The Cincinnati Bengals currently sit at 7-4 and control their own destiny within the AFC South with a big matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers this Sunday. Over the last two weeks, the Bengals have recorded impressive wins against the Las Vegas Raiders and the Pittsburgh Steelers. An offense that began the year spearheaded by a Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase aerial attack owes their latest success to the impressive play of running back Joe Mixon. I’m taking a look at the Bengals run game and Mixon on my NFL Matchup Show, airing this Sunday at 8:30 am EST on ESPN2.
NFL teams have embraced running the ball to a greater extent this season with running backs like Derrick Henry (pre-injury) and Jonathan Taylor bringing renewed attention to the position. The foundation of the Bengals running game is outside zone, and over the last number of weeks, it has become much more of an identity of their overall offense.
Mixon’s health has played a key role in that; he has played in every game this season after missing the last 10 games of 2020. Meanwhile, other top running backs including Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, Nick Chubb, Aaron Jones, and the aforementioned Henry have all missed varying amounts of time this year.
Mixon is a very good running back, and his size at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds is a significant part of his traits package. I remember listening to a Bill Belichick mid-week press conference the last week the Patriots played the Bengals, and Belichick unequivocally stated that Mixon was a top 3 running back in the NFL. I’ll take Coach Belichick’s word for it; he knows a little more than I do. But I happen to agree with him.
Mixon is currently third in the league in rush attempts, rushing touchdowns, total rushing yards, and runs of 20+ yards, all without a single fumble on the season. Over the past two weeks against the Raiders and the Steelers, Mixon has 58 carries for 288 yards (5.0 yards per carry) and four touchdowns. During these two games, the Bengals have scored 73 points as they’ve run the ball on 56% of their offensive snaps including a 78% rushing rate in the red zone.
Burrow has had to throw just 53 passes over this span, completing an efficient 75% of them for 338 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for another. This past week against Pittsburgh featured the fewest passing attempts Burrow has had in a game since Week 3 earlier this season, the first matchup against the Steelers and a game Cincinnati dominated from the start.
Cincinnati’s zone-run game thrived in their 41-10 Week 12 victory against Pittsburgh thanks to the play of both Mixon and the offensive line. Cincinnati’s line consistently controlled the point of attack against the Steelers defensive front and the Bengals didn’t have to rely on Burrow and the passing game to be a big factor. The left side of the offensive line – left guard Quinton Spain (who signed a one year deal in free agency) and left tackle Jonah Williams – did an excellent job run blocking. Center Trey Hopkins also played well and had some outstanding reach blocks as the majority of Mixon’s outside zone runs went to the left side of the offense. One other point worth making about the Bengals run game – they have featured, as they did against the Steelers, six offensive linemen. Cincinnati has played with six offensive line personnel on more than 7% of their offensive snaps. That is a high percentage relative to other NFL teams.
Though the Bengals run game is predominantly zone based, they do mix in some gap schemes, and some perimeter runs like pin-pull, even using delay draw runs against the Steelers. As a methodical downhill runner with vision, short area burst, velocity, natural power, and the stop-and-start ability to re-accelerate in confined space, Mixon can be effective with multiple run game concepts. Though his game isn’t built on explosiveness, he has consistently shown the patience and vision needed to read gap fluidity and defensive flow. He has been one of the best I-backs in the NFL this season, lining up 7-8 yards behind Burrow. Almost 80% of his carries have come as an I-back, and on those 163 attempts, he has rushed for 756 yards (4.6 yards per carry).
On the second play of their Week 12 matchup against Pittsburgh, Mixon ran for 25 yards to begin Cincinnati’s first scoring drive of the day. The Bengals were in 12 personnel (1 back, 2 tight ends) with Mixon aligned as the I-back; the play call was outside zone to the boundary, which happened to be to the left side of the offensive formation. Mixon’s aiming point on the run was the outside hip of tight end C.J. Uzomah, and the way outside zone is taught Mixon would stay on that path unless it was taken away by the defensive front.
Outside linebacker Alex Highsmith set the edge and forced Mixon to work back to the next gap inside, which was again taken away, this time by scraping linebacker Joe Schobert. Mixon looked inside for the next open gap where the center, Hopkins, was able to create a running lane as he got just enough of the backside linebacker Devin Bush Jr. By quickly processing the play and reading the gaps, Mixon was able to break free for a big run down the left sideline. This run was a great example of outside zone is taught. You start to the edge (your aiming point) and then work back inside one gap at a time until the running lane shows.
Mixon’s downhill running ability was on full display the week prior to the Steelers game when the Bengals produced a dominant 32-13 victory against the Las Vegas Raiders. This Week 11 win was driven by Mixon’s second half performance of 97 rushing yards and a touchdown as the Bengals scored 19 points in the fourth quarter.
We saw another strong example of Mixon’s running traits on his 20-yard TD run. It was also outside zone, this time to the right side of the offense. The Bengals were aligned in 12 personnel, but this with six offensive linemen. Mixon’s aiming point on this outside zone run would be the outside hip of the extra offensive tackle Isaiah Prince. This run played out differently due to the Raiders defensive line. Remember, Mixon would stay on his path unless it was taken away by the defense.
On this run, quick penetration by Carl Nassib (who was lined up at defensive tackle) compromised Mixon’s designed path and that forced him to cut back. Left guard Spain and left tackle Williams were the backside blockers, and their responsibility was to cut off defensive tackle Damion Square and the cut back defender Jonathan Abram. Spain did a great job coming off his combo block to block Abram. With defensive end Clelin Ferrell responsible for quarterback Burrow on boot, Mixon used his patience and vision to find and hit the open running lane on the backside. That was an outstanding run, and a great example of Mixon and the offensive line working together to produce a big play.
I have always been a quarterback guy, being extremely fortunate in my 42-year career at NFL Films to spend time with some of the great quarterback teachers in the history of the game. But I must say, this season I have become more and more intrigued with the running game, and all the details and nuances involved for it to work effectively and consistently. It may not be as sexy as the passing game, but it matters in the NFL. And I have enjoyed watching the Bengals these last couple of weeks embrace it with one of the best backs in the league in Joe Mixon. And I would certainly expect the Bengals to feature it as the starting point of their offense against a Los Angeles Chargers defense that ranks at the very bottom of the NFL in run defense.
Aadit Mehta Contributed to this story