Bengals RB Joe Mixon feels he has something to prove in 5th season
CINCINNATI — At the conclusion of a grueling practice in temperatures nearing triple digits, a typically reserved Joe Mixon opened up about his goals for the 2021 NFL season.
If Mixon had it his way, his play on the field would do all the talking — and the Cincinnati Bengals starting running back hopes his performance this year speaks volumes.
“I’m very excited. We’re gonna get the year started to a new opportunity,” Mixon told USA TODAY Sports+ in an exclusive interview earlier this month. "Everybody is 0-0 and we’re gonna try to go 1-0 every week.”
Mixon sustained a right foot injury in Week 6 last year and was sideline for the remainder of the season. He watched the injury-riddled Bengals limp to a 4-11-1 finish. Entering this year, Mixon and Cincinnati’s core offensive playmakers are healthy and ready to rebound from another disappointing sub-.500 season.
“My foot feels great and my body feels great. I feel great,” Mixon said. “I’m ready for this year to get started.”
The Bengals are slated to have at least nine new starters, including rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase and rookie kicker Evan McPherson. The new additions have Mixon optimistic about his fifth year in Cincinnati. But Mixon is also ecstatic about the return of offensive line coach Frank Pollack.
“With Frank back, everybody is excited about that. I’m probably one of the most excited because I know what comes with that,” Mixon said. “What Frank and coach [Zac] Taylor have to offer, I think it’ll be a great for the team, for myself and the fans as well.”
Pollack, who served as the New York Jets’ offensive line coach in 2020, previously held the same title with the Bengals in 2018. That year, Mixon enjoyed career highs in rushing yards (1,168), rushing touchdowns (8), receptions (43) and receiving yards (296).
Pollack also oversees the rushing attack as Cincinnati’s run game coordinator.
Mixon, 25, could very well be the biggest beneficiary of Pollack’s return. He's said he's motivated to have a bounce-back season and is determined to prove he’s one of the best running backs in the NFL.
Mixon hears discussions about who the top players are at his position and knows he again was left off the NFL’s annual Top 100 list. The omissions only drive the Bengals’ eighth all-time leading rusher.
“Yes, for sure. To be honest, I feel like I have something to prove every year,” Mixon said. “I look at the rankings. I’ve seen them. It is what it is. When I get on the field and when I get a handoff with the ball in my hands, I feel like I’m the best player on the field — at all times.
"I don’t really care what anybody has to say about rankings and stats and all that. At the end of the day, as long as I’m on the field and I’m touching the ball and making plays, I know for a fact that I’ll be the best.”
In order for Mixon to exhibit he’s the “best," or one of the top running backs in the league, the Bengals have to feature him.
Cincinnati was a pass-happy offense last year. At the time of Joe Burrow’s season-ending left knee injury in Week 11, his 264 completions were the most ever by an NFL QB through their first 10 career games, while his 404 pass attempts were second. Burrow averaged 40 passing attempts a game.
The Bengals say they want a more balanced offense that will showcase Mixon in 2021.
“Defenses don’t like playing against him because he’s big, strong and he’s hard to tackle. I think having that guy back there with the ball makes the run game better, just having him back there. I do think the run game is a huge emphasis for us,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. “We have to be a whole lot better than we’ve been. It’ll create better balance, keep us on schedule more and open up the playbook a little bit more when you get in more manageable situations.”
Don’t expected the Bengals to transform into a run-oriented offense. Cincinnati constructed its roster in the mold of a passing team, but the plan is for the offense to prioritize the run more.
“We have a lot of playmakers on offense. We have three star receivers (Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase) and me as a running back. And Joe Burrow, he’s gonna throw for a lot of yards,” Mixon explained. “We all complement each other very well. Once the run gets rolling, the pass gets rolling. Once the pass gets rolling, it’s gonna be hard for us to be stopped.”
The expectation is for Mixon to be a three-down running back this year. While he sees an uptick in snaps, he’s out to prove his name belongs among the upper echelon of running backs.
“I just want to improve day by day and I want to improve as a team. By me being the best me, I know we’ll be in great position,” Mixon said.
Cincinnati’s offensive line remains a huge question mark. However, if the offensive line can hold up under Pollack’s tutelage, the Bengals should have the necessary playmakers to create a high-powered offense.
And Mixon, who many believe is one of the most underrated running backs in the NFL, might just be Cincinnati's best playmaker.
“Really excited to have him back fully healthy,” Taylor said. “Having Joe Mixon on the field makes us better.”