While the Cincinnati Bengals’ offense entered Week 15 as just the 30th best scoring unit in all of football, it did find considerable success early on against the New England Patriots’ top-ranked defense. The main reason for that was the Bengals’ ability to move the football on the ground: led by third-year running back Joe Mixon, the Bengals controlled the rhythm of the game and actually held a 10-7 lead until late in the second quarter.
New England had no answer for Mixon and fellow running back Giovani Bernard: before a critical fourth-down stop in the second quarter that proved to be one of the game’s turning points, Cincinnati handed the football off 17 times and gained 105 yards for an average of 6.2 yards per run. No matter if they attacked the middle of the field or the perimeter, the Bengals were able to consistently win their battles against the Patriots’ run defense.
“They ran the ball well. We have to give them credit where it’s due,” said New England head coach Bill Belichick during his postgame press conference. “We seemingly had them stopped a couple of times, and then they were able to keep the chains moving. That first toss play Mixon hit on us, we had like five guys miss tackles on him. We knew he was going to be a hard guy to tackle and he was today. We were ready for him, he just did a good job.”
Mixon, who Belichick called one of the best backs in the NFL, continuously kept gaining positive yardage and breaking tackles — the play Belichick referred to, for example, saw him gain 29 yards while running through numerous tackle attempts. From the aforementioned fourth down stop on, however, New England was able to better contain him and play the game on its own terms by forcing Cincinnati into unfavorable passing situations.
“We kind of figured out our changes,” said veteran defensive back Devin McCourty after the game when discussing the adjustments New England’s defense made along the way. “They had four tight ends up and four receivers, and we had talked about this being a two-tight end type of game, and it turned out to be two tight ends, three tight ends — a heavy diet there. I think just realizing that, and adjusting to it, and doing a better job tackling.”
“[Mixon] is a really good back, runs hard. We missed a lot of arm tackles, and then I thought we just did a better job of wrapping him up, getting him down, and getting a second and third guy to drive him back,” the 32-year-old continued. New England’s in-game adjustments targeting the running game proved to be instrumental during the team’s 34-13 victory and ultimately turned out to be the difference between the two clubs.
While the Bengals still found success running the football later in the game, they failed to consistently put themselves in good spots against New England’s defense and had to rely more on the pass to move the football down the field: before Mixon was stopped for no gain on fourth-and-short in the second quarter, he and Bernard averaged 7.2 yards per carry on first or second down; after the turnover on downs, the number dropped to 5.0 yards.
Even though this drop-off seems comparatively miniscule and Cincinnati still had some success moving the football, the improved early-down run defense allowed the Patriots’ secondary to see more passes thrown its way — a critical development, according to McCourty: “I think doing a good job of stopping the run on early downs, and forcing them into passing situations, and then guys making critical plays [was the biggest change].”
“Try a double move on J.C. [Jackson], then a nine route on J.C. We say it all the time: if there’s a nine route going his way, we feel like it’s higher than 50-50 that he’ll come down with it. And then [Stephon Gilmore] making his two plays,” he continued. “We got control of the situation, got ahead on early downs, and got the looks we wanted on third down to be able to do certain things. We did a good job of just taking advantage, and making plays when they came our way.”