The Bengals released Giovani Bernard, the established veteran who in addition to taking carries off Mixon, performed two primary functions. Bernard was effective in the pass game and was primarily on the field for third downs.
Bernard’s departure shifted those responsibilities to Mixon and the remaining running backs. And for the perhaps the first time in his five-year career, the limits of Mixon’s potential will be tested as he attempts to fill the void Bernard left. That could lead to his biggest year yet.
“I look forward to the roles, whatever comes my way,” Mixon said on Aug. 6 when asked about embracing leadership. “I’m accepting all challenges.”
For years, Mixon has been considered one of the NFL’s most dangerous running backs, and even had New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick calling him “probably the best back in the league” after New England’s December 2019 victory in Cincinnati. Mixon was off to a decent start in 2020 before suffering a season-ending foot injury on Week 6 against the Indianapolis Colts.
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His ability to rack up rushing yards has been unquestioned since his time at Oklahoma, but there were still questions about his pass-blocking and usage as a wide receiver.
In his first news conference since the injury, Mixon had all the right answers to those questions. He said he tried to protect former quarterback Andy Dalton to the best of his abilities. With franchise cornerstone Joe Burrow now under center, Mixon emphasized the importance of that responsibility.
“I take people’s heads off when we’re in the pass game,” Mixon said. “At the end of the day you’re not going to win every rep, but I always take the initiative of protecting the quarterback for sure.”
Improved pass-blocking will lead to more third-down snaps for Mixon, which should in turn produce more targets. And when Mixon was healthy in 2020, the Bengals looked to use him in the passing game.
Through the first six weeks of last season, Mixon was tied for ninth in passing targets among running backs, according to ESPN Stats and Information. He had 21 catches on 26 targets for 138 yards and a touchdown.
Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said he doesn’t expect Mixon to be on the field for every third down, but he should have a major impact as a receiver.
“His ability to catch the ball as a big man is still really good,” Callahan said on July 30. “He runs good routes for his size, he’s hard to cover, he’s hard to tackle. All the things we want to do with him are open to us.”
Mixon’s usage throughout the offseason and training camp bears that out. Whether lined up at the outside of the formation or in his traditional place in the backfield, Mixon has been targeted by Burrow in various drills.
Increased aerial production, in addition to rushing in a revamped attack under new run game coordinator Frank Pollack, will help Mixon show why the Bengals gave him a four-year, $48 million extension before the 2020 season.
Last year’s foot injury prevented Mixon from his third straight 1,000-yard season. Now healthy, he will have chances to be more than a high-volume rusher.
“Just looking at him, (it) seems like he can do anything,” new Bengals right tackle Riley Reiff said about Mixon.
Ask Mixon and he’ll say that he has always been capable of doing whatever is required. In his first four years in Cincinnati, others have taken key responsibilities off his shoulders.
But that burden is squarely on him now. And soon enough, he’ll have a chance to show that his preseason commitment to taking on all challenges isn’t just lip service.
“I try to do whatever that I can to put the team in the best position to win,” Mixon said. “Everybody’s looking forward to it. I just can’t wait until Week 1.”
Source : ESPN