Joe Mixon feels like a late bloomer compared with the rest of this year’s impressive rookie running back class. But if you managed to stay patient with him for three whole weeks, it looks like the Cincinnati Bengals are ready to reward you.
Mixon dominated the Bengals’ time-share in Week 3 after they switched from offensive coordinator Ken Zampese to Bill Lazor, running for 62 yards on 18 carries and catching three passes for 39 yards. As ESPN Bengals reporter Katherine Terrell wrote, Mixon played 34 offensive snaps compared to 14 for Jeremy Hill and 13 for Giovani Bernard.
Terrell cautioned that the Bengals still will use Mixon and the pass-catching Bernard together a lot. But it certainly looks like the Bengals are ready to make Mixon their leading man with Lazor more intent on spreading out the touches. Terrell said Mixon’s ability to help in both the run game and passing game likely is the reason.
And Terrell pointed out that Sunday’s matchup against the Cleveland Browns should be an especially good one. The only two games in which Cincinnati ran for more than 200 yards last season came against Cleveland.
Here are some thoughts from ESPN’s NFL Nation reporters on some other borderline starting running backs:
Isaiah Crowell: ESPN Browns reporter Pat McManamon said he would keep starting Crowell -- especially in this week’s matchup against the Bengals, who rank 25th in the league against the run.
“Crowell is the same back he was a year ago, with the same burst and explosion and ability to cut,” McManamon said of Crowell, who is averaging just 38 rushing yards per game this year.
The problem is that Cleveland hasn’t yet committed to the run as much as it has talked about doing this season. And it certainly didn’t help when the Browns fell behind the Indianapolis Colts 28-7 last week. Offensive tackle Joe Thomas pointed out that the Browns called 61 pass plays on 78 offensive snaps in that loss.
“That lack of balance will hurt any running back,” McManamon said.
Bilal Powell: This would seemingly be a good week to start Powell since the New York Jets have ruled out fellow running back Matt Forte with turf toe. And ESPN Jets reporter Rich Cimini expects that Powell’s production will improve even when Forte returns. How can it not after Powell has run for just 72 yards on 27 carries this year, with five catches for 17 yards?
However, Cimini cautioned that he doesn’t see anyone becoming a leading man in the Jets’ run game this year. New offensive coordinator John Morton has favored a committee approach at running back, in part to be less predictable. So with Forte out, rookie Elijah McGuire’s touches should increase as well.
Chris Thompson: The dynamic fourth-year runner/receiver has exploded onto the scene this season and has replaced DeSean Jackson as the Washington Redskins’ game-changer, according to ESPN Redskins reporter John Keim. However, there still are concerns about total touches since Thompson is a smaller back with a significant injury history -- and since he “would be one of their toughest players to replace if he got hurt,” according to Keim.
Keim said he thinks Thompson will remain in the “10-touch range” after he had seven, six and 14 touches in the first three games. But he said Washington definitely will keep getting Thompson the ball after he has racked up 119 rushing yards, 231 receiving yards and four touchdowns with those limited touches -- especially since the Redskins have struggled to get their wide receivers involved consistently.
“It would be hard to keep up the TD pace he’s on, but what he’s done thus far is not a fluke,” Keim said.
Wendell Smallwood: Smallwood’s role should definitely increase -- especially as a pass-catcher -- in the wake of Darren Sproles’ season-ending injuries last week. So he could be worth a start in deeper leagues or during bye weeks. But ESPN Philadelphia Eagles reporter Tim McManus said he thinks the committee approach will continue with LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement. So he is skeptical that Smallwood or anyone else will emerge as a true featured back.
Jamaal Charles: The 30-year-old has been a bigger factor than many expected after bouncing back from two years’ worth of knee issues. And his 5.1 yards per carry ranks fourth in the NFL among qualifying backs. But ESPN Denver Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold doesn’t think the Broncos will “get greedy” by trying to increase his workload too much after their cautious approach with him in the offseason has paid off so far.
Legwold thinks the Broncos will stick close to the 20-21 snaps Charles has received in every game so far, especially when running back Devontae Booker returns from injury to add to the crowded backfield led by C.J. Anderson.
Worth a click:
Some great stuff from ESPN Jacksonville Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco on why rookie running back Leonard Fournette’s 199 rushing yards and three touchdowns are even better than you might think. No player in the NFL has run the ball more against eight or more defenders in the box (18 of Fournette’s 57 carries). And he had runs of 10 and 19 yards called back due to penalty last week.
Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy has been in the same boat -- though he hasn’t fared as well as Fournette, with just 140 rushing yards and no TDs so far. As ESPN Bills reporter Mike Rodak pointed out, the Bills have averaged 11 plays per game with eight defenders in the box -- the most in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information.