The day Bill Lazor was promoted to offensive coordinator after the 0-2 start, he said his top priority was to get the quarterback and running backs in rhythm.
So far he’s batting .500.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has put together back-to-back strong games, completing 81 percent of passes with six touchdown passes and no interception. But the run game is still lacking traction and production.
Last week at Cleveland, in an easy 31-7 win that typically lends itself to some will-breaking success, the Bengals managed just 86 yards on 30 carries. That 2.9-yard average was the lowest of what has been four consecutive poor performances that has the Bengals run game ranked 23rd in the league.
“The consistency from top to bottom has to be better,” Lazor said. “Part of it up front, part of it is probably how we run it. We go play by play evaluating it, and so far there isn’t one thing we can hang our hat on well enough.”
Of the 26 rushes by Joe Mixon, Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard last week, a staggering 17 of them went for 2 yards or less, including six that went for 0 or negative yards.
Two weeks ago against Green Bay, 15 of 28 rushes went for 2 yards or less.
“When you’re the play caller, it’s easy to know if you’re efficient or not because you know if you’re calling second-and-6 plays or second-and-9 plays,” Lazor said. “We said from the beginning we wanted to be balanced, and we haven’t quite been balanced in production yet, but we will.”
On the other side of the efficiency spectrum, the Bengals had just six called runs of 5 yards or more against the Browns and only 30 for the season on 97 attempts.
“We know we need to run the ball better,” right tackle Jake Fisher said. “Obviously you want everything on track. But everything plays off each other. That’s why there’s no sound answer of this is what we’re going to do to win. It’s a football game. Things change.
“You’ve got to be able to adapt to the changes throughout the game,” Fisher continued. “That’s why everyone here is paid the big dollars, because we’re big-time athletes, we’re big-time brains who are going to continue to play and get better.”
Head coach Marvin Lewis echoed that sentiment, saying that as long as the offense is scoring points, it doesn’t matter if they are coming by land or air.
“We have to continue to play productive offense,” he said. “I can’t tell you what that’s going to be each week. We have to attack the defense the best way we see fit.”
The biggest change the running game has undergone under Lazor has been to commit more to Mixon as the feature back. The rookie has 35 of the 54 carries among the running back trio the last two weeks, while Hill has 13 and Bernard six.
But Mixon has struggled to get into the open field to show of his elusiveness and explosiveness. He’s averaged just 3.0 yards per carry the last two weeks, including 1.7 (17 carries for 29 yards) against Cleveland that ended three of his fourth-quarter runs resulting in losses of at least 4 yards.
A big reason for that has been the offensive line struggling to open any holes. But Lazor said he isn’t worried about frustrating setting in where Mixon is concerned.
“I haven’t seen any,” he said. “I think Joe is a very willing learner. I see him being very into football. I think he likes football. He doesn’t mind being coached on the details, so I have no concerns about that.”
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The challenge to churn out yardage on the ground only gets tougher Sunday against a Bills defense that leads the NFL in fewest points allowed while holding opponents to 93.8 rushing yards per game.
And while the Bengals have been able to rely solely on the passing game the last two weeks in nearly pulling an upset at Green Bay and rolling to an easy win in Cleveland, Lazor knows that’s not something that can continue.
“There are very few teams in the NFL that can just do one and not the other,” he said. “You need to do both. We’re working at it, and we’ll continue to. The guys just have to keep believing that we’re on the right track and if they take care of the details, we’ll get them in right position and it will happen.
“We’re all waiting.”