If the Bengals are looking for a foundation to build their way out of this, they need to look no closer than the man with the No. 28 chain draped around his neck glistening in the TV lights after Sunday's heart-on-the-sleeve effort in the 49-13 loss to the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium.
Pushed aside in the new offense for the first half of the season with just 12.5 carries per game, running back Joe Mixon was there when his needed him the most in rookie quarterback Ryan Finley's first NFL start against the NFL's hottest team.
Mixon reminded the world he is, after all, the defending AFC rushing champion by mashing his way to a season-high 114 yards on a career-high 30 carries against the league's second-best run defense.
"Joe has really been running his tail off and giving us some really tough yards," said head coach Zac Taylor. "In this game, I'm looking down at my second-and-10 call, and he's pushed the pile for another four yards, and we're in a second-and-six. He's done a really good job in that area."
More significantly, 13 of those carries for 44 of those yards came when the Bengals trailed, 42-10, with 5:13 left in the third quarter. And he didn't care what the score was.
"I definitely didn't mind getting it," Mixon said. "I wish we weren't in that position. I wish we were in a better position in the situation calling it earlier. But we had nothing going at the time. I'm like, 'Come on.' We started to run the ball. I just take pride in what I do. I'm not here to quit or fold over for anybody. I just have to keep on doing my thing.'"
Mixon's thing is balling out. It may also be reviving this offense. Taylor has been criticized for not getting the ball more in Mixon's hands and not being committed enough to the run, particularly with franchise wide receiver A.J. Green not playing a snap this year.
But in the last two games the NFL's last-ranked running team has outrushed their foes (the Bengals bested the Rams in London) and Sunday's 157 yards marked this season's high and the fourth most in the past four seasons. It was an ugly game, but there did seem to be a rose popping up between the weeds in the form of a big-league running attack.
Here is Mixon's point. The Bengals ran it 40 times at a tick under four yards a carry, enough to keep the ball for more than 35 minutes. Usually it is the Ravens that do that. But like Mixon says, the best way to beat a guy like Lamar Jackson is to keep him off the field.
"Honestly, I don't know," said Mixon when asked if Sunday marked the beginning of a run renaissance. "We did a good job up front. The receivers on the perimeter blocking. At the same time I can only hope that we build on this so this can be the best November and December possible. I feel great. I'm sure in the morning l'll feel it a little bit … I think that's what's going to help us in these games is running the football and controlling the line of scrimmage."
What he'll feel in the morning is the first 30 carries in a game by a Bengals running back in nine years, when Cedric Benson felled the Browns on 31 carries for 150 yards late in the 2010 season. Taylor also feels it.
"We wanted to build on (the) last game against the Rams," Taylor said. "That was really our best rushing performance of the season, and guys were doing some good stuff. Again, it's hard when you're already down by a lot of points … We really just wanted to send a message to our guys that we're going to keep pounding the ball and find some good stuff there, and give our guys some confidence in that area. I thought they responded well."
They responded well when the coaches tweaked the blocking scheme to more or less make sure they got off the ball as quickly as possible against that stingy Ravens front. They ran about four or five power plays, which are more than usual, and they did a little bit more man-on-man blocking to complement the zone looks.
"At the end of the day, when we're going 'hat for a hat,' you see what we can do," said Mixon in his endorsement of the tweaks.
His offense rocked by the Green injury and the Andy Dalton benching, Mixon stalked the sidelines in the second half like a caged bear.
"We fought. At times I got frustrated on the sidelines because I felt like people were hanging their heads," Mixon said. "At the end of the day we fought until the fourth quarter. We kind of got a little lackadaisical toward the end. But, I'm on the sideline like, 'Hey we've got to pick this stuff up.'"
Mixon isn't talking out of school. Taylor prides himself on listening and reading nothing but his game plans, but he has been taking note of Mixon's impassioned pleas to the media during some of these weeks that he's been saying he's ready and wants the load.
"I think Joe, the last two weeks, has responded really well. Joe gets beat up more than any (other) player," Taylor said. "He gets asked questions why things aren't going well, and I think he's handled like a pro. I've been really proud of the way he's done that, and he's responded well these last two weeks — and not just him, but the whole offense. They've run the ball well."
Mixon took those handoffs from Finley (the most delivered by a Bengals QB since Carson Palmer), whom Mixon thought answered the bell.
"I thought Ryan did a good job. Especially with the situation he got thrown in against Baltimore," Mixon said. "I think he definitely played great besides the turnover. He probably had one or two throws that could have been better. How he battled and his poise in the huddle I was definitely surprised. I was proud how he came out there trying to lead."
They combined for one of Sunday's few bright spots. Finley had to jettison the pocket right away and his freelance took him across the field to Mixon. Mixon caught it on the sideline and he turned it into a 23-yard play when he froze linebacker Patrick Onwuasor.
"He made a play. He put in my hands and I made somebody miss and tried to get as many yards as I could," Mixon said. "That was just him being Ryan and making a play."
He could have been talking about No. 28.