Bengals running back Joe Mixon looks to build on his Pro Bowl season.

Bengals running back Joe Mixon looks to build on his Pro Bowl season.
Bengals running back Joe Mixon looks to build on his Pro Bowl season.

Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon remembers the tackle on the first play of the third quarter at Heinz Field last season.

In Week 3, when the Bengals faced the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mixon started the second half with a run up the middle. He broke two tackles in the backfield, cut left and found himself one-on-one with Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Mixon attempted a cut and a stiff arm on the star safety. Fitzpatrick dove at Mixon’s feet and came up with a tackle.

When Mixon got back up, he saw 70 yards of green grass ahead of him. In frustration, he jumped twice, pounded his chest and shouted.

One year later, Mixon called that play the best example of yards he put on the table last year. He shakes his head as he imagines the touchdown run he missed.

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“We left a lot of yards out there (last year),” Mixon said. “Everybody sees the splash plays and the yards, but I left 400 or 500 yards on the field and obviously about 10 touchdowns last year. If we clean up certain things from my end and probably a block away, it could be even more. We can definitely improve.”

Last season, Mixon had a career year. He made his first Pro Bowl, ranked third in the NFL with 1,205 rushing yards and fourth in the league with 13 rushing touchdowns. Although Mixon was statistically one of the most contacted backs on the field last year, he consistently broke tackles and kept the offense moving.

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“That’s where it all starts, (with) the running game,” Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow said. “Every offense wants to establish the run so you can open up the (passing game) and get teams out of the two high (safeties) looks (which take away deep passes).”

Mixon credited Bengals running backs coach Justin Hill for Mixon’s success in 2021. During Hill’s first year as an NFL position coach, Mixon said Hill helped him become “more disciplined” with his reads behind the line of scrimmage.

From Hill’s first day with the Bengals, he made it a priority to improve the “eyes” of the running backs on the team. Hill created a pre-snap routine unlike anything Bengals running backs had done before.

Mixon said Hill emphasized the details of what happens before the play, details of reading defensive lines and details of making plays in the open field. With Bengals offensive line coach Frank Pollack also installing a wide-zone running program tailored to Mixon’s strengths, Mixon averaged over four yards per carry.

“(Hill) has a very good foundation of understanding that space and how to operate,” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said. “I think the backs, starting with Joe and Samaje (Perine) have had really good training camps and been on top of their stuff. It’s a credit to Justin as well. You don’t see the mental lapses that happen with the top two guys in early camp, (and) that’s usually a pretty good sign that everybody is in agreement in that room.”

This year, Mixon is set up to gain the yards he put up in 2021. Last season, the Bengals were one of the worst teams in the NFL on 3rd and 1 and 4th and 1. When the Bengals needed a yard, especially on the goal line, not the offensive line to create a window for Mixon to get that yard.

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Taylor said the Bengals’ new additions on the offensive line will make the biggest difference in two areas. When the Bengals need a yard on the goal line, he expects the Bengals to be able to get it in 2022. That means more touchdowns for Mixon.

And the Bengals coaching staff expects more explosive runs of 20 or more yards from Mixon. That means more rushing yards for Mixon, who has never played behind an offensive line as good as the Bengals’ unit this season.

“With the work I had and the pace (the line) allowed me to play in, with guys working together on combination blocks and solo blocks to have the timing and patience to set up certain blocks, I definitely feel very comfortable,” Mixon said. “Come Sunday it’s going to be a lot faster. What we have going on, I’m looking forward to it.”

In the Bengals’ two games against the Steelers last season, Mixon ran the ball as well as he did all season. He averaged 127 yards and 5.5 yards per carry.

The Steelers have the best pass rusher in the NFL in TJ Watt, and the Bengals leaned on Mixon last year to help neutralize his influence. With Mixon running the ball well, the Steelers began moving the safeties closer to the line of scrimmage. And then Burrow took advantage of that coverage with a deep touchdown pass to Ja’Marr Chase in the first game and a deep touchdown pass to Tee Higgins in the second game.

The explosive offense doesn’t function the same without Mixon.

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“There will be critical moments, tough situations,” Mixon said. “At the end of the day, we have to thrive under it. Whether it’s running a fake for a play action, hopefully one of the (receivers) burns somebody deep, or if I have to put my head down and make a play and keep the chains rolling, that’s what I’m going to do. Everyone’s bought in. On Sunday, we just have to execute.”

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