CINCINNATI — The only thing more disappointing than Jake Browning’s best buddy not showing up for his NFL starting debut was said friend actually being there and doing a heel turn to sabotage the Cincinnati Bengals offense.
That allegory is figurative, of course. The best friend of an inexperienced quarterback is the run game, and Sunday at Paycor Stadium, it was as bad as it’s ever been in Bengals history and a big reason why even the most optimistic of fans are burying their playoff hopes after a 16-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Bengals Run Game Was Historically Bad vs. the Steelers
The Bengals finished with 25 rushing yards on 11 attempts. Nine of those yards came on three scrambles by Browning, while running back Joe Mixon gained just 16 yards on eight carries.
“That’s kind of been our problem this year,” center Ted Karras said. “Obviously we’ve very much underachieved in the run game. When you have a new quarterback come in, you want to be able to lean on the run. We were not able to today.”
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The Steelers knew what was coming and focused on stopping it. And when they did, the Bengals surrendered and walked away from the run.
“That’s what we aspired to do playing against a young quarterback, really put an emphasis on the run game,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. “We were really committed to it.”
Only once in the 56-season history of the Bengals franchise has the team had fewer than 11 rushing attempts in a game. That was last year in the Week 8 loss at Cleveland when the Bengals ran it 10 times.
When they needed the run game the most, they used it the least.
“I don’t want to point the finger to that,” Bengals left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said. “I’m just here to do my job. If it comes down to 70 pass plays in the game, two pass plays, 80 runs, it doesn’t matter. I’m just here to do my job.”
Taylor said the lack of run plays came down to the lack of offensive plays overall.
“We only had 40 plays,” he said. “You’re going to look at a lot of them in the two-minute and third downs. You have to look at normal-down plays from the past. We tried to do our best to keep some balance there, but there wasn’t a lot of opportunities in this game.”
Only twice in 56 seasons have they produced fewer rushing yards. They had 14 in a 2012 loss to the Steelers and four in a 2000 loss to the Ravens.
“That’s life versus Pittsburgh,” Taylor said. “You know that’s what’s going to happen. It’s going to be tough. When you run the ball, we need to get more production than that.”
Mixon had eight rushes for 16 yards. Five of those carries came in the first half for 13 yards. In the second half, he had three carries for three yards.
But Taylor bristled when asked his about confidence level in the 27-year-old back who is averaging 3.8 yards per carry this year, his lowest average since his rookie year.
“This isn’t about Joe Mixon,” he said. “This is the entirety of the unit coming together. Don’t make this about one person. It’s not like there was missed opportunities there from what I could see. He continues to run hard, and he’s given us what we needed this season.”
Except for the explosion, the Bengals said they were searching for a back at the Combine. Mixon has broken just seven tackles this season.
This is what offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said on March 1 when asked what the team was looking for in the run game:
“You want guys that have put on tape that they have the long speed to break long runs. Being able to separate from the secondary players, which, generally speaking, most running backs are going to be slower than the guys in the secondary chasing them.
“But you want guys that show the ability on tape to hit home runs, guys that can break tackles. Breaking tackles is a huge part of explosiveness in the run game. We can only get so many hats on hats. And there’s always going to be at least one free guy for a back. And they gotta be able to make that player miss. That’s how you generate explosive runs.
“We can do a better job than we’ve done trying to get guys into those spaces better and giving them chances at explosive runs. Sometimes, some schemes aren’t as friendly for that. Some of the gap schemes and stuff can be a little bit more of a bloody style of run game and not as exciting explosively. Gotta find ways to mix both.”
The Bengals haven’t gotten any of that this season, and the player they drafted to help with that, Chase Brown, came off injured reserve this week but never touched the ball.
Karras agreed with Taylor that the issues Sunday weren’t about one player, but his overall point was in line with what Callahan said they were looking for before the season. And even more so now.
“It comes down to individual execution,” he said. “I don’t know how many we called, but I don’t think we executed them to get many yards. We need to take a look at ourselves, find out what happened, and everyone be on the same page and be able to execute their assignment to get some yards in the run game.
“We’re gonna need to be able to bust a few runs out of there at some point.”
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