In the last 20 years or so, all kinds of Bengals team have come up with big rushing days at Paul Brown Stadium in December that have led to wins.
Corey Dillon started it off in 2000 with a 216-yard day against Arizona for the four-win Bengals. Rudi Johnson (169 yards against the Browns) and Cedric Benson (133 against the Chiefs) help salt away AFC North titles in 2005 and 2009, respectively. Jeremy Hill went for 147 yards against the Broncos in 2014 to secure a Wild Card berth and last season running back Joe Mixon went for a career-high 162 yards for a two-win team that finished off Cleveland.
This Sunday at PBS (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Fox 19) against the Cowboys the Bengals don't have Mixon and could be starting their seventh straight different offensive line. But their line is looking for a boost into PBS games later this season against AFC North rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore and they know a revived run game is a necessary ingredient in looking to take the heat off a struggling passing game without quarterback Joe Burrow.
(The Bengals have had a big December PBS run game from a No. 2 running back. Kenny Watson had 130 yards in place of Johnson in a 2007 win over Cleveland.)
Center Trey Hopkins, who has started next to two left guards and two right guards since Oct. 25, says not to get too consumed by Dallas' last-in-the-NFL run defense ranking.
"I think that if you let numbers deceive you, they will. Because while that is their stats, that's where they're ranked and obviously those numbers, they're that for a reason, we also have to realize that this is another NFL team. These guys get paid big money and they're also great athletes, they're great players. And while the stats may not reflect that, you can't go into this game looking at anybody and expect anything to be easy. So when I watch the film, what I see is I see a front that is physical. I see a front that comes off the ball and flies around. They have great edge rushers as we know and I see a front that will get after you and can get after you if you don't approach them the right way."
Despite the trauma on the offensive line, the Bengals were in a pretty good rhythm running the ball until Burrow went down. Since he injured his knee, the Bengals backs have rushed it 26 times for just 64 yards and it's pretty clear what's going on.
"We've been matched up against some good teams that have had us schemed up well. We lost Joe (Mixon), which is a huge part because when you can't balance the pass and the run things get a little bit more sticky in there, I'll say," Hopkins said. "Teams right now are trying to shut down the run and dare us to pass it pretty much. So, it's our job to get the run going.
"These last few weeks we haven't been as good as we would have liked. There might be a couple reasons for that. All we can do is look toward the future and continue to put this thing together and try to get the game that we've been saying we want this whole season."
Of those two defenses, the Giants, are top 10 against the run and while the other, the Dolphins, are ranked 26th in rushing after holding the Bengals to 40 yards last week, they've got a top three scoring defense. The Cowboys defense, meanwhile, has struggled all year stopping people and is also ranked last in allowing points.
It's unclear how the Bengals are going to line up next to Hopkins this week. He may get a third left guard if they line up like they did at the end of last week's game with Xavier Su'a-Filo taking over the last series after Michael Jordan struggled late in the game. It was Sua'a-Filo's first appearance since he broke his ankle starting at right guard in the opener and right guard Quinton Spain has made the bulk of his 70 starts at left guard.
Spain started at right guard last week when Alex Redmond couldn't go because of a concussion and head coach Zac Taylor wouldn't say after practice how the guards would line up after Redmond went full and has returned. As the play-caller he's first guy that wants a set lineup, but injuries and performance have conspired to make it a revolving door of sorts and everyone knows what that does to timing.
"It has been interesting. It has been difficult from the aspect of those guys," Hopkins said. "Having to be put in a lot of situations guys have been put in at this point it's unfortunate and it's not the best situation by far. Everybody knows that. You'd rather have guys be set in one spot and play that spot and be comfortable, but that's not how it's played out for us. We've had injuries, we've had things going on where we've had to move people out. At the end of the day while it's not exactly how you would want it; it's not the prime way you would like it to be it is what it is and you have to battle through it."
Hopkins has certainly held up in protection, allowing just one sack, according to Pro Football Focus, not to mention being a traffic cop for all the different line combinations, as well as for a rookie quarterback and backup with 15 NFL starts among them.
"My thing is making sure as guys rotate in and out that stuff kind of stays as calm as possible I guess, because guys have different ways of communicating," Hopkins said. "You talk to different guys a different kind of way and that becomes a little smoother and a little more efficient as the season goes on and when you're switching out guys it puts a little pause on that. It makes things a little slower and a little more difficult. I see it as my job is to make that transition as smooth as possible and to get the communication with the guys and get it done."
INJURY UPDATE: It sounds like the Bengals' best special teamer, safety Brandon Wilson (hamstring) won't play. The Bengals listed him questionable, Taylor called him doubtful after Friday's practice and he didn't practice this week after barely playing in Miami.
He sounded more upbeat about rookie wide receiver Tee Higgins (hamstring) after he went limited Thursday and Friday and was listed as questionable. Slot cornerback Mackensie Alexander (knee) was also questionable after he apparently had a knee issue in Thursday's workout but went limited Friday. Other than Wilson they were the only players questionable.
JONAH REFLECTIONS: It's been a tough two years in the NFL for left tackle Jonah Williams. He missed his rookie year with a shoulder injury and he missed two games this year with a neck stinger before missing the last four with what is believed to be an MCL sprain. Who saw that coming after he started all 44 possible games at Alabama?
But when the dust cleared the Bengals are encouraged they've got a guy that can protect Burrow's blindside. He ended up ranked 34th among 126 spots for Pro Football Focus tackles.
"Extreme athleticism. Jonah's extremely athletic," Hopkins said. "He has great, great, great feet and also he just understands the offense and what we're trying to get done. So a lot of times while things might not be pretty or they might not seem pretty to people on the outside, Jonah put us in a lot of positions to just… whether it's buying the quarterback another heartbeat or whatever it is. Jonah did a lot of great things that the public might not understand or see or it might look weird or a little different. He really helped us out there a lot just by understanding how he fit in the offense and what the offense needed from him."
The Bengals are also high on sixth-round pick Hakeem Adeniji, a rookie that held up well when Burrow was in there on his blindside. It didn't go as well on the right side without Burrow, but they believe he and Williams have a bright future on this line. Same with Fred Johnson, another second-year tackle, even though he hasn't been active since going on and coming off the COVID list. Taylor indicated it has just been a matter of numbers up front and that Johnson is still in their plans.
Adeniji has some interesting matchups Sunday against Aldon Smith and Randy Gregory, two talented speed rushers trying to revive their careers. Smith has played this season for the first time since 2015 and has five sacks in 12 games. Gregory has played just six games this year with two sacks and the Cowboys are ranked just 18th in sacks per pass.