If it's December and the Browns, and it is Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's-Local 12) at Paycor Stadium, then it must mean running back Joe Mixon is back in The Mix.
And he is after missing the last two games in concussion protocol. Mixon went through his second straight full practice Thursday at the IEL Indoor Facility and looks to pick up where he left off as one of the NFL's hottest players.
After racking up a combined 211 yards and a club -record five touchdowns against Carolina in a Nov. 6 rout, he already had a combined 62 yards in the next game in Pittsburgh Nov. 20 before leaving with the concussion in the second quarter of the 37-30 win.
And, it will be recalled that Mixon set up the Bengals' first touchdown that day for a 10-3 lead with an explosive 24-yard catch over the middle. His last two touches, a seven-yard catch and seven-yard run, set up the touchdown that gave them a 17-10 lead. Both touchdowns came on backup running back Samaje Perine's touchdown catches and he added his third receiving touchdown later in the day as Mixon celebrated Perine's game ball and own team record.
"I'd definitely started getting into a groove," Mixon said before Thursday's practice, "I thought I was getting started. I felt it coming. But it's just a little setback. But I'm going to be there. I know I'm going to be there and I know what I'm capable of doing. Everybody knows that and that's never (going to) change."
One thing that isn't changing is head coach Zac Taylor's starting lineup. Mixon's The One, with Perine, as always, the ultimate situational player and take-a-breather back who can also be the bell-cow as he did as far back as 2015 with Mixon at Oklahoma.
"I don't think that would've changed," Mixon said. : I guess clarification for y'all, but at the same time I truly felt like with Perine being there, he's definitely a great 1-2 back with me. He's definitely been a complementary back with me. He's been that since we've been at OU, it's always been that 1-2 punch. People have seen what he's able to do. We're just going to see. We going to keep going forward and keep putting up numbers and keep doing what we do."
Nose tackle D.J. Reader, prepping for both Cleveland running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, broke it down pretty well this week.
"Joe is a big-play hitter and can run between the tackles. Samaje is more downhill," Reader said. "Samaje's contact balance and experience running that ball, it's big. It's huge. Just like Joe's is. To have a backup running back come in the way Samaje does, a guy that rushes for 400 yards in a (college) game? You really don't have backups that can come in and step in and take that role."
Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan likes the idea of keeping both guys fresh in December and January believes you can wed that to the concept of running backs of wanting enough carries to get into a rhythm.
"I think there's a way for both. I do think there are times when guys get hot and they start to feel it and you just keep giving them the ball," Callahan said this week. "Or if they're having a good day on the ground. You kind of know early on when guys are feeling it. It's not every game, but there is definitely times when you stay with the guy that's really rolling if you if you're rotating guys in and out.
"I think most backs would prefer to take all the carries. That's just usually how they are. But for load management and division of labor and all that, you need guys to take carries off each other if you're trying to make it all the way through the end of the year."
Before the Pittsburgh game, Mixon waxed poetically about how much he likes playing in the cold weather and December is his best month for most yards and best yards per carry at 4.6. Six of his first nine 100-yard games came in December, two of them against the Browns. None since 2019, so he's anxious.
"We got five more opportunities to go out there," Mixon said. "I'm definitely going to stay optimistic, my teammates forever are optimistic in me and what we can do … Each week is going to get bigger and bigger, as much as people thought last week was this one just got bigger. We've just got to come out here and take care of business on Sunday."
Mixon has been watching. He knows how well the offense has played the last two games, keeping it for pretty much 32 minutes in each game while converting almost 50 percent on third down (12 of 25) with not turnovers.
"I truly feel like we've been taking it one play at a time. Taking what the defense gives us," Mixon said. "Everyone has been solid. I feel like everybody has been playing and keying off each other. Just with the execution and things like that as long as we can keep that up, it is going to keep on going and great things to come from that."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: The only player not participating in Thursday's practice was tight end Hayden Hurst (calf) …
Wide receiver Tee Higgins (hamstring) and defensive end Sam Hubbard (calf), surfaced on the injury report and were marked as the only limited players …
Summing up how well they've played is the last snap quarterback Joe Burrow took last Sunday against Kansas City, needing to keep the clock going as it clicked under two minutes. He gunned his third-and-11 special delivery through a mail slot to wide receiver Tee Higgins just as he took a shot. The man has been squeegeeing windows completing 69 percent of his passes.
"Third-and-11, you've got to wait for him a little bit to get down the field when you're running a slant, because if you hit that, the first window was a little muddy," Burrow said this week. "If you throw it in that first window, you might not get the first down. So I felt like I had to hold it for just an extra tick to try to let him get down the field and clear that first window and trust Tee to make the play in a contested situation." …
Speaking of time of possession, only four teams have a better average than the Bengals' 32:00. One of them is Cleveland, third best at 32:6. The Bengals are 13-0 in the last 13 games they've led at the end of the first quarter. The Browns are 4-4, but 4-2 if leading heading into the fourth quarter.
"Against this team, you can't get behind early because they run the ball so well," Burrow said. "They have such good pass-rushers, that's really where they want to be. You have to score points early, you have to move the ball and keep their offense on the sideline early. Because they run the ball so well."