Sunday’s trampling by the longtime bete noires in Pittsburgh was more aggravating for Bengals fans and employees than usual, in part because any shot at a division title is now almost certainly gone (barring, perhaps, a serious injury to Ben Roethlisberger; or Chris Boswell, apparently?). Football Outsiders puts the Bengals odds at an AFC North title at 1.3%.
So you’re saying there’s a chance…?
What’s worse is that for a half the Bengals seemed ready to win a rare high-scoring affair with the Steelers (in the three times Cincy has beaten Pittsburgh in the Andy Dalton Era, the Steelers have scored just ten points each time). Part of this was the fact that rookie running back Joe Mixon was poised for the breakout game we’ve been desperately awaiting. The offensive line was playing well enough, and Mixon was showing off his elite patience and burst to get yards even when there wasn’t much blocking.
At halftime, the Bengals had only rushed for four fewer yards, on four fewer carries, than the Steelers. Not coincidentally, the score was 20-14, Steelers. Over the next 30 minutes, Pittsburgh ballooned that advantage; the final stats would read 43 runs for 152 yards (compared to just 17-71 for Cincy), most of it courtesy of Le’Veon Bell. Not coincidentally, Pittsburgh won the half 9-0; only some superb red zone and third down defense by the Bengals kept that score respectable.
After the game, Mixon, who led Bengals rushers with 48 yards on just 7 carries (all in the first half), rightfully wondered why the team had ceased to run the ball.
“Yeah, that’s frustrating,” Mixon told The Cincinnati Enquirer. “I felt like Bell got the ball 35 times. I get it seven. All in the first half then don’t touch the ball again…If it worked in the first half why not do it in the second?”
At first, head coach Marvin Lewis passed the buck to his offensive coordinator, Bill Lazor, with a limp, “whatever plays are called are called” in the postgame presser. But the following day, with time to think about it, Lewis expanded upon his thoughts. Unfortunately.
“He needs to show a little maturity,” said Lewis. “We are not going to create a run when down by 12, 15, whatever it was.”
It was both, actually, and yes, you should run in that scenario. More to the point, the Bengals weren’t down double-digits until 5:28 remained in the third quarter, by which point Andy Dalton had thrown interceptions on consecutive drives, and any reasonable fan had abandoned hope, given we’ve all seen this game against the Steelers about 1,999 times in our misbegotten pigskin lives.
Mostly, this is about two big-picture issues that haunt the team, both today and stretching back for the entirety of the Lewis Era. One is strategic. We’ve all said this before, but the team can only be effective offensively if the playmakers get the large majority of the touches. Beyond A.J. Green, that means Mixon (and to a lesser extent Gio Bernard). Every carry designated for Jeremy Hill in particular is a win for the defense even before the snap.
Want some numbers to back that up? Cincinnati is currently averaging a woeful 2.33 Yards Per Carry (on 95 attempts) when Dalton lines up under center. That’s where Hill does his work, and that’s good for dead last in the league. Part of that is oft-horrendous blocking, sure. But since Hill cannot adequately run from shotgun, the Bengals are forced to go under center to accommodate him. Defenses also know that, and also know that because Lewis and his staff are wedded to Hill, the former LSU product is certain to get the ball in those scenarios. So the box is stacked, and teams run blitz right into the running gaps. The end result is a stunted drive. To be fair, there is some occasional ancillary benefit—the Bengals are 7th in the NFL in yards per play when throwing from under center, meaning when they do throw it, defenses are caught out of position. But that’s only been 41 plays this season. Mostly, the Bengals concede 2nd-and-8 every time Hill enters the game.
From the shotgun, meaning mostly Mixon and Bernard, Cincy is at 4.82 YPC (on just 56 carries), a much better clip. But that’s only on half as many attempts. The refusal to turn the running game over to Mixon (and get him more touches in the passing game, where he excels) is part misguided appraisal of Hill (“we drafted him in the second round, so he must be good!”), and part the “rookies = bedbugs” feeling that regularly bedrocks Lewis’ worldview.
This is the second issue. Having talented first-year players gather mold during virtual or actual redshirt seasons is a common theme in Cincy under Lewis. Witness William Jackson, who blanketed Antonio Brown for large chunks of the game Sunday and is already the best corner on the team. Last season he was injured in the preseason, but was eligible to return to the roster for the last stretch of games—valuable experience for a rookie, if nothing else. Instead Lewis chose to promote 4th string running back Cedric Peerman from the IR-eligible to return list, rather than a potential difference-maker in the secondary.
And yes, multiple defensive rookies are contributing this season—which is rare in and of itself—but in rotation duty. Mixon is here to carry the freight.
With Mixon, whose drafting opened the Bengals up to much scorn and backlash, it is even more frustrating, given his obvious ability to open up the game when allowed (also: given that background, Lewis saying negative things about Mixon’s “maturity” didn’t seem accidental). Watching from the sideline as his doppleganger, Bell, slowly bled the Bengals over 35 carries must have made the afternoon especially irritating for Mixon.
“In the last two games that we won somewhere between probably two and five of our skill position players were probably pissed at me after the game,” Lazor told the Enquirer Monday. “It’s just the fact. That’s NFL football. Not everyone is going to be happy with their touches all the time.”
Fair enough, but no one cares if Brandon Lafell or C.J. Uzomah are pissed. Mixon (along with the much-rumored-about but seldom-witnessed John Ross) were drafted specifically to get the offense cranking after being stuck in molasses in 2016. For thirty minutes on Sunday, the controversial Mixon selection looked brilliant, and the Bengals actually seemed to have a shot at winning and righting the season.
Then everyone reverted to old habits and familiar results ensued. Fans are once again left dreaming of a head coach and franchise culture that values competition, and the precept that the best players get the most time at every position, and confidence in the play-calling giving the team and its stars the best chance to succeed. And a realistic shot at beating the friggin’ Steelers for once.
Robert Weintraub is a Fulcher 2 Stay contributor and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. He is also the author of three books. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.