The Bengals offensive line played its best quarter of the season in Sunday's first and for the most part kept quarterback Joe Burrow upright when they allowed two sacks and four other hits in 43 drop-backs.
The interior line, in particular, moved out the Colts' estimable front four, ranked third against the rush. Center Trey Hopkins and guards Michael Jordan and Alex Redmond took control of the group that came in led by the dominant DeForest Buckner. Mixon, Burrow and running back Giovani Bernard all punched in scores from inside the 8 for the Bengals' first red-zone rushing touchdowns of the season.
Bernard went in standing up from two yards out for his first touchdown since Sept. 30, 2018 in Atlanta, Burrow converted a fourth-and-one from the 2 powering up the middle and from the seven-yard line Mixon mushed behind a pulling Jordan and left tackle Jonah Williams to shove it over for a 21-0 lead six seconds into the second quarter.
But then the game shifted away from them and that moment seemed to be when Mixon left the game with a foot injury after that last carry of the first half. At that point he had averaged four yards per his 11 carries during a quarter the Bengals ran it those 11 times and Burrow dropped back to pass 11 times.
They ran it 18 times the rest of the way and dropped back 32 times. When Mixon returned at the beginning of the second half he didn't appear to be himself and had 10 yards on seven carries. Somewhere in there the momentum was lost inside.
"What I love about this team is nobody panicked. Everybody stayed on track. Nobody was pointing fingers," Buckner said. "Everybody was looking at themselves and how they can do better. It was all across the board. We just need to come out and everybody has to do their job and come out with more energy and play our style of football, and that's what we did."
It was tough to put your finger on. On third-and-one with about eight minutes left in the game from the Colts 30, they couldn't move the Colts on running back Samaje Perine's fullback dive on his first carry of the season.
"We knew it was a really good defense that we were facing. We had some success early and did feel like later in the game we had some stuff as well to play off of it," said Bengals head coach Zac Taylor. "We just didn't get enough points on the board in the second half, but I feel like our guys did a good job, made some plays there when we needed them."
Taylor opted to go for the field goal on that fourth-and-one with 8:02 left and Randy Bullock missed the 48-yarder after making a season-long 55-yarder late in the third quarter.
"Our offense had gotten two turnovers at that point in the game and I just believed in those guys that they were going to be able to get a stop for us if we converted that 48-yarder," Taylor said. "We didn't, it hit the cross bar and that's the way the game goes, but it wasn't an easy decision when you're in fourth-and-one to have a chance to go for it. I felt like it was middle of the fourth quarter, we can go take this lead, rely on our defense to get a stop and then finish the game the right way. Again, it just didn't work out for us, but I don't know that I would change that decision."
DEFENSIVE QUESTIONS: That's because the Bengals couldn't prevent Colts quarterback Philip Rivers from converting a third-and-eight and third-and-nine on the next drive on their way to the clinching field goal on a clock-draining drive. On one, no one covered wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and on the other strong safety Vonn Bell appeared to get caught inside trying to track tight end Trey Burton. Bell came back to make the next third-down stop on Burton, but they couldn't overcome that field goal and their missed field goal.
It was a perplexing performance by the defense that couldn't get near Rivers despite the big lead. But they did start one defensive tackle that got here Labor Day (Christian Covington) and another that got here around Columbus Day and made his first start Sunday (Xavier Williams). They played well against the run, but the defense didn't lay a finger on Rivers.
And they had another devastating lapse on a drive at the end of the first half when Rivers converted a 17-yard touchdown pass with 15 seconds left on third-and-10 when wide receiver Zach Pascal beat cornerback LeShaun Sims out of the slot in press coverage. Sims had good coverage but he didn't get close enough for a perfect throw. That drive (72 yards in 2:43) was enough to get free safety Jessie Bates III fuming.
"I mean it's frustrating. You play very well in that first quarter. I don't think they got a first down," Bates said. "Then we kind of fall apart when the game matters. It's the same thing I've been saying all year. We've got to be consistent, be consistent in everything we do. We can't relax, because they get paid too. He's a Hall of Fame quarterback and he knew exactly what we were doing. He executed very well."
Bates, who had his first interception of the season in the fourth quarter, had no answers for the last-drive meltdowns.
"I'm not sure exactly but something has to be amplified," Bates said. "Whether that's in practice or film study or what it is. I'm not sure it's because they go tempo, you know they're on the ball or what it is, but we've just got to take a deep breath and settle down. They're still running the same exact plays we practiced all week. Like I said, that's what's frustrating."
It was a tough day for Bates' secondary.
"Your one goal is to stop the run and our up front, they did a hell of a job stopping the run. I think they had like 18 rushing yards at halftime," Bates said. "I mean it's up to the DBs. It's up to the DBs and that's all I have to say.
One of those unknown Bengals-killers surfaced off the practice squad. Marcus Johnson, a guy that Colts head coach Frank Reich brought over from Philly when he got the job in 2018. That year Johnson had six catches for 102 yards. On Sunday he had five catches for 108 yards after coming into the game with four catches for 80 yards this season.
Rivers hit him with a 55-yarder that got his offense off the skids when he got the matchup he wanted with Johnson against the strong safety deep. In this case, Bell.
Taylor was asked if defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo supplied enough heat.
"We pressured we just didn't always get home. I say get home – they picked it up, they do a nice job," Taylor said. "So it's not always as simple as just calling pressures and thinning out your back end. That can be tough if they do a nice job of picking it up, so there's a balance there. Again, it takes everybody on the defense. Sometimes just a four-man rush, you've got to go affect the pass rush well and we're counting on those guys up front to do that."
And that gets back to a defensive tackle group without nose tackle D.J. Reader and limited three technique Geno Atkins. Atkins played 18 snaps Sunday after playing 19 in his season debut last week as he comes off a shoulder injury.
SLANTS AND SCREENS: The defense had a new look in the back end with the return of slot cornerback Mackensie Alexander, playing 87 percent of the snaps after he missed the last two weeks. Darius Phillips, who replaced him and has played at least 71 percent of the snaps in every game heading into Sunday, played 48 percent of the snaps against the Colts a week after he was graded their best defender in Baltimore and ranked the NFL's top slot cornerback by profootballfocus.com.
The devastation of the injured defensive line is clear in Sunday's snap counts. The two newest tackles, Covington and Williams, played the most with 34 snaps. End Andrew Brown moved inside to play nose tackle for 13 plays. In his third NFL game and first one signed off the practice squad to a roster spot, Khalil McKenzie took 17 plays. In his sixth NFL game, second NFL start and first at end, Amani Bledsoe took 29 snaps, one more than Carlos Dunlap. And fifth-rounder Khalid Kareem played a career-high 25.
Wide receiver John Ross returned after being inactive for three weeks and played just one snap. Slot receiver Alex Erickson took three plays in place of the nicked Tyler Boyd at the end of the first half.