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Mixon Widens His Zone As Bengals Leader

Joe Mixon leading.
Joe Mixon leading.

Two years ago Bengals running back Joe Mixon famously walked across the Paul Brown Stadium turf to give his touchdown ball to opposing offensive line coach Frank Pollack when he was coaching the Jets.

Now not quite so famously, Pollack brought back something for Mixon from New York as the Bengals new offensive line coach. It's the tape of the wide zone run game Pollack used with future Hall-of-Fame running back Frank Gore last season when Gore became the third back in NFL history to hit 16,000 yards.

"I learned a ton from him and what he sees. How he sees it as a back," says Pollack, who has schemed plays for such cream-of-the-crop runners as DeMarco Murray and Zeke Elliott, as well as Mixon and an undrafted four-time 1,000-yard back in Arian Foster.

"He's by far the smartest back as far as understanding blocking schemes and how to take advantage of that as far as making his reads quicker anticipating, not waiting to react. He was unbelievable."

Can we be Frank here?

The one season Pollack coached the Bengals, Jolting Joe won the Bengals' only AFC rushing title in 2018 on 4.9 yards per carry in a scheme Mixon fit so well that he lobbied every floor of PBS to bring Pollack back this offseason.

Pollack ponders the question about Mixon being a classic zone runner.

"If you're a back disciplined with your course and you're a one-cut runner and stick it up in there even when it looks ugly, I guess you could say you're a classic zone runner," Pollack says. "I think he's got a lot of talent to do a lot of different running schemes. He's that kind of back."

What matters is that Mixon is the kind of $50 million big, fast back that can take over games, protect your quarterback and is committed to the courses Pollack maps out for him.

"The wide zone for me is typically pretty good," Mixon said before Friday's practice. "The reason why is because one thing you can do, you can always penetrate the defense. Pretty much, the defense is trying to do the same. But there's always lanes in outside zone. It'll always be lanes. With Frank and the linemen that we have, I know for a fact they'll be displacing people. Definitely very excited about that.

"You always read the outside in. For me, that's pretty much been my strong suit — reading the outside in, especially on the wide zone play. For me, I'm excited for it."

Can we be Frank here?

If Joe Burrow is the face of the franchise, then Joe Mixon is the spiritual magnet with a charismatic energy that pulls his teammates and fans along. Flat out, he says when he went for over 1,100 yards in '18, the Bengals didn't have half the offensive linemen they have now.

"That's who Joe Mix is," says free safety Jessie Bates III. "He brings that electric personality to the team. That's how he practices … He's always talking, even when he's not practicing. Sometimes we don't like that as a defense, but it's something you need as a team … You look how he is with the fans when he scores and gets (in) the stands ... Every team needs a guy like that."

Ever since Mixon inked his $50 million extension last year, he's assumed the role he already had as a second-rounder with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.

"I always make sure the defense is playing me honest because if I've got them on their toes then I know I'm winning," Mixon said. "I can pretty much run around you, I can run though you, I can go over you. Stiff arm you. It's the total package.

"When they make plays (I'm) hyping them up, I feel like that's the extra that comes with it and being that type of infectious leader, I feel like they rally around me. They make plays. It has to start with me. I remember when I start fast and going hard and playing the game how it should be played, them boys follow."

Mixon says, "I set the tone." And he does. Earlier this week when rookie running back Chris Evans caught a ball for a touchdown in the red zone as the backups went through a 7-on-7 period, Mixon rushed about 50 yards down field to greet him as if the Bengals had just gone ahead of the Steelers.

And in his first media appearance since he suffered a season-ending foot injury in Indianapolis with 10 games to go, Mixon had the juice flowing Friday as he christened his offense "The Fab Five." But he kept going back to his responsibility.

"That's five people that's real-life, big-play guys, home run guys," Mixon said of him, Burrow and the three receivers. "Everybody's got to touch the ball, but at the same time, I know for me I'm going to put the load on my back and take the initiative of carrying the team and doing what I've got to do to put us in a great position to win.

"For me, it's always going to start up front and with me and how physical that I'm coming and playing the game honestly. I'm going to set the tone. I always set the tone every time for the team, and they feed off of me."

He knows in order for them eat, he has to be devouring chunks of yardage. He got them nearly at five per pop with Pollack coaching the line and now Pollack has brought him the gift of Gore. Pollack, by the way, is clearly touched by Mixon's gesture and has the ball packed away with the rest of his memorabilia that is stowed in the bins of an NFL assistant's travels.

"My memorabilia nowadays," Pollack says, nodding to his linemen, "is making sure these guys get better."

He says coaching Gore made him better, even though he carried just 187 times and that 3.5 yards per was well below his career of 4.3.

"On certain type zone runs versus fronts, he's already seeing what he needs to do on the second level," Pollack says. "And where he's reading cuts getting to that second level, not the first level."

Mixon was on that first level growing up on the other side of the Bay when San Francisco drafted Gore. Mixon was eight on the outskirts of Oakland watching him rip off eight 1,000-yard seasons for the 49ers in the next decade.

Mixon loves Gore and enjoys talking the game with him. But he says he no longer has favorite NFL backs. The last one was Oklahoma descendant Adrian Peterson. "They're not your idols, they're your rivals," Mixon says.

When you miss 10 games in the hot take world of the NFL, you can start disappearing. But he says he's not thinking about the billboards that are now reserved for guys like Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook and Josh Jacobs. He couldn't help smile when Paul Dehner, Jr., of The Athletic asked him about falling off the fantasy lists after his six-game season.

"I've always been one of the slept on guys. That's just what it is. That's just the nature of playing the game," Mixon said. "But at the same time, this year I'm very excited for what's going on and if it's somebody ready to roll and take on responsibilities and make a lot of plays, I know for a fact one of those guys is me.

"I'm not really worried about what anybody is talking about. Fantasies. Or what this person has going. That person. I just have to focus on me and what I have to do for the team to win. That's how I look at that."

That's another level where Mixon and Pollack are on the same plane.

"He's enthusiastic. He's a violent runner. He can make the line look better if you mess up," Pollack says. "He can make a guy miss, run through arm tackles, he's always falling forward. So, yeah. There's a lot to like about Joe Mixon."

That's pretty Frank.