‘We have to run the ball better’ -- Bengals look to improve worst rushing attack in NFL

Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor made clear Sunday the Bengals need to be better running the ball, especially now as the team is trying to rally around backup quarterback Jake Browning.

The Bengals rank last in the league with an abysmal 75.8 rushing yards per game, and in Sunday’s 16-10 loss to Pittsburgh, they had just 25 yards on 11 carries, eight of those designed runs where Joe Mixon totaled 16 yards. He finished with -16 rush yards over expectation, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, his second-worst total in that category this season.

Mixon has 621 yards and four touchdowns on 161 carries this season, and he has a rush success percentage of 46.6.

Taylor was quick to say the lack of success running the ball falls on the entire offense, not Mixon.

“This has nothing to do with Joe Mixon,” Taylor said. “This is the entirety of the unit coming together. Don’t make this about one person. It’s not like there were missed opportunities there from what I could see. He continues to run hard, and he’s given us what we needed this season.”

Browning, in his first NFL start in place of injured Joe Burrow, was 19-of-26 passing for 227 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and as offensive coordinator Brian Callahan pointed out, he was “pretty good in normal down situations.”

The problem was when he did hand off to Mixon (no one else got carries), the offense wasn’t getting anywhere against a stingy Pittsburgh defense that stacked the box, and the Bengals could only keep trying it so many times before accepting it just wasn’t going to work.

“I have not been one that’s officially subscribed to the theory that the more times you run it, the better it gets,” Callahan said. “I don’t know that that’s always the case. ... There’s a place for running it, for handing it off a few more times for sure, but that’s the battle you face when you’re not running it well and you’re trying to maintain some semblance of positive gains to get in manageable third downs, and Jake actually did a pretty good job in normal down situations of getting completions that were five, six, seven yards. So, that part of it gets tricky when it’s not going well … because you’re just trying to move forward and not be in third-and-9 against two of the best pass rushers in football.”

Callahan and Taylor do expect the offense will run more smoothly overall as Browning gets more experience, and the running game theoretically should benefit from that as well.

Whereas Burrow would have opportunities to call an audible in or out of a run play based on what he sees from the defense before the snap, it’s probably unreasonable to expect that Browning would be able to make those adjustments so quickly after taking over for Burrow. Browning had played four NFL snaps before Burrow went down in the Nov. 16 game at Baltimore with what turned out to be a torn ligament in his right wrist.

“I thought the run plan itself as part of what was on him was pretty standard,” Callahan said. “I mean, it wasn’t anything that was overly difficult or overly complicated. ... You had some things on his plate he had to handle, but other than that, it wasn’t anything that we were asking him to do outside of the structure in that regard. The plays where Joe would check to a run when we didn’t even call a run, those come with experience and then Joe’s ability to run the system, so he wasn’t asked to do that the same way that Joe would do it.”

Browning said in his postgame press conference Sunday he wasn’t going to point fingers at anyone but certainly a more efficient running game would help get him into more manageable situations. Mixon did not speak to media Sunday or Monday, but backup running back Trayveon Williams shared Taylor’s sentiment that “it comes down to all 11 guys doing their job.”

All of Mixon’s carries on Sunday came on first or second down, but his longest carry was for four yards and four were 1-yard gains.

Callahan felt like there was plenty to draw from in Frank Pollack’s run game plan to try to get the ground attack going even against a good run defense. Callahan said the Bengals “probed all of it,” running every scheme possible from duo to wide zone to gap schemes to counters, and none of it worked.

“We have to run the ball better and there’s not really any way to sugarcoat it or say it differently,” Callahan said. “But yeah, I mean certainly having 43 plays is a factor. Being 2-for-10 on third down is a factor into not being able to run the ball more and then trying to play from behind at the end of the game is a factor. … So (it’s) not really an excuse for it. That’s how the game played out. But we got to find a way to run the ball more and better to help Jake. And that’s really all there is to it.”


Bengals at Jaguars, 8;15 p.m., ESPN, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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