CINCINNATI — Stringing two first downs together in a drive has never been more of a challenge for the Bengals, who head into the final stretch of the season trying to stay in contention despite an offense that ranks among the worst in franchise history.

They’re having a really hard time simply staying on the field.

The Bengals (4-6) rank last in the league in total yards and total plays. They’re second-worst in time of possession, holding the ball for only 26 minutes, 45 seconds per game. And there’s been no indication of improvement heading into a home game against the Browns (0-10) on Sunday.

All it takes is one bad play and they’re looking at another three-and-out.

“I’d say when you’re a good team and you kind of have the momentum, you can take a negative play and say, ‘No problem, we’ll get it on second and third down,'” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “And when you’re in one of those ruts, it’s like, ‘Oh gosh.’ Then all of a sudden you take a negative and you think, ‘We’re dead.'”

Cincinnati is in a deep rut when it comes to moving the ball.

In the past three games, the Jaguars and Titans each held the ball for more than 40 minutes and the Broncos had it for 35.

Cincinnati had the ball for 33 possessions in those games — not counting kneel-downs — and failed to get a first down 10 times. They managed to string together a pair of first downs only 27 percent of the time.

The result is a glaring imbalance. The Bengals have run only 524 plays this season, which are by far the fewest in the NFL; the Jets are second-worst at 566. They’re on pace to set a club record for fewest plays in a 16-game, non-strike season.

The offensive line’s struggles are the key component. Andy Dalton has been under pressure all season, and the running backs have few holes.

During a 23-7 loss at Jacksonville on Nov. 5, the Bengals had only seven plays that gained yards in the second half and seven that lost yards.

During a 20-17 win at Denver on Sunday, they ran for only 49 yards combined and had six running plays that lost yards.

Rookie Joe Mixon carried 20 times for 49 yards at Denver, an average of 2.5 per carry. He’s often been either hit in the backfield or had to change course to avoid a tackler.

“As a runner, you just can’t be frustrated,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “You can’t let the last play, positively or negatively, affect the next one. You’ve got to make the most of it, that’s all.”

The Bengals are on pace to run the fewest plays, have the worst time of possession, and rush for the fewest yards in the franchise’s 50 seasons.

“We’re calling the runs,” Dalton said. “And we’re expecting production out of them. When we don’t get that, it means you’ve got to make up more on second or third or whatever down it is.”

So far, they’ve not done that very often.

BULLOCK ON THE SPOT

Randy Bullock has missed an extra-point attempt in each of the past two games, figuring in how they played out at the end. Lewis was asked Wednesday if the missed kicks affect his patience level with the kicker.

“It does affect our patience level,” he said.

INJURIES

CB Adam “Pacman” Jones had a full practice Wednesday after sitting out the Denver game with a concussion. LB Kevin Minter, who missed the past four with an elbow injury, also fully practiced. CB Darqueze Dennard (knee) and LB Vincent Rey (hamstring) were among those held out. CB William Jackson III (toe) and TE Tyler Kroft (hand) were limited.


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