Since the Bengals drafted A.J. Green and Andy Dalton in 2011, when the Bengals have rushed it at least 30 times, which they did Sunday, and run for at least 144 yards, which they also did Sunday, they almost always win. When they run it 30 times they are now 46-7-2. When they get at least 144 yards they are 23-3-2.
But it didn’t happen Sunday in the 26-21 loss to the Chargers and maybe that’s because they didn’t have Green or Dalton for the first time since that draft. It was the first time both numbers were reached this year and that probably means more of running back Joe Mixon the rest of the way as he bids to become their first 1,000-yard rusher since Jeremy Hill in 2014. After busting into the NFL’s top 10 (ninth with 866 yards) on his 111-yard effort in Los Angeles, Mixon is on pace for 1,102.
The last time they hit 30 carries, they won the final two games of last year’s season with 146 yards and 142 yards on 30 and 34 carries, respectively. One of the common threads is they had Clint Boling at left tackle and Christian Westerman at left guard for the majority of the snaps. Boling is there again because of emergency at the end of the season, but Westerman, the fifth-rounder from 2016, pretty much hasn’t played since about 20 snaps in Kansas City on Oct. 21.
When Boling moved to tackle two weeks ago, the coaches opted for Trey Hopkins’ experience even though he hadn’t started an NFL game at left guard. But on Sunday they gave Westerman twice as many snaps as Hopkins with 46 and head coach Marvin Lewis acknowledged after the game that offensive line coach Frank Pollack thought Westerman deserved the work.
He was on the field for that last drive when the Bengals offensive line did what it hasn’t done all year and exerted its will taking over the game with the run. Dalton had racked up four game-winning drives this season before he got hurt, but they were the product of the pass game for the most part. In Atlanta when Dalton got the ball with 4:15 left and went 75 yards for the winner in 16 plays, running back Giovani Bernard ran it twice.
On Sunday, Mixon ran it seven times for 36 yards in the 11-play, 79-yard TD drive that cut the lead to 23-21 with 1:50 left and featured three straight runs from the 30 up the middle for 28 yards before he went over from the 1 one final time.
Head coach Marvin Lewis knows exactly how important that all is when the line responds like that.
“They played very physical, and that was key in the game,” Lewis said Monday. “Hopefully, we continue to build upon that, just being consistent throughout. But they were very physical.”
RED FLAGS: But penalties continue to haunt them up front. They had four false starts Sunday with right tackle Bobby Hart picking up two for a league-leading eight this season. Boling and Hart didn’t let the pass-rushing tandem of Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa dominate, but that’s 10 penalties for the line in the last two weeks.
“We need to have more consistency. That’s the thing we’d hope for,” Lewis said.
PHANTOM TD: If you think the Bengals got robbed when they took away quarterback Jeff Driskel’s rushing TD when he dove for the end zone, they agree with you.
“It’s an unintended consequence of the change,” said Lewis of the quarterback giving himself up as a runner when he slides or dives. “That’s what happens when people don’t think about all of the parts of it. The quarterback has an opportunity to protect himself by sliding or throwing the ball away. But now, basically any runner — not just the quarterback, but any runner diving for the goal line — would be down when the body part hits. I don’t think that’s been enforced very often.”
QB COMPARISON: The Bengals may not have let Driskel use his legs on the two two-point conversions, but Lewis loves the way he runs.
“Even early in the game, he ran for a third down,” Lewis said. “No. 1, I think with the run-pass options, he did a nice job. We have to continue to get him to play on time but not ahead of time, if that makes sense, and to let things develop and go.”
Old friend A.J. McCarron, the only other player to start instead of Dalton, comes to town Sunday as Raiders quarterback Derek Carr’s backup. In 2015 he split his first two starts, in San Francisco and in Denver on 37 of 56 (66 percent) for 392 yards, two touchdowns and no picks. Driskel has lost a home start and road start on 43 of 65 passing (66 percent) for 406 yards, two TDs and a pick.
RUCKER RETURNS: Old friend Frostee Rucker is expected to make his 86th start in his 155th NFL game at defensive end Sunday, 12 years after the Bengals took him in the third round of the 2006 draft. That’s the second time in three weeks they play an ’06 alum after they played Broncos nose tackle Domata Peko, a fourth-rounder.
According to Elias, a dozen players that were drafted in ’06 are still active and four were taken by the Bengals with Texans cornerback Jonathan Joseph, their first rounder, and Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth, their second-rounder, joining Rucker and Peko.
The Ravens took two still working, Eagles nose tackle Haloti Ngata and Ravens punter Sam Koch. The others are Cards safety Antoine Bethea, drafted by Indy, original Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams, Packers tight end Marcedes Lewis, drafted by the Jags, original Pats kicker Stephen Gostkowski, Saints wide receiver Brandon Marshall, drafted by Denver, and Washington tight end Vernon Davis, drafted by the 49ers.