Bengals Need to Give Joe Mixon the Keys to Their Backfield and Enjoy the Ride

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystSeptember 4, 2017

CINCINNATI, OH - JUNE 14: Joe Mixon #28 of the Cincinnati Bengals looks on during a team minicamp at Paul Brown Stadium on June 14, 2017 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

When you watch Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon move, something just doesn't seem right. And I mean that as a compliment.

It's not right that a 6'1" and 228-pound back is able to glide to open space so fluidly and cut so effortlessly. At that size, Mixon should be a powerful bruiser who splatters black and blue marks all over defenders. Yet there he is being unfair with his juking, weaving and abrupt cutting.

It's also not right for Mixon to be doing that on an NFL field immediately. Yes, the caveats of preseason play apply, as August is a time when second-team defenses are roaming fields more often. Still, the speed of play in preseason is faster than in college, and Mixon is adapting well.

He's still the game-changing talent who recorded 2,921 yards from scrimmage over two seasons at Oklahoma, and likely would have been a first-round pick if off-field issues didn’t make him toxic. And with his versatility, he is capable of being the foundation of an offense, which means his mere presence on the field will open up space for wide receiver A.J. Green.

He has the natural skill to be the solution for what ails the Bengals after they averaged only 20.3 points per game in 2016 (24th). So they wouldn't even consider giving a sizable slice of the backfield workload to someone not named Joe Mixon, right?

The fact that's even a possibility is both confusing and a little maddening, an unpleasant mix for anyone searching for certainty in late fantasy football drafts. Or really, just anyone whose head hurts when talent isn't deployed properly and the potential of a roster isn't maximized.

Yet, as Rotoworld's Adam Levitan noted, floundering running back Jeremy Hill could have a bigger role than he deserves if the preseason snap distribution is any indication:

Hill doesn't need to fade away forever. He still has a use.

That use is specific and mostly limited to one area of the field.

The Bengals ranked a mid-pack 13th in rushing yards during the 2016 season (110.6 yards per game), a year when Hill struggled again while leading the team in carries by a wide margin. He finished with 222 rushing attempts, and the spark the 24-year-old once provided is now a fading memory.

He's flamed out since surging during his rookie year. That was a time when, like Mixon, Hill was a pummeling powerhouse of pain. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry in 2014, but that fell to only 3.8 yards in 2016. His yards per game have also tumbled dramatically.

Jeremy Hill's steady decline
YearRushing yardsYards/carryYards/gameTDs
20141,1245.170.39
20157943.649.611
20168393.855.99
Source: NFL.com

The one area Hill has remained effective is near the goal line, where he pinballs toward six points with his 230-pound frame. He's scored 29 career touchdowns over 47 regular-season games. And since scoring is a pretty big deal, Hill will surely maintain a goal-line role.

But aside from that, Hill has produced little more than dust clouds over the past two seasons. His spiral is what prompted the Bengals to pursue an upgrade in their backfield during the 2017 draft.

They landed on Mixon in the second round, and his talent can change the character of the Bengals offense immediately. He was a dynamic weapon at Oklahoma who could burn defenses in multiple ways. Mixon is also far away from reaching his peak, and is only 21 years old entering his first NFL season. He posted 1,812 yards from scrimmage during his final year with the Sooners, which included 538 receiving yards. 

The main barrier separating Mixon from a heavier workload is a common one for rookie running backs. A coaching staff needs to trust that the rookie back in question can pick up a blitz. No amount of talent makes up for the head coach having to watch passing-down snaps through his fingers when a rookie running back is on the field.

Mixon recorded 2,921 yards from scrimmage over two seasons with the Sooners.
Mixon recorded 2,921 yards from scrimmage over two seasons with the Sooners.Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

With Mixon, there's an element of the unknown in that regard, and for a good reason. The Sooners didn't ask him to stay in the backfield and block much because they didn't want to waste his pass-catching talent. The Bengals will likely make the same discovery. However, they still need to be comfortable enough to insert Mixon into a blocking situation when needed.

In limited work, Mixon was effective as a pass-blocker for the Sooners. He allowed only one hurry over 48 pass-blocking snaps in 2016, according to Pro Football Focus, which ranked him seventh in the 2017 draft class.

If he can be even passable as a blocker, there's no reason for the Bengals to not give Mixon the bulk of the early-down carries right away. Remember, we're talking about a running back who consistently generated chunk plays in 2016 and averaged 6.8 yards per carry. And the true barometer of how much Mixon can change the Bengals' offense lies in how often he goes far past the space that's blocked for him.

Mixon averaged 3.75 yards after contact per attempt in 2016, and 57.3 percent of his rushing yards were gained on runs of 15-plus yards, all per PFF. He did that by being more than just a bruising back.

With his lateral mobility, Mixon can find opportunities where it seemed like none existed, and the results are long runs into the open field. But sometimes the short gains at a key moment are just as critical and require just as much of Mixon's trademark creativity.

A shining example of that came in Week 3 of the preseason against the Washington Redskins. On 2nd-and-2 in the first quarter, Mixon was handed the ball on a counter designed to flow to the right. He produced a run that will seem fine, though not spectacular, on paper. Just look at the play-by-play summary. It reads: "J.Mixon right end pushed ob at WAS 16 for 6 yards."

Yawn, right? If that's all you saw while catching up afterward, the assumption would be that Mixon rumbled ahead for a solid gain and then went out of bounds. He did his job, moved the chains and life carried on.

But there's a reason watching games is much more fun than sifting through a box score. You get to marvel at a dazzling effort to squeeze out every bit of yardage from a broken play.

Tell us more, NFL Network's Brian Baldinger:

It's worth taking a longer and zoomed-out gaze at the first drool-worthy moment in that run when Baldinger pressed pause. Because although it's easy to focus on Mixon putting an oversized clown hat on Redskins cornerback Josh Norman, what really separates him is rapid movement in confined spaces.

Often when a running back is forced to cut deep in the backfield, the play has already been dealt a critical blow. Quality running is rooted in momentum and either plowing forward with authority or not losing much speed while accelerating after a cut.

But in this case, Mixon had nearly no momentum before being faced with a potential disaster.

He wanted to sprint right and follow his lead blocker to where a hole should have been developing between the tackle and pulling guard. Then Mixon took all of one full stride forward with the ball before the interior blocking broke down in front of him.

Cincinnati's offensive line failed miserably, and Washington linemen were crashing through the middle. Mixon was forced to stop, which is usually when the play ends too. He slowed only for a beat, but he slowed nonetheless, and that's typically when any chaos engulfing a running back gets much worse.

Credit: NFL GamePass

It's easy to look back in hindsight with your precise game film trigger finger and see the developing green space to the right of Mixon. However, in that moment it's a whole different matter to access that space and have the instincts, vision and nimble feet to get there.

Mixon checked off all of those boxes and wiggled away by pivoting to his right after a complete stop.

Credit: NFL GamePass

His elusiveness is on constant display. Often he leans on his lateral agility to escape what seems like certain doom in close quarters when a hole disappears. And just as often he's able to react quickly and force multiple missed tackles after the catch while maintaining his balance.

The latter scenario happened against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1 of the preseason, when Mixon forced three whiffs on an 11-yard gain. He recorded a missed tackle once every 3.9 offensive touches in 2016, per PFF, and that slipperiness hasn't gone anywhere early in his NFL transition.

The ultimate sign of a running back who can change an offense lies in what he's able to create for himself. Mixon regularly used the field as his canvas at Oklahoma and did the same during the preseason. Hill, meanwhile, hasn't done much more than run into defenders or his own offensive linemen for the past two seasons. And those large bodies have generally been about three yards in front of him.

There will still be important roles for multiple running backs in Cincinnati's backfield. Bernard has thrived as a passing-down specialist in the past and can do that again. And Hill has done the same around the goal line.

But the Bengals will need to decide which running back is the best fit on early downs and should therefore lead their backfield while shouldering the largest workload. That decision should be easy.

It's Joe Mixon, and it's not close.

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