Bengals running back Joe Mixon is on pace to smash Rudi Johnson's 18-year-old team record by 45 touches after he put his hand on the ball 28 times in Thursday night's 27-15 win over the Dolphins at sold-out Paycor Stadium.
Mixon, on target for a combined 421 runs and catches as well as a Bengals-record 72 catches for running backs, would like to amp up the production. He's on pace for fewer than 1,000 rushing yards (952) and despite the 72 catches the projected 493 receiving yards would be fourth best on the running back list headed by two James Brooks' seasons and a Giovani Bernard.
But even though the running game has yet to take off, head coach Zac Taylor said Friday he finds what Mixon has done particularly valuable to quarterback Joe Burrow despite his 2.7 yards per carry.
"Everyone will look at his carries. I look at his overall production and how helpful that is for us," Taylor said. "He's a big part of our passing game and Joe Burrow has a ton of confidence in getting him the ball, knowing that it will work out. On third-and-1, he got the ball six yards behind the line of scrimmage and went and got us a first down. So, that goes down as a two-yard catch but it's so much more than that because of Burrow's trust in Mixon and our trust in putting him in those positions to potentially get the ball in those key situations."
Mixon, as much as one of their big emotional leaders as well as statistical, looks to be hanging with 'em. He was front and center in the postgame celebration exulting as Taylor handed out game balls to wide receiver Tee Higgins, strong safety Vonn Bell and kicker Evan McPherson.
"Joe's a captain for a reason. He's a leader on this football team and I thought he did a great job getting through some of those tough moments and being composed," Taylor said. "Then, man, stepping up in pass protection the next play and stoning a guy so that we get a big play downfield. Being involved in the pass game, I look at his touches as Joe (Burrow) does a really good job when we're getting Cover-2 yesterday 'I'm finding Joe (Mixon), I'm finding Hayden (Hurst)', getting them the ball quickly and Joe (Mixon) circling the defense and getting nine yards on a first-and-10 on a check down."
They're certainly trying to run the ball. Mixon is on pace for 349 carries, second only to Rudi Johnson's 361 in that '04 season he set the touches record. That year he broke Corey Dillon's club rushing record with 1,454 before breaking it again the next year with four more yards.
Taylor is confident the offensive line is coming together. Burrow, who got sacked once, said it was the best protection of his 30 career games. Before they got stopped on a fourth-and-one (Mixon toss right), they converted five straight third-and-ones with Mixon carrying on three of them. Later in the game he got stuffed on the goal line on third-and-one and fourth-and-one.
"Improving," Taylor said of the state of the run. "I like where our guys are at, they're becoming in sync, they're on the same page, it's just sometimes we're one block away. Sometimes it can be a guy that we can't get to at receiver because of his location, sometimes it can be a right tackle, left tackle, it's just kind of a different thing each play as we run right, run left, run the different schemes.
"The easy thing to do is just say, 'Let's just throw the ball every play because of what they're trying to do to the run game, they're trying to put an extra guy in there, let's just throw it 70 times.' We don't want to live that way. We know we can live that way because of the talent we've got at receiver and at quarterback, but at the same time, you want to give the run game a chance to be explosive and it will. Just liked we talked about the first two weeks of the season, I'm not going to overthink it, and trust those guys that we're coming along and that we've got a good chance to be really good there in the run game."
ADG WADDLES: How about Bengals third-year linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither's terrific coverage of one of the fastest guys in the league? On second-and-10 from the Bengals 30 and the Dolphins getting in a pretty good rhythm, ADG made a play that led to them getting only a field goal.
It's a play that shows why they took him in the fourth round out of Appalachian State in 2020. He ran with Jaylen Waddle on a slant and he ended up dislodging it as they battled to the ground.
Twenty, even ten years ago, linebackers had to hit. Now they have to run because they make you cover.
"No way were we putting a linebacker one-on-one on 17 (Waddle) and 10 (Tyreek Hill) in this game," said linebackers coach James Bettcher. "But, when you get matched up in zone coverages underneath defenders, you have to be able to move in the NFL and tackle because of what (offenses) do in space. They put little guys in low zones against guys that have to be able to play… it was a zone coverage where he's the inside element of the zone coverage."
That came four days after he was the Bengals leading tackler in New York with 13.
"He's a guy that's just improved every year here played a lot of different positons in college and high school. I'm excited in the direction he's going."
INJURY UPDATE: Higgins, who, by the way is physical marvel, has been hurt in three of the games and except for a concussion in the opener when they wouldn't let him, he's gutted it through. On Thursday he got the game ball with 124 yards and a touchdown on an ankle he dinged in the first quarter.
Taylor doesn't think that or tight end Devin Asiasi's knee is going to keep them out of next Sunday's game in Baltimore.