Bengals' offense finding its groove behind Joe Mixon, running game

CINCINNATI -- The way the Cincinnati Bengals dismantled the rival Pittsburgh Steelers wasn’t just cathartic for a franchise that has often been on the other side of a blowout in recent years, it was a release for an offense that desperately needed one.

Throughout this season, Cincinnati’s offense has often lacked rhythm. But after running back Joe Mixon scored from a 1-yard run in the fourth quarter, he and the offensive linemen were two-stepping in the end zone.

Behind Mixon, who rushed for a career-high 165 yards in Sunday’s 41-10 win, Cincinnati’s offense has finally found its groove. And for all the offseason chatter about the Bengals’ passing attack, the running game has been the offensive catalyst during the team’s two-game win streak.

“Some days are harder than others, but when we’re running the ball like we have in the last two weeks, things open for us,” said Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow.

Over the past two weeks, no other back has done more damage on the ground than Mixon, who has amassed a league-high 58 carries and 288 yards during that span. For the season, Mixon, who says he's approaching the prime of his career, ranks third in the league in both of those categories.

“I know what type of speed defenses come with, I know how to slow the game down myself,” Mixon said. “At the same time, as much as it’s me making plays, it has everything to do with my teammates.”

Mixon was the cornerstone of Cincinnati’s offensive game plan in the 32-13 victory against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 10. Taylor said the Bengals planned on Mixon eventually wearing down the Raiders defense. And Mixon did just that, finishing with 19 carries for 97 yards in the second half alone as Cincinnati eventually pulled away.

That trend continued a week later against the Steelers. Cincinnati went to Mixon early. And by halftime, he set personal highs for carries (20) and yards (117) in any first half.

“We certainly feel great about the passing game as well,” Taylor said after the win over Pittsburgh. “But if it’s not broke, we’re certainly going to keep sticking with it.”

For most of the season, the Bengals offense sputtered, especially early in the first half. Through their first nine games, the Bengals ranked 21st in points per drive and second-to-last in plays per drive in the opening half, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Against Pittsburgh, the offense scored 24 first-half points en route to a 31-3 lead at the break.

Although Burrow threw for fewer than 200 yards for the second straight week, he posted his second-highest QBR of the season on Sunday. Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins also had his best game of the season -- six catches for 114 yards and a touchdown.

“You wanna take away the run? That’s cool,” Mixon said after the game. “But we got three and four and five other guys that’s going to take you up top. That’s just the players that we got around here. We got a lot of playmakers.”

Between Higgins, rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase and veteran wideout Tyler Boyd, Burrow has ample receivers to target in the passing game. But it’s the running back who signed a four-year, $48 million extension in the 2020 offseason who has most helped Cincinnati find the offensive synergy it lacked last season.

“We’ve always strived to be balanced when we could,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said in a teleconference last week. “And we found efficiency running the ball this year that we probably didn’t have last year for a lot of reasons. We’re improved there.”

As the Bengals push for their first playoff berth since 2015, Mixon knows many more touches will likely be in his future.

If that’s the case, he’ll be prepared.

“I just gotta get ready each and every week to be able to take on that pounding,” Mixon said last week. “I’m ready for it. I’m ready for whatever they throw me.”