Super Wildcard Weekend is officially in the books and after nineteen weeks of football, we are down to the NFL’s Elite Eight: the 49ers, Lions, Buccaneers, Packers, Ravens, Bills, Chiefs and Texans. The Cincinnati Bengals, meanwhile, are on the couch watching the drama unfold. Despite winning back-to-back AFC North titles, the Bengals fell short in 2023, and finding the right recipe to recapture that success will be challenging work.
Fortunately, the current playoff field is giving the Bengals the blueprint: RUN. THE. FOOTBALL.
Am I oversimplifying things? Actually, no. Take a look at the eight remaining teams – notice anything? Sure, they’re all teams with better-than-adequate quarterback play but look closer…there’s something even more important that they all have in common. That is, each of these teams won the rushing battle in their Wildcard matchups. Here’s the breakdown:
Texans (76 rushing yards) over Browns (56)
Chiefs (147) over Dolphins (76)
Packers (143) over Cowboys (123)
Lions (79) over Rams (68)
Bills (179) over Steelers (106)
Buccaneers (119) over Eagles (42)
One caveat: typically, winning teams do win the rushing battle because a leading team will ordinarily use the run game to salt away the clock. Upon further inspection though, it’s clear that for each of those six teams the run game wasn’t just used to finish off their opponent, but to wear them out as well.
In several of these cases, it was a complete role-reversal. The Texans were the 22nd-ranked rushing team in the NFL while the Browns were 12th. The Chiefs were 19th while the Dolphins were 6th. The Packers were 28th and the Cowboys were 16th. The Buccaneers entered the weekend dead-last in the NFL in rushing while the Eagles, renowned league-wide for their signature QB-sneak, came into the game 10th. Of the teams that won, only the Bills and Lions were better regular season running teams than their opponent. What happened?
Well, the Packers dominated the lines of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, routinely opening up massive holes for Aaron Jones to sprint through on his way to a 188-yard, 3 touchdown day. The Texans, meanwhile, bottled up a usually reliable Browns run game, forcing Joe Flacco to put the team on his 38-year-old back (which predictably went haywire). The Chiefs pounded the normally explosive Dolphins into utter submission with Isaiah Pacheco runs and denying the Dolphins any traction on the ground. The Buccaneers, meanwhile, looked practically Philadelphia-esque as they buried the Eagles with a steady diet of Rachaad White handoffs.
Do my eyes deceive me, or is this 1988? Running the football – and stopping the run – is back in vogue.
In a nutshell, running the football still gets Ws. Being a below-average running team in the regular season doesn’t mean it has to play out that way in the playoffs. And if the Bengals have designs on returning to the AFC Championship next year – and doing more than that – they’ll have to find a way to get their run game back into form.
A productive running game has all sorts of benefits. It takes pressure off the QB to have to be the sole driver of offensive success. It makes down and distance situations more manageable. And most importantly, it makes the offense unpredictable. Aggressive passing attacks have become the new norm in the NFL, but if this weekend has taught us anything, it’s that pounding the rock still has lots of value.
In 2023, the Bengals were truly horrendous at running the ball. Joe Mixon may have finished the season with over 1,000 yards, but that was in no way an indication of a viable run game. For the season, the Bengals finished second-to-last in yards per game (89.8) and third-to-last in rushing attempts (383). The Bengals were not only unsuccessful when they ran, but also struggled to commit to the run as well. The result was an offense that played most of the season with an entire arm tied behind its back.
This had a domino effect that crippled their offense on days that the passing game wasn’t at its usual elite level (especially when Burrow was limited or out). The lack of a threatening run game meant defenses were almost never forced to bring in an extra defender to help in run support. With their safeties back deep in coverage, defenses forced the Bengals to rely on the short passing game to generate long drives, but connecting on eight to nine passes on a single drive can be extremely difficult. This, above all else, was the primary driver of the Bengals’ struggles on offense.
Moving forward, the Bengals must have their sights set on becoming a harder team to defend. To do that, they must become more capable – and committed – to running the football.
Of course, that’s a lot easier said than done. The Bengals might not have the horses in the running back room right now to do it. Their offensive line certainly still needs work. But in order to fully realize their massive potential and win a Super Bowl, the Bengals will need to make the necessary changes this offseason. Fortunately, fixing the problem is not only possible, but probable – granted, if they focus on the right things.
To start, the Bengals must continue to add to their offensive line. Yes, that pesky O-line just can’t seem to get it together, even though the Bengals have invested some serious capital in the position over the years. Four new starting linemen have been added since 2022, and the only starting lineman who wasn’t acquired recently was former 2019 first-round draft pick Jonah Williams. The Bengals may have issues with blocking, but it isn’t for a lack of trying. Sadly, they’ll have to go back to the well once again – and they should continue to until it’s not a problem.
Right now, there are two major areas of improvement to target: left guard and right tackle. Despite holding down the starting left guard job for the last two years, Cordell Volson just hasn’t been consistent. Meanwhile right tackle Jonah Williams is a free agent and may not be retained. Either way, adding to the O-line isn’t a luxury – it’s a necessity.
The running back room could also use a nice upgrade or two. For all of the criticism Mixon gets, you have to admit, he runs hard. Otherwise, everything else is fair game. He doesn’t break tackles, doesn’t run away from people, and still struggles in pass protection. At this stage in his career, he’s backup-caliber. Rookie Chase Brown flashed some serious wheels, but in an incredibly small sample size. Adding another late-round RB like Brown could go a long way toward getting the Bengals up to speed on the ground again.
Finally, adding a dynamic tight end who can block and catch would give the Bengals offense the ability to mask their intentions play to play, a much-needed advantage that was sorely missing in 2023. In the past with players like C.J. Uzomah and Hayden Hurst in the lineup, the Bengals had tight ends who never had to leave the field. With their combination of size, speed, and blocking ability, Uzomah and Hurst were movable chess pieces that made life much harder for opposing defenses – at least, harder than whatever Irv Smith Jr. was doing all year long.
If the Bengals manage to fix two of these three problems, we could see them back in the AFC Championship for a third time in four years in 2024. If they fix all three…well then, sky’s the limit.
It won’t be easy. The Bengals won’t be drafting in the late 20s this year, but 18th isn’t exactly a dream-scenario either. There’s also the pending Ja’Marr Chase extension and Joe Burrow’s massive contract complicating salary cap matters. Throw in a new contract for soon-to-be-free-agent Tee Higgins, and suddenly the typically rich-with-cap-space Bengals will be crying poor – and legitimately so.
There is a solution that many Bengals fans won’t want to hear…but the Bengals should think long and hard about franchise tagging – and then trading – Higgins. Forgive me for complimenting the Chiefs, but I believe they were on to something when they dealt Tyreek Hill for draft compensation. Instead of loading up their offense with expensive skill players, they relied on the brilliance of Patrick Mahomes and a beefed-up defense and ground game to make another run at a Super Bowl. It worked, and it can work for the Bengals too.
Higgins is a very talented player, but he doesn’t command the kind of attention Chase does. If the Bengals are going to make a massive investment in a single receiver, Chase is the clear winner. This isn’t to say that Higgins couldn’t or wouldn’t make an impact with the Bengals in 2024 (and if they can find a way to keep him for a reasonable price, then do it), but in a vacuum, if you could trade Higgins for a starting lineman and tight end, then I say do it.
No matter what, the 2024 Bengals will look different than the 2023 vintage. Hopefully that starts with better health at QB (as fun as the Jake Browning storyline was, I’ll take Burrow every day and especially on Sundays). But even with Burrow healthy, the Bengals need to find renewed confidence in their ground game if they're going to finally get over the Super Bowl hump. That starts this offseason, and it starts with taking a page out of the winners of Wildcard weekend’s playbooks.