OAKLAND - All the Bengals moments on offense Sunday seemingly and fittingly belonged to conquering hometown hero running back Joe Mixon.
In the Bengals' last game ever at the shambling Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, Mixon, son of Oakley, Calif., gave them the 7-0 lead in a 17-10 loss. Mixon scored the Bengals' only touchdown on a spectacular three-yard run he improvised. Twice. By reversing field and then heading on a beeline to give his mother the ball.
After watching Mixon confound the Raiders on 15 carries for 86 yards, even rookie quarterback Ryan Finley knew that Mixon wasn't enough. After Mixon led a season-high 173-yard rushing assault on old friend Paul Guenther's Raiders defense, the Bengals have saved their two best rushing games of the season for his first two NFL starts. They're still 0-10 after Finley has generated just two touchdowns.
"I think we're putting an emphasis on it," Finley said. "We're running the ball really well and giving the ball to Joe a little bit earlier. We're clearing up his vision and he's running really hard. We're blocking really well and these are all things we can keep building on. When you run the ball well it opens up a lot of things. We ran the ball well, so it falls on the passing game and it falls on me to make us more balanced."
But the passing game came up empty. It never responded when given so many chances to win the game. With 73 yards it was their fewest through the air since the 2009 finale they weren't trying to win and had no yards passing against the Jets before playing them the next week in the Wild Card.
Finley could hit just 13 of 31 passes for 115 yards because he was a) harassed by rookie outside linebacker Maxx Crosby, whom came in with 2.5 sacks and left with 6.5, b) couldn't find any open wide receivers on a day only one could get yardage and c) the first two factors contributed to an NFL completion percentage that now sits at 48 percent after Sunday's 42 percent.
"He tried to keep some plays alive there and get us some plays but it's hard," said head coach Zac Taylor. "Right now we are not creating a lot of separation and, as you can see, there are some guys that get in the backfield pretty quick, so it's a hard day for most quarterbacks. There are some plays that he has got to learn from and he would like to have back, but again, it's the whole unit together and that starts with him."
After his season-high 114 yards against the Ravens, Mixon went into overdrive on the famed Black Hole's greensward. On the Bengals' first snap he clicked off 17 yards on a swing pass. On the first snap of the touchdown drive he ran a pitch to the right for their longest play of the day, a 30-yarder, his longest run of the season.
Already their most emotional player, Mixon was really amped playing in front of family and friends. With his dad behind the Bengals bench and his mom dancing in the Coliseum's aisles with the ball, he delivered.
"It was a feeling like no other. Blessed to be in this position and play in front of this crowd," Mixon said. "I was trying to display what I've been used to doing. We came up short and loss though so it's not really a good feeling. It is what it is though."
Here's how Mixon saw the touchdown, a play he started right, saw only a black hole in The Black Hole, and swung it back quickly to the left and daylight.
"We tossed it on the goal line. Those guys got uphill and penetrated," Mixon said. "But at the same time I ran across. Those guys were blocking back side. They did a good job and I finished it."
They turned to Mixon for the game's second most emotional moment, the snap after the 10-minute delay following wide receiver Auden Tate's neck injury. The Bengals were clearly shaken watching Tate immobilized and stretchered into an ambulance (he made the plane flight back home in a neck brace) as a pall fell over the Coliseum's Halloween atmosphere.
And it was a huge snap, too. Finley just had his best moment of the game, stepping up on third-and-19 and getting a diving stretching 20-yard catch from Tate. It was his longest pass of the day and gave them a first down at the Oakland 33 with 6:42 left.
Mixon calmly took the next play, a handoff, for six yards. It was the last time he touched the ball.
"I thought I'd be able to pull it through," Mixon said. "Just keep falling short that the way, it seems."
He didn't run it two times in a row until the last play of the third and first play of the fourth. After the rookie quarterback struggled on the road throwing twice as many passes as the defending AFC rushing champion ran it for 5.7 yards per carry, Taylor was asked why he didn't stick with the run.
"Eventually, they started zeroing in on the run, and as you can see, you got to try and stay one step ahead," Taylor said. "It's not trying to overthink it, we just felt like there were some opportunities there in the pass game, play actions, to complement our runs. Sometimes it went accordingly and sometimes it didn't. But again, I thought our run game was really helping us today."
The season-long reliance on the pass even with the injuries to wide receivers A.J. Green and John Ross, the shuffling of the offensive line and now the move to the inexperienced Finley has been a bit surprising. During the offseason Taylor said he planned to build his offense as run-first with heavy play-action, but the passing game hasn't been able to respond with the running game just catching fire in the last month.
Especially Sunday. Wide receiver Tyler Boyd, their leading receiver, had one catch for no yards. Same with slot receiver Alex Erickson. Rookie wide receiver Damion Willis, called up from the practice squad Friday, had his only target of the day on the game's biggest play and his third snap with Tate out. Fourth-and-four from the Raiders 27 with 5:11 left.
They got classic, steady Paulie G. The cornerbacks had deep help. Willis went deep down the right sideline and Finley tried to drop it over his shoulder as the safety came over and Willis tried to high point it but couldn't pull it in.
"It's a play that we have a lot of confidence on, and really all five eligible have a pretty good shot there," Taylor said. "He gave somebody the opportunity to go make a play and it didn't come down with it. But he's got a lot of options on that play."
Here was Finley's take when asked if Willis was his first option after Tate had been his go-to guy all day with four catches for 56 yards.
"We had a play call. I love that matchup, but I need to give him a catchable ball," Finley said. "Those plays are bang-bang. I would have loved to have left it a foot outside to give him an easier catch. It was bang-bang and those are plays we need to make if we want to win these games."
Guenther seemed to dare the Bengals to run with his combo zones. He didn't have to do much crazy on third down, where he held the Bengals to three of 13. All he had to do was let loose Crosby, a fourth-round pick.
Crosby beat left tackle John Jerry for three of his four sacks and on the other one on the other side, no one blocked him. The first series of the game ended with Crosby running around Jerry and causing Finley to fumble as he threw and the last series of the game began with Crosby losing Jerry inside.
"They did some good stuff on defense. I thought they rushed the passer pretty well," Finley said. "A couple of times I needed to be better by getting out of the pocket and make it easier on those (offensive) tackles. They did some good stuff, but at the end of the day we need to execute our stuff. We need to be better with what we do and do our jobs."
Check out the game action photos from the Bengals' Week 11 game against the Oakland Raiders.
Finley continues to show good pocket awareness and really good running ability with 47 yards on three carries. He even had one designed option run and he almost stole points out of the two-minute drill at the end of the half with a 24-yard ramble. But his signature accuracy, and whether that's the pressure or his receivers not getting open, hasn't been there.
"I'll have to watch this tape of this game," Taylor said. "Last week I did not think accuracy was an issue, I think there was just getting on the same page with some guys, at times. But again, we will have to see this week and evaluate it once we get a better look at it."
Taylor summed it up the passing game's woes pretty well. Too much pressure, not enough separation.
"We are just not getting enough explosive passes, it's got to be so methodical coming down the field, to get the points, and that has really been the story of our year to an extent," Taylor said of a team that has. "Being explosive down the field and getting those long touchdowns. Again, I think we are going to look at some screens and think maybe we had a shot for some big touchdowns and we didn't get them. It's tough."
But he's hanging with Finley and Finley is hanging in.
"I'm confident. We're going to get this thing going, and we're only going to get better," Finley said. "These are all learning experiences for us and no one is going to give up, that's for sure. We're going to keep getting better. We're back to the drawing board and still trying to get this first win."
As Mixon packed up his travel bag from his quick visit home, their Most Valuable Player said he was hanging, too.
"We can't just leave it up to (Finley). We had an opportunity to win, but it's the same thing every week," Mixon said. "Falling short and it's frustrating. We just have to get better."