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A Long Look At Joe Mixon's Long Run As Bengals Poised For Season's Final Dash

HB Joje Mixon runs the ball away from Panthers during the Bengals-Panthers game in Week 9 of the 2022 season.
HB Joje Mixon runs the ball away from Panthers during the Bengals-Panthers game in Week 9 of the 2022 season.

They can't tell you the name of the run, but the Bengals can name anything they want this season if they run it like that.

A counter.

"Best run of the year," center Ted Karras says.

Running back Joe Mixon's 29-yard run through the heart of the Panthers defense on last Sunday's second series as much as anything signaled the rout was on and the second half of another nerve-bending-gut-punching-microwave-fast playoff push has begun.

"We don't major in it," says offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. "It's a complementary piece."

Complementary, perhaps. But with a 70-percent passer, devastating.  Last Sunday's counter is a heartening morsel for a Bengals offense that goes into the bye explosive and not inconsistent. Yes, head coach Zac Taylor can marry his run game with Seamless Joe's historical passing. Yes, Mixon is still Prime Time Mix. And, yes, the Bengals offensive line not only likes to go downhill, it can.

On Sunday, they did what they were supposed to do against a defense ranked 23rd against the run. Think of it as 241 calling cards, one for each of the 241 rushing yards, the most under Taylor in the biggest Bengals ground game in six years.  On Sunday, they blew up that pesky light box. Mixon, uncharacterstically below four yards per this season, went for seven per 22 pops.

Let Karras explain it.

(And, by the way, Karras is the offensive equivalent of all those MVP defensive free-agent acquisitions. As solid as his native Indiana and as reliable as his NFL upbringing in the Commonwealth of Belichick.)

"Two good pulls. Hat on a hat. Look at the double team. It was a great deuce spot by Cap and LC. Jonah had a big block cutting off the back side 4-I and I back fought the nose … Cordell had a great kick-out on the D-End. Jonah wrapped around and Joe makes no hesitation hitting it through the hole."

Translation. Right guard Alex Cappa (who has been terrific all year) and right tackle La'el Collins (finding his crafty veteran sea legs just in time) teamed to swallow up three technique Matt Ioaninidis.

Left tackle Jonah Williams pulled to the right and blew up linebacker Frankie Luvu off the edge. Rookie left guard Cordell Volson also pulled to the right and picked off defensive end Marquis Haynes, Sr., while Karras cooled off a guy coming off a 12-tackle game in tackle Derrick Brown.

Mixon, starting to the left of Burrow in the shotgun, took a step to the left and then countered, flashing to the right while taking the handoff, blowing between Collins, now on his left, and Williams, now on his right opening up the right edge.

Then, downfield, tight end Mitchell Wilcox suddenly surfaced after he lined up the widest to the right. He tied up safety Myles Hartsfield just long enough so when Hartsfield came off, Mixon was able to jet past his dive.

"A lot of hard blocks (but) it puts the defense in one-on-one situations and we all executed our one-on-ones," Karras says.

Wilcox was a busy man Sunday. The Bengals are primarily a three-receiver team with Hayden Hurst at tight end. But with wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase (hip) missing his second game, Wilcox played a lot more with Hurst and the other tight end, Devin Asiasi, when the Bengals used more multiple tight end sets than usual.

"We knew we could out on these guys," Wilcox says. "You get nasty."

Still, the counter came out of four receivers spread with Wilcox the lone receiver on the right.

"Not a direct downhill run because you've got two pullers," Callahan says. "But it's gap-scheme related. It's meant to hit a little more downhill.

"It's an easy (shot) gun run. Did a better job of mixing it up this week. Mixing the pass game in the gun that matches the run formations and all that. It's a generally a pass formation that we ran it out of. The tight end's open, he's not attached to the core. It goes both ways. You try to sell pass formations and run the ball. You try to show run formations and pass the ball. Mix them up together and it makes it hard on the defense."

Callahan says they've run four or five different versions of the counter this season. But this exact one? They did run one a lot like it in last year's AFC title game.

Jonah Williams, the fifth-year former first-rounder, is a good athlete and pulling is one of the best parts of his game. He rarely pulls to the right, but earlier he did pull to the left and cleared the way for Mixon's two-yard touchdown run that started his record day of five touchdowns.

"I can do that," Williams says. "That was a five-man line blocking a six-man box. That's a downhill run hitting in the B gap. Cordell kicking out and me pulling up and everyone else tracking inside. We don't major in (the counter), but I'm glad we got an explosive out of it. That's how you start racking up yards with explosives like that. That will get the yards up."

It's a little bit of formation. A little bit of down and distance. A little bit of this. A little bit of that. A lot of it is timing for an offensive line that's basically been together since Labor Day and celebrated Veterans Day with its best outing. The fourth-rounder Volson is emerging as what they thought. A long, physical finisher who is more athletic than you think.

"I'm just feeling more comfortable in the playbook and with the guys," Volson says. I feel like they trust me more and that allows me to fast. Just starting to fit in with the guys. We're a bunch of competitive guys up front that love the physicality of the game.

"We got the look we repped all week," says Volson as they showed pass on second-and-six. "Jonah and I pulled. It's a physical part of the game and I enjoy that. The double team on the right with Cap and LC got great movement. Jonah and I got on our guys and it popped and Joe made a guy miss."

That's what Mixon does this time of year. Sunday was his first 100-yard day of the season, the 14th of his career and the 11th in November and December. December is his biggest month with more than 1,400 yards for 83 yards per game. November is next with nearly 1,200 yards at 84 yards per game. Both months he has gone for 4.6 yards per pop.

"The way that we were balanced," Mixon says, "I feel like it's going to pay huge dividends down the road because we ran the ball effectively and also we threw the ball effectively. When Chase comes back and we start opening the offense even more, because the run game is going and the pass is on, I feel like it's only going to get crazier."

Crazy is a nice counter.