How the Bengals are maximizing Drew Sample's role through the power-run game

Charlie Goldsmith
Cincinnati Enquirer

Before the Cincinnati Bengals drafted tight end Drew Sample in 2019, Sample kept hearing he was the best blocking tight end in the NFL Draft. 

He heard it on TV when the Bengals drafted him. He heard it from coaches he spoke with before the NFL Draft. 

It wasn’t always meant as a compliment. For some of the evaluators who said it, it was a roundabout way of saying that Sample lacked upside in the passing game. 

Still, the Bengals drafted Sample in the second round because they saw value in a tight end whose best attribute was his blocking ability. This season, with running back Joe Mixon thriving in a “wide zone” power run scheme, Sample is showing why the Bengals drafted him.

“The wide zone scheme is different than what I’ve done before, but I feel a lot more comfortable,” Sample said. “The play on the field has been reflecting that.”

Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon (28) scores a touchdown in the third quarter during a Week 12 NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Bengals won, 41-10.

After the bye week, the Bengals began centering the offense around Mixon. As Mixon averaged 29 carries over his last two games, head coach Zac Taylor started using two tight end sets more than he has during his tenure with the Bengals. 

In the wide zone scheme, Mixon often lines up his running angle to the tight end. Often, Sample helps lead the way with his blocking in space. In the Bengals win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, he created a hole for Mixon by blocking his defender into the turf. 

“Drew probably doesn’t get all the accolades,” Taylor said. “He doesn’t catch a lot of touchdown passes and things like that, but his role is really invaluable.”

“Just like offensive linemen, if you don’t say their name much because they’re not getting beat in protections and they’re not missing in the run game, that’s kind of Drew to an extent. We ask him to do a ton of dirty jobs, and he does them extremely well.”

Cincinnati Bengals tight end Drew Sample (89) runs with a catch in the first quarter of the NFL Week 9 game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati on Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021. Cleveland led 24-10 at halftime.

For the last three years, most of the conversation around Sample has been about where he was drafted. One AFC tight ends coach said he “loved” Sample in the draft, but not enough to draft him before the fourth round. 

The Bengals took Sample in the second round in 2019, but he wasn’t a big part of the offense over his first two-and-a-half seasons. 

In 2019, Sample only played in 18% of the offense’s snaps. Sample replaced starter C.J. Uzomah in 2020 after Uzomah’s season-ending Achilles injury, but Sample was never a featured part of the offense. 

That trend carried over until the bye week in 2021. Once the Bengals committed to running the ball more often, they needed Sample.

“The tight ends are in a unique spot,” Sample said.  “(Mixon) gets a lot of carries, the offense has been clicking and we’ve been doing our job. Wherever this offense goes, we’ll be there.”

Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon (28) carries the ball in the third quarter during a NFL Week 11 game against the Las Vegas Raiders, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.

Bengals first-year offensive line coach Frank Pollack asked Sample to play fullback for the first time. When the Bengals need to run the ball in short yardage situations, Sample lines up in the backfield as the lead blocker for Mixon. 

“It gives us more wrinkles the defense has to prepare for,” Sample said. “It’s all about opening up the offense, and we’re just doing everything we can to help our offense go.”

Taylor, a former tight ends coach, signals the style of offense the Bengals are using based on how he uses the tight ends.

When Cincinnati has a downfield passing offense, Uzomah gets most of the snaps. When the priority is pass protection, Taylor has Sample or Uzomah line up in the backfield and block. When the Bengals go to the power run, Sample and Uzomah spend more time on the field together.

Taylor said the Bengals have a distinct tight end room because Uzomah and Sample both could be coaches when their careers end. That’s one of the biggest reasons for the flexibility of the Bengals offense.

“(The) football IQ (for Sample) and C.J. and really that entire room is so high,” Taylor said. “They understand all the fronts. They understand the weaknesses of some of the protections and some of the run game stuff they’ve got to do a great job in.”

Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon (28) carries the ball as Pittsburgh Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds (34) defends in the third quarter during a Week 12 NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Bengals won, 41-10.

INJURY UPDATES: The Bengals had one of their longest injury reports of the season this week, including multiple notable players.

Offensive tackle Riley Reiff (ankle), defensive end Khalid Kareem (illness) and punt returner Darius Phillips (knee/calf) were among the players who did not practice Wednesday. 

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Chase Claypool (11) is pulled down by Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Darius Phillips (23) after a catch in the fourth quarter of the NFL Week 12 game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium in downtown Cincinnati on Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021. The Bengals beat the Steelers 41-10.

NEW WORDS: For the first time this season, Taylor called a game “the most important of the season.” Taylor said Sunday’s game versus the Los Angeles Chargers has the biggest implications of a game the Bengals have had this year. 

“It’s December now (against) a team that’s fighting for their playoff hopes,” Taylor said. “They have talent all across the board. They have really good coaches, and we really have to set the tone in this month of December with this game.”

Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon (28) hands his gloves off to a young fan as the Bengals starters are benched in the fourth quarter of the NFL Week 12 game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium in downtown Cincinnati on Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021. The Bengals beat the Steelers 41-10.