Joe Mixon hails from the Bay Area, but the Bengals running back isn’t exactly California Cool. He’s more of a smoldering cauldron simmering with competitive intensity and could care less he’s returning to his native land for Sunday’s game (4:05 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Channel 12) in Los Angeles against the Chargers.
“It’s straight, but I’m not from there,” Mixon shrugged and the Bay Area Raiders coming in here next week doesn’t do it, either. “If it was back home in the Bay that’s different.”
Mixon is one of these heart-on-the-sleeve-guys who tells you exactly what’s on his mind, which he did before Wednesday’s practice when he said the Bengals have to play harder. There’s a long tradition of that in the get-it-off-the-chest Bengals backfield that stretches all the way back to Pete Johnson. James Brooks always gave it to you straight, Corey Dillon was always fourth-and-one with the media and Rudi Johnson and Cedric Benson never shied away from a safety or a question. Same with Mixon back-field mate Giovani Bernard.
In his second season, the straight-shooting Mixon is on that same here’s-how-I-feel 1,000-yard track and is coming off one of the strangest months for a Bengals back. He’s averaging five yards per carry on slightly more than a mere 12 carries per game in the last four games where his availability in three Paul Brown Stadium games has been curtailed by a pair of 28-0 second-quarter deficits against New Orleans and Cleveland and last Sunday’s six penalties on the offensive line.
“The play calling is going to be the play calling. I don't control that. I know one thing, we've got to stop playing behind the sticks,” Mixon said. “I just know we can't play behind the chains because we play behind the chains, of course it's going to be a pass every play. I know people want to see runs, but you've got to understand the game. If it's second-and-9, it makes it harder when it's third-and-9 if you get incompletions on second-and-9 or something like that. We've just got to stop playing behind the chains. I feel like that's been our focus. I feel like that's going to be a focus going in the week, that we have to improve in penalties pre-snap and stuff like that, but that's mostly everything.”
Even offensive coordinator Bill Lazor expects to hear the criticism about the lack of Mixon’s carries, but it shows how far Lazor has brought the running game. Last year they had the fewest rushing yards in team history on 3.6 yards per carry. Now, after spending an offseason blowing up the running scheme with new offensive line coach Frank Pollack the Bengals are at 4.7 yards per rush. The problem is they average just 95 yards per game on pace for 1,520 yards, still the fifth fewest for the franchise all-time and tying it for the second fewest in the Marvin Lewis Era with that ’08 season of the 0-8 start.
But Mixon is simmering and not blowing. He understands situations and he likes the new style of approach to the run. The Bengals are dictating and not the opponent.
“I've been paying attention more to details, rather than just trying to make something happen out of nothing. I feel like last year I was doing that all last year instead of just trusting and hoping something was going to work,” Mixon said. “But this year, we call it mastering the mundane so you do that with your eyes on tracks, being patient in your reads and then exploding through the holes when you have to, that's when everything else takes care of itself. My getting to the second level, that's on me.
“Honestly, we don't care who's on defense. We're not scared to run the football. We are going to dial it up, and we're going to run at you, but I feel like we've just got to keep staying consistent and playing in front of the chains and not behind. These past couple weeks, there's other factors that come with the game, When you go down, you can't expect from the run you can just come back so quick. But, at the same time, we can't go down, we can't play behind the chains, and I feel like over these past couple weeks, that's really been killing us.”
But, the man is a competitor. Just look at the numbers, keeping in mind he’s missed two games with a knee scope. Mixon is 12th in NFL rushing with 755 yards on 154 carries. Only the Chargers’ Melvin Gordon has fewer carries in front of him at 153. At 6.1 yards per carry, Denver’s Phillip Lindsay has the same 154, but the Bengals defense helped him along allowing that 65-yard no-touch TD run last week, a bit symbolic of Mixon’s struggles to get carries.
Just take a look at the Steelers’ James Conner with 201 carries and a fifth-best 909 yards rushing behind the Steelers’ vaunted offensive line. Give Mixon and his 4.9 yards per carry those 201 lugs and he’s at 985, third best behind Todd Gurley of the Rams (who really should be MVP) and Zeke Elliott.
Give Lazor a break, too. If Mixon hit his average of 15.4 carries in the two games he missed, he’d be at 184, sixth most in the league with 902 yards, just seven behind Conner.
“I think about it sometimes after the game. You look at the stat, what you had, your average, yards, sometimes us as competitive players we do that,” Mixon admitted. “At the same time I can’t let that focus wander off. At the end of the day, I won’t be as hungry. Even though I am getting 12 carries a game or whatever it is look at the average, look what I’m doing with it. You can only imagine what I can do with that amount of carries at the same time I got to be ready for it. I’m sure there is going to be a game they will put it in my hands that many times. At the same time I just got to be ready. I can’t be not ready and all of a sudden something happens. You just never know. I’m definitely more than ready when the time comes. Just have to stay patient, my time will be coming.”
As it is, his 1,057-yard pace is on track for the most Bengals’ rushing yards since 2012 and BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ 1,094. But Mixon is looking for another stat this month.
“I set a goal before the seasons. I just hope to finish one in December. Other than that, the wins are more important to me,” Mixon said. “If I’m doing my job and they doing the job, I have no doubt in my mind we can’t finish No. 1 in December. I just have to go out there and be the best player. Nothing else I can do.
“I don't really care for the individual stuff. I just want to win. If my rushing average was at 2.0, I wouldn't give a damn, honestly. I just want to win.”
RE-WIND: Two guys in the middle of some big plays last Sunday went back to the film room to get better. Rookie center Billy Price and third-year SAM linebacker Nick Vigil are here for the long haul and are going to be in the middle of any revamping plans for the future.
It was only Price’s sixth NFL start and he keeps learning. Take the sack he gave up to Denver’s Shelby Harris, the first for Harris this season.
“I overset a guy and gave up a sack and everybody wants my head,” Price said. “So I change my technique and we get back with Coach Pollack and make sure hey, let's focus on this this week and assess the type of rushers those guys are. Those are the things I can control. I don't control the play calling, I don't control who's the coach, I don't control where the ball goes, I just control what I can do and that's it.”
He also doesn’t control the officiating. His holding call wiped out running back Giovani Bernard’s 17-yard run, a penalty that Lewis said he’s still trying to find out the video. Huge play in a 0-0 game.
“I never question a ref,” Price said. “It’s still a 10-yard penalty whether I agree or disagree. We had our discussion in the film room on how I can improve here, here, here. They made a call and I have to live with it.”
Price says there is a difference between officiating in college and the NFL, just like everything else.
“The list goes on,” Price said of changes in defenses, calls, techniques. “(The officiating is) hit and miss. Some crews are quick trigger, other crews are not.”
College? Ohio State’s Price had to laugh.
“Depends if you’re home or away,” he said. “I played in Columbus. Come on.”
On the other side of the ball, Vigil played for the first time since he injured his knee on Oct. 14 and it’s clear he wasn’t 100 percent. Vigil shrugged when asked if it was 80 percent.
“I felt a little sluggish. I’m not moving as well as I did before the injury,” Vigil said. “You really can’t rep and get into shape with practice, especially not doing much for a month and a half. I think this week it will be a lot better.”
It was obvious on the biggest play of what was mostly a scoreless first half. Denver quarterback Case Keenum’s third-and-10 scrambling completion to running back Devontae Booker for 30 yards that set up the first touchdown late in the half was a killer.
“I think if I hadn’t missed time, I definitely make that play,” Vigil said. “But it’s not an excuse. I have to make the play regardless. First I got the holding penalty, then I let him catch the ball. Then I missed the tackle. Just a bad play for me. I’m not going to sit here and make excuses. It is what it is.”
Then came Lindsay’s 65-yarder in the second half that blew the game open.
“That was a lot people mis-fitting,” Vigil said. “Me personally I ran under a block on the back side, which I can’t do. I have to go over the top and I probably would have had a chance to tackle him for a 10-yard gain. That’s what I mean. Guys out of run fits.”