BENGALS RB JOE MIXON VS. STEELERS ILBS DEVIN BUSH AND JOE SCHOBERT
Growing up in the Bay Area, Mixon got the lesson early and often.
"My Dad always taught me since I was little, 'What are the rules of the jungle?'" says Mixon this week, as usual energetically going downhill. "That's the first thing I had to know that the rules of the jungle are kill or be killed."
Now with Mixon no longer little at a formidable 6-1, 220 pounds and Paul Brown Stadium's The Jungle hosting one of those do-or-die AFC North games on Sunday against the always estimable, respected, dangerous and villainous Steelers (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), Mixon is barging through the AFC playoff brush on familiar terrain.
No Bengals running back has had the success against Pittsburgh that Mixon has had in this Steelers Century that stretches back to the great Corey Dillon's 128 yards on this weekend back in 2000, still the Bengals' most yards on the ground against the descendants of the Steel Curtain since James Brooks went for 133 in 1985.
Mixon has one of the three 100-yard games Cincinnati has against Pittsburgh since Dillon's game in 2000. No one is close to his 5.4 yards per carry in his seven games against Pittsburgh (Dillon had four per in 14 games) and Mixon's average of 68.9 per game is just ahead of Dillon's 68.1.
"They play hard. They play physical. Feel me?" says Mixon, who feels so much he wants you to feel it. "But I'm physical, too. At the end of the day they want to dictate the game by being physical and so do I. I want to impose my will on who ever we're playing. They know out of the gate what type of game it's going to be."
And if last week's game in Las Vegas had Mixon written all over it because of the looming pass rush of the Raiders' Maxx Crosby and the enveloping shadow of December football, then Sunday's division summit against the T.J. Watt Steelers (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) may have No. 28 planting a flag in all regions of The Jungle.
"He's a load," says Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. "Those guys do wear down. I thought we wore down Oakland's defense with the run game as the game went on. I think they did get tired of tackling them. I think that's when you saw some of those big runs pop out."
Everybody is talking about how playoff teams have to run the ball and Mixon is coming off a career-high 30 carries in the best season of his career. Despite a bye week and one game he was hampered by an ankle injury, he's the fourth leading rusher in the NFL with 759 yards and on a pace for a career-high 1,290.
And, maybe more importantly, head coach and play-caller Zac Taylor and his staff are getting comfortable with a formula that is more and more patient with the run while building a lead on the arm of quarterback Joe Burrow and then relying on Mixon to swipe the clock in the fourth quarter, which is how they've crafted their last two wins in Baltimore and Vegas.
No doubt the Steelers defense is going to be so much better since the Bengals beat them at Heinz Field, 24-10, two months ago, when it didn't have pass rushers Watt and the other outside linebacker, Alex Highsmith. But they've also uncharacteristically allowed 1,001 yards rushing in the last seven games for an average of 143 yards per, including 144 yards against Seattle, 229 against Detroit and 159 last week in the loss to the Chargers.
Seattle is ranked 23rd in the NFL running the ball and the Chargers 21st (the Lions are 16th) and the Bengals feel like they're on the move at No. 22, up from No. 24 last week.
"A lot of times you can throw to get a lead and then you can run the ball," Callahan says. "I think that's part of where a lot of these numbers for running backs come from, too, is closing games out. So I think there is a patience to the run game … I think there is a discipline and a patience to it sometimes, especially when you know that you have a back like Joe Mixon who does get better over the course of the game and the more times he touches the ball."
Callahan and so many others in the NFL still call the Raiders "Oakland," and that's what November and December are in the league. Every day is Throwback Thursday as the playoffs get close. Every day for the next six weeks could be a big day from an old-school running back who grew up on the outskirts of Oakland playing that '70s style of football.
"I'll jump over you. I'll shake you. I'll bang into you. I'll outrun you, too," Mixon says of his catalogue of moves. "I can cut on a dime. Feel me? Honestly, it's just kind instinct."
Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd is listening and loves it.
"The thing about him," Boyd says, "is they don't know what he's going to come at them with. He probably doesn't even know. He just does it … What's understood doesn't need to be explained."
What does need some explaining is that while Burrow is the heart-and-soul of the Bengals offense, Mixon is its conscience. He's got a deep rolodex of moves that make him a unique runner. But his fiery, passionate personality can be seen in his brutal, head-on runs and the affection and admiration his teammates have for him.
"Genetically, Joe Mixon is a freak, just the way he's built," says free safety Jessie Bates III. "A lot of backs in this league, I feel like, are either a one-cut guy, more of a downhill guy, speed guy. You've got your select backs where you can (go), 'What's his strengths, what his weaknesses?' And I feel like Joe Mixon, you see him catch the ball with one hand out of the backfield and kind of does his little skip, hesi(tation) type of thing, I think that's what makes him a very good back. He should make the Pro Bowl and All-Pro (team) this year."
Mixon doesn't like the word, "hesitation." But Bates has seen that on film and in practice.
"I think Joe knows how people are trying to tackle him. He's a big guy, so no one's really trying to tackle him above," Bates says. "So once he starts to hesitate, you see a lot of safeties try to go for his legs. He does a really good job of turning it on. It's not that he's just doing it on Sundays. If you watch him, he does it every day in practice. He finishes at the touchdown every time."
Mixon seems to prefer the term, "Dead leg."
"No hesitation. It's 'Ahh," says Mixon as he pauses before making a step in a quick clinic. "Just give him something. If they're over pursuing, you want to set them up. Get them over pursuing and that's when you put the foot in the ground and, 'Ahhh. Got 'em, Coach.'"
That's what it looked like he did on last week's clock-killing 20-yard cut-back touchdown run in the final moments in Vegas. Two weeks before, his lethal jump cut that he picked up from fellow Oklahoma great Adrian Peterson helped get him into the end zone untouched on an 11-yard run. He knows his way around in there. He's scored a least one touchdown in seven straight games, the fourth longest streak in team history, and has a rushing touchdown in the last four that is a first for the Bengals since Cedric Benson in 2009.
But it is his bone-jarring runs that make his teammates shake their heads and get out of the way. In true Vegas fashion last week, Mixon hit an ace in a bruising game of 21 and sent rookie wide receiver Jamar Chase's No. 1 sprawling on his old-fashioned yank-and-pull-and-drag 13-yard run.
"It felt like a dump truck hit me honestly. I didn't realize he was that close until I turned around," says Chase, who didn't find any fault with Mixon when he watched the tape. "I was actually saying, 'What the hell am I doing?' I need to get out of the way, that's what I need to be saying, making that block a little easier for him, so I'll put that on me that way I get out of the way …Mixon likes to set up his blocks when he's running, and that just makes the receiver look better. To have a running back, that does that, it just makes my job easy."
Even though the Bengals were taking Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams at No. 11 in 2019 all the way and had no designs on Bush, the Michigan linebacker, Pittsburgh traded up ten spots to jump in front of Cincinnati to grab him. He had a solid rookie season, but missed11 games last year with a torn ACL and is now taking heat from Steelers fans for his play even though he's got other injuries including the ACL rehab. He's tied for 149th in the Pro Football Focus linebacker rankings, where Schobert, working on his third team in three years, is ranked No. 47.
If they wanted to run the ball last week to keep Crosby away from Burrow, you wonder if it might be the same kind of game with the game-wrecker Watt poised to add to his ridiculous career sack-strip total. The Steelers blitz about 22 percent of the time, middle of the pack these days, but far more than the last-place Raiders' 13 percent. Lurking behind it all at safety is a walking turnover named Minkah Fitzpatrick. In 57 career games he's got 11 interceptions (three pick-sixes) to go with four forced fumbles and one of his four fumble recoveries going for a touchdown.
How do the Bengals play it? Mixon has racked up his numbers against the Steelers on an average of 12.7 carries per game. That's less than Dillon's 17, Rudi Johnson's 14.3 and Benson's 13.4. And just ahead of Jeremy Hill's 12.6. The most carries he's had against the Steelers is 18, which he's done in the last two games. Back in September, he had 90 yards, but it doesn't matter to him who wasn't in the lineup.
"A lot of teams try to take away the run first," Mixon says. "But at the end of the day I'm not going to let anybody dictate what type of game it's going to be," Mixon says. "You feel me?"
Mixon catches the eye of offensive line coach Frank Pollack.
"Frank's got the same mentality. Right Frank?" Mixon asks.
Pollack simply points at him.
The one year Pollack was here before he came back this season, Mixon averaged 18 carries per game from Nov. 25 on. For his career from this week on, it's 17.4. No matter how many he gets, just don't get in his way.
Someone asked him this week if he'd run over his mother.
"Hell no, that's my momma," Mixon says. "Everybody else is fair game. Anybody who lines up in front of me."