CARSON, Calif. - Last week offensive coordinator Bill Lazor knew he was getting second-guessed for not getting the ball to running back Joe Mixon more and that wasn't going to happen after Sunday's 26-21 loss to the Chargers.
Mixon got a career-high 26 carries for the most by a Bengals back since Rex Burkhead's 27 in the 2016 finale and carried the Bengals for 111 yards. But it wasn't 112 and that is what has defined a season in which the Bengals have gone from 5-3 to 5-8 in this season of fourth-and-frustration.
"Fourth and four inches," is how head coach Marvin Lewis saw it when he opted to go for it from his own 35 on the first series of the second half and Mixon couldn't get it when the Chargers gave him no shot and swarmed the box with defensive backs.
Such is the life of an offensive coordinator because Lazor was promptly second-guessed by the CBS crew for not sneaking it with 6-4 quarterback Jeff Driskel. But the general concept of giving the ball to Mixon was a move that if overdue was well played and popular with his mates on Sunday. His one-yard touchdown run complete with jump-cut in the face of a penetrating Chargers front that cut the lead to 23-21 with 1:50 left was proof positive.
"You always try to get your best players the ball and I thought Joe did a nice job hitting the holes," Driskel said. "Even sometimes when there wasn't much there, he created. I thought he ran hard. I thought he really battled and that was big for us today being able to run the ball effectively."
For a team on pace for its lowest average time of possession in history, Mixon allowed them to hit 32 minutes for the first time all season. It was the first time this season they ran it (32) more than they passed it (27) and were rewarded with a season-high 144 yards (4.5 yards per carry) without doing much damage to that 4.7 yards they lugged into the game.
And, voila, for the first time this season they stood toe-to-toe with an elite team.
"I though offensively we set out to run the football early in the game. Did a nice job," Lewis said. "We were able to come back out in the second half and sustain it again."
The running game steadied Driskel and he played better than he did in last week's debut. He only threw for 170 yards for just 6.3 yards per throw, but he hit 67 percent of his passes (18 of 27), threw a touchdown (a six-yarder to wide receiver John Ross), didn't throw a pick and came in to Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers' building and matched his five-for-13 on third downs.
But he had a hard-luck day. He was robbed of a touchdown twice in a game-turning 35 seconds with five minutes left in the first half. First, on third down the officials took away an apparent touchdown and turned Driskel's amazing boot-leg run for a touchdown into a sack because he dove for the goal line, which tripped the new interpretation of the rule where the quarterback gives himself up. So he was ruled down when his knee hit even though he wasn't touched.
Yet everyone watching knew the last thing Driskel was doing was giving himself up and had scored to cut it to 14-10. It was a great play because he's probably the only quarterback getting paid that could have run out of the grasp of Chargers left end Joey Bosa and he then North Pole froze a linebacker cutting inside. Plus, he appeared to get dinged up, but didn't flinch the rest of the way.
"I was not giving myself up, that is within the rule book and how it is interpreted, it is what it is," Driskel said. "I wasn't giving myself up, I have to figure out another way to get myself in there."
But this is the way the season has gone. When the refs overturned the TD via replay, Lewis went for it on fourth-and-one with the same jumbo package, but they had to settle for a field goal when right guard Alex Redmond false started for his ninth penalty of the year. A crushing play on a day they left ten points on the field in a five-point loss. Lewis eschewed a 52-yard field goal early in the third quarter and went for it on fourth-and-seven from the Chargers 34. But they had to punt when rookie center Billy Price was called for a false start. The line had four false starts Sunday after having six penalties called on it last week.
"Sometimes things like that happen and it's something that we've come a long way with ever since I've been playing," Driskel said. "It's still something that we've got to get cleaned up and those are things that hurt."
If the CBS crew didn't like the fourth-and-one call, they probably didn't like the one for the tying two-point conversion with 1:50 left when Driskel dropped straight back behind a spread four-receiver set after making that intoxicating run in the first half. The tackles held up with Clint Boling wrestling with the gifted Bosa and right tackle Bobby Hart fending off Melvin Ingram.(They had just one sack between the two of them Sunday.)
Driskel seemed to indicate he held onto the ball longer than he should have, allowing lineman Darius Philon to beat left guard Christian Westerman for the sack. Westerman spent the day rotating with Trey Hopkins. All of Westerman's 28 snaps before Sunday came in Kansas City on Oct. 21. He had 42 Sunday while Hopkins had 28.
"I have to find a way to get them the ball whether it's a get them the ball right now or make somebody miss and find somebody late," Driskel said. "I just didn't get it done. That happens in football and it just comes down to us not making enough plays as a unit."
In his first road start, Driskel put his team in position to take a play-off team into overtime in the first game in 123 games the Bengals played without both A.J. Green and Andy Dalton. But he wasn't feeling it. They couldn't get the four yards on the two two-point conversions and the two yards on the fourth-and-ones.
"I thought we played well on first and second downs. We just didn't make the plays, we made some plays but not the ones we needed," Driskel said. "We have to find a way to convert those. There are no moral victories in this league. We have to fight, scratch and claw to get a win."