Sat, 29 Jan 2022

Bengals Blueprint Envelops Steelers

Cincinnati Bengals
29 Nov 2021, 20:58 GMT+10

Geoff Hobson

This is how it looked in the board room and on the iPads and during the dreamy naps of the spring.

Bengals 41, Steelers 10.

This is why running back Joe Mixon lobbied hard for the Bengals to bring back Frank Pollack as offensive line coach.

Bengals 41, Steelers 10.

Sunday's formidable offensive performance featuring quarterback Joe Burrow's seamless 83 percent passing paired with Mixon's career-high 165 rushing yards is what the Bengals had in mind two years ago when they hired away Zac Taylor as head coach from the Rams' offense lethal with the versatility offered by a strong run game.

Bengals 41, Steelers 10.

When the Bengals committed nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to defense in the last two free agencies, the euphoric dismantling of the big neighborhood bully Steelers before a delirious and almost disbelieving 63,238 at Paul Brown Stadium is one of the dividends they had hopefully envisioned.

Bengals 41, Steelers 10.

And, well, let Taylor tell you.

"That's the tone we want to set with the run game on offense," Taylor said Sunday after the biggest win of his career.

"Joe Burrow was 20 of 24 (passing). He was efficient with the ball. He made great decisions and was very efficient that way. On offense, they set the tone and then defensively, to create all those turnovers starting with Eli (Bengals cornerback Apple) right off the bat. That pick led to three points. Mike Hilton really re-captured the moment at the end of the half, because we had a lot of it on offense and then had the turnover. And then again, our defense responded after a sudden change. Our motto (on defense) is, 'We don't give up points,' and then we start scoring points (on defense)."

Hilton, the $24 million free agent pick up from the Steelers themselves, sealed the game with 30 seconds left in the first half on a pick-six, the first of his life. ("Pee Wee, high school, college, the four years over there"). It was the Bengals' 15th turnover of the season and for the 13th time the opposition didn't score a touchdown.

Remember how the Steelers would always torture Bengals quarterbacks with sack-strips while Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger cashed the mistakes? (Joey Porter, James Harrison, T.J. Watt).

But on Sunday it was the Bengals' richest free agent ever, right end Trey Hendrickson, sacking and stripping Big Ben. It was Hendrickson's seventh straight game with a sack for a Bengals-record. It also gave him 10.5 sacks in his first 11 Bengals games.

Talk about bang for the buck on a day Watt didn't touch the quarterback.

"I think so," said Taylor, asked if Sunday is a testament to the offseason work that overhauled the defense. "They've just got a lot of confidence right now in how they're playing and what we're asking them to do. Playing next to each other, the communication's been really good and different guys are stepping up and making big plays for us. That's really good to see at this point in the year."

As good as the defense was (and it was really good throttling rookie running back Najee Harris on 37 miserly scrimmage yards after giving him 142 yards in Pittsburgh two months ago), the offense made it look tantalizing easy.

Now the rest of the NFL knows what the Bengals knew when they gave Mixon a $50 million extension before last season. He's a unique runner with a bevy of moves that mixes an elite brew of power and elusiveness. He showcased it all on his longest run of the day and year with a 32-yarder in the last minute of the third quarter that was classic better-as-the-game-goes Mixon.

He went left on what looked to be an inside zone, got gummed up, jump cut to the right hiding behind the line and froze cornerback James Pierre into a missed tackle on the right edge. And he was gone into the right sideline.

"I just remember going to the left and everything was literally washing in front of my face," Mixon said. "Then just the patience that I had and I just got a clear eye to the right and seen the receivers trying to cut off backside and it was literally one man out there, which was a corner. I just attacked him, stepped on his heels, made a one-two cut out and he bit for it and I just broke his ankles basically, broke a tackle."

But it is his bubbly personality that has become contagious for his team that is just as important as the moves.

"He's a big burst of energy for us as a team and as an offense," Burrow said. "He brings the energy every single day in practice. I think that's just who he is, he's an energy kind of guy."

Mixon took this game over on his first carry of the game on one of those zone runs that the meticulous Pollack has painstakingly fashioned in tandem with Taylor's pass game. Mixon busted a 25-yarder behind left guard Quinton Spain and left tackle Jonah Williams and got help from wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase.

On the drive the Bengals went up 24-3 and made Sunday their own, Mixon carried the last seven plays for 40 yards, topping it off with a one-yard touchdown, his fifth straight game with a rushing touchdown in a feat not done here since Rudi Johnson in 2005.

Right tackle for nine. Left tackle for eight. Up the middle for nine.

When Pollack was here for a year in head coach Marvin Lewis' last season in 2018, Mixon won the AFC rushing title with a career-high 1,168 yards on 4.9 yards per carry. Now at 4.4 yards per, he's on a pace threating Corey Dillon's club record of 1,435 at 1,428.

Pollack's wide zone and his former pro lineman's hard core mentality had a big impact on Mixon and he was hoping Taylor could forge a reunion with Pollack.

Mixon is 1-0 as a lobbyist.

"I'm just really happy and grateful that he's here because of one, his mindset," Mixon said. "That's the best thing that I think me and Frank been on since Day One when he walked in in 2018. His mindset on how he wants to approach the game. He doesn't care who's across from us. At the same time, we're going to play football, whether it's smashmouth. At the end of the day, a lot of people can get cute with the run and all that stuff. But he wants to get down and dirty and that's what I love about him."

Mixon also loves the scheme and how it gives him room on the perimeter.

"They show a lot of things, whether we get sweeps on the outside or whether we get jet sweeps with the receivers," Mixon said. "At the end of the day, they have to respect everything out there, every person out there that we got. We have a lot of playmakers out there. At the same time, you've got to play it real honest. And if you don't make it honest, then we make you pay for it. That's with the run and the pass. You want to take away the run? That's cool. But we got three and four and five other guys that's going to take you go up top."

And that's what the Bengals find so attractive about Taylor's system. The way everything looks the same, the defense struggles to keep up with a deadly accurate quarterback like Burrow when he can play off the run.

Exhibit A: Burrow's 32-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Tee Higgins to make it 17-3. With Mixon rolling, the Steelers had to cover the box. Pro Bowl free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick shaded to rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase. That left Higgins one-on-one with a backup cornerback playing for the injured Joe Haden, the beleaguered Pierre. Burrow knew the 6-4 Higgins could body up the 6-2 Pierre and lofted a jump ball.

Touchdown.

"I knew exactly what was going to happen; we had talked about that all week," Burrow said. "I was going to give him shots down the field, and it's great to see Tee make that play. He's a big time player for us.

"Our guys were getting open when they got chances against one-on-one coverage," Burrow said. "It starts with the run game. When you run the ball for one hundred and ninety-something yards, they're going to be focused on that. So when you drop back there is going to be a lot of zones back there."

That's how you get Bengals 41, Steelers 10 in late November.

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