Bengals RB Joe Mixon will return to starting role when cleared

CINCINNATI -- Bengals coach Zac Taylor made the team's running back hierarchy explicitly clear Wednesday.

Even though Samaje Perine has done well the past few weeks, the starting spot still belongs to Joe Mixon.

"Joe Mixon's our starting running back," Taylor said. "The last game he played, he had five touchdowns. Tremendous effort. And Samaje's done a really good job filling in."

Mixon said Thursday that he didn't think his spot as the No. 1 running back was ever in question.

"I don't think that would've changed," Mixon said. "Like I said, I guess clarification for y'all, but at the same time I truly felt like with Perine being there, he's definitely a great 1-2 back with me. He's definitely been a complimentary back with me. He's been that since we've been at OU, it's always been that 1-2 punch."

Perine has started the last two games while Mixon has been out recovering from a concussion he sustained in the team's Week 11 win against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Since that game, Perine has rushed for 194 yards, one touchdown and 10 first downs. Perine also has 136 receiving yards during that span, the fourth-highest of any running back according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Cincinnati's rushing attack sputtered early in the season before the team shifted its rushing philosophy from a zone-heavy scheme to a gap scheme. Mixon's rushing numbers, which were among the worst in the NFL at one point, showed improvement in the middle of the season. In Week 9 against the Carolina Panthers, Mixon had a career-high 211 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns, setting a franchise record.

However, with Mixon out, the offensive has continued to be productive with Perine as the top running back.

"He's been unbelievable for us," Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow said. If there's nothing there in the run, he still gets us three. That doesn't sound like a lot but that means everything when you're staying ahead of the chains."

Perine rushed for 106 yards and tallied 49 receiving yards in the team's 27-24 win over the Kansas City Chiefs last weekend. Mixon, who did not participate in any contact drills in the practices leading up to that game, was unable to clear concussion protocol in time to play and was held out for precautionary reasons, Taylor said.

Taylor said Mixon has continued to make progress through concussion protocol and could be fully cleared ahead of Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns. While Taylor was very clear about the distinct roles for Mixon and Perine, he said having both available will be key as the Bengals push to secure a playoff berth and potentially repeat as AFC North champions.

"To have those two guys that you've got a lot of confidence in, whatever the moment calls for, we think that's very valuable to have," Taylor said, "especially going into this late-season stretch and hopefully beyond that."