BENGALS RB JOE MIXON VS. BROWNS RB NICK CHUBB
Chubb is looking to secure the NFL rushing championship Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Fox 19) at Paul Brown Stadium while facing the one AFC North rival that has out-rushed him over the second half of the season in the Bengals' Mixon.
Even after the stomach flu and the Dolphins' queasy eight-man front grounded Mixon on 50 yards last Sunday in Miami, he has the edge on Chubb since the ninth game, 655-650. Only the Titans' Derrick Henry has more yards than Mixon and Chubb during that same stretch.
Chubb, who needs 92 yards for the best season by a Cleveland back since the great Jim Brown more than 50 years ago, tries to get them in the building named after the man that drafted Brown out of Syracuse in 1957 when Paul Brown was the head coach for the team named after him. Chubb said it best the other day in Cleveland, according to profootballtalk.com, when he said he cares about winning the rushing title "because everybody cares."
And no one cares as much as Mixon, the Bengals' unquestioned emotional leader. The Bengals are loaded with stoic lead-by-example leaders, but if there's one thing this roster needs to add over the offseason as much as talent it is more vocal leaders like Mixon. He's 25 yards shy of becoming the Bengals' first back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher since Cedric Benson went for three straight from 2009-2011 and, yes, he cares.
All you had to do was watch him go flying down the sidelines to salute Andy Dalton's tying two-point scramble with no time left in Miami even though he didn't carry the ball in that last eight break-neck minutes of regulation.
"Everybody talks about me, but I think it's more of an accomplishment for the linemen," Mixon says. "I think it's definitely good. For me, I have to be better. But a lot of people don't have those chances and opportunities to even reach it. I'm going to take it for what it is. It's definitely a blessing for me to be doing this at the highest of the high in the NFL. I just have to keep rolling and keep on pushing. It's all I can do.
"I'm always going to cheer on my teammates, for sure. I'm going to be their hype man. Their biggest hype man. They look at me to get certain accolades. At the same time I want to see the same thing from my teammates. I love seeing them ball and put out and being able to reap their rewards."
Mixon is talking about a team that really wants this one for a lot of reasons. Maybe most importantly is that the Bengals have lost 10 straight AFC North games, their longest losing skein in the division since the 1992-94 Bengals lost 12 straight in the old AFC Central. They need this one to avoid going winless in the division for the first time since the first year of the North in 2002.
"I think it's more of an emotional game. That speaks for itself. Cleveland. Battle of Ohio. That brings its own juice as well," Mixon said. "Don't listen to the outside noise. Don't let emotions get the best of us. We've seen what happened in the first game. That's what killed us."
The Bengals felt like the game in Cleveland three weeks ago got away from them because they blew their cool a bit against a Browns team that likes to talk. And there were some bad feelings. The Bengals came into the game with the fewest penalty yards in the league, but took four 15-yarders on the way to 99 that Sunday.
Mixon points at himself for that unnecessary roughness penalty he got when he head-butted Browns cornerback Greedy Williams after an encounter. Williams, apparently miffed Mixon ran over him on his first carry of the game, gave Mixon the business on the ground after a carry and on the snap after the penalty, the Browns got on the board on cornerback Denzel Ward's pick-six off a third-and forever throw.
Mixon got sat down for a few snaps after it all and understood.
"I'm sure that's probably what they're going to be doing this week again," Mixon said. "I just have to have a better, clearer view of what's going on. And even if they do try to get into it, just go back to the huddle, go to the next play."
Mixon has been reaping the rewards of offensive line coach Jim Turner's mid-season autopsy of the run game that has translated into a full recovery. It makes you wonder. In the last seven games, he's averaged 94 yards per. Over 16 games that translates to 1,504 yards, a number that Chubb needs to match with 51 yards on Sunday. It also would have broken Rudi Johnson's single-season Bengals rushing record of 1,458.
(With Chubb 92 yards ahead of Christian McCaffrey and 124 ahead of Henry, it looks like he becomes Cleveland's first rushing champion since Leroy Kelly in the first year of the Bengals in 1968.)
Mixon's effectiveness has had a big impact on head coach Zac Taylor's play-calling. Down 23 in Miami, the Bengals had to chuck it to tie it and threw 18 straight times, 17 if you count the spike. Mixon's last carry in regulation went for five yards with eight minutes left.
But Taylor called Mixon's number on the first two snaps of overtime and even on second-and-nine on the next and last series. Gone, apparently, is the mindset of the opener in Seattle, when the Seahawks jammed the box like the Dolphins did and the Bengals threw it 16 of the first 19 snaps. Mixon carried it 21 times in Miami as opposed to six in Seattle.
"We've learned our lessons. You can't just abandon it," Taylor says of the run game. "It's happened early in the year. Those are things we learned from."
Suddenly, Mixon is just 27 carries away from 279, which would be the highest for a Bengals back since the 278 of BenJarvus Green-Ellis in 2012. After battering the Dolphins front (which mirrored how former Pats defensive signal caller and current Dolphins head coach Brian Flores held Taylor's Rams to a field goal in the last Super Bowl), Mixon knows what Taylor is saying.
He also saw the same pictures Taylor did during the game and knows why he kept feeding him.
"We can't let them dictate how the game is going to go," Mixon says. "Whatever they line up in, we have to execute. Go back to the Dolphins game. Even though I wasn't feeling good, honestly, we had some runs in there … At the end of the day in a jam front, if you break through the (middle), then you're on the safety one-on-one. You see some people bet their all on it. They're going to stop the run, eight in the box. But if we were making that front side big block or a back side cut-off block, then we would have had a lot of action. I'm never going to make an excuse. I always expect to perform at the highest level. We left some yards out there, but we've got to go get it and make it up this week."
Even though Mixon outrushed Chubb by 40 yards (146-106) in the 27-19 loss on Dec. 8, he watched Chubb take advantage of beating the safety on the longest play of the day during a 57-yard run he bounced off Bengals safety Jessie Bates in the backfield.
"I don't know how they'll line up this week. We'll definitely have something for that jam," Mixon says. "If that's what they want to do, that's good for us."
With Mixon 25 yards from 1,000 again, wide receiver Tyler Boyd is 13 yards from becoming the first Bengal receiver to go back-to-back for 1,000 in four years when A.J. Green got 1,000 in each of his first five seasons. Mixon offered a friendly bet ("No funny business") on who gets it first but was surprised Boyd didn't take it.
"He's one catch away from it," said Mixon, who'll need seven carries if his 3.9-yard average holds up. "I just told him I'll probably get a big one for him and I'll get 1,000 first … It's just the competitive side of us."
Like Chubb says. People may be looking at the Bengals' one win and how the Browns were the NFL's biggest flameout by missing the postseason for the 18th straight year.
But everybody cares.
"It would be great, especially if it's against Cleveland," Mixon says. "I'm sure they probably feel the same way. Their season didn't go as planned. Stuff happens, but under adversity. That's what really tells you what a man is made of. When they go against adversity. That's what I feel about our team. Nobody broke. We're here and we're still fighting through."