CINCINNATI -- If the Cincinnati Bengals want to climb out of their 0-2 hole, they have to get their running game off the ground.
That should start with figuring out how to best use rookie running back Joe Mixon.
The Bengals badly wanted a running back in the 2017 NFL draft, showing significant interest in both Mixon and Leonard Fournette, who ultimately went in the first round to the Jaguars. If they felt their running back situation was dire enough to warrant a high pick, they should be trying to unleash that pick to the best of their ability.
Rookie running backs are ruling the league through two weeks. Four of the top eight leading rushers are rookies. Kareem Hunt is third in rushing yards, followed by Dalvin Cook (fifth), Leonard Fournette (sixth) and Chris Carson (eighth).
Mixon certainly has the talent to be in that group, and he should get that chance.
The problem with the running back situation in Cincinnati is not total usage, it’s the manner in which they’ve been using them. Mixon actually ranks second in offensive snaps among the running backs. Giovani Bernard has 62 snaps, Mixon has 38 and Jeremy Hill is a distant third with only 25 offensive snaps.
The way they've deployed their running backs hasn't made much sense. In Week 1, it was a rotation by series, with the Bengals mostly sticking to an order of Hill-Mixon-Benard until they fell behind enough to have to turn to the passing game.
In Week 2, it was a little less rigid. Out of 10 drives where a running back got a touch, Hill was used in two, Mixon in six and Bernard in seven. Bernard was used with Hill or Mixon in five drives, with three of those as the pass-catching back.
If Hill was in, he would stay in the whole series as the primary back, and the same went for Mixon. Only Bernard rotated in and out on each series.
The puzzling thing is the lack of defined roles for each back. The Bengals went to Bernard three times on third-down situations where they needed three yards or less and failed to convert any of them.
Bernard is a versatile running back and can be used in many ways. But in that situation, it might have made more sense to turn to a bigger back like Mixon or Hill to try to power up the middle for yards.
Hill was 1-of-2 on those situations, moving the chains on fourth-and-2 after failing to convert on third-and-2.
The Bengals are adamant about using all three backs, but even Bengals running backs coach Kyle Caskey admitted finding the right flow was a lot harder to do with three running backs than the two-back system they've been using the last few years.
"I’m the biggest proponent of running back flow, and they need it," Caskey said. "I’m pushing to get these guys the right amount each that gets them to that perfect point, whatever that is. It’s a learning process for myself, and now that we’ve got some change and different things happening, we’re working through that as well. So there’s a lot going on right now."
The Bengals need to define their running back roles. They could lean on Mixon as the workhorse, Bernard as the change-of-pace running back and Hill as a situational back to spell Mixon or in short-yardage situations.
That could clear things up with each running back knowing their roles and establishing the chance for the lead back to get into a rhythm.
Considering the 0-2 record and lack of touchdowns this season, changing things up can only help at this point. The three-back system can work, but not in the way it's been used up to this point.
"We’ve just got to find a way to get them in there a little bit more at certain times," Caskey said. "They each can do a lot of things for us, and it’s hard when you’ve got three of them to get them on the field and get them the ball and do different things. So it’s a problem that we haven’t had here, but it’s a good problem to have. We just have to figure out how to use them."