Final of a four-part series looking at strategy for Super Bowl LVI. Part 4: Everyone knows about Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals’ perimeter passing attack, but how will the Rams deal with containing versatile running back Joe Mixon?
Cincinnati had one Pro Bowl player in its backfield this season, and that player wasn’t Joe Burrow.
Instead, it was another Joe — Joe Mixon — who finished third in yards rushing (1,205) and fourth in rushing touchdowns (13) in the NFL.
“It’s heartwarming, honestly,” Mixon said this week about his season. “I truly feel like I’m living in a movie right now.”
The only question remaining is this: Can Mixon turn the game Sunday into a horror show for the Rams?
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With so much attention on the Bengals’ trio of wide receivers, Mixon could be the sort of X-factor who so often makes the difference in football games of this magnitude.
He has had at least 18 touches in 15 of the 19 games he has played this season. Mixon has rushed for 100 or more yards only three times but has eight games with at least 105 yards from scrimmage.
Maurice Jones-Drew, a former running back who spent nine seasons in the NFL, is now a radio analyst for the Rams. There might be no one better to evaluate Mixon’s potential impact on this game.
Both coming from the Bay Area, Jones-Drew said he has known Mixon for years. He said they’ve even worked out together in the offseason.
Jones-Drew explained that he believes Mixon will need to reach 120 scrimmage yards for Cincinnati to have a chance.
“I think he has to be a major factor for the Bengals to win,” Jones-Drew said. “They’re going to have to run the ball some, and they’re going to need him to take heat off the quarterback with some of those quick passes.”
As a receiver, more than as a runner, could be where Mixon does his most notable damage. If the Rams’ pass rush is going to disrupt Burrow — and many observers are forecasting exactly that — Mixon’s role could be pivotal in relieving that pressure.
Although Mixon has caught more than three passes only nine times this season, Jones-Drew said he wouldn’t be surprised if Cincinnati attempts to use him more in the passing game.
“The Rams struggle with running backs coming out of the backfield,” Jones-Drew said. “Mixon is a tremendous route runner. That will be an issue for the Rams. Their linebackers tend to struggle in coverage.”
The challenge will fall on Troy Reeder, Ernest Jones and Travin Howard, who all play inside. Safety Eric Weddle could be another option if the Rams opt to move him closer to the line of scrimmage.
In the NFC championship game, San Francisco running back Elijah Mitchell twice turned short passes into long gains — 21 and 18 yards — by exploiting mismatches.
“And he’s not an explosive as Joe Mixon,” Jones-Drew said.
After missing the final 10 games of 2020 because of a foot injury, Mixon returned as a weapon right from the start, rushing for 127 yards in the Bengals’ season-opening victory over Minnesota.
He has been productive and dependable, losing only one fumble in 399 touches, including the playoffs. When Mixon has scored a touchdown this season, the Bengals are 8-3.
“If they can get him in man-to-man against a linebacker or maybe against Eric Weddle, you’ll go that way,” Jones-Drew said. “They will try to take advantage of that. Joe Mixon will have [Rams’ defensive coordinator] Raheem Morris staying up late at night, for sure.”