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Joe Mixon closes 2019 and enters contract year with a bang

Mixon’s final run of the season was a vicious representation of the progress he made in his third year.

Cleveland Browns v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

A literal bang.

With less than five minutes to play, the Cincinnati Bengals were facing a second-and-four on their own 47-yard line. Up 30-23 on the Cleveland Browns, another score would all but put the game out of reach for the visiting Browns.

For the 26th and final time of the game, the Bengals put the ball in the hands of Joe Mixon. A simple inside zone run from the shotgun had Mixon taking the ball past midfield, the first down marker and plenty more.

In his path stood free safety Sheldrick Redwine, who played college football 40 miles away at Miami University. Redwine probably wished he was back in Oxford when Mixon began to lower his shoulder into his soul.

Mixon proceeded to bulldoze Redwine to the turf and pick up almost an additional 20 yards on the run. Four plays later, Randy Bullock’s 46-yard field goal put the Bengals up 10 points with less than two minutes remaining. Mixon’s teammate from college, Baker Mayfield, threw his third interception of the game and the fat lady could be heard singing her song.

The 28-yard run put Mixon at 162 yards for the day, which set a new season-high and career-high for the 23-year old back. His yardage to beat was 146, which he set three weeks ago, against the same Browns team. Along with the two touchdowns he scored in this game, he’s now rushed for 608 yards and four touchdowns on 120 carries in six career games against the Browns.

The opposing team Mixon victimized in this game continues a narrative of its own. The story to focus on, however, is the one where Mixon completely turned around his third season in the NFL.

In the final eight games of the season, Mixon ran for 817 yards and five touchdowns on 177 carries. Without tenacious—and sometimes gutsy—performances against the Browns twice, against the Patriots (136 yards) and and against Ravens (114 yards), Mixon wouldn’t have sniffed 1,000 yards on the season. Now, two months after having just 320 yards to his name at the bye week, Mixon finished 2019 with 1,137, which is 31 shy of his total from last year when he lead the AFC in rushing yardage.

When Mixon first got rolling back in November, the clear catalyst to his revival revealed itself to be the change in blocking scheme and overall design of the run game. Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan and offensive line coach Jim Turner opted for more gap-style concepts and prioritizing getting Mixon downhill in space, which is tough to do without the right personnel. The offensive line benefitted from the transition, but it was still up to Mixon to better his own game.

For all the talent Mixon showed to have in his first two-and-a-half seasons, making defenders miss and breaking tackles was still an uncommon occurrence with him. From Weeks 9 to 16, Mixon had the fourth-most avoided tackles according to Pro Football Focus with 30. He had just 14 from Weeks 1-8. He had just 29 from all of last year. Before the official count is finalized, Mixon is going to finish the season around the 50 mark, which would keep him safely in the top 10.

Not only did the offense evolve for Mixon, Mixon himself evolved into an even better runner.

Everything cumulated into one last standout performance for Mixon and the offensive line. The Browns managed to stop Mixon behind the line of scrimmage just three times all game; netting him an Expected Points Added per Play value of 0.15, the third-highest mark of his late-season surge since Week 9. This time, he was on the winning side with a positive performance to boast.

In the face of the first 1-15 season in franchise history, the Bengals put it all on Mixon again, because if you can, why wouldn’t you? Mixon surely doesn’t mind. This offseason, he’ll want his agent to use that as leverage on his behalf when it comes time for a potential contract extension.

When asked about it, Mixon expressed clear interest in staying in Cincinnati long-term.

The Bengals typically reward their homegrown talent, but paying running backs has usually been an option they’ve avoided. Giovani Bernard’s three-year $15.5M deal he signed back in 2016 gave him a 3% share of the salary cap that year, and that’s been the largest percentage of salary cap the Bengals have dedicated to running back in recent memory.

The numbers tell teams to avoid paying running backs and the eye test validates that fear. Extending Mixon can easily be classified as bad process, but if they were to do it, they’ll want to put pen to paper before the season begins.

Because if the end of this season is any indication for 2020, a brinks truck is going to be backing up outside of Mixon’s house one way or the other.