Bengals hope running game continues to build in second half of season

CINCINNATI -- Joe Mixon said he was getting frustrated waiting for the “dam to break” on whatever was holding back the Cincinnati Bengals running game the first eight weeks, but now that it has, he believes the offense is only going to keep building.

The sixth-year veteran running back finished with 153 yards rushing to go along with five total touchdowns, and the Bengals amassed 241 yards on the ground Sunday in a 42-21 win over the Carolina Panthers.

Now the Bengals head into the bye feeling confident they can make another playoff push in the second half of the season, and Mixon said the running game could play a big part in that.

“The way that we were balanced (Sunday), I feel like it’s going to pay huge dividends down the road because we ran the ball effectively and also we threw the ball effectively,” Mixon said. “When (Ja’Marr) Chase comes back and we start opening the offense even more, because the run game is going and the pass is on, I feel like it’s only going to get crazier. But at the end of the day, we just have to keep on coming out and going to work, and executing the game plan and just keep on building off of every performance.”

Mixon was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Week for his performance. The five touchdowns were a franchise record, and he also topped 5,000 rushing yards for his career on the opening drive of the game.

Prior to Sunday, Mixon hadn’t topped 100 yards in a single game this season. His yards per carry had seen jumps above the 5.0 mark in Week 5 and 6, after topping out at 3.04 yards per carry in the first four games, but he rushed for just 27 yards on eight carries in the Monday Night Football loss to the Browns on Oct. 31 and was facing criticism and outside concerns of a downward slide in his career.

Then he responded with his breakout game Sunday and silenced all the doubters.

“To be honest, I tried to come out here and prove to myself that I’m still that dude, and I’m going to forever continue to do that,” Mixon said. “… I just stayed true to myself during these tough times. … At the end of the day, I just appreciate the people that stuck around and still believe in me. I’m (going to) forever believe in myself, and that’s all that matters.”

Mixon credited offensive line coach Frank Pollack’s schemes, head coach Zac Taylor’s continued trust dialing up running plays and the offensive line, wide receivers and tight ends for opening the holes for him to pop.

The most noticeable difference in what the Bengals were doing with the game plan was calling more diverse running plays. There were some jet sweeps with Trent Taylor, and most of Mixon’s success came from running under center, after much had been made about better success against the Saints in Week 6 with runs out of the shotgun and then taking advantage of openings to get to the perimeter.

Four of Mixon’s touchdowns came against stacked boxes.

“I think Frank does a great job putting together the run-game plan and to be able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the team we’re playing,” offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. “… This week they were lighter defensive ends, guys that we felt like our receivers could handle in that part of the game. They did a fantastic job of getting those plays started (on the perimeter). And so it just was the way the game unfolded.

“It’s always week to week. Things fit better certain weeks than do others, depending on who you’re playing. And Frank had a really nice design on the plan, and our guys did a very great job executing it to the way that we felt like it could be executed. And then at the end of the day, it’s always going to be about players making plays. The O-line really showed up this week, and Joe broke tackles, ran hard, ran aggressively. He was a tough out for the Panthers defense this week, and hopefully that’s what Joe is for the rest of the season going forward.”

Taylor said the Bengals take pride in being flexible with their offense, but finally seeing it come together in a big way for the running game was important heading into a tough stretch over the final eight games. They face the second most difficult schedule the rest of the way, according to ESPN analysts.

“We know there’s going to be times where we have to replicate that same performance and … you are going to have to lean on that style of physicality,” Taylor said. “And there’s other games where if you want to call them finesse games where you are throwing the ball a little bit more, there’s going to be times where it calls on that. We’ve always felt that flexibility as an offense, and I think (Sunday) showed we have two very different game plans … we feel like we can lean on when we need to.”

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