Bengals' Rehabbed Run Game Challenges Patriots' Super Defense

No one has more carries in the NFL in the last five weeks than Joe Mixon.
No one has more carries in the NFL in the last five weeks than Joe Mixon.

It may be a rematch of last February's Super Bowl playbooks and an echo of that week in Atlanta when the defending champions come to town for Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) trying to ice one of the NFL's top hottest run games with the NFL's No. 1 defense. But thanks to a native Bostonian (Bengals offensive line coach Jim Turner) and an adopted son of New England (Patriots head coach Bill Belichick), there won't be the same game plans.

Belichick has scaled pro football's Mount Rushmore coming up with different faces and new looks and that's how he won a sixth Super Bowl when his six-man front froze the Rams' zone runs on 62 yards during a season they averaged 140 per game in a 13-3 victory. Bengals head coach Zac Taylor, the Rams quarterbacks coach that day, brought that run game with him to Cincinnati. But it's not the one they have now after Turner, with Taylor's support and help, ripped it up in midseason.

And Turner tried to make a go of the Rams' run game here. But after seven games they found themselves preparing for the Rams themselves in London with the fewest rushing yards in the league on the fourth fewest carries. Far from the run-first, heavy play-action mantra of the Rams "11," personnel-based scheme.   

"It was as simple as this," Turner says. "A lot of times the reason things work is because of the personnel you have. We tried to make it work and for whatever reason, it just didn't fit us. You've got to exhaust it. You've got to really try and make a system go, but when it doesn't work, it doesn't work.  You just have to tweak little things and move pieces you think would work and see how it goes."

So far, it goes well. Since Turner diversified the zone runs with gap-blocking and pulling power plays highlighting the big athleticism and agile mind of center Trey Hopkins, the Bengals have the NFL's seventh most rushing yards in the last five weeks during a stretch running back Joe Mixon leads the NFL with 105 carries in a late rush to gain 1,000 yards.

He's just 211 yards away with three games left and to think on the trip to London to play the Rams, Mixon barely had that with 254 in the first seven games after slogging for a mere two yards on 10 carries against the Jags to cap a historically horrific start. Charting the Bengals against the NFL's pre-war rushing numbers (that's before World War II and not the NFL-AFL War) became a cottage industry.

"We probably have some common elements still. But to say that we're a derivative of the Rams at this point, we're really not," says Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. "You wouldn't even be able to say you're the same system.

"Jimmy's been outstanding," Callahan says. "I'm happy we have him. He's been really good for us."

Turner believes his guys are underrated, better than the credit they get. But he also didn't have the Rams' line of last season (neither do the Rams, for that matter) with massive tackles that could displace people straight ahead in a zone. He also didn't have a speed, one-cut-and-go running back in Todd Gurley, but a rugged, physical down-hill guy in Mixon that can run you over if he doesn't make you miss first.

"It was like a game plan. Trying to figure out how to beat a team," Turner says. "Taking a look at our strengths and weaknesses with the injuries and fitting their different body types. They're getting better and better. Against the Rams (in the eighth game) we started to do some different things. We were pushing outside the box. We can still run outside box to this day, but we're doing more thing inside. Less motion. More straight up, going after it. More aggressive, more downhill."

All this is not lost on Belichick, of course, who is the first to realize this isn't what Rams head coach Sean McVay rolled out in Atlanta. And if it was, he probably would have showed them something different anyway.

"They have a combination of their zone plays, the mid-zone play, the outside zone play, the flash, misdirection plays, but they combine that with a good element of scheme plays, double-team plays, power plays," said Belichick in Tuesday's conference call with the Cincinnati media.

"They've got the toss plays and the run-pass options where they get the ball outside. They've made a lot of yards on those toss plays to Mixon with a couple of pullers and they get the guard and the center out there ahead of the play. So you can't just stack up for those inside zone routes or plays or that kind of mid-zone cutback runs. They hit those too, but they keep you honest with a lot of plays on the outside running game and when Mixon gets outside, this guy is a terrific back. He's got great power and acceleration, and he's a tough guy to bring down in the open field and he makes a lot of tough yards inside as well, so that's one of the best backs we've faced."

Callahan says Hopkins' athleticism in the middle of the field was one of the driving forces behind Turner's rehab. It also fit right tackle Bobby Hart's game, too. He doesn't have the brute strength to drive someone off the ball zone run after zone run. But he's an athletic guy that can wall off a gap for Mixon. So can left tackle Cordy Glenn. The emergence of rookie Michael Jordan gives them another big buy (6-6, 315) that can move. Hart and Glenn are also athletic enough to reach the back side.

"Trey is a really good puller. The more we've found that out, the more we've used it," Callahan says. "He's athletic. He understands it. He understands the angles. That part's been really good …

We started tossing the ball a little more, both on an actual gap toss schemes and some of the zone schemes because Joe gets the ball with some depth and he has a chance to see. And Joe's really good when he can see the lane and take the cut with the ball and speed downhill. A lot of that was derived from Jimmy trying to get this thing off the ground."

But if you think Mixon is really good in space, check out the 6-3, 316-pound Hopkins. With Hopkins and one of his guards leading the way on a pull, the defense has to commit. Then Mixon can react to the defense reading Hopkins and Hopkins, the smartest guy in any room he's in, isn't going to lead him wrong very often.

"His ability to run, he can see the field. He's a good athlete. He's strong" Turner says. "When they pull, it's almost like they're playing fullback. Sometimes when you've got two out in front of you, that's two fullbacks. Try to cut the defense in half a little bit. It puts the defense in a dilemma. And Joe has to set that up (with Hopkins) and he does that well. (The toss) allows Joe to get a full head of steam, but it gives guys time to get out in front of him."

Turner, the old Boston College fullback, is also getting his guys to cut block a little more. He's not looking for them to cut if they can't and he doesn't want to force bad ones. But if you can get a guy on the ground …

"Not long," says Turner when asked how long the rehab began to take, a process helped by the bye week after the Rams game. "It was just a matter of going back and looking at the other things I'd done in my career."

Turner has played these guys before when he coached the Dolphins for a couple of seasons several years ago. "We've got our work cut out," he says. The names have changed and they're No. 4 against the rush. But Belichick is still there, so nothing has changed.

"They're very disciplined. They don't do anything tricky. They're very disciplined the way they stop the run," Turner says. "They attack you. Whatever their responsibility is, they attack their responsibility. The guy's a great coach. They play hard. They play downhill. They try to attack the heart of your offense and take away your theme."

That sounds like Mixon.

"You have an idea of what you want to be in the spring, and where you want to start," Callahan says. "It's always a starting point and rarely ever goes exactly how you think it's going to go. It's just the nature of pro football."