Joe Mixon is on the cusp of becoming an elite running back.
He has had to run behind some pretty putrid offensive lines since the Bengals selected him in the second-round (48th overall) of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Despite this, Mixon topped the 1,000-yard rushing mark in 2018 and 2019. Unfortunately, regression is a part of the game, and he saw his 2020 season include a career worst 3.6 yards-per-carry. He also fumbled for the first time since his rookie season.
Even though last year didn't go well, Mixon is still one of the core pieces of this Bengals roster. He may be fairly divisive with fans, due to the national narrative that running backs don't matter in the NFL, but he's a fantastic player that possesses an elite skill set. Whether or not paying him was a perfect allocation of resources, Mixon is one of the most talented players on the Bengals roster.
So what makes him special? How could he be more effectively utilized? Can he get back to his 2018 level of play?
Let's take a look at the film.
Mixon is particularly elite considering everything he does before bursting through the hole. This includes his vision, jump cut, patience, and burst.
The above play is a great example of everything that I have described. It’s an inside zone run against Cleveland’s over front. Mixon, on the snap, begins his read with the 1-tech to the playside of the center. Within milliseconds, he is able to determine the leverage and assess that the play has to cut back to the backside.
His next read comes from the right guard and right tackle combo, and while they give him the same leverage as the center, there is a defender waiting in that hole. Rather than trying to force the issue and plow through the hole, Mixon showcases his elite abilities. He makes a slight hesitation move to the right that forces the right tackles defender to commit to that gap. Once he gets the defender to commit, he bursts back to the left of him, forces a missed tackle, and finishes by decapitating the safety.
This is a great look at the way a running back can set up his offensive line for success. Without his slight move to the right, this run would not work. Mixon's movement and ability to stall is much like a hesitation move in basketball. It gets the defender onto their heels, forces them to commit, and opens up a lane to where Mixon wants to go. The burst to the left of the block is similar to a basketball player’s crossover.
Let’s view some more great examples of Mixon’s vision, jump cut, and burst.
Here we see another inside zone play that showcases Mixon’s vision. He reads the leverage of the defense, makes an amazing jump cut, and then shows off his fantastic burst to get around the last defender.
This play is also inside zone, but instead of getting the cut back, the defense gives Mixon a bounce read to the outside. It almost perfectly mirrors the last play, because Mixon once again reads the leverage and makes a very nice jump cut, but instead of accelerating to evade the defender, he plows right through him.
One more inside zone play, but this one highlights Mixon's shiftiness. We see the same start as the last play with reading the defense and jump cutting, but now when he lands off the cut, he changes direction and bursts through the hole for a touchdown.
Finally, we have the peak play of Mixon’s vision, where he cuts a toss play all the way back to outside of the backside tackle. With that being said, this play does break some of the rules when it comes to running the ball. On toss plays and plays where offensive linemen pull, the running back should never cut to the backside, and while it worked out here, there are instances where Mixon’s vision is actually a hindrance.
This is a trap play with Mike Jordan absolutely demolishing the 3-tech. As I already stated, on plays where the offensive line pulls, the running back should not look backside, but here Mixon doesn’t fully trust his blocking and takes a quick peek to the backside, which slows him up. He is doing too much here and it stops him from hitting a huge gain, which would've been the case if he followed Jordan.
While this is a problem, these plays were few and far between. Mixon’s elite vision is what makes him one of the best running backs in the NFL and the occasional hiccup is worth the reward.
To truly ascend to elite running back status, Mixon needs to be on the field for most third down plays. This has not been the case for his career, but with the departure of Giovani Bernard, a new opportunity has presented itself.
There are two parts to being on the field for third downs as a running back: receiving and pass protection. Let’s take a deep dive into how well Mixon does these two things, starting with his receiving ability.
Mixon is running a halfback choice route on this particular play. The graphic below is a diagram of the play.
In this situation, the halfback releases outside of the tackle, and then has the option to sit or play off the leverage the defender is giving him. This particular play is a nice display of Mixon's ability as a route runner out of the backfield. The defender doesn’t play his hand too much, so he chops his feet, gains ground, and then quickly bursts inside to give the Joe Burrow an easy throw.
Here are two more examples of Mixon running choice routes out of the backfield:
This is a concept that would be smart for the Bengals to use with him this year.
Now we have Mixon running a corner route out of the backfield, and looking at more than just his route running, I think this displays how well he tracks and adjusts to the ball. This is a poorly thrown ball from Andy Dalton, but Mixon is able to track the football and adjust to it like a wide receiver.
Another deep catch here on the pick and rail concept. Mixon is on a rail route from the slot (essentially a wheel route) and Alex Erickson is giving him a pick.
Burrow’s job on this play is to read how Mixon’s defender plays the pick and throw opposite of it. If his defender goes under, Burrow throws it long. If the defender goes over like on this play, Burrow throws it to Mixon’s back shoulder.
This is a very tough play for a running back to make as a receiver, but Mixon is able to catch the pass. This is another example of his downfield ability as a receiver and why he should be utilized more creatively.
We hardly ever see him drop passes. On 126 targets over the past three years, Mixon has only dropped four passes. That is about a 3% drop rate, which is better than most wide receivers.
The reason Mixon has not been fully unleashed on third downs is his pass blocking. While he has never had problems when it comes to being physical in pass protection, he has had issues on the mental side of things. Mental blocks with blitz pickups make sense for running backs early in their career because, typically, they are not asked to do intense work picking up blitzes in college.
This sack is a result of Mixon’s inexperience in pass protection. Baltimore gives a front with seven players at the line of scrimmage against the six players able to block for Cincinnati. There are five defenders to the right of the center, so Mixon’s blitz pickup is most likely going to come from that side. It looks as if he scans the area, sees No. 36 drop into coverage, and then uses that information to release into his route. The problem is that 32 is blitzing.
Bernard was always able to make heads up plays on blitzes like this to pick up the blitzing defensive back, but Mixon misses this one and it ends with Burrow taking a sack. If Mixon can shore up the mental side of blitz pickups, he will only come off of the field when he is tired, rather then missing most key third down plays.
In 2018, Mixon led the AFC in rushing on a very efficient 4.9 yards per carry. Frank Pollack was the offensive line coach at the time and had his hands all over the run game. After that season, Marvin Lewis was fired, Zac Taylor was hired and Jim Turner was brought in to coach the offensive line.
Turner’s arrival negated all of the positive work that Pollack did and Mixon regressed all the way to 3.6 yards per carry in his final year. The good news for Bengals fans is that Pollack has come back to the team this season. He is projected to bring along the wide zone system that Mixon used to achieve success in 2018.
For my final deep dive, we can look at Mixon running Pollack’s wide zone system.
One of the first things that sticks out to me about Pollack’s wide zone is that the offensive line defines the read for the running back. The right tackle, right guard, and center clearly define the read as the front side A gap. Mixon helps out the left by setting up the linebacker by working outside before cutting back inside. The play ends with Mixon dancing into the end zone and Clint Boling giving the best finish I’ve seen from any Bengals offensive lineman in years.
The Browns come up with the perfect call to stop this wide zone, but Mixon makes a little juke move in the hole and is then able to easily read the play for a huge gain. These examples are how the Pollack system is mutually beneficial for both Frank and Joe.
Pollack makes the reads easier on Mixon, which allows the Bengals' star to use his elite set up ability.
Mixon is able to help Pollack and the offensive line by setting things up more and making the blocks easier. Mixon could reach his peak performance from 2018 in the Bengals' new system.
Mixon is the most talented player on the Bengals offense. This has not shown up much over the past couple of years, but I think that we will see a resurgence this year. Mixon combines an elite ground game with an excellent receiving skill-set.
With a projected increase in third down responsibility, improved offensive line play, and a return to a wide zone system that allows Mixon to work without guessing, 2021 looks to be a very successful year for the fifth-year back. I fully expect him to show that he is worthy of the four-year, $48 million contract the Bengals gave him last August.
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