces the defense to bump their second-level players. So the Bills end up with a cornerback playing linebacker and a linebacker playing in the slot.
Well, it turns out the cornerback playing linebacker isn't very good at taking on a pulling offensive tackle in the hole. Adeniji (77) comes across the formation and leads up onto the corner, who just kind of gives up and tries to burrow into the ground and create a pile.
The problem with that is that the hole is so huge that a corner and a offensive tackle laying in the middle of it doesn't affect the play at all. Carman (79) at left tackle pass sets and gets the defensive end to rush up the field to take himself out of the play. Volson (67) at left guard and Ted Karras (64) at center get a double team on the nose tackle and knock him back a little. The Bills' other linebacker gets too wide at the snap and is too occupied with Chase the whole time, so even though no one ever blocks him, he can't make the play. Like I said, this thing was set to hit big from the snap.
It wasn't all the offensive line in the running game for the Bengals either. I really thought Mixon ran his ass off and had the best game of his season that I have seen. He consistently made the right read and got into the hole quickly enough so that even if the Bengals weren't perfect up front, he gave them a chance to gain positive yards.
The Bills are running a stunt here where the defensive tackle (Ed Oliver, 91) and walked-up linebacker (Matt Milano, 58) over the offense's right side are exchanging gaps. It's really tough to block this type of game on inside zone (which is what the Bengals have called here) because the tackle has to cut off a guy that has inside leverage with no help from his guard because the guard has to deal with that walked-up linebacker immediately. Adeniji never does get that backside defensive tackle cut off, but he at least stays engaged on the block so Mixon can hit the line of scrimmage and break through.
Where the Bengals really win on this play, aside from Mixon's nice running, is at the center spot. Karras is blocking the walked-up linebacker (Tremaine Edmunds, 49) and does what you're need to do against a walked-up linebacker: knock him back off the ball and into the second level. Karras gets good vertical push, which allows Mixon to press the run play-side long enough that the back-side defensive tackle (Tim Settle, 99) can't make the tackle. If Karras doesn't knock that linebacker 3 or 4 yards off the line of scrimmage, Mixon runs into that block and gets tackled for a very short gain.
This last run I want to discuss came on the Bengals' final touchdown drive on a key third-and-1. I didn't get it on the GIF, but Burrow looks like he checked to the play at the line. It's most likely that the Bengals had two runs called in the huddle and let the quarterback check to whatever one he liked better at the line. Obviously, Burrow picked the right one, because this play was great against the front Buffalo was in. Going back and watching the game, the Bengals offensive staff put their guys in much better positions than the Bills defensive staff.
Aside from the great call though, can we look at Jackson Carman taking Tremaine Edmunds (49) for an absolute sled ride in the snow. My goodness does that look like fun. He gets outside, locks into him, runs his feet like a mad man, and finishes with the big shove. This was such a big play to extend the drive and it's awesome that a guy who was benched in the offseason, largely due to struggles in the playoffs, kept his head in the right space all year and played solid in such a key spot this postseason.
I'm not saying I expect the Bengals offensive line to play this well on Sunday. But if they can play to 75% or 80% of this effectiveness, Cincinnati looks like a very tough out moving forward. It will be interesting to see how they handle Kansas City's pass rush this weekend for sure.
18 comments, Last at 26 Jan 2023, 9:22pm
#1 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jan 26, 2023 - 10:44am
It seems a lot of Cincinnati's offensive success was based on the Bills generally being in the wrong play, but also executing that play like ass, because their defensive linemen and inline LBs were choosing wrong or getting wiped out.
#4 by IlluminatusUIUC // Jan 26, 2023 - 11:22am
Buffalo is small on defense and got smaller with Daquon Jones was ruled out, so we were just out matched physically. And we never, ever, get out of nickel (Taron Johnson #7 played 99% of snaps) even with Cincy out there with heavier formations and pullers.
#12 by Cythammer // Jan 26, 2023 - 1:51pm
What? The defense was far worse. They provided barely any resistance. The offense was average-ish. I believe the VOA and DVOA for this game bears out what I'm saying. The defense was egregious that game.
#2 by occams_pointed… // Jan 26, 2023 - 10:48am
It feels like Karras is a big key between 2021 and 2022. He's a huge upgrade from Hopkins. Really it's the first time the Bengals have had a decent center in a while. Paul Brown picked a center with his very first Bengals draft pick so he'd approve.
I thought the Bengals should have drafted Creed Humphrey instead of Jackson Carman and then they could play Karras at OG.
But, if Jackson Carman does ok on Sunday and if he gets a similar opportunity and does ok in the Super Bowl I'll maybe change my thinking a little bit about that draft.
#16 by Will Allen // Jan 26, 2023 - 6:17pm
I'll say again that I think the value of excellent center play gets undderrated, as does how damaging it is to get consistently bad center play. Yeah, there have been plenty really good/championship teams that were just average at center, but having excellent play at that position really opens up productive options for offense, and being bad at that position really opens up the disastrous possibilities on every snap. When you start every play with, "Well, the guy starting the play is gonna get his ass kicked", optimism is rightly circumspect.
#5 by Lost Ti-Cats Fan // Jan 26, 2023 - 12:11pm
Prior to this article, I hadn't really thought about how pass blocking is easier on snowy fields. I was well aware that the passing game tends to be more effective in the snow. I attributed that mostly to receivers finding it easier to get separation, especially on deep routes. I was also well aware that scrambling, elusive QBs become 3x more elusive on the snow (painfully so, as I still have scars burned into my brain watching my Ti-Cats trying to corral Doug Flutie in the snow when he was playing in Toronto). But I hadn't thought about the pass protection angle and the point Ben makes about the challenges for the pass rushers and how that could help pocket passers, too, have more time to complete deep routes in the snow.
#7 by rh1no // Jan 26, 2023 - 12:54pm
It's really informative to read such a detailed analysis of the biggest surprise of the playoffs ... a dominant performance by the Bengals'offensive line! What's interesting to me is how much Cincinnati has effectively planned for failure in these plays.
Ben discusses a play where the Bengals slide to the wrong side, leaving the left side of the field completely vulnerable to a blitzing defender. Yet Burrow is able to process the protection breakdown and make a split-second decision to feed the ball to his slot receiver or get rid of the ball and avoid a negative play.
In this scenario, Burrow hits his hot route for a short gain, but I also saw plays on Sunday where the Cincinnati quarterback just spiked the ball into the dirt to avoid a hit or possible sack. He wasn't doing that last year or earlier this year, instead holding onto the ball in hopes of making a miracle play. While he's proven himself capable of making the occasional miracle play, the Bengals offense is far more effective when they can avoid negative plays and keep the ball moving on long, clock-eating TD drives.
An article appeared on FO yesterday showing multiple instances where Josh Allen failed to make the same adjustments, holding onto the ball too long in hopes of making a big play and ending up getting blasted by Mike Hilton because of it. Obviously, Allen was playing from behind for the entire game which puts additional pressure on him, but I think he'd make the same leap that Burrow made if he and the coaches can better plan for failure like the Bengals have done this year.
#11 by theslothook // Jan 26, 2023 - 1:05pm
It's a great example of how quarterback play can make your offense in line look and grade better because your quarterback knows what he's doing/ knows what to expect.
It's a lesson therefore that teams we think have good supporting casts may not be as good as they look and the same is true for teams with bad supporting casts
#9 by theslothook // Jan 26, 2023 - 1:02pm
You can set softly and try to read who is going to blitz, but the problem with that is you have a bunch of guys playing tentatively waiting to see what the defense does.
Unless your QB is Peyton Manning in which case he tells you exactly who's coming and who's not and where to be on your assignment.