Who will be the Bengals goal line back?

DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 18: Giovani Bernard #25 of the Cincinnati Bengals runs for a short gain during the second quarter of the preseason game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on August 18, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 18: Giovani Bernard #25 of the Cincinnati Bengals runs for a short gain during the second quarter of the preseason game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on August 18, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images) /

The Bengals don’t have a traditional goal line back on the roster. Can they improve on last season, and who will be the primary option inside the 20?

Say what you will about running back Jeremy Hill, but the guy was excellent in short-yardage situations. The former Bengal (and current Patriot) was never particularly efficient running the ball. However, he was hugely successful around the goal line for the Bengals for the past few years. In Hill’s first three years (2014-2016), he put up 9, 11, and 9 touchdowns on the ground. All but three of those 31 touchdowns came in the red zone.

In year four, though, Hill rarely played. He only got 37 carries all year and didn’t score a single touchdown. While Hill was mostly ineffective last year, the Bengals saw a steep decline in their rushing touchdown numbers. The team only scored six rushing touchdowns as a whole last year, less than Hill by himself each of his first three seasons. Now that Hill isn’t on the roster, the question is even more relevant: who will be the Bengals’ goal-line back this year?

Of the six rushing touchdowns scored, rookie running back Joe Mixon had four. Veteran running back Giovani Bernard had the other two. Like last season, Mixon and Bernard will take nearly all of the snaps at running back. While both backs are great runners with good speed and elusiveness, neither are bruising backs. Mixon and Bernard are renowned much more for their abilities in the open field, making tacklers miss than their size and physicality.

Mixon, on workload alone, will likely lead the team in rushing touchdowns next year. Though Bernard will undoubtedly spell Mixon at times, Mixon can play on all three downs. Mixon’s primary skill is running in the open field, but he has the frame to take on contact, too. At 6’1″, 225 pounds, Mixon indeed should be able to handle goal-line duties. If nothing else, he’s considerably more significant than Bernard or 4th round pick Mark Walton. For what it’s worth, Mixon did rush for 4 TDs last year, so he could certainly improve on that number, too.

My concern with Mixon as the goal line back is that he’s never held that role before. In college, at Oklahoma, Mixon was more of scatback playing alongside Samaje Perine. Perine is the definition of a between-the-tackles back, which took away goal-line opportunities from Mixon. Last season, the Bengals gave Mixon red zone work, but he wasn’t the sole option inside the 20. Mixon got 24 carries in the red zone and converted only 16% of those opportunities. When Hill was still on the team, he would see upwards of 35 red zone carries. Mixon should see a little more work on the goal line next season, but he must improve his physicality and TD conversion rate.

Bernard, who should rotate in behind Mixon, may see some goal line work himself. Bernard has gained a reputation for being a pure scatback in the NFL, which isn’t entirely accurate. He’s certainly useful as a pass catcher and in the open field, but Bernard has a surprising amount of pop for his size. His first two seasons in the league, Bernard totaled five rushing TDs each season, most of which came on the goal line. His efficiency, though, was similar to Mixon’s. Bernard should indeed not be relied upon as a goal-line back, but he’s capable of handling himself inside the 20 if he needs to.

Behind the top two backs, I’m not sure the Bengals have anyone who can be a situational goal line back like Hill was. Rookie Mark Walton does not have the size or physicality to score touchdowns inside the 20. Walton has a skill set reminiscent of Bernard’s, and will likely see very little playing time this year. Those snaps almost certainly will not come in the red zone. The Bengals also signed UDFA Raw Lawry, a running back from Old Dominion. Lawry was a solid back in college, but he also has a small frame and doesn’t project as a power back. Lawry may not even make the final roster.

One way the Bengals may get more creative around the goal line is using the quarterback run more often. Andy Dalton doesn’t have breakaway speed, but he is a capable runner. In his best season, Dalton ran the read-option, even on the goal line. Executed correctly, it can lead to an unimpeded 3-yard touchdown run for Dalton. Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has discussed reinstating the read-option as a component of the Bengals’ offense. If Lazor follows through with this idea, Dalton may tack on a couple more rushing TDs to the team total.

Lastly, if the read-option comes back into play for the Bengals, they may be able to creatively use former South Florida quarterback Quinton Flowers around the goal line. Flowers, another Bengals UDFA, technically converted to running back, but still has quarterback skills. Flowers was a gifted runner in college and scored a ton of TDs, tallying double-digit touchdowns on the ground each of his last three seasons. He’s also well-built for a goal-line back at 5’10”, 215 pounds. If he makes the team, Flowers could come in on the goal line as the “wildcat” QB, and run the read-option himself. Given his talents, that may be an even more dangerous scheme than the read-option with Dalton.

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No matter how the Bengals divide the goal line work, they need to score more efficiently on the ground next year. Six rushing touchdowns is not sufficient for a potential playoff team. Hopefully, more creative playcalling and an improved Joe Mixon will get the Bengals back to double-digit rushing TDs. For now, it’s up in the air.