Coming off a career performance, Joe Mixon can almost taste the milestone that seemed unattainable at the midway point of the season, but this week presents a new set of challenges that he will embrace.
The Cincinnati Bengals running back rushed for 146 yards last week in a loss at Cleveland and needs 211 yards to reach 1,000 for the season going into Sunday’s game against the New England Patriots (10-3).
New England boasts one of the league’s best defenses, ranking first in scoring defense (12.9 points per game), total defense (264.3 yards) and turnover differential (plus-19), and the Bengals lost another offensive weapon with wide receiver Auden Tate going on injured reserve this week with a knee injury.
The Patriots are known for taking away their opponent’s best player and that could be Mixon right now. New England likely will stack the box with Cincinnati missing two of its best wide receivers — A.J. Green and Tate.
“I’m sure they will probably have a gameplan for me, but we’ve got to be ready for whatever they plan on doing,” Mixon said. “At the same time, I’m going to take it upon myself to be the best me, and you will get the best me that day.”
Mixon got off to a slow start this season and had just 254 yards rushing going into Week 8. He more than doubled that number in five games since then, and some of that could be attributed to using more two-tight end packages and an improving offensive line.
Bengals coach Zac Taylor said the unit is just “more in the flow of things” now with the same starters playing each week, but New England has shown versatility on defense and won’t be easily surprised. Taylor said that’s in large part because of how long the guys in the front seven have been playing together – many of them he remembers scouting when he was interim offensive coordinator with the Miami Dolphins in 2012.
“They are all very versatile, they play with sound technique,” Taylor said. “They do their job very well, and it’s an impressive defense to watch on tape.”
Cincinnati right guard John Miller knows the Patriots’ front seven well after facing them twice a year his first four years in the NFL while playing for the Buffalo Bills. He joined the Bengals this offseason.
The Patriots allow just 93.0 rushing yards per game, an improvement from 112.7 yards last year.
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“They’ve got a great front seven, big guys, so it will be a big test for us to go out and establish the run game,” Miller said. “They are strong, they’re physical, they play great together. Some of those guys have been together for a while, so they are gap-sound in their defense, very disciplined and they aren’t going to commit penalties. They don’t beat themselves. They just kind of sit back and play a bend, but don’t break defense.
“The Patriots always have a good defense. This year I think they are playing a bit more man-coverage, a bit more zero-blitz, so they kind of do a little more of those things, but it’s the same defense, very well-coached, very disciplined, so you know you have to execute.”
New England coach Bill Belichick said preparing for the Bengals running game is a lot like preparing for the L.A. Rams in the Super Bowl last year because Taylor is implementing a lot of the same things he learned under Sean McVay; however, there are some differences.
Cincinnati is averaging 85.8 rushing yards per game this season but they had 123.8 yards over the last six games.
“You can’t just back up for those inside zone routes or plays or mid-zone cutback runs,” Belichick said. “They hit those too, but they keep you honest with a lot of plays on the outside running game and when Mixon gets outside, this guy is a tremendous back. He’s got great power and acceleration, and he’s a tough guy to bring down in the open field and he makes a lot of tough yards inside as well, so that’s one of the best backs we’ve faced.”
Mixon had some help last week with John Ross returning and forcing the defense to spread out because of his speed as a deep threat. Ross was limited Wednesday with a foot injury but was back to full-go by Thursday and should help keep New England honest in the secondary, but with Tate and Green out, Mixon just has to hope he gets enough help around him to remain effective.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to have somebody step up, and that’s the main thing,” Mixon said. “Guys go down in the league, but you have to have somebody fill in for them. Whoever that is has to come in and make that play.”
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