At one point this season, the Cincinnati Bengals had so little faith in their run game that head coach Zac Taylor called a Philly Special and a shovel pass at the goal line.
When the Bengals beat the Panthers, 42-21, at Paycor Stadium, running back Joe Mixon looked like the player the Bengals need him to be. With the season at a potential tipping point, Mixon picked up a reeling team and got the Bengals back to 5-4 heading into the bye week.
The Bengals were coming off a demoralizing blowout loss to the Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football. They had just lost No. 1 wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and No. 1 cornerback Chidobe Awuzie to injuries.
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Following the Browns game, defensive end Sam Hubbard noted how the Bengals could get back to 5-4 at the bye, which is where Cincinnati was last year in its AFC Championship season. But if the Bengals lost to the Panthers, one of the worst teams in the NFL, there would have been no way for the Bengals to rationalize that they could still contend in the AFC.
Coming off last week’s loss, center Ted Karras said he was going to be a “demeanor hound.” He was planning to call out anyone he saw who was sulking. He challenged the entire team to play with more physicality and more energy.
In Sunday’s blowout win over the Panthers, in a game that the Bengals led by 35 points, the Bengals responded to a low point of their season. In the process, the Bengals showed themselves how good they still can be. And so did Mixon, who had 100 yards by halftime. While quarterback Joe Burrow went 22-for-28 for 206 yards, it was Mixon’s turn to be the star.
Mixon finished the game with 211 total yards, and he set a franchise record with five touchdowns. By the fourth one, he ran out of touchdown celebrations.
Mixon had been in the middle of the worst season of his NFL career. Taylor was showing less and less faith in the run game, Mixon showed that he was frustrated and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said that Mixon’s production hadn’t lived up to expectations.
The Bengals didn’t start Sunday’s game set out to establish the run, but Mixon earned more carries as the game went on versus Carolina.
Mixon showed what his day could look like with a pass he caught on the Bengals’ first drive. On a screen, which the Bengals have rarely run for Mixon, he made three defenders miss and got his longest reception of the year.
The Bengals’ coaching staff has been waiting all season for Mixon to make defenders miss in space. When he showed that he could do that, Mixon got two carries in the red zone, including a 2-yard touchdown run. The Bengals called a play they hadn’t used this season, with wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. serving as the lead blocker, and Mixon cut upfield and into the end-zone to put the Bengals up 7-0.
On the second drive, the Bengals emptied their playbook with different types of runs. Led by a powerful offensive line, Mixon made more defenders miss, picked up a 29-yard run and set up a 1-yard run on a quarterback sneak by Burrow.
The Bengals led 14-0 entering the second quarter, and the Bengals quickly made it a 28-0 game by establishing the run on their next two drives. In the middle of the second quarter, Mixon scored his third touchdown of the game and leapt into the stands. Then with four seconds left in the first half, Mixon made a catch in the back of the end-zone to put the Bengals up by 35 points.
Mixon did it all against the Panthers. He broke tackles, cut around defenders, made big catches and carried the Bengals offense. He made all of the plays that he had been missing for the first eight weeks of the season.
The Bengals defense played just as well. The Panthers only got one first down in the entire first half. Linebacker Germaine Pratt and safety Jessie Bates III both made leaping interceptions, defensive end Trey Hendrickson consistently pressured Panthers quarterback PJ Walker and the Bengals stifled a run-first Panthers offense.
The entire game was a sense of relief for a Bengals team that desperately needed a jolt. There were more of these moments. Morgan Jr. danced on the ground after an impact block paved the way for a big run by Mixon. The defensive players did snow angels in the end zone after the first interception and a coordinated dance routine after the second pick.
Sunday was a day when the Bengals’ players-only meeting to fix the run game paid off. It was a day when the defense showed it’s capable of bouncing back without two star players. And it gives the Bengals a much-needed reminder of what this season can still look like.
Story Credit: usatoday.com