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Joe Mixon is starting to hit his stride in the Bengals offense

With 7:50 left in the second quarter on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon had the ball near the right sideline and saw a Saints defender charging right at him. Mixon made a small jump-cut back, saw cornerback Paulson Adebo dive into the turf, and picked up 12 yards after the catch.

Mixon said he usually doesn’t notice the reaction from the crowd when he makes a big move. But this time was different.

“I could really hear the whole crowd like, ‘Oooh,’” Mixon said. “Then after the play, I was like, ‘did the whole crowd just say oooh?’ It was a cool thing. That’s what I can do. If I get the opportunity like that in space, I got to make them pay. When given that opportunity in those one-on-one situations, I got to make it count, no matter what. I know I have more.”

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Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon carries the ball against the New Orleans Saints. On Sunday, Mixon had his best game of the season.
Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon carries the ball against the New Orleans Saints. On Sunday, Mixon had his best game of the season.

This was the type of play that had been missing from Mixon’s tough first month of the season. Early in the year, Mixon didn’t have much room to run because the Bengals’ new-look offensive line was still gelling as a unit. In Week 3, Mixon started pressing, trying to do too much and trying to tiptoe around the backfield in search of an explosive play. But he wasn’t making defenders miss in space.

Mixon was frustrated with where the running game was at. Three weeks after he called a meeting with the offensive line to work out some communication issues, Mixon is seeing the results.

“He’s getting back to being himself,” Bengals running backs coach Justin Hill said. “He’s trusting his reads, trusting his eyes and trusting who he is. Knowing the big plays are going to come. The competitor in you wants the big play every single time. We also know those (defensive) guys get paid too. We know those plays are going to happen. That’s why Joe Mixon is who he is. That’s why Joe is one of the best backs in the league.”

Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon completes a catch and runs for a touchdown, showing some of the skill set that's helped him respond from a slow start to the season.
Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon completes a catch and runs for a touchdown, showing some of the skill set that's helped him respond from a slow start to the season.

Between Week 1 and Week 4, Mixon only averaged 2.73 yards per carry. Over the last two weeks, with the Bengals relying on runs out of the shotgun, Mixon has averaged over 5.6 yards per carry in each of his last two games.

“We’re starting to see strides,” Mixon said. “You wish you could have more opportunities. But with the way the games have been going, you can’t call it any better. Especially with last week being down (two scores) in the third quarter. At some point, we had to pass a lot to get our splash plays going.”

When Mixon was in the middle of a tough stretch, Hill focused on what Mixon was doing before the snap. Hill said his job is to get Mixon from “Point A in the backfield to the line of scrimmage.” The rest of the way is up to Mixon’s instincts and athleticism.

“Everything starts with your eyes pre-snap,” Hill said. “It starts with understanding spacing. What kind of defense are we getting, is it ‘Nickel 42’ or ‘Base 43?’ What type of run spacing am I getting that could impact my read on wide zone or tight zone or gap schemes? It goes down to anticipation.”

Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon carries the ball and runs at Ravens safety Marcus Williams. Over the last two weeks, Mixon has been better at breaking through the opposing team's defensive line.
Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon carries the ball and runs at Ravens safety Marcus Williams. Over the last two weeks, Mixon has been better at breaking through the opposing team's defensive line.

Mixon’s anticipation has helped the Bengals fix one of the biggest problems with their offense during the past two weeks. The Bengals had been the worst first-down offense in the NFL, largely due to negative runs. The Bengals have made a big step forward recently as Mixon improved at hitting the hole quickly to pick up 3-to-5 yards.

The next step is making defenders miss down the field, and Mixon has started hitting the second level of the defense. Against the Saints, Mixon picked up seven first downs between his 45 rushing yards and his 23 receiving yards.

“You always wish there’s more opportunity for you,” Mixon said. “But we’re making strides. We’ll keep making that big jump. The splash plays in the run game will come. I believe as long as we stay at it and we want to run the football, that’s when those plays will come.”

Cincinnati Bengals guard Alex Cappa congratulates running back Joe Mixon after a touchdown. Mixon has responded to a frustrating first month of the season.
Cincinnati Bengals guard Alex Cappa congratulates running back Joe Mixon after a touchdown. Mixon has responded to a frustrating first month of the season.

Even though Bengals head coach Zac Taylor called his usual amount of rushing plays, Mixon only had eight carries in the win over the Saints. It was a result of the run-pass-option offense the Bengals started using.

Taylor called more plays where quarterback Joe Burrow makes a decision after the snap to throw or to hand the ball to Mixon. Burrow’s decision is based on how many players the defense has close to the line of scrimmage looking to stop the run.

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Since the Saints kept an extra defender close to the line of scrimmage specifically to take away Mixon, Burrow found easy completions for Ja’Marr Chase and Tyler Boyd.

“That’s what teams will do,” Mixon said. “They’ll bring the seventh and eighth guys in the box and make things harder in the run game for us. At the end of the day, if they want to play us like that, that’s cool. At some point, they’ll have to get out of it and play it honest. With the guys we have at receiver and at quarterback, the sky's the limit. It’s going to be scoring points, getting stats, yards, it’ll be there.”

Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon looks for running room against the Ravens. Recently, he has been better at finding it.
Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon looks for running room against the Ravens. Recently, he has been better at finding it.

The last step for Mixon will be more explosive plays. It’s been five weeks since he had a game-changing run, and the difference will be making more defenders miss with more cuts like the one he had in the second quarter in New Orleans.

If those runs happen more consistently, then Mixon will get more than his season average of 17 carries per game. And if Mixon continues to make defenders miss, then Burrow will get more opportunities to throw the ball deep.

“At the end of the day, the run will open the pass and the pass will open the run out,” Mixon said “We got guys that are gonna play complementary football. Zac's going to call it how he's calling it, and we just got to do whatever to make it work.”

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Joe Mixon stats picking up for Cincinnati Bengals