Against the backdrop of Sunday's game at Soldier Field (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) pitting the NFL's two leading rushers, league leader Joe Mixon is coming off Cincinnati's best Opening Day rushing performance in a half century and senses there is more hay to be made with the running game clicking earlier than it ever has in his career.
Sunday was Mixon's 11th 100-yard game of his career (three behind Pete Johnson in club annals) and eight have come in November and December. When he won the Bengals' first AFC rushing title in 2018, three came in December.
That was the season Mixon bought into Frank Pollack's wide zone-centric scheme and an attention-to-details approach and now that Pollack has returned as offensive line coach and run game coordinator, the two seem to be in sync right away.
Mixon came into last Sunday's game against the Vikings with one of the top ten rushing openers in Bengals history, the 95-yarder in his first game with Pollack when they won in Indy in 2018. But before he went for 127 yards on 4.4 yards per carry against the Vikings, his September average was 50 yards per game on 3.5 yards per carry.
"Usually in the past we haven't been able to get over the hump early," said Mixon, who in the past two seasons averaged just 14 carries in September games. "With me getting a great start and being a great finisher throughout the year and only getting stronger, that's a great feeling to have. I never had a good start. This is the first time I've been able to get a good lead on people. I feel great about it."
Head coach Zac Taylor reversed the trend Sunday. No Bengals back ever had more carries in an opener with Mixon's 29, edging Rudi Johnson's 28 when he grounded out 96 yards to help win the 2006 opener in Kansas City.
Ever since Cedric Benson put up 121 yards in Cleveland ten years ago in the opener, the Bengals running game has come out plodding. Mixon and BenJarvus Green-Ellis (91 in 2012) were the two best since and Joe Burrow's scrambling 46 yards last year in his debut was the sixth best rushing day by a Bengal since 2011.
But here is why Mixon think they're off to the races:
"It's night and day to be honest," Mixon said. "For one thing they're dialing up the runs more. Two, I think the linemen have bought into the schemes that we're running and then I'm bought into believing what we want and what we want to be and that's being the best rushing team in the league. I know it's a week at a time but at the same time we have to do whatever we can do to stay consistent and produce."
Mixon not only leads the NFL in carries, but with touches with a career-high 33, the most ever by a Bengal in an opener. He feels just fine, thank you.
"I'm a little sore. I thought I'd be sorer," Mixon said the day after. "My body feels pretty good for the most part. The most important thing is I came out healthy."
Mixon missed most of the first touchdown drive that he started with a 12-yard catch, but came back in time for a one-yard carry from the Vikings 3. He said it was merely an ankle tweak and it didn't have him concerned.
Let's see. An average of 29 carries a game works out to 493 carries in a 17-game season. That won't happen. But maybe another 300-carry season (18 carries per game) could. They haven't had one since Benson went for 321 in 2010.
Mixon ended up just three yards shy of Jess Phillips' 130 yards that were the centerpiece of the Bengals' monumental 1970 Opening Day upset of the Raiders in the first regular-season game at Riverfront Stadium. He says he's not thinking about numbers. Not a third 1,000-yard season or the Bengals' 1,500-yard season.
"One week at a time," Mixon said. "Keep my head. Eyes on the prize. That's it."
UNDER CENTER: Burrow is also getting the sense Sunday's game signals a bigger role for the run game. Last year, Burrow was in shotgun about 80 percent of the time. On Sunday, Burrow took the majority of their snaps (about 53 percent) under center Trey Hopkins.
"That's going to be who we are this year," Burrow said. "We ran the ball really well, we're going to be physical and we're going to play action pass."
Think of how huge of an adjustment that is for Burrow. He never went under center until he got to the pros last year and then it wasn't very often. But on Sunday, it looked like he'd been doing it forever. At least like he did it 80 percent last year.
"I'm really comfortable with it now. It's part of what we do," Burrow said. "I think it's just a good opportunity to push the ball down the field, more so in the intermediate zones, because that sucks in the linebackers and the intermediate zone players. Corners are not going to get faked out by play action like that, it's not middle schools, but those linebackers doing the run fit get sucked up and it opens the zone behind them."
Burrow sees the pros and cons to it. The longest play of the game, a 50-yard TD to Ja'Marr Chase, came out of shotgun. The biggest play, the 32-yarder to C.J. Uzomah, was all play action from under center.
"In terms of the play action game, you're just delaying your opportunity to feel the rush and feel the zones of the defense so you have to be quick to react," Burrow said of being under center. "You have to get the ball out quickly. It's harder to do so under center when you turn your back. It also gives you a better play-action fake, so there's give and take with all the plays that your draw up and that's that for going under with the play action pass."
He'll probably be under center in Chicago frequently for more reasons than play action. It is Burrow's first NFL game in a hostile full stadium and the silent cadence is now a factor. Of course, he had plenty of that in the SEC.
"Under center you can kind of mix it up a little bit (between silent and audible counts)," Burrow said. "But in the shotgun you've got to go on silent. But there really isn't that much of a difference."
INJURY REPORT: Bengaldom shuddered a bit Wednesday before the walk through when Burrow admitted his knee was sore after Sunday's game and then after the walk through when he appeared on the injury report. But he went full and said he wasn't limited.
"I feel better than I have all camp right now, so that's a good sign, Burrow said.
Not so for third safety Ricardo Allen, put on injured reserve for at least three weeks with a broken hand and they hope it's not more than that. That seems to be the only major injury out of the opener, when he also hurt his hamstring. Punt returner Darius Phillips (thigh) and linebacker Markus Bailey (knee) were limited, but then so was everybody in the walk through.
Usually Wednesday is the heaviest day of practice, but not this week after 70 minutes getting sautéed on the 90-degree Paul Brown Stadium turf.
"It's something we'll monitor as we go forward. But a lot of it has to do with Sunday," Taylor said. "It was in the heat. We played (83) snaps on defense. We want our guys to be mentally and physically prepared for this road game on Sunday. So we feel like doing a double walkthrough today is our best way to do that. "
ROSTER MOVES: The Bengals moved up wide receiver Trenton Irwin from the practice squad to the active roster to fill Allen's spot. Allen, a nice quiet get over the offseason, and the former Falcons captain played well in about a quarter of the snaps defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo used three safeties.
"He means a lot, he's a solid vet always giving his perspective, always giving his mind and knowledge of the game," said strong safety Vonn Bell, one of the defensive captains. "On and off the field. He's a great business man too. He's like a brother, always a phone call away. He's a big part of this defense, we always lean on him for advice and everything. He has been doing that at a long time for a high level."
The Bengals signed veteran safety Sean Davis to the practice squad Wednesday, a day after the Colts released him from their practice squad. Davis, a second-round pick of the Steelers in 2016, has played in in 65 career games, all but one with Pittsburgh during two stints with the club. He played ten snaps for the Colts last Sunday, all on special teams.
The Bengals figure to look at both Davis and Trayvon Henderson this week and then make a call on who to elevate from the practice squad on Sunday, if either of them. Anarumo could decide to solve the problem without using a safety.
"If it's an aware player like Ricardo who's played in this league for a long time, it's just another weapon you can put out there," said Taylor of the value of playing three safeties. "We've got a lot of different personnel that we can utilize. We feel really good about our backers in coverage. We feel really good about our safeties in coverage. We feel great about our corners in coverage. So we feel like there's some depth there that we can package around and get the right guys on the field."
NO. 9 DIGITS: The numbers from Burrow's first game back in basically 10 months off reconstructive knee surgery tell you how remarkable he played when stacked against the rest of the league. His passer rating is fifth best (128.8) as is his average per attempt (9.7) and his completion percentage (74) is eighth.
Something else they'll no doubt monitor is that those numbers came courtesy of his first NFL game he didn't throw at least 30 passes.
"I thought I protected the ball fairly well. I missed some throws I normally make," Burrow said. "But overall, I think I played a pretty good game, good enough to win. But we're going to keep getting better every week."
FIELDS ALERT: Burrow predicts big things from another former Ohio State quarterback, Bears rookie Justin Fields.
"He's going to be an exciting player. I think he's a Lamar Jackson type athlete that can have an impact on the game in that way," Burrow said. "The few plays he got on Sunday he was exciting with the ball in his hand. As he keeps progressing, he's going to be fun to watch."