Bengals want ball in Burrow's hands with ground game stalled

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Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) warms up before an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Baltimore Ravens in Cincinnati, Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)

CINCINNATI – Joe knows best. That's a mantra the Bengals have fully embraced.

Cincinnati’s success has turned on Joe Burrow's ability to process and act, complete passes in tight windows, work around the team's deficiencies and turn broken plays into first downs.

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Meanwhile, the Bengals' run game has become something of a side dish to the main course.

The Bengals were 29th out of 32 NFL teams in rushing during the regular season, averaging 92.9 yards per game -- fewer than all but two playoff teams and the fewest of any team advancing to the divisional round. Cincinnati finished with 100 or more rushing yards in just three games. The last time was in a win over the Browns in Week 14.

In the last two games against Baltimore –- wins in the regular-season finale and wild-card playoff round -- Cincinnati combined for just 106 yards on the ground. The Bengals have averaged just 58 yards in the last four games.

Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan acknowledged that “we’re not a volume carry team,” but he said de-emphasizing the run game wasn't a deliberate trend but the way the games have worked out in the last month or so.

“First thing, we played really good defenses. We played … some teams that are pretty hell bent on stopping the run, and they are good at it," Callahan said. “The other part is I think we have leaned into throwing the ball a little bit more the last couple weeks as well, partly because of that.”

The Bengals overhauled an underperforming offensive line before the season. That's helped slow down pass rushers who made Burrow the NFL's most-sacked quarterback in 2021 and left him battered after the Super Bowl loss to the Rams.

His 68.3% completion rate in the 2022 regular season was second in the NFL only to Seattle's Geno Smith. His 297.7 passing yards per game was second to Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes. Burrow threw a career-high 35 touchdown passes, tying him for second with Buffalo's Josh Allen.

A rash of injuries in recent weeks will force the Bengals to start three backups on the offensive line when they play at Buffalo on Sunday in the divisional round. Working around that is bound to put even more pressure on Burrow.

Fortunately for the Bengals, not much bothers the 26-year-old star.

“I think you have to have that mindset as a quarterback in this league if you want to be really successful — you can’t go out there scared in the moment,” he said. “You have to be a little arrogant to go out there in that moment and make plays you need to make, and so that’s really something I’ve thought a lot about and something that I try to do.”

Callahan said the Bengals will still hand the ball off against the Bills, the fourth-best team in the league against the run this season.

“We still need to be able to run the ball better," he said. “It’s always going to help that (offensive line) group, especially with new players, if we can run the ball with some efficiency and feel good about it. I will say at this time of year, when it comes down to it, we’ll probably try to put the ball in Burrow’s hands as much as possible, because that’s just what is going to win us games.”

After rushing for a career-high 1,205 yards in 2021, featured back Joe Mixon hasn’t found much room this year. He logged just one 100-yard game, picking up 153 yards and scoring four touchdowns in a Week 9 win over Carolina. He suffered a concussion in the first half of a Week 12 win over Pittsburgh and missed the next two games.

With his carries reduced, Mixon has remained a consistent cog in the passing game, making 60 catches for 441 yards — both career highs for the six-year pro.

“Everybody in this locker room is going to matter,” Mixon said this week. “We have physical, hungry teammates willing to do whatever to get the job done."


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