Joe Mixon ready to be Bengals ‘it factor’ for playoff push

Joe Mixon ready to be Bengals ‘it factor’ for playoff push
Joe Mixon ready to be Bengals ‘it factor’ for playoff push

CINCINNATI, Ohio — Bengals running back Joe Mixon held court in front of his locker on Thursday.

He sounded rested as he spent nearly twenty minutes answering questions from reporters on a range of topics, from the team’s all-white uniforms — “they lit up, definitely lit up, but at the same time we’re not here for who dresses best” — to how many layers he likes to wear in cold weather.

Hint: not much.

“I want to be sleeveless,” Mixon said. “… The cold, which does not phase me. As much as people think it’s hardship, to be honest, we really enjoy the s—.”

Mixon exuded swagger, and why wouldn’t he?

He silenced a group of increasingly vocal critics entering the bye week with one of his all-time best performances in a 42-21 win over the Panthers. Mixon had a total of 211 yards (153 rushing) and five touchdowns with four of them coming in the first half.

“If I can have a big game to help my teammates, that’s basically what it’s going to be for us, and if I have to do that, that’s what I’m going to be,” Mixon said. “When my number rang, I just had to go out and deliver. I’m looking forward to it.”

Mixon wants to prove that performance wasn’t an outlier and faces a pretty big test right out of the gate with a matchup against a Pittsburgh team that, regardless of record, knows how to stop the run.

The Steelers rank No. 6 in the league in rushing defense (108 yards allowed per game) and give up just 4.1 yards per carry. Those numbers have been even better over the past four weeks with the defense holding opposing teams to 81.5 yards per game on 3.7 yards per carry.

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They also got a boost last week by getting TJ Watt back from the pectoral injury he suffered in the season opener.

“It’s ugly when you run against the Steelers,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. “It’s hard. And then, you know, you take your four and five yards as best you can and you try to keep piling them up. And at some point you hope you get one or two. But there’s always a relatively ugly game plan against Pittsburgh and they are tough yards. You have to earn them when you play and you play them.”

Everything about the Bengals’ loss back in Week 1 to the Steelers fell into the “ugly” category.

The Bengals faced a 17-3 deficit in the first half amid a flurry of turnovers. Quarterback Joe Burrow threw a pick-6 on his first pass attempt and ended up with five turnovers in what was easily the worst game of his professional career.

They battled back only to have a series of special teams gaffes halt an eventual comeback victory.

Mixon also didn’t have a great day with 27 carries for 82 yards — he also had seven catches for 63 yards — but averaged less than two yards per carry on the ground if you subtract a 31-yard carry he had early in the game.

He hopes the chemistry he has built with the offensive line in the weeks since will make a difference in the rematch. The five-start offensive lineman have played 591 of the team’s 616 snaps combined, and nearly all of Mixon’s 151 rushing attempts have come with all five starters blocking for him.

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“I feel like we reaped the benefit (from that),” Mixon said. “We go to work and practice hard and everybody got on the same page and basically I was in line with the timing and things like that, I felt like everything has worked out well. If we can build on top of that, it will be a great thing. I think it will be great for all of us.”

This game has big implications for the Bengals.

They need it to stay alive in the AFC North and it’s important to their playoff hopes overall with a brutal schedule in the coming weeks. Pittsburgh and Cleveland are the only teams in their last eight games that currently have a losing record.

Mixon understands all that, but he didn’t need any extra motivation to face the Steelers. While his overall individual numbers against Pittsburgh are better than you might expect — he has 729 yards (5.1 yards per carry) with three touchdowns — the only number he cares about is a 2-7 overall record.

He did not get a win in the rivalry until last year, his fifth season in the league.

“I mean, winning against the Steelers is our number one goal,” Mixon said. “That should be the only thing we’re concerned about here.”

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