Investment in NFL running backs has become a hot topic in the last couple of years. The position itself has seen a decline in value on the open market in free agency, yet teams have shown little fear in selecting running backs in the top-10, even top five picks of each of the last four drafts. Is the position better off being handled by a balanced committee of three to four guys, or is a predominantly 1-back system with a complementary backup still viable in a passing-first league?
The Bengals are pretty straight forward in which positions they like to address in which round, and they have not shied away from taking numerous running backs fairly early. Since 2013, the Bengals have drafted four running backs in the first four rounds, including three in the second round. In that same timeframe, they’ve selected three offensive lineman in that range. If the Bengals’ 3,135 rushing yards on just 3.81 yards per carry in the past two seasons has told us anything, it’s that your offensive line matters more than your running backs behind it.
Joe Mixon’s rookie season explains this to us nearly perfectly.
Very few other running backs in the NFL had to work as hard as Mixon did for his 913 yards from scrimmage and four scores. It was a struggle to watch the offense slowly integrate him into an system that severely lacked an identity and capable playmakers and blockers around him, and then fail to utilize him where he succeeds best until late in the year. But there were positives that stood out in his film, and I found seven worthy examples like I did for William Jackson’s first year.
These plays defined Mixon’s rookie year in Cincinnati.
The very first carry of Mixon’s professional career really set the tone for the season that was in store.
The Bengals offensive line was consistently overwhelmed and down-lineman had little trouble resetting the line of scrimmage and getting quick penetration in the backfield. Mixon dealt with a lot of traffic and his skills of rummaging through the trash were constantly put to the test.
PTP Leaderboard (Week 11). Yards per carry before and after the initial Potential Tackle Point. pic.twitter.com/wUFX00RBGC— Adam Spinks (@TheRBScout) November 25, 2017
Mixon’s debut rushing attempt saw him turn a potential three-yard loss into a one-yard gain and he dodged a couple potential tacklers in the process. Mixon’s overall yards/attempt was dragged down dramatically because of plays like this, despite Mixon being among the best in creating yards for himself in contrast to what his offensive line did to help him.
To further the point, creating for himself was an unquestionable motif of Mixon’s rookie campaign. Even when the five players on the offensive line took care of their assignments, Mixon’s job was never easy.
J.J. Watt’s 2017 season was best known for raising millions of dollars for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, but before that, he was severely juked out of his shoes by Mixon. After making waste of Tyler Eifert’s feeble effort’s to down-block him, Watt had Mixon dead to rights and put the Bengals in a second-and-long situation. With his shoulders and feet squared together, Mixon planted his inside foot in the ground and exploded out of Watt’s reach.
While attempting to regain his balance, Mixon still had to beat the safety collapsing down as the force player to the edge and did exactly that. Once at the numbers, Mixon again dug his feet into another cut, this time upfield and powered through for a seven-yard gain.
Despite his known capabilities as a receiver coming out of Oklahoma, Mixon was underused compared to other young running backs around the league in the passing game. Though this play wasn’t officially recorded as a reception, Mixon’s dangerous faculty in space with a full head of steam was very much on display. Once he got downhill, he could not only accelerate, he could stop on a dime at 230 pounds and make you miss. And you may have no choice but to grab his facemask to get him down.
Some of Mixon’s biggest plays came from screens and short passes in the flats. Going forward, it would be wise of offensive coordinator Bill Lazor to package plays with Mixon lined up in the slot as well.
It took a month for Mixon to cross the goal-line, and when the opportunity presented itself, he pounced on it.
Compounding the Bengals offensive line issues was their stubbornness to give Mixon a numbers advantage in the box. Their insistence on bringing three extra blockers, typically by motioning in wide receivers in an offset alignment, in short-yardage situations is a testament to a league-wide issue on transitioning away from condensing the run game. But when opposing defensives stacked the box with eight to nine defenders, they were defeated more times than not. It took efforts like this from Mixon to create positive plays from disadvantages in the box.
An inside run is read inside-out, which is pretty self-explanatory. Once there was no push from the interior, Mixon immediately looked to the edge. With the safety sunk a little too far into the box, Mixon saw an edge and burst toward the front pylon. The score would give the Bengals a one-point lead, which they did not give up.
In the game that got Le’Veon Bell mad online for some reason, Mixon’s biggest and best run was an impressive display of patience and acceleration. Against a light box, Mixon followed behind a pulling left guard Clint Boling while right guard Trey Hopkins pinned the 2i out of the point of attack. But with center Russell Bodine failing to get his hands on Cameron Heyward, there’s still an unoccupied defender for Mixon to get past.
Bell is revered for setting up his blockers and opening up holes that a second prior were not there. Rarely does Bell just blindly go head first into the first gap he reads. He surveys and attacks. That’s what Mixon does well, too. He couldn’t get through Heyward going with the flow of the play, so he waited for Bodine to seal him off from the left and cut back to open space. Once he’s there, he turned on the jets in an instant and racked up 25 yards.
A personal favorite play for me, this run put Mixon over 100 rushing yards against a Browns run defense that ended up being the best in the NFL, and also put Jabrill Peppers and his (separated) helmet on the dirt for the first down. The Bengals did a superb job opening up holes for Mixon this game and gashed the Browns front seven. It was Mixon’s first 100-yard game and the first 100-yard game from a Bengals running back since Rex Burkhead accomplished that in Week 17 of the 2016 season. The very next play, Mixon scored and put the game away.
Lazor didn’t truly have the personnel to run the offense he wanted to install on the go two-and-a-half weeks into the year, and as the season dragged on, some spread concepts started sneaking their way into the offense. To his credit, when they spread the offense out and gave Mixon room to create plays, he started doing great things.
On the above draw play versus a six man box, the play was made possible by a combo block from Bodine and Hopkins. Bodine passed off the nose tackle to Hopkins and attempted to climb toward the playside linebacker. Hopkins initially leveraged himself to seal off the nose from the a-gap because Mixon’s first read was up the middle. But the other variable is the b-gap, which was wide open because the delayed handoff took the edge rusher way up field and the playside linebacker was sucked in to respect the handoff. The b-gap was wide open, Mixon played off Hopkins’ block, and he was gone.
This run went for almost 20 yards, and the end result was a 10-yard loss because of a holding call on Bodine. To me, it’s pretty fitting this article ends with a run by Mixon that ultimately didn’t count. Because while Mixon gave us a few examples in his rookie year to inspire excitement for his sophomore season, no one should hold his first season against him that much. The exhilarating performances of Leonard Fournette, Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara put Mixon into a bad light in comparison, but the context for that lack of production is pretty telling.
In 2015, everyone expected Jeremy Hill to build off his impressive 1,100 yard rookie season, and he never lived up to that hype, and his ineptness is why Mixon is in Cincinnati in the first place. Now, Mixon has a chance to be the reverse Hill, and prove why his rookie season is not what represents the best of what he can be.