CLEVELAND - So with no A.J. Green, no Andy Dalton, no Tyler Boyd, no Tyler Eifert, no Tippecanoe and Tyler, too, Joe Mixon grew even more Sunday in a year he’s had to grow because virtually everyone else has been cut down.
If you can’t hang your hat on 2019 on national media reports about head coach Marvin Lewis (which seems to be an odd guessing game of pundits’ Russian Roulette), then you can certainly hang your hat on Joe Mixon.
You can also hang your hat on the 1,000-yard receiving tandem of Green and Boyd, young sackers Carl Lawson and Sam Hubbard and a young secondary sprouting cornerback William Jackson and safety Jessie Bates.
But start with Joltin’ Joe Mixon and start with what he did Sunday in the 26-18 loss in which the Browns have to be gently reminded they beat an offense with skill players that had more pre-season experience than regular-season experience, never mind skins on the wall from a division throw-down.
Everyone knew the Browns were going to put everyone but Terry Francona in the box. Everyone. After all, one starting wide receiver had 206 career yards. The other starting wide receiver has one career TD (and now a two-point conversion) in 37 games. And the starting tight end has more than half of his career catches in this season.
“They came out in the first half and played a lot of single safety and blitzes. We expected that. That’s been their M.O. over the past few games,” said Bengals quarterback Jeff Driskel, who has thrown for just 263 yards combined the past two weeks. “We just didn’t do a good enough job of making plays in the first half. We just never really got anything going. We didn’t get into a rhythm. During the first half, we didn’t do much offensively. Then, we came out in the second half, and they still had their same game plan. We were able to move the ball and find some guys down the field. It was just one of those deals where it was just too little too late. We got rolling in the 4th quarter, but we were fighting against the clock, and we came up short.”
And there was Mixon doing his best Corey Dillon. Here were the Bengals averaging 5.6 yards per throw and their No. 1 receiver, John Ross not making a catch until grabbing a three-yard TD with 2:56 left in the game and there was Mixon putting his head down for four yards per carry on the way to 68 yards on 17 carries and continuing to hang with the league leaders.
(It wasn’t 2000 season with Dillon averaging 4.6 yards per attempt for a season his No. 1 quarterback averaged 4.8 yards per throw, but you get the idea.)
“A lot of guys in the box. Tough day,” is all left guard Clint Boling could say.
And they were blitzing, too.
“You saw how it was. There were nine, 10 in the box and I was still busting out there,” said Mixon, who had three runs of at least 15 yards through the maze. “It is hard to get through that, but you can only hope to contain me, you are not going to stop me at the end of the day. They did a good job containing. Hats off to them. They beat us twice.”
Now you can go back to the early 2000s because 2002 was the last time the Browns beat the Bengals twice in a season. The win puts the Browns at 7-7-1 and the Bengals at 6-9 and means it’s the first time in eight years Cleveland is out of the AFC North basement and replaced by Cincinnati.
“To me, it is what it is. People can make a lot of excuses on why we finished last. It is what it is,” Mixon said. “At the end of the day, we have to come to work every day to work. If you are not doing that, you are not going to get the results you want. For me, I’m going to keep on coming, ready to play for 60 minutes each and every week and finish this last week strong.”
Driskel was talking about guys like Mixon.
“Because of the character of the guys, you couldn’t tell that we were losing,” Driskel said. “The character of the guys said ‘We’re going to go out there and we’re going to score on this next drive.’ And, I think that’s my takeaway: the character of the guys in that huddle.”
With 1,063 yards, Mixon has 19 more than his Oklahoma role model Adrian Peterson and he invoked All Day at the end of the day Sunday when he was asked when he had seen such commitment at stopping the running game.
“Little bit. Adrian Peterson,” Mixon said. “That just shows you what kind of a threat I am. You can take that from it.”
You can take this from it. He’s still averaging 4.7 yards per rush even though Dalton hasn’t thrown a pass in a month and Green hasn’t made a first down since October. He still has a precarious 72-yard lead over Denver’s Phillip Lindsay in the AFC rushing race as the Broncos head into Monday night’s game against Oakland. With 62 yards in Pittsburgh at next week’s finale, he’ll pass the Bengals’ last 1,000-yard rusher Jeremy Hill’s 1,124 yards in 2014.
“I told you all that I do not care about the individual stats,” Mixon said. “If we did not get the win, I do not give a damn. It is cool, but at the end of the day, we have to keep on getting ready to work. (We) have a big week coming up and we have to finish strong.”
How good of a year is Mixon having? If he can find a decimal point at Heinz Field and manage to rush for two touchdowns, he’ll be the first Bengals’ back since Ickey Woods 30 years ago to rush for at least 1,000 yards and 10 TDs while averaging 4.8 yards per.
“When there’s nothing there, he can create. He’s tough and he’s going to keep running hard. He’s done that all season long,” Driskel said. “He’s been very consistent for us and, I think he’s just going to keep improving. He’s tough. I love playing with that guy. He has a ‘next play’ mentality.”
Now it’s a next year mentality and Mixon is leading the charge.
“It's very frustrating. Never been a part of a losing program and I'm never going to be comfortable with losing,” Mixon said. “At the end of the day, man, I'll take it for what it is. Build and try to get better for next year. I promise you we're not going to be in this for long. And that's a fact.”
It’s a fact you can hang your hat on him.