CINCINNATI -- Everything about the Cincinnati Bengals was under scrutiny through a topsy-turvy first eight weeks of the season.
Running back Joe Mixon was at the top of the list. Less than 10 months after reaching his first Pro Bowl, Mixon was mired in an unproductive season. It featured a lack of big plays in the running game, clear levels of underperformance and even a meeting with the offensive line to make sure everyone was on the same page.
However, three quarters of bliss against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday shifted perspective. Mixon had a career-high 211 yards from scrimmage and a franchise-record five touchdowns in a performance that could mean big things for an offense that needs to operate at a high level if the Bengals want to return to the postseason.
"Some games, receivers are going to catch a lot of balls for a lot of yards, and other games we're running the ball and being detailed in the run game," Bengals coach Zac Taylor said after the game. "I think those are things you've got to have if you're going to have the type of season we want to have."
Early in the 42-21 win over the Panthers, it was clear Mixon was going to be featured heavily. The Bengals were able to get good gains on first down, which allowed them to lean on the ground game.
Before Sunday, Mixon had struggled. Through the first eight weeks, Mixon rushed for 54 yards below expectation, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, the sixth-worst of any running back. In Week 9 against the Panthers, he rushed for 74 yards above expectation.
Despite the slow start, Mixon remained optimistic things would turn around. And on Sunday, they finally did.
"I knew at some point the dam would break, and it did today," he said after the game.
Speaking to reporters last month, Mixon drew parallels to his 2019 season, in which he had an even worse start to the year before finishing with 1,137 rushing yards.
As they did that season, the Bengals have called fewer run plays that feature a wide zone scheme, which allows Mixon to choose which lanes to attack, and opted for more gap-oriented plays, which tend to feature a pulling offensive lineman as Mixon attacks a specific opening.
After Sunday's game, Bengals center Ted Karras agreed that the running schemes were more diverse, and that the varied approach was successful.
Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said Cincinnati's primary philosophy has always meant to include multiple looks.
"You can't sit in one run scheme in the NFL and expect to have success," Callahan said. "Ultimately, you'll get figured out."
It also helps that Mixon had a vintage performance.
"Joe finally ran with a demeanor and the passion and the energy and the things that he's always done," Callahan said. "It finally showed up [against Carolina] -- broke tackles, ran hard, ran aggressively."
The Bengals (5-4) will need Mixon to play at a high level with the stakes raised after their bye week. Cincinnati has the second-toughest remaining strength of schedule in the league, according to ESPN Analytics. Cincinnati is currently a game back of the division-leading Baltimore Ravens, who have a much easier schedule, and is on the outside of a congested battle for an AFC wild-card berth.
But the offensive numbers are trending in the right direction. The Bengals are fifth in the NFL in points per drive and fourth in the league in touchdowns per drive, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Cincinnati's big day against the Panthers was the team's second game without star without injured wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase. And Mixon knows what it means if he can continue to play well through Chase's return.
"When Chase comes back and we start opening the offense even more, because the run game is going and the pass is on," Mixon said, "I feel like it's only going to get crazier."