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Bengals Notebook: Why The Run Game Has Taken Off; WRs Chip Off Block; Adeniji Looms As The Answer At RG

Tyler Boyd likes to block.
Tyler Boyd likes to block.

Bengals offensive line coach Frank Pollack really loves it when one of the wide receivers comes up to him after a big run and tells him, "Hey, wait until you see that block on the crack toss."

Because if you really want to know why the Bengals run game has taken off in the two games since the bye, that's why.

Pollack is a huge reason, of course, and how he and head coach Zac Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan have married up the pass game with the wide zone run scheme after two years of intermittent dating.

And then there's the consistent lineup of the offensive line as Hakeem Adeniji is set to make his fourth straight start at right guard to make it the longest skein at that spot this season.

But there's something else, too.

"People get sick and tired of me saying it but I'll keep saying it," said Pollack, who learned it the hard way as a sixth-round pick from Northern Arizona who played 90 games as backup guard in the NFL of the '90s.

"If you're going to have any success on offense, I don't care if its passing or running, all 11 guys have to be on the same page. One guy is off and you have a kink in the cog."

But there is wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase exulting after helping running back Joe Mixon finish off last Sunday's longest run of the season, a 32-yarder that helped give him a career-high 165 yards.

"Wide receivers blocking? Best group I've ever been around," said Pollack this week, a veteran of a quarter century playing and coaching in the NFL. "They're selfless. They're excited about it. They get just as excited during the game when they get a big block and spring the back as they do making a touchdown catch. It's unbelievable."

But Pollack, who has a Super Bowl ring from the Steve Young 49ers, believes you absolutely have to have that kind of chemistry to win. He credits Taylor as he watches wide receivers and tight ends join his line to make the Bengals currently tied for 16th in the run after four seasons they've been no better than 29th.

"The tight ends," Pollack said. "If you want to know a position group that is blocking its butt off, it's the tight ends.

"It's a great deal, it just shows you the chemistry in the locker room. It's a credit to the head coach. They play hard for each other. If you've got that, you've got a chance in this league."

Wide receiver Tyler Boyd came to the Bengals in 2016, the year after the Bengals finished seventh in rushing under offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. They haven't been higher than 21st since and Boyd says this is the best effort he's seen on the ground, including the one year Pollack was here in 2018 on Marvin Lewis' last staff.

"It's definitely Frank for sure. Guys love Frank, since the moment he left, even Mixon can tell you he wanted that guy since the moment he left," Boyd said. "I know Pollack is the guy that you want to work with. He doesn't take nothing from nobody, he's not going to mess with you, not going to take anything for granted. It's hard-nosed football. Hit the guy or you're going to be hit. That's his MO and that's what I love because he's a guy that likes to get out of the mud and that's what the run game is all about."

Boyd, who has been known to speak his mind, loves it when people get straight to the point. And that's what Taylor did after last season when he hired Pollack and made him the run-game coordinator. In Pollack, he was turning to a wide zone guru, a system that Taylor and Callahan were deeply familiar with in their associations with coaches like Kubiak, Shanahan and McVay.

When Taylor arrived in 2019, the offensive line was in transition and not a good fit for the wide zone. Then when they drafted Joe Burrow No. 1, they put him in the shot gun to help make him more comfortable, but they couldn't run the ball well and it didn't help Mixon missed the last 11 games with a foot injury.

Mixon, who won the Bengals' only AFC rushing title under Pollack in 2018, made a big push to re-sign him and Taylor didn't need much of a push. He knew what had to be done. In order to run the wide zone and be able to play-action off it effectively, Burrow had to be under center more. And there have been more heavy formations. More double tight ends and three tackles on six-man lines.

"We did a lot of (wide zone) when we came here to start, even in 2019. Didn't have the success for various reasons that we would have hoped to have had," Callahan said. "So we had to get away from it some to fit our scheme a little bit more to the players that we had at the time and the skill set of the guys around them. We got away a little bit from the wide zone game and really wanted to get back to that.

"And then in 2020, Joe came in and we spent a little bit more time in the shotgun and weren't as good running the ball as we wanted to be. And we didn't get the type of offense married up the way we'd like to marry up with the under center portion of it. So that was a big emphasis for us. And then Frank was a huge reason of why we've gotten back to those things that we wanted to be, really, since we got here. We finally feel like we have the pieces in place and the scheme in place to be able to execute it the way that we have thus far."

And the blocking receivers.

"Everything ties together," Boyd said. "At first the run wasn't getting how it was because we were passing so well. Then once they started keying more on passes and guys got open, they strived to not give up big plays and dropped a guy. We go into games knowing we had to figure out another way. Blocking and running is it."

Check out some of the best photos from Thursday's practice as the Bengals prepare for a Week 13 matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers.

MORE O-LINE: *It remains to be seen if the Bengals can roll out that same offensive line for the fourth straight week Sunday (1 p.m., Cincinnati's-Local 12) against the Chargers. On Thursday, right tackle Riley Reiff (ankle) and center Trey Hopkins (ankle) didn't work for the second straight day. So Friday is a huge day.

But Adeniji is doing just fine and last year's sixth-round pick out of Kansas looks like he's the man for the foreseeable future. The coaches can't say enough about him.

"We had some moving parts there," said Pollack, who started three others before going to Adeniji. "Now it's more settled and they seem more comfortable playing next to each other."

Callahan says he's been a big contributor in the run game.

"He's able to move people off the line of scrimmage and he's got the athleticism to climb," Callahan said. "So a lot of things on the back side you see Hakeem climbing and covering people up really pretty well. He plays under control, plays with good speed and strength. He's certainly a factor.

"He's really smart, he's done a good job taking all the things because he's got experience from the year before. He's played multiple positions. He's got tackle athleticism, so you can see he can climb to the second level. He can move on his feet really well in pass protection. And he's got strength. He's a strong guy. He's really athletic. Each game that goes by, you see him getting more comfortable, playing with better technique."

MORE TOUGH WRS: The two best tackles of the last two weeks just may have been wide receiver Tee Higgins' touchdown-saver on Burrow's fumble on the first possession of the game in Vegas and Boyd's sure tackle on Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick's interception in the last minute of the first half that had all the earmarks of his fourth career pick-six until Boyd's flying rolling tackle took out the legs.

"Those was probably two touchdown saving tackles and the way that we're going in this direction," Boyd said. "I mean obviously we may have a turnover going forward, but we don't want guys to capitalize off our mistakes. If we get a pick then we've got do our best to get the guy down and make them work for their points. I think we do a great job just continue to play and not stopping or quitting."

Callahan, who agrees with Pollack this is the best group of blocking wideouts he's had, noticed.

And, again, an assistant coach points to Taylor. Callahan remembers the head coach challenging the wide outs on this very point and they went beyond in their response.

"Zac challenged them a few weeks ago to be the standard around the league for blocking at the receiver position and they have answered that with really phenomenal performances in the run game," Callahan said. "(The tackles) shows you is the level of intensity they play with. That transfers over into the run game. You see that kind of effort trying to make a play on an interception. That is the kind of effort they play with all the time. They don't ever pick and choose a spot. When it's time to go block somebody they block with the same exact intensity as when they are trying to go win on third down. It's a really unique trait that that room has. They take a ton of pride in it."