Center Ted Karras, one of running back Joe Mixon's main men, leers at the five games left before the Bengals' Nov. 13 bye and declares, "I'd like to go on a run."
Mixon has, although he usually saves his best for the stretch. But he believes the Bengals' quiet run game is rustling in the weeds and about to bust out after just 224 docile yards in the first four games. Mixon, in his sixth season, wears the captain's "C," for a reason. It could be the scarlet letter "D," for "Diva," but he doesn't play that card and the Bengals man of good vibrations keeps bouncing.
"We're this close, man. I'm forever going to be optimistic of it," Mixon said Monday. "We've just got to keep doing our thing to be in the best position to set up to win."
If you think Mixon is off to a slow start now, go back to the first seven games of 2019, capped off by getting two yards on ten carries against Jacksonville. Four times in the first seven games he had 17 yards or fewer for just 254 yards. Then over the last nine games of the season he was second only to King Derrick Henry with 883 yards for his miracle 1,000-yard season.
Oh yeah. He remembers.
"I was down two months," Mixon said. "I had literally eighth game of the season had like 230 yards rushing. Like, literally. I was bad."
But, remember, Mixon is a second-half back. In November-December, he averages 4.5 yards per carry, 3.7 in September and October. 2019 was Mixon's third season, when he was the defending AFC rushing champion, and they're banking on history repeating itself. Off the best season of his career, he called an offensive linemen-only meeting last Wednesday, the day before he churned out 61 yards on 24 carries.
The world is very different now. The new-old line coach Frank Pollack (who was here the year before) wasn't here and neither were his five starters, although left tackle Jonah Williams was on injured reserve.
And they're looking at him more in the passing game. Quarterback Joe Burrow, doing you know what you know where in 2019, is seeing more zone-like coverages and the last two weeks hasn't hesitated checking down to him. Mixon and the Giants' Saquon Barkley lead the NFL with 99 touches and Mixon is on pace for 72 catches.
"It helps the linemen, it helps Joey B and helps the receivers having the ball earlier and having space to be able to make somebody miss," said Mixon of the monstrous number of touches. "That's what we want. That's what we want. "
Mixon and Barkley are on pace for 421 touches, which would make them the first to hit 400 since DeMarco Murray in Dallas in 2014 and the second most in the last 16 years. Mixon is also on pace for 349 carries, the second most in Bengals history. The first Bengal to maybe hit 400 says to keep them coming. He nods defiantly when he gets off the locker room scale at 225 pounds.
"The big thing is being in shape," Mixon said. "I'm ready to go. I'm in shape."
Mixon got it going downhill himself when he called the meeting to talk over "the little things that we didn't see over the course of time.
"Them boys put in the work," Mixon said. "I called for a meeting with them just to see what they're thinking on certain runs or what they think I should do on certain runs. I feel like that will definitely be beneficial down the road and taking that next step on coming together and building that chemistry on and off the field. I think that's going to take us a long way down the road so I look forward to it."
Mixon actually had a much bigger September this time around than three years ago. And he knows numbers. If he does end up with those 349 carries, second only in Bengals history to Rudi Johnson's 361 in that 2004 season he broke Corey Dillon's team rushing record, he would like "to get the yards (1,454) he did."
So they're putting their heads down to get there. One of the many advantages over '19 (Burrow, Ja'Marr Chase, veteran group) is that Mixon is working behind the same line rather than the turnstile of head coach Zac Taylor's first season.
The caveat is they haven't worked much together in the wake of an overhaul and early injuries. But Karras also senses it is close. So does No. 71 himself. Willie Anderson, the franchise right tackle who saw his name installed in the Ring of Honor Thursday night, likes what he is seeing.
"Winning breeds confidence, especially for a lineman, and they're having success," Anderson said. "The last two games they've got in a groove. They've seen themselves doing it right."
Anderson is in the process of outfitting the O-line with custom made No. 71 T-Shirts like he and his family wore during the ceremony. Right tackle La'el Collins, the current No. 71, requested one from everythingbigwillie.com, and now it looks like the rest of the line is going to get them as the evolution continues.
"I think the biggest thing is probably the reps with the back," Karras said. "Knowing how we block and where we're going to be. Confident we're going to hit the hole hard. I think Joe's been doing a great job and we're going to have to keep this run game going. It's not enough. On Thursday it was good, but it wasn't like we were blowing any one off the screen."
Karras is ready to pass block 70 times a game "and we'll do a great job." But here's why he says the run game has to get going:
"It's time on task so you make the defense play defense longer. Time of possession is as big a factor as any in this league. If you rattle off a few first downs, that's four minutes off the clock. Just their offense not sitting down that long is an advantage and takes pressure off the O-line to win one-on-one … You have to have that balanced attack and keep their defense off the field."
Mixon's 82 carries is second only to Barkley, so the Bengals continue to commit to the run. On Monday, Mixon let people look under the hood as he and his new line work out the kinks of Pollack's wide zone in real time.
"Like if LC, he's the front side guy and if somebody crosses his face and I cut it backside and he's trying to slide the guy over, it's probably going to be called holding," Mixon said. "If he pretty much throws the guy out front side and I make that cut off of him and off of Cappa that goes into executing. Everybody's got a part in this. I know we're all going take initiative of making that jump and getting better, but at the same time the more reps and things we get under our belt. We're going to get better and we're going to have execute and do whatever we can to make these jumps. I'm ready for it."
Mixon knows the numbers, but he's not chasing stats.
"The end of the day, the stats (are) the stats and you obviously want to see growth but at the same time as long as we are doing what we have to do to win that is all that matters," Mixon said. "I'm sure it was talked that the Bengals, we weren't going to do anything, we are 0-2.
"Now that we are 2-2 everybody is back on the bandwagon. It's just all about winning. That's what it's all about. As long as everybody is in tune and doing what we need to do to win and being in the best position to win then the other stuff is going to come."
Willie Anderson is watching from the Ring.
"I'm just hoping a little of it wears off," Anderson said, "I'm 2-0 as Ruler of the Jungle."