Joe Mixon has been a solid NFL running back for the entirety of his five-year career, even despite giving up some carries to current Tampa Bay Buccaneer Giovani Bernard for the first four. Now without any serious competition for carries, Mixon is unsurprisingly on his way to a career year. And with the way the Cincinnati Bengals have increased his usage recently, his season is only getting better.
In his last two games, Cincinnati’s veteran back has seen a spike in carries. After eight straight starts with 20 or fewer rushing attempts, he’s had 30 and 28 against Las Vegas and Pittsburgh, respectively. Mixon has been making the most of those extra carries with more than 100 rushing yards in each of those two games. On Sunday against the Steelers, he set a career high with 165 yards on the ground. That brought his season total to 924 rushing yards, now the second-highest total of active players this year and in striking distance of surpassing 1,000 yards in a season for the third time in his career.
We’re in the midst of what appears to be a breakout season from Mixon, and he said as much himself in his post-game press conference.
“To be honest, I feel like I’m starting to reach that point—my prime—I’m starting to get there,” he said.
It’s hard to refute that. Along with his huge increase in yardage has come a big wave of scores. Mixon had already surpassed his season-high in rushing touchdowns with nine so far this season. On Sunday, he scored two more and extended his streak of two-touchdown games to four. His 11 rushing touchdowns this season move him ahead of Derrick Henry for sole possession of third-most in the NFL in 2021.
The effects of Mixon’s breakout are (obviously) clearest in the Bengals’ rushing offense, but we can’t discount how significant the implications are for Joe Burrow and the passing game as well. A dominant run game can really open up the pass, and we saw Burrow take advantage of that on Sunday with a few nice plays.
The second-year quarterback finished 20-of-24—a career-high 83.3 percent completion rate—for 190 passing yards, that touchdown to Higgins, a rushing touchdown, and a pick.
Mixon’s recent dominance looms larger with what it could mean for the future of his and Cincinnati’s season.
For him, he looks to be in a good position to be selected to the first Pro Bowl of his career. He’s currently on pace for more than 1,400 rushing yards and around 20 total touchdowns. Mixon entered Sunday sixth among all running backs in Pro Bowl voting, and he’s sure to get more after he ran all over the Steelers.
For the Bengals, further success with their ground game and total offense should keep them right in the thick of things in the AFC playoff race. As it stands now (pre-Sunday Night Football), they’d be the AFC’s fifth seed. A Cleveland Browns win over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night would push Cincinnati into first place in the AFC North and the third seed in their conference.
They’ve got some tough challenges ahead as they face the Los Angeles Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, and Denver Broncos in the coming weeks before closing out the season against the Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs, and Browns. The good news for Cincinnati is that most of those teams don’t have strong defenses against the run, especially the Chargers, who’ve allowed the most rushing yards per game in the NFL. The bad news is the two teams that have done better than the others are their two remaining divisional opponents.
Mixon should continue to feast next week against Los Angeles, but he might have some trouble in late-season divisional games that could have big playoff implications. For now, we can appreciate his increased workload allowing him to break out and lead the Bengals to a couple of big wins out of their bye. I expect a wild ride from Mixon and Cincinnati in these final six weeks.