The Cincinnati Bengals haven’t gotten the production they’ve expected to get from Joe Mixon in the last two years. It is hard to argue to say that Mixon’s struggles fall on him having a lack of ability. In fact, a lot of the factors rest out of his control.
It still isn’t surprising to see Mixon looked down on slightly from where many fans may expect to see him land when ranked across the league. The most recent example is Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus ranking Mixon as the 14th best running back in the NFL:
An offensive line so bad that it was hazardous to Joe Burrow’s health has also been a major obstacle in the way of Joe Mixon having the kind of dominant production that his talent might deserve. Mixon has only averaged 3.9 yards per carry over the last two seasons, but 3.0 yards of that have come after contact.
Even Monson does a pretty good job of explaining why there is reason to believe in a bounce back year for Mixon.
We have heard in length about how much the offensive line has hurt the passing games the last few seasons, but Mixon has also had to deal with issues with not having tremendous blocking to help him get to the second level. Averaging three yards after contact is pretty great. That puts him in the same category as players like Nick Chubb (2.7 yards after contact in 2020) and Derrick Henry (2.8 yards after contact in 2020).
The Bengals really did some work to improve their offensive line this offseason (despite what you may be hearing). Riley Reiff will be taking over at right tackle for Bobby Hart, rookie Jackson Carman will be starting at right guard (which was pretty much a turnstile in 2020), and there should be a competent veteran starting at left guard between Quinton Spain and Xavier Su’a’Filo. Those three positions were major issues last season.
Another thing that has changed is coaching. Frank Turner has returned as the offensive line coach, and he will be in charge of the running game as well. During Mixon’s rookie season in 2018, he had the running game working smoothly despite a lack of talent. This could be a huge change from Jim Turner, who didn’t really improve any young talent the past two seasons and failed to get any consistency from the offensive lie in the running or passing game.
Finally, we get to talk about how the Bengals drafting Ja’Marr Chase actually helps Mixon and the running game. It wasn’t uncommon for opposing defenses (especially those who knew what they were doing) to basically say with their alignment that they were going to let Cincinnati try and beat them deep.
Seeing seven and eight man boxes was pretty much the norm for the Bengals in 2020. In past seasons, A.J. Green would have been the guy to take the top off of defenses, but that just wasn’t the case in 2020 as he and Joe Burrow failed to find a consistent connection, especially on deep passes. Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins are fantastic receivers, but neither are really guys you have to worry about constantly having a safety account for them over the top.
That created a situation where even if the team wanted to run the ball, the front never favored it. That was a huge reason you saw Burrow throw so many times in a game. Attempting to pass on first down against a seven or eight man box is just better than running for maybe a short gain or negative yards setting up a second-and-long situation.
With Chase in town to potentially remedy the deep passing game situation, it should mean Cincinnati starts facing more favorable fronts for Mixon to run against. Imagine how much a three yards after contact average would help when you aren’t forced to make people miss in the backfield?
The stage is set for Mixon to prove he was worth the contract Cincinnati gave him. It will be up to him to earn that respect from the national media in 2021.