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Emulating McVay: Making Joe Mixon’s life as easy as Todd Gurley’s

Joe Mixon has already shown he can produce at a high level. Part two of our Emulating McVay series showcases how the Bengals can generate that production much easier.

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Person A and Person B each get into their own car and leave from the same starting point. The destination is the same for both of them and was roughly 1,200 miles away.

The route that A took involved little to no traffic and was essentially a straight shot all the way through, but the speed limit rarely eclipsed 70 miles per hour. B got stuck in traffic on numerous occasions and even went through a few mountains during his route; however, he was fortunate enough to drive downhill more often and take advantage of higher speed limits. As a result, A and B arrived at the destination at the same exact time.

A was Todd Gurley, B was Joe Mixon, and the destination was their rushing yardage at the conclusion of the 2018 NFL season.

Gurley and Mixon finished fourth and third, respectively, in the NFL in rushing yards last year. Mixon’s 1,168 yards lead the AFC, while Gurley’s 1,251 yards put him behind Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley in the NFC.

Both Gurley and Mixon ended up averaging 4.9 yards per carry, but a deeper dive into the numbers (via’s NextGenStats and’s metrics) shows us a different journey for each running back.

Gurley vs. Mixon Advanced Stats

GURLEY 3.65 8.2 2.8 4.7 5.9 1.17 2.99 256 1251 4.9 17
MIXON 3.55 16.03 2.83 4.5 8.4 1.6 -4.81 237 1168 4.9 8

Some of these metrics need to be explained. These are the definitions per the respective websites.


Rushing efficiency is calculated by taking the total distance a player traveled on rushing plays as a ball carrier according to Next Gen Stats (measured in yards) per rushing yards gained. The lower the number, the more of a North/South runner.


Discounts all runs greater than 10 yards, which puts a premium on consistency and factors out the disproportionate impact of long runs.


Percentage of carries of 15 or more yards.


All yards above and beyond what was blocked per touch. Yards created are generated by the runner after the first evaded tackle.


Game Script represents the average point differential at any point in any game that season. Positive values indicate teams are often playing with a lead. Negative values indicates teams are often playing from behind.

Beyond the likeness they share in terms of basic efficiency metrics we’re frequently exposed to, Gurley and Mixon operated in a strikingly similar fashion with the ball in their hands. Their efficiency, average time behind the line of scrimmage, and true yards per carry all mirror each other. This means that both players covered roughly the same ground per carry, took the same amount of time reading their blocks and breaking through the line, and neither one had their explosive runs dramatically increase their yards per carry.

All things being equal, Mixon proved he was capable of producing at Gurley’s level. But all things were not equal.

Mixon ran into boxes with at least eight defenders 8% more of the time in comparison to Gurley. If we multiply those percentages by each player’s total carries, we find out that Gurley faced an eight-man box for about 21 of his carries, while 38 of Mixon’s carries came against them. 17 isn’t that big of a difference in terms of volume, and I was honestly surprised it wasn’t more in Gurley’s favor.

Going through the film, it was clear that the majority of stacked boxes Mixon faced was in the red zone, and that was the primary reason why his yards per carry in that portion of the field was a measly 2.56. When comparing their efficiency in the red zone, Gurley’s yards per carry was higher, but his touchdown rate was exactly the same.

Gurley vs. Mixon Red Zone Stats

GURLEY 204 68 3 17 0.25
MIXON 82 32 2.56 8 0.25

Mixon faced more unfavorable situations inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, but still ended up with the same yards per carry. How? Because he did slightly more on his own.

Mixon’s breakaway run % and yards created per carry reign over Gurley’s marks in those metrics. Comparing those rates to their total carries we find that Mixon had about five more runs of 15+ yards and created roughly 80 more yards on his own. Not monumental differences, but enough to counter the differences against situations with stacked boxes.

As it turns out, the differences between Gurley and Mixon’s production can be found before the play even begins.

Jet motions for the win

It’s hard to watch the Rams’ rushing attack without noticing how much pre-snap movement occurs. Though I didn’t keep track, a healthy portion of Gurley’s attempts came after Los Angeles set a receiver in motion and snapped the ball right as he’s passing behind quarterback Jared Goff. This is what’s known as a jet motion, and it’s been a known staple of the Rams’ offense.

Similar to play action, the offense does not need to hand the ball off to the motioning receiver beforehand to get the defense to bite on the motion itself. The threat of a handoff will always keep the defense honest to some degree, and this was extremely evident in some of Gurley’s big runs.

The more you can slow down the defense, the better. Too much pre-snap movement can make your offense susceptible to false starts and potential confusion at the snap, but the Rams know how to keep it simple and make the defense react faster than they have too. Lightening the box for Mixon while putting the defense in compromising positions right before the snap is a clear path to success.

Attacking the weakside doesn’t make you weak

The running game is more or less a numbers game, and the numbers associated with the defense matters more than the numbers associated with the offense.

Running behind more blockers isn’t advantageous to the running back if he’s running into an area with more defenders. The defense has to account for the extra gaps created by the strongside of the formation, and this creates more opportunities for the blocking to fail. The Rams did a good job last year of making the defense account for the strongside, and then attacking the more spacious weakside of the formation.

Gurley’s most common run was outside zone towards the left B-gap, right behind the legend himself, Andrew Whitworth. It was his most effective gap to run through in terms of explosive plays per and it rarely mattered how the defense looked pre-snap to defend it — the Rams’ offensive line was that good at first-level blocking. When they loaded the right side and took attention away from the left side, it made the play-call much more effective.

Just because you can pound the ball down the center of the defense’s throat doesn’t mean you have to.

The plan for Mixon

In a phrase: work smarter, not harder.

In just his second year, Mixon ascended his production to the top of the NFL after a disappointing rookie season and as we now know, how he collected that production is nothing short of impressive. It’s not up to Mixon to vastly improve in 2019, it’s up to design of the offense to do so.

Luckily, early signs show that may be happening.

Zac Taylor and his staff on offense have plenty of positive tape of Mixon to create the foundation of a rushing offense, and it only helps that Mixon and Gurley move and create so similarly on their own. Neither are necessarily elusive runners, but they’re hard to stop in the open field. Mixon might even be better at creating yards when his blocking can’t, which is why he’s an effective runner out of the shotgun.

If the plan is to use Mixon more like Gurley, then the recent news regarding Jonah Williams and Cordy Glenn makes a lot of sense. With Williams at left tackle and Glenn at left guard, the Bengals’ two-best blockers (sans Clint Boling if he’s out of the picture) will be charged with paving the way for most of Mixon’s runs like Whitworth and former Rams’ left guard Rodger Saffold did for Gurley. Of course the rest of the line has to step up, but there’s only so much you can ask for.

The relationship between the run and pass will be interesting to watch unfold this season in Cincinnati, and we’ll close out this series with a look at how to get Andy Dalton back and rolling like Jared Goff has been in the City of Angels.