If you’ve heard the name Joe Mixon before, you’re likely aware of the horrifying 2014 incident in which he was caught punching a woman on camera. Naturally, this was an extremely contentious topic of discussion throughout the pre-draft process, and I’m sure that many fans and analysts are of the opinion that Mixon shouldn’t be allowed step foot on an NFL field as a result of those awful actions.
There’s no denying that it was a disgusting act on Mixon’s part, but should a mistake he made at 18 years old hold him back for the rest of his life? I don’t think so. Granted, it was a much more serious and morally reprehensible mistake than the mistakes most of us made at that age, but I’m a big believer in second chances. Not third or fourth chances, but second chances. If Mixon can keep his nose clean in the pros, I will back him wholeheartedly, and as a Bengals fan, I’m excited to have him on the team. If that greatly offends you, feel free to stop reading now. You are as entitled to your opinion as I am to mine.
That’s all I’ll say about Mixon’s actions off the field. The purpose of this article is not to dive into a discussion on morality. I want to discuss Joe Mixon, the football player. In this piece, I want to highlight the reasons why Mixon possesses the skillset to become one the best running backs in the league. Before you scoff at me for being a Bengals homer, I should note that I had Mixon as the number one back in the 2017 class by a considerable margin pre-draft. So please hush, haters.
As the title of this article might suggest, his playing style bears a lot of comparisons to Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell. Bell is one of my favourite players to watch in the entire NFL, and for what it’s worth, I believe that he’s the best running back in the league. He possesses absolutely every skill you could look for in a running back. His unstoppable mix of patience, vision, and quick feet is likely to change the way young running backs play the position. Not many current players in the league can say that they have revolutionised the position they play, but Bell can validly claim such a feat.
In college and in limited preseason action, Joe Mixon has shown me that he has the talent and the skillset to follow in Bell’s footsteps. He’s a guy who I strongly believe has the potential to be widely considered among the elite players at his position a few years down the line, alongside stars like Bell, David Johnson and Zeke Elliott. Let’s dive into the tape.
At 6-foot-1, 228 pounds, there is no denying that Mixon is a physical freak. However, the aspect of his game that impresses me the most is his patience. His willingness to wait for holes to open up is a trait rarely seen in running backs at the college level. For lack of a better way to phrase it, it takes serious balls to play with the patience that Mixon does. It requires a high level of trust in his blockers, as well as a faith in his own abilities to make magic happen once the time comes to make a definitive decision.
Le’Veon Bell has taken the term ‘patience’ and stretched it to the extreme in the best way possible. You can see on this play that his feet actually stop completely as he waits for the left side of the line to get some push, but it works brilliantly. Bell preys on overpursuing defenders, and you can see that in all its glory on this play.
Focusing on Mixon, the first play we’ll look at is a modest 5-yard gain, but it’s a perfect example of his patient running style. It’s unusual to see a running back spend as much time behind the line of scrimmage as Mixon does, but he does this to great effect. He keeps his eyes firmly fixed on his blocks as he waits for them to develop, before planting his foot in the ground and penetrating the hole when it finally opens up. Notice also the nice, subtle lateral movement just before the hole opens up, which gets him in perfect position to break through the hole.
The next play similarly exemplifies Mixon’s patience. After taking the handoff, he runs with some degree of heistation in order to ensure that the timing with his offensive line is perfect. Mixon waits for his pulling RG (#71) to reach his target, and he times it to perfection. The moment #71 gets his hands on the defender, Mixon accelerates and bursts upfield. It’s refreshing to see a running back show the intelligence to proceed with patience, rather than taking off at a million miles an hour after taking a handoff.
Vision is a trait that goes hand in hand with patience; if you can have the patience to wait for a hole to open and the vision to see that hole as soon as it opens, you have a recipe for success. Mixon most certainly has this in his arsenal. Other times, a running back will need to improvise when the blocking just isn’t there, and this is where vision is extremely important. Mixon excels at this.
I can only guess that Le’Veon Bell has 20/20 vision, because the man sees absolutely everything that goes on on the field. This play in the wildcard round against Miami is a perfect example of his peripheral vision and how he reacts to what happens around him. #75 for Miami tosses aside the left guard, and Bell reacts by instantly jumping to the right, where he sees the hole created by his fullback.
On this play, Mixon finds himself with nowhere to go after taking the handoff. The defensive line penetrates the line of scrimmage and there is no way that he can take the ball between the tackles. Like the Bell run against Miami, Mixon sees green grass in his peripheral vision, and he shows excellent instincts by bouncing the ball outside.
On this next play, Mixon shows some more beautiful footwork. What stands out for me here is how quickly Mixon reacts to what he sees. As soon as #49 begins to penetrate, Mixon jukes to his right to avoid him. After avoiding the defender, he follows #58 and finds the hole with ease. On a sidenote, the transition Mixon makes from moving laterally to knifing upfield is absolutely beautiful.
Now let’s see how he does against an Ohio State defense loaded with future NFL stars. Mixon makes an excellent read here. He tries to follow his left tackle (#78) who is pulling from the backside, but he doesn’t reach the linebacker in time to allow Mixon to take the ball up the middle. Mixon sees this straight away, and understands that he needs to bounce it outside. He then turns on the jets and lets his speed takes over, throwing in a nice stiff arm for good measure.
QUICKNESS & ELUSIVENESS
Patience and vision relate to the mental part of the game, and it’s clear that Mixon possesses a high football IQ based on his abilities in those departments. That being said, Mixon’s deadly combination of quickness and elusiveness is what will strike fear into the hearts of defensive coordinators around the league. I use the word quickness instead of speed because while Mixon is more than capable of taking it the distance from anywhere on the field, he is not just a home-run hitter with straight-line speed. Rather, his ability to make defenders miss due to his shiftiness and short-area quickness is what makes him a special player.
Le’Veon Bell is one of the quickest backs in the league, and he makes defenders look silly on a weekly basis. Watch him show patience as he approaches the line of scrimmage, before accelerating through the hole.
Mixon’s burst through the hole is also exceptional. Once he makes his read, he plants his foot in the ground and he is gone. When the race to the endzone begins, there are very few players who will be able to catch up with him.
His balance and cutting ability make him extremely dangerous once he gets into the open field. When Mixon changes direction, he loses absolutely no speed or momentum. On this play, he breaks the ankles of Colts first-round pick Malik Hooker (#24).
228-pound backs simply should not be moving the way that Mixon does. His incredible lateral agility makes him so tough to tackle because he has both the size to run over you and the shiftiness to juke you out of your cleats. The latter is what happened to Josh Norman here.
Throughout his college career, Mixon showed time and again that he can turn nothing into something. On this play against Texas Tech, he initially appears to have absolutely nowhere to go. However, when Mixon is carrying the rock, there is always somewhere to go. He swats away a defender with ease and makes the bold decision to reverse field. He then stiff arms #7 into another dimension, showing absolutely no regard for the fact that this man has a family. After that, he shows off the speed, and even manages to hurdle the final defender before finally stepping out of bounds. What a play.
On this next play, Mixon is once again faced with the unenviable task of turning nothing into something. Two defenders are on Mixon in a flash, but he is just such a slippery runner and is so tough to take down. The agility he shows to manoeuvre his way out of the cluster of defenders is phenomenal. He does a nice job lowering his pad level (shoutout @PFTCommenter) to break the tackle of #38, and then it’s a race to the endzone.
THIRD DOWN SKILLS
For the most part, very few rookie running backs will come in on day one and instantly be ‘the guy’. This is due to the fact that rookies who can run, catch and pass protect at a high level are few and far between. Mixon may not get the chance to earn the starting job in Cincinnati until late in the season due to the Bengals’ crowded backfield and the coaches’ reluctance to pass the torch from veterans to rookies, but he is a future three-down back. His hands are exceptional, he is a proficient route-runner, and he has shown the willingness to pass protect.
Le’Veon Bell is probably the best route-running back in the league at the moment. His routes are crisp and precise, and his body control is remarkable. Watch what he does here lined up out wide against JJ Wilcox. The hop step, the eyes and the sudden change of direction are textbook.
I haven’t seen Mixon show the attention to detail in his routes that Bell does, partly because he does not line up out wide like Bell does, and so he isn’t asked to run a wide variety of routes. His receiving ability is nonetheless exceptional. He makes this one-handed catch look so easy, and if you give him room to run after the catch he will take it the distance.
Like Bell, Mixon can line up in the slot and cause damage. Here we have a short gain for the offense, but any time Mixon lines up in the slot it presents a great opportunity to get the ball in his hands in space. We have already seen how dangerous he can be when that is the case.
Running backs almost always find themselves matched up with linebackers when coming out of the backfield, and backs who can run routes and catch can really use this to their advantage. In this instance, Mixon burns #9 and does a nice job tracking the ball and reeling it in with one hand.
On this play against the Bucs in preseason action, he snags the ball with soft hands before making multiple defenders miss. Get used to seeing plays like this on Sundays.
Not only is Mixon an excellent receiver, but he has shown the ability to be a solid pass protector. Here, he gets low and fights hard to get his hands inside the defender’s, while keeping his legs firing.
He can also get aggressive in pass pro. In this play, he seeks out the blitzing linebacker as soon as the ball is snapped and stops him right in his tracks.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If I haven’t made myself clear throughout the article, I’m a huge fan of Joe Mixon’s game. I truly believe that he has the talent to become a top three running back in the NFL. I don’t expect him to blow up in his rookie season due to the fact that he remains behind both Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard on the Bengals’ depth chart. Despite Marvin Lewis’ affinity for the established veterans on the team, I think that it’s only a matter of time before Mixon shows that he is easily the most talented back in Cincinnati, and he will force offensive coordinator Ken Zampese to give him more playing time. Hop on the bandwagon while there’s still space, because believe me, this guy is a star in the making.Follow @iamcathal