Maybe it's a coincidence. But when the Bengals came off their first bye week in three years in the middle of a playoff chase, the first talking point that surfaced Monday was running the ball.
In a Zoom session tight end C.J. Uzomah revealed that during a one-hour workout that they concentrated on how to get running back Joe Mixon those elusive one and two yards on those short-yardage plays that bedeviled them in the first half of the season.
Uzomah is also looking to run better routes for the other Joe when quarterback Joe Burrow is throwing a third-and-short pass, but the idea is that playoff football is here and that means...
"I think it's a different mindset, right? It's power football," Uzomah said. "We've got to be able to move the ball and say, 'Screw it' for two yards and put our bodies on the line and again, that's something we've been talking about. We're looking forward to righting that ship."
There were guys like free safety Jessie Bates III who didn't get to see some of Sunday's games because his buddy, Bengals nose tackle and Hornets season ticket holder D.J. Reader, hooked him up in Charlotte for Steph Curry's visit with the Warriors.
But those who were keeping an eye on the volatile AFC saw the 5-4 Bengals gain during the bye, in part, because of the run game. The Bengals are now ahead of the 5-5 Browns after the Patriots ran for almost as many yards (184) as quarterback Mac Jones threw (198) in the blowout of Cleveland. They're ahead of Denver after the Eagles steamrolled the 5-5 Broncos for 224 yards.
After the Raiders fell to 5-4 Sunday night when running back Josh Jacobs couldn't keep Patrick Mahomes off the field in the Chiefs rout with 16 yards on seven carries, Vegas slipped out of the seven-team playoff picture into eighth. The Bengals are right behind them at nine and each get a chance to deliver a stunner to the other in Sunday's showdown on the strip (4:05 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) in an enticing meeting of Mixon and Jacobs. Since Jacobs came into the NFL in 2019, he has the seventh most rushing yards, Mixon the tenth.
And, the Bengals moved within a half-game of 5-3-1 Pittsburgh in the AFC North because the Lions pulled off the rarity of rarities and rushed for more than 200 yards in a tie that loosened the division even more.
"I know mentality-wise, we have to flip a switch," Uzomah said. "That's what it comes down to. Joe (Mixon) will get us at least a yard, right? If we give him a gap, he will give us a yard. I think mentality-wise, offensive line and tight ends, guys that are blocking, we need to buckle our chinstraps and get after it and get our pad level down."
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor has it about right. Overall, the Bengals gain more than four yards per rush and Mixon has been among the league leaders all season. But the short-yardage and goal-line failures have left a different picture.
"That's an emphasis for us for sure. I don't think it's been stellar. It hasn't been poor. Our best rushing performances have come when we've had the lead in the second half and we've been able to ride the running game through to victory," Taylor said. "We haven't had the lead late like we've wanted to, so we've thrown the ball more. That's what people tend to remember and that's sometimes what you feel going into the bye week. We know we have the ability to be a good running team. We have a great back, a great whole stable of backs, our line has shown they can do a great job up front when we need them to. We need to get back to playing with the lead so we can lean on that running game a little more."
Both Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan grew up in the NFL of the previous decade and were exposed to rough-and-tumble playoff runs. When Callahan was in Denver, Peyton Manning won the AFC title and the Super Bowl on barely a combined 300 yards passing. Taylor's Rams had their dream season end when they could manage just 62 yards rushing in the Super Bowl on a night Tom Brady beat them without throwing a touchdown pass while getting 137 yards rushing from Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead.
"I think if you look at the teams that make the playoffs, the ones that in plus turnover differential are always going to be in the thick of it. Usually that means they're not giving games away and they're not allowing people to take games from them," said Callahan, who agrees that puts the focus on the run.
"It's going to start getting cold. It's going to get wet. It's going to get windy … So the run game becomes a bigger factor in some of these games because it becomes more difficult to throw the ball. The conditions aren't usually right for it. You get in these late games in the year, its part of how the division's always been built. The teams that run the ball well down the stretch in the tough weather and things like that usually find ways to win."
The Bengals figure they have to start pushing people around Sunday in Vegas when the odds are in their favor. Third-and-long. It's a theme tight ends coach James Casey and offensive line coach Frank Pollack have already been exploring.
"That's something that it's hard to not hear Frank yell that. That's something that he's been definitely harping on. And Coach Casey as well," Uzomah said. "He's like, 'Hey, we need to be able to get 1-to-2 yards. We should be able to run the ball 1-to-2 yards every single time, and if we're in a different position and we want to throw it, then we should be able to get it on fourth-and-1-to-2 yards.' because that's the confidence the coaches have in us and that gives us confidence in our coaches and vice versa."
BATES MAKES VOWS: On Monday, Bates offered one of the most honest self-assessments you'll ever hear by an NFL player. Not only does he publicly admit he's having a season below everyone's expectations, but also why. He's not shying away from the fact his contract status (which is still unsigned for 2022) has had an impact on his play.
The Pro Football Focus grades have him ranked 114th among safeties compared to No. 1 last season, when he had 12 pass breakups and just 16 missed tackles. Now at the break he's go one and nine, respectively.
But Bates has returned from the bye refreshed after getting and phoning up some of his old college teammates at Wake Forest.
"I feel like I've been just a step away from making big-time plays. As I watch games earlier yesterday, the teams that are winning football games, their main players are making plays for them," Bates said. "And I haven't done that this year. I know that. I'm aware of that, like I said before. I'll be excited to make more plays and celebrate with my teammates as I do it."
Bates and the Bengals had hoped to sign an extension before the season, but it didn't happen.
"I think it kind of goes into everything. I feel like I'm at a better head space now than I was at the beginning of the season," Bates said.
"So caught on to proving the wrong people right and the main thing I should be focusing on is proving the right people right as far as my coaches, my teammates, my family and not worry about all of the other stuff. I know that's going to work out, I know what type of player I am, that stuff's going to work out regardless. But like I said I've got to be better for this team, so I'm excited for it."
Bates thought he would start anew by going back to the old. That meant Fort Wayne and family.
"Be normal Jessie Bates for a little bit. Just hang around the house," Bates said. Kind of weird because everybody's working their job throughout the week and I'm sitting at home on my phone just kicking my feet up relaxing. But I've had multiple talks and it's not just about football, it's about life. How my former teammates were doing at Wake Forest, some things that they faced throughout life helped me really put into perspective, like 'hey bro, live in the now, live in the moment, cherish it, take care of what you got in front of you now and the future will take care of itself.'
The future, apparently, starts in Vegas on Sunday.
SLANTS AND SCREENS: The Bengals came out of Monday's testing after the bye with just one player placed Reserve/COVID-19 list in tight end Mitchell Wilcox …
Taylor is anticipating linebacker Markus Bailey, placed on the COVID list last week, to be back for Thursday's practice …
He also said linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither is undergoing foot surgery and is expected to miss the rest of the year …