The injured guys that can't play are well known across Bengaldom. But how about the guys that are able to play but are still hurting? One of the exhibit A's is tight end C.J. Uzomah, who made one of Sunday's biggest plays in the 30-16 victory over the Raiders in the Paul Brown Stadium finale.
It came on the third play of the fourth quarter after a third quarter the Bengals tried to adjust without wide receiver Tyler Boyd and had just 36 yards of offense to show for it, 13 on quarterback Jeff Driskel's acrobatic 13-yard scramble up the sideline. Running back Joe Mixon had just 12 yards on four carries and Driskel was two of eight passing for 15 yards.
And after left guard Clint Boling's first holding call of the season, he was looking at second-and-17. That's when Uzomah, bad shoulder and all, came up huge. He got in the middle of a Cover Two zone and made a leaping catch for 27 yards, the Bengals' longest pass and his only catch of the day and he came down hard on his shoulder and everything else.
Uzomah staggered off only momentarily (one snap) with the sore shoulder he believes he sustained a month ago in Baltimore. Of the 80 snaps, Uzomah played 69 of them. With four tight ends on injured reserve and rookie Jordan Franks sitting, Uzomah knew it was just him and Matt Lengel. Uzomah is the kind of guy that inspired the line, "You'd love to have 53 C.J. Uzomahs." If there's a better teammate than Uzomah, he's not in this building.
"Matt's great. He plays so hard," Uzomah said Monday. "I want to play for my guys. We're a tight-knit group (on offense). Even though we're not having the best season, we went out there and had fun. I had fun in that game."
Fun. Even though his shoulder is on fire. He knew when he went up for that ball he knew was going to come down on it.
"I was thinking that earlier in the game I dropped a ball that was a lot easier than that," Uzomah said. "I owed them to do better than that."
Last week Uzomah was so eloquent after the Bengals lost a tight one in Los Angeles because of a slew of pre-snap penalties. He felt like they had be less uptight. Don't worry about making mistakes. Just have fun. And they did. He thinks Driskel helped.
"When Jeff was in the huddle he was like, 'Dude, we've got playmakers. We shouldn't be stopped on any down,'" Uzomah recalled right after the game. Him saying that, 'C'mon, we've got to put this thing away,' It was fun. I had fun out there today."
That's the definition of a great teammate.
Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor knew that Monday.
"I think he's a warrior," Lazor said. "The linemen play every play of the game, the skill guys when they get deep route down the field and such they tend to rotate out a little bit. He kind of has to do a little bit of both. I think he's been a warrior. I really appreciate that, and I know he's, like a lot of guys, playing through pain but his is pretty obvious. And again for another week we didn't have as many explosive plays in the pass game as we would have liked. You can't say it was for lack of effort in this one. We took some shots down the field and some of them were close, but close doesn't count. He got one of them. He got an open 20-yard, so we'll take it."
RUN RENAISSANCE: Bengals running back Joe Mixon is trying to do what no Bengal has done since the first year of the franchise now that he has a four-yard lead in the AFC rushing race. Paul Robinson's 1,023 yards led the American Football League of 1968. With two games left Mixon leads the way with 995, followed by Denver rookie Phillip Lindsay's 991. It looks like it's up to them with the Texans' Lamar Miller next at 917 and Pittsburgh's James Conner at 909. Tennessee's Derrick Henry is on fire, but he's still at only 882 with home games left against Washington and Indy, ranked 18th and eighth against the run, respectively.
Lindsay looks to get a break because next week he goes to Oakland and plays the same Raider defense that Mixon hit for 129 Sunday in sending the Raiders to dead last against the rush and he had 107 yards on just 14 carries against the Raiders in the second week of the season. The Broncos finish at home against the Chargers, a club he nicked for seven yards per on 11 carries a few weeks ago but is top ten against the rush.
Mixon heads to Cleveland and Pittsburgh to finish it off against two clubs he's averaged 6.1 per run this season and there's no question he's getting the ball. He's coming off back-to-back 100-yard games on 53 carries, the most carries in consecutive games by a Bengals back since Cedric Benson's 56 at the end of the 2010 season that helped them snap a 10-game losing streak with two straight wins.
After helping them break a five-game losing streak on Sunday, Mixon faces a Browns defense ranked 24th against the run before playing the Steelers' No. 6 run defense. Back on Nov. 25 Mixon had no shot to get going against the Browns, down 28-0, and still ended up with 89 yards on 14 carries. In the Oct. 14 game the Steelers won on a last-minute drive, Mixon had 64 yards on 11 carries.
He's getting the ball a lot more than that now and a Bengals team that was under 27 minutes in time of possession until two weeks ago is now at 27:47 after season-highs the last two weeks of 32:28 and 33:19 on Sunday. Sunday's number was their best since they kept it a little more than 35 minutes in an Oct. 1, 2017 win in Cleveland.
Look at how far the Bengals have come in the run game. After the fewest rushing yards in franchise history last year on 3.6 yards per rush the Bengals are at 4.6 and have 1,455 yards, 89 more than last year. In the last three games, only Henry and Saquon Barkley have more yards than Mixon.
Lazor and new offensive line coach Frank Pollack ripped up the run game in the offseason and when asked which new element has put them over the top Lazor pointed to a second-and-10 play in the third quarter of Sunday's game when rookie center Billy Price fought through 320-pound tackle Jonathan Hankins and went to the next level in time to reach rookie linebacker Jason Cabinda as Mixon picked up 11 yards.
Images from week 15 at Paul Brown Stadium as the Bengals host the Oakland Raiders.
"Last week during special teams period I went down and watched Frank drill," Lazor said. "If the defense was running a cross blitz up the middle on a certain play. Yesterday we exactly had that play. Different defense but a stunt and I watched Billy Price pass stunting nose off, come back and now, boom, climb the linebacker."
What Lazor means is that it's not so much the scheme, but the attention to detail.
"It's just time on task. All the things that can happen up there. What's my reaction? And doing it with low pads. It's repetition. It's coming," Lazor said. "I guess it's just the details of a double-team block and what if the backer comes back side, or front side. What if the stunt happens? And you come off the double team because the nose stunted that way."
But here's the biggest thing about that carry and Lazor should get credit for this. Mixon finished the half with 84 yards on 15 carries with his last carry going for minus-two yards. Then in the third quarter he went minus-1, minus-1, 3 before that second-and-10 call. It's as much sticking with it as anything else.