Running game improving, but Mixon still looking for ‘splash’ performance

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon said two weeks ago the running game was “close.” Since then, his average yards per carry have dramatically improved, and he credits better communication with the offensive line and an increased focus on running more downhill out of the shotgun.

Mixon and the Bengals’ running game will be put to the test this week when they play host to Atlanta (3-3), which will bring a top 10 run defense to Paycor Stadium on Sunday.

Mixon is still seeking a “splash” performance, and this three-game stretch before the bye could be the time to do it as Cincinnati tries to position itself for a midseason run. Mixon hasn’t topped 82 yards rushing in a game this season, and when he hit that mark in the opener it took 27 carries to get there.

“We’re making strides,” Mixon said. “We’re gonna keep making a big jump, and the splash in the run game, it’s gonna come, and I believe that as long as we stay at it, keep making the strides to actually want to run the football, then I think that that’s when those plays are going to come. … Teams are going to try to do whatever they can to keep us off the field, and we got to make the most of our opportunities count.”

Mixon had a meeting with his offensive line after a Week 4 win over Miami in which the Bengals produced a season-low 67 yards rushing. At that time, they ranked second to last in the league with 3.1 yards per carry.

In that meeting, Mixon wanted to get a better idea what the offensive linemen were seeing and allow them a chance to understand what he was seeing. They went through film together, and Mixon said everything they discussed has been put into action the past two games to create a more balanced offense. Mixon has averaged 5.6 yards per carry over the last two games.

“I think just having that chemistry with those guys and learning how they’re blocking it up, and then knowing where I want to actually go to hit the hole and things like that,” Mixon said. “… Having that communication and just knowing their thought process, where they want to be at, and certain things, so I think that’s going to help tremendously. And we’re gonna keep having these conversations, in just how to be successful and how to have a big play or have a big game coming to us.”

Cincinnati’s offensive line, which has four new starters, has made progress in both run and pass blocking. Burrow hasn’t taken nearly as many hits as he did the first two weeks, and he said that group is “playing lights out” now that they have more understanding of the concepts and better chemistry playing together.

“Those guys are playing very well for us the last couple weeks, and they’re going to continue to get better and better,” Burrow said. “They’re meshing as a group, each individual player has played really well for us. I have all the confidence in the world in those guys.”

Aside from the better blocking up front, the shift to running the offense out of the shotgun seems to have made a big difference, and Cincinnati seems to have shelved the wide-zone runs. Mixon said he doesn’t have a preference between running it out of shotgun or from under center, but with more run-pass options, the Bengals seem to be finding success.

Mixon said when the nickel corner or safety “gets nosy” and tries to take away the run, it opens up the passing game, but then defenses have to adjust to that and it frees him up to get more explosive carries. Running out of the shotgun also gives him a better line of vision.

“You’re more square and you’re taking a certain approach on what you want to do in terms of how the run scheme is going, so I think that you do have a two-way go in a lot of instances,” Mixon said.

Bengals coach Zac Taylor said an offense can’t go into a game or season thinking about living in the shotgun the entire time, though. It worked against the Saints because teams that had been running under center against them found it “tough sledding” trying to run the ball.

He’s trying to make Cincinnati capable of evolving from week-to-week, but he has been pleased to see Mixon getting better production.

“We took a different approach that allowed us to maximize our playmakers, and that can evolve every week,” Taylor said. “That can go in segments over the course of the season as well. I do think that we’ve got enough scheme where we can lean on each different area, depending on how the game is going to call for that. But I think our guys have handled that really well when we do need to evolve and what we’re asking them to do.”


Falcons at Bengals, 1 p.m., Fox, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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