CINCINNATI -- Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor can't pin the offense's struggles on one thing, but the inability to run the ball is among the most disappointing downfalls.
Lazor retooled the playbook this offseason with more of a focus on running the ball, but the past two weeks, the Bengals (4-3) have totaled just 32 carries for 127 yards.
A team that was looking so solid at 4-1 now carries a two-game losing streak into Sunday's home game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-3), a game that feels like a "must win" before heading into the bye week.
"We have to do a better job, because there's opportunity there," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said. "We're missing on it a little bit, and we have to look at it and figure out a way to make it a little better. I think there's more opportunity there than we've had."
Lewis said penalties have played a role, but sometimes it's a matter of just needing to block one guy at the line of scrimmage for a chance at a big play and the Bengals are missing the block.
Injuries also have played a role. The Bengals have played two games this year with both Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard available. A knee injury sidelined Mixon for Games 3 and 4 and Bernard has been out with a knee injury since Mixon returned.
The offense as a whole has been banged up, losing four tight ends to injuries and having wide receiver John Ross in and out with ailments. But Lazor hasn't shown the same commitment to the run he did earlier in the year, and the offensive output has been in decline.
"Anytime you have a great player like Gio, you miss them," Lazor said. "That's not an excuse, that's just a fact. And we're all hopeful he'll be back at some point. But that's the NFL. You've just got to keep going. Everyone has losses from injury at this point. So our job is to keep going anyway, and I think that's what the really good teams do. And the other thing that really good teams in this league do is they improve. … You're supposed to improve as the year goes on, you're supposed to see issues that you deal with in training camp and preseason, early in the season, and hope not to have those same mistakes come up. And that's not pointing at the players, that's coaching, that's as a team. So we just have to look long and hard about that."
The issue with the running game really became evident Sunday in a 45-10 loss at Kansas City when Cincinnati managed just 65 yards on 19 carries against one of the worst rush defenses in the league.
Lazor said it really comes down to the inability to make first downs. The Bengals averaged 25 first downs per game the first four weeks of the season and just 17 per game in three games since, including a win over the Dolphins that required two defensive touchdowns to secure a victory.
Against Kansas City, a team known for its potent offense's ability to out-shoot everyone else, the Bengals had just 15 first downs.
"When you only make 15 first downs, you're not going to end up getting the ball down the field enough, you're not going to end up running the ball enough, you're not going to end up doing anything enough probably other than you'd say we got it to A.J. (Green) early and A.J. got yards," Lazor said. "That's the key. And that was really the thing we talked about going into the game; the No. 1 thing was make first downs. We just felt if we made first downs, we're good in the red zone, we'll finish the drives with touchdowns. And it was our least first downs that we made for the year. So when you come out of it, it's hard to be happy about anything when you can't stay on the field. To me, that's the indicator and that's something we've got to get back going in the other direction, because early in the year, we were making a lot of first downs."
Cincinnati ranked 17th in rushing (104.5 yards per game) after the first two weeks, 22nd after four weeks (93.5 yards per game) and now rank 28th (86.3 yards per game).
Mixon leads the team with 384 yards and two touchdowns on 84 carries (4.6 yards per carry), while Bernard adds 155 yards and three scores on 34 carries. Rookie Mark Walton, the only other running back on the roster, has 11 carries for 17 yards.
Bengals left guard Clint Boling said it shouldn't matter who is available to run the ball. Cincinnati has capable runners, and the offensive line just needs to do its part to make sure they have some room to work. The line could be helped with the soon expected return of center Billy Price, who practiced in a limited fashion Thursday for the first time since suffering a foot injury against the Ravens in Game 2.
"Those are things every team deals with through the course of the year is dealing with injuries," Boling said. "Obviously some places deal with it more than others. That's just the NFL sometimes. You make adjustments and move on. We have confidence in all our guys, whether it's Joe, Gio or Mark. They are here for a reason, and we have confidence in all those guys.
"It doesn't matter who we put out there. We expect them to play well. We just have to make some adjustments and do better."