More playing time for Joe Mixon is timely with Browns up next

CINCINNATI -- Rookie Joe Mixon still hasn't started a game, but it became pretty clear last week that he's likely going to get the role of starter for the Cincinnati Bengals going forward.

Mixon got the largest share of the snaps among the running backs against the Green Bay Packers, playing 34 offensive snaps to Jeremy Hill's 14 and Giovani Bernard's 13. He finished with 18 carries for 62 yards and three catches for 39 yards.

Mixon had two plays of more than 20 yards and showed encouraging explosiveness at times.

"When I watch him on tape he’s an explosive young player that’s got fresh legs, that’s tough and can cut on a dime and he’s a big guy," Browns coach Hue Jackson said of Mixon. "He’s an explosive football player."

If the Bengals try to build on what they did against the Packers, then their running back plan against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday should look mostly the same. In that scenario, Mixon would get the bulk of the carries again while catching a few passes, with Bernard contributing as well.

This week's matchup is a good time to try to keep moving forward with Mixon. The Bengals have had a lot of success running the ball against Cleveland in the past few seasons.

Hill's only 100-yard games last season came against Cleveland, where he rushed for a combined 279 yards and two touchdowns. Those two games were the only times the Bengals rushed for more than 200 yards in 2016.

Hill has 108 career carries against the Browns for 632 yards and six touchdowns. If Hill happened to have the hot hand again, that would likely be the only thing that would cut down on Mixon's carries on Sunday.

However, that seems unlikely, as the Bengals seem to have figured out a better system of giving each running back a role than they had in the first two weeks. They tried to spread out the carries more in the first two weeks but abandoned that after firing offensive coordinator Ken Zampese.

Although Hill got the start against the Packers, they quickly went to Mixon on the first drive. One reason likely is Mixon's versatility and ability to catch passes as well as run.

"One of the big challenges for the staff is to get them in space in the run game, and sometimes we can do it in the pass game, too," Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. "But I think all three of our guys can run and have proven to make big plays if there's space. Some weeks there will be better matchups than others, and sometimes you have to hide them and sometimes you can just line them up at receiver and let them run routes."

The concern is how the Bengals' running game evaporated in the second half against Green Bay. Mixon had only eight attempts for 26 yards and also slipped on a key third-and-1 in Packers territory late in the game.

"He’s got some things he’s got to get better at," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "I’m sure he’s run that play many times in his career, in high school and college. And yesterday he slipped.”

Even without that slip, Mixon certainly wasn't perfect against the Packers, and the Bengals aren't going to completely hand him the reins with Hill and Bernard in the fold. However, the signs are encouraging for Mixon to continue to get more trust from the coaching staff going forward.

"We overcame some longer-yardage situations, but we have to be more efficient in the running game and do a better job," Lewis said. "And all three of the backs -- Jeremy had a couple where he pushed the sticks a bit, Gio did [also], and Joe did where he made more yardage than maybe what was there."

Said Lazor: "I think the guys who have proven before they can be successful and help you win games, you've got to rely on them to do it. A guy like Joe, we all expected he would start to rise to that."

Other matchups to watch:

Wide receivers -- A.J. Green has 52 career receptions vs. the Browns for 824 yards and six touchdowns. He has 13 receptions for 297 yards and two touchdowns in his previous two games against the Browns.

Tight ends -- Tyler Eifert hasn't been around the practice field for the second straight week, which indicates it could be a process to get him back on the field. Tyler Kroft is playing almost every snap now, especially with Eifert out, and he did get two passes thrown his way for a total of 27 yards. However, Kroft is far down the pecking order of receivers and won't be the red zone threat that Eifert has proved to be.