CINCINNATI -- As someone who feeds off the energy of the fans, Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon especially is looking forward to his return to the field Sunday in front of a packed crowd.
When Mixon last played a game that counted in Week 6 of the 2020 season, stadium attendance was limited because of COVID-19 restrictions. By the time those were eased, Mixon was out with a foot injury that lingered and eventually shut him down for the year.
Now the fifth-year running back is anxious to perform in front of a full stadium again as the Bengals host the Minnesota Vikings in their opener Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. He’s personally ready to show fans he is back and ready to pick up where he left off following a strong start to 2020 individually when he rushed for 428 yards and three touchdowns in 5.5 games.
“To me in the opener (last year without fans), it felt like a scrimmage,” Mixon said Thursday. “It was like I was out there at practice or something. Other than that, you know, for me, it was just very abnormal. It wasn’t normal to me. So, for Sunday to come out here and see all the fans, that’s a major plus for me and how I like to play and how I play the game of football. So, I feel like you know, by the fans coming, and them being very engaged into the game, I feel like it’s gonna be a great thing. I mean, I’m excited. I know, they’re excited. Everybody’s excited for football. But at the same time, we just want the fans to come, we’re here to give them a show, and that’s what we get paid to do. And I’m always looking to give them what they come to see. So, I can’t wait for Sunday.”
The Bengals lost their last two openers by three points or less, including last year when A.J. Green’s touchdown catch on the final play for the offense was ruled offensive pass interference. Randy Bullock then missed the game-tying field goal with seven seconds left, and the Chargers won 16-13.
In 2019, Cincinnati had a chance to beat Seattle on the road and fell 21-20.
Asked how much different things might have been both seasons if those games went the other way, Mixon said it’s hard to know but getting off to a good start is always important.
“You start off in the win column and then just keep building pretty much,” Mixon said. “Once you keep building on that, you start catching momentum. Once you catch the momentum, then that’s when you start getting hot. And from that point, it’s just a different feel in the locker room and the stands, things like that with the fans. And I mean, we’re ready for that. We’re ready to put the city -- I’m ready to put the city on my back. We owe it to the city, fans and things like that, but we’re gonna need help from them. And as you know, they want wins from us, so it all plays a part. And you know, like I said, I can’t wait. I’m accepting all challenges, all roles, and I’m looking forward to it.”
In terms of the running games, Mixon will be sharing the spotlight with Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook, who finished second in the league in rushing yards last year and was a member of Mixon’s draft class in 2017.
Mixon said he’s known Cook since high school and looks forward to competing against him Sunday.
“He’s one of the best running backs in the league, and it’s definitely gonna be fun to come out here, and it’d be me versus him and then they have, you know, their receiver versus ours, so I mean, there are a lot of narratives going on,” Mixon said. “But at the same time, you know, I’m just trying to come out here, be the best running back that day, best player that day, and most ultimate, we want to come out with the ‘W.’ And I know it’s gonna take a lot in order to make that happen so at the end of the day, just doing whatever I gotta do to prepare to get ready for Sunday, then that’s what we’ll see. We’ll see from that point.”
Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said Mixon had a great training camp and showed tremendous improvement in pass protection, a role he will be asked to do more of in 2021 with Giovani Bernard gone.
Asked if Mixon is a three-down back now, Callahan said the third down role will rotate between Samaje Perine, Chris Evans and Mixon, but he looks forward to seeing what Mixon does in that spot.
“I think his protection ability, his focus in that part of the game has been so much better mainly because he has had to do it during camp,” Callahan said. “He’s been in the third down periods and he’s been in two-minute drills, things he hasn’t done as much during his career because of Gio and Gio’s ability to do that really well. He’s kind of been forced to grow in that role and done a great job. I’m looking forward to seeing that pay off for him. The chance to be on the field more and more targets and more balls and more carries. It’s good to have Joe have the ball in his hands. That’s a good thing for our offense.”
Mixon said he worked to improve his route running and “finishing before the catch” just by focusing on footwork, but he’s always felt he could add more to the passing game. On Sunday against a traditionally strong Mike Zimmer defense, Mixon will have a chance to show it.
“I mean, I always felt like I’ve been a complete back since my youth years,” Mixon said. “So, I mean, I basically did that all my life until I pretty much got here. I kinda was limited in certain roles because of the situation, which is totally understandable, but at the same time, I always had that in my arsenal and never lost them. So now that I’m able to showcase that, I’m very excited. Can’t wait, and there’s a lot of yards to be made, a lot of plays to be made.”
Vikings at Bengals, 1 p.m., Fox, 1530, 102.7, 104.7