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Joe Mixon’s pass-blocking prowess

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Pro Football Focus graded the Bengals newest running back as one of the better pass blocking backs in this year’s class. Let’s find out how accurate that grade is.

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NCAA Football: Kansas State at Oklahoma Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Mixon took significant snaps from both Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard the second his name was read off as the Bengals’ second-round pick of this year’s NFL Draft. Considering how controversial he was as a prospect and with the Bengals selecting him within the top 50 selections, he has to play the majority of snaps at the running back position to ease reservations concerning the risk of the investment. Luckily, the folks at Pro Football Focus believe Mixon is more than capable of being a three-down back because of his proficiency as a pass-blocker on third-down.

According to PFF, Mixon was charged with allowing a single hurry and nothing else in his 48 snaps as a pass-blocker in 2016. This production yielded a 98.4 Pass Block Efficiency grade, as shown below:

Pro Football Focus

Oklahoma tasked him with such little responsibility as a pass-blocker because he split those snaps with former teammate Samaje Perine. And when Mixon was on the field on passing plays, he was used as a receiver most of the time, and was damn good at it too.

There’s not a lot of tape of Mixon being a pocket protector, but there’s enough to see if this high grade of efficiency is misleading. I found five good examples of Mixon performing traditional pass-blocking snaps that you would see in any game in the NFL, let’s break them down.

I had to slow this one down because of how quickly the camera moved at the end, but this one is about awareness. A great portion of Oklahoma’s passing game was predicated from play action out of the pistol set, which is what you see here. In real-time, the left guard is beaten instantly by the right defensive tackle, and has a clear path to the quarterback. Mixon sense the pressure from his left, and launches himself from his stance to prevent the hit on his quarterback. Even though the pass was before the hit would eventually have come, it shows Mixon can look for work as a blocker, and isn’t afraid to lay the wood without the ball in his hands.

On this play, Mixon knew pre-snap who his assignment was, it was just a matter of meeting him in the gap. The Ohio State defense is blitzing their whole box out of nickel in cover 1 man. Quarterback Baker Mayfield sees this and knows the middle of the field at the first down marker is going to be wide open for his slot receiver coming across, he just needs enough time against the blitz to make the throw. Mixon charges toward the blitzing linebacker and stops him place just by lowering his shoulder.

As pretty as it looks, Mixon has to be ready for smarter blitzers in the NFL. The linebacker does a bad job of working past Mixon’s block, as he tries to jump over him and loses all leverage at the point of attack. It’d be more pleasing to see him shoot his hands out with his wide base to prohibit any move that can be used against the blitzer, but in this instance, this was all that was needed.

Here we see Mixon try to block on an island on the edge, but his lack of technique comes back to bite him. He’s tasked with blocking anyone off the edge out of play action, and sees the corner sprinting toward him. Because he’s in space on this play where he was in-between blockers on the last clip, his margin for error is greater because he has no one to help him. His first error is failing to get a base. He rushes toward the blitzing corner and never sets his feet to absorb the contact. The shuffling of his feet leads to his back being upright, and primed his loss of balance upon impact. His punch is then rendered useless because he has nothing working for him.

The corner eventually made his way to Mayfield and got a hit on him after he threw the ball. No sack was given up by Mixon, but the process was less than stellar.

In the same game, Mixon and his future teammate Carl Lawson clashed on the edge. This play was analyzed by The Rookie Scouting Portfolio creator and general football genius Matt Waldman, and I’m pretty much going to say the same thing he did. The result looks pretty, but the process leaves more to be desired.

The problem here is Mixon’s lean, he’s leaning back as he squares up to Lawson, and essentially shoots his entire upper body forward as his punch. All Lawson had to do was bull rush Mixon and he’d be toast. But Mixon’s make-shift lunge forced Lawson to the outside where Mixon could re-adjust his base and mirror him. It’s not marked as a bad rep in terms of production, but it shows he is still a work-in-progress.

Here, Mixon shows more tools as a pass-blocker. His lean and his base both put in him a prepared position to meet the blitzer, and this could’ve been a dominant rep. But he couldn’t put it all together because his hands were way too high, and the blitzer was able to get inside hands on him. This miscue caused Mixon to lose a little ground on the block, but his stance allowed him to recover. Mayfield was unable to step up in the pocket because of this, but still found an open man down the sideline.

This clip is not a block, but it is my favorite rep of Mixon when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands. Mayfield is reading the Texas Tech force player on the edge and decided to hold back the ball on this run-pass-option. Mixon did an outstanding job of getting into his stance quickly and squaring up the defender, who is basically playing contain at this point. It’s a rep that’ll get glanced over, but it shows he flashes the ability to look the part as a blocker, for him, it’s all about putting it all together.

For an incoming rookie, I don’t think Mixon is a bad pass-blocker. Pass protection is rarely tasked for rookie running backs in the NFL for how difficult it is for those who didn’t do it in college. But with Bernard potentially out in the beginning of the year, and Hill being a bad pass-blocker, Mixon might be forced to do it in his first games. But if the Bengals are using Mixon as a blocker on third-down, they’re also taking away his impressive capability as a receiver. That is something they need to use as soon as possible.

Bernard is by far the Bengals’ best pass-blocking running back, but he wasn’t at the level he is at now when he came out of college. Mixon won’t be either, but he definitely has the potential to be.