When the Bengals and Vikings open the season Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19), it is rightfully billed as the return of Joe Burrow. But the return of the other Joe isn't exactly an ordinary event, either, because Joe Mixon is carrying more than the ball as he expands roles on and off the field in his fifth season.
Culture. It starts with the letter on his jersey.
If the gifted Burrow is the face of the franchise, the kinetic Mixon is the Bengals' nuclear reactor as he prepares for Sunday's showdown of the NFL's two best running backs.
If Burrow is the soul, Mixon is the heart. A two-time 1,000-yard rusher who missed the final 10 games of last year in a season played in barren stadiums, Mixon leaped into Sunday declaring before Thursday's practice, "I want to put this city on my back."
"I mean to me, the opener felt like a scrimmage," Mixon said of last year's game against the Chargers played in front of empty seats. "It was like I was out there at practice or something. Other than that, for me, it was just very abnormal. It wasn't normal to me. For Sunday to come out here and see all the fans, that's a major plus.
"Everybody's excited for football. But at the same time, when the fans come, we're here to give them a show. And that's what we get paid to do. And I'm always looking to give them what they come to see. So I can't wait for Sunday. It's going to be a great one."
With Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer also making a return to PBS, now's a good time to talk culture. During his six-year run as the Bengals defensive coordinator, Zimmer finished off what head coach Marvin Lewis started and a dozen years ago they cemented a hard-nosed style that contended in the AFC North for years.
Current Bengals head coach Zac Taylor has also conducted a massive culture shift in his three seasons that his roster has embraced and it looks like he's also getting an assist from a well-respected assistant like Lewis did with Zimmer. (In fact, Lewis visited Vikings training camp this year for a few days.)
Mixon lobbied hard for the return of offensive line coach Frank Pollack during the offseason and the results haven't surprised him.
"I think Frank came and has done a great job of adjusting to how we're going to run the football and just the mindset and approach of how we're going to take the field." Mixon said. "How we look at is we don't care who's on the other side of the ball. We're going to run at you, you're going to have stop it. That's always been my mindset. The fact we have a line coach that's preaching that and he doesn't care who on the others side of the feel, that's when it gets me to a 'Hell yeah standpoint, let's do this,' I feel like he's done a great job preaching that."
Mixon, who signed a $50 million extension last season, has literally bought into Taylor's regime. He's been one of Taylor's key foot soldiers in the locker room, a move validated by Mixon's election as a captain.
"Everybody has their different characteristics in them, but they all bring something positive to the table. I don't feel like we have anybody that's here to hurt the team," Mixon said. "We're doing everything that we can to just be one. To be honest, I feel like Zac's done a great job with trying to change that. I feel like everybody's that been here and that's here now, everybody's buying into what he's preaching. We know Zac wants to win and we want to win for Zac, you know what I'm saying? Everything's playing a part and it's coming around. I feel like now is the time."
Mixon says it always hasn't been the time.
"I feel like this is probably one of the closest teams that I've ever been around in general, just in my lifespan of playing football," Mixon said. The teams that win, they have that type of camaraderie. We haven't had that in the past. But like I said, now that we have that now, I mean, it's definitely very exciting. I think it's going to be a great thing for us. With the culture standpoint, everybody bought into what Zac's been preaching."
What Taylor has also been preaching since he arrived is the hope that Mixon can develop his game enough to be on the field for all three downs. His running ability has never been questioned. In Pollack's wide zone scheme three years ago, he became the first Bengal to win an AFC rushing title on 4.9 yards per carry.
No less of a passing game expert than Burrow has seen enough growth to take over Giovani Bernard's role on third down.
"Joe's going to have a big year. Everyone knows what he can do in the run game, but he's really put in the work in the pass game," Burrow said this week. "To understand his routes, where we want him to be and the timing. When you're a running back in the pass game you really have to understand the protections and the timing of the defensive line and they have to have a clock in your head like a quarterback. Joe's getting better and better at that every single day and he's going to have a big year."
The big year starts with a huge matchup against Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, the man selected seven spots before Mixon in the 2017 second round. But the Bengals had their eyes only on Mixon and could have made him the 41st pick.
They traded down those seven spots with the Vikings, sensing Zimmer was going to take Cook and that Mixon would still be available at 48 while also picking up an extra fourth-rounder.
Tennessee wide receiver Josh Malone didn't pan out, but Mixon sure has.
"I think they've got a great mix with Mixon," Zimmer told the Cincinnati media Thursday. "The offensive line has got some physicality to them with the running game and the screens, they do a great job with screens.
There were some in the Bengals draft room that weren't pleased they didn't grab Mixon right away at No. 41, believing he was clearly the best player on the board. While the 5-10, 210-pound Cook has proven to be a wondrous player (he's coming off a 1,500-yard season and has more yards than Mixon in seven fewer games), the 6-1, 225-pound Mixon fits the big-back mold the Bengals have coveted since Paul Brown and his experiences of watching championships decided on frozen fields.
Mixon is just as valuable as Cook is to the Vikings. In the 19 games they've won since he's been drafted, he's carried at least 20 times in eight of them.
"Dalvin is Dalvin and I'm me," said Mixon, who has known Cook since high school. "I don't really feel like it's a competition. I guess from a running back standpoint I get what you saying, but he doesn't feel like that, I don't feel like that so it's no pressure here. For everybody else they might feel like that, but I don't think we feel like that.
"I think Dalvin is a great running back. He's one of the best running backs in the league. And it's definitely going to be fun to come out here, and it'd be me versus him and then they have their receiver versus ours. There are a lot of narratives going on. But at the same time, I'm just trying to come out here, be the best running back that day, best player that day, and most ultimate, we want to come out with the dub."
Two of Mixon's big games came against Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther's outfit (129 yards on 27 carries in 2018 behind Pollack's line and 86 yards on 15 carries in 2019) and with Guenther now Zimmer's senior defensive assistant , he sees the scheme he saw in practice as a rookie when Guenther was the Bengals defensive coordinator.
"They're stout, very stout upfront. They like to blitz the edges and I kind of remember when I was a rookie … when (the Bengals) had Paulie G," Mixon said. "It looks pretty much similar to that defense. I haven't faced it in a while, but at the same time I'm familiar with it. They look good. They have a lot of good defenders in what they do."
But it's not 2017 or 2018 or 2019. And since he's healthy, it's not 2020, either.
It's 2021 and it's a very big year for a lot of reasons for Mixon.
"Everybody has their individual goals and team goals," Mixon said. "But my ultimate goal was to win. So I'm just going to come out here, do whatever I have to do and put us in the best situation to be able to win."