Bengals' Joe Mixon emerges as the top rusher in AFC

CINCINNATI -- Joe Mixon leads the AFC in rushing and is fourth overall in the NFL, despite missing two games early in the season after a knee scope. The last Cincinnati Bengals running back to lead the AFC in rushing was Rudi Johnson, who had 1,458 yards in 2005.

After consecutive 100-yard games, Mixon is just 5 yards away from getting his first 1,000-yard season.

How much would that mean to the second-year running back? He’s not saying. When asked about it leading up to and after last week's game, Mixon preferred to talk about wide receiver Tyler Boyd’s 1,000-yard season.

“I mean, I’m 5 away. I haven’t gotten there yet,” he said on Sunday. “Hopefully, next week, I can get a 5-yard carry, and then I’ll be there. I’ll take that all the way. It’s a blessing to be able to go out there on Sunday.”

If Mixon hits 1,000 yards, he would be the first Bengals running back since Jeremy Hill in 2014 to hit that mark. He and Boyd are the brightest stars left on a team that has been gutted by injuries and was eliminated from the playoffs this week.

“It’s an honor to come out here and have them tell me they’re putting it on me,” he said. “So I’ve got to come out here and do whatever I can to show up every Sunday.”

Mixon hasn’t even so much as hinted at discontent at his usage after he was given a talking-to last year following a loss to the Steelers. Mixon didn’t have a carry in the second half of that game and said he didn’t understand why Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell could get the ball 35 times while he got only seven carries.

"Me, personally, I feel like I can do way more than [Bell] did,” Mixon said at the time. “Like I said, I only had seven carries. I can't showcase nothing if I don't get the ball. There's nothing else I can say."

Bengals coaches weren’t happy with Mixon’s comments, and Marvin Lewis said at the time that Mixon needed to show more maturity. Mixon never mentioned the topic again, and if he has been frustrated this season, he hasn’t voiced it to the public.

With Bell sitting out the 2018 season, Mixon has gone on to show that he could be the AFC North’s next premier running back.

If the Bengals could’ve fed Mixon the ball more, would it have made a difference to their postseason hopes? Probably not, as two of their losses were blowouts. It’s easy to play the “what if?” game though.

What if the Bengals had mixed the run and pass and taken longer to score against the Steelers, thus leaving the defense less time to allow for a last-minute scoring drive? What if the Bengals had stuck with the run more against the Broncos after Mixon played so well coming out of the gate?

Mixon gave a pretty convincing argument the past two weeks as to why he should be the centerpiece of the offense. He carried the ball 53 times in that span for a total of 240 yards and three touchdowns.

What Mixon has accomplished is more impressive than it looks on the surface. This is the first season he has been asked to carry the load after sharing time with Hill last year.

Additionally, the Bengals almost never use him in two-minute situations to end the half. Giovani Bernard is usually the guy there as well as in third-down situations due to being a better pass-blocker. Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said after a loss to the Ravens on Nov. 18 that it was an attempt to equal out the carries.

“Joe can do it, too,” Lazor said. “Some of it is Joe takes most of the drives in the game, and so when you're trying to look at the total number of plays, there is a little bit of strategy involved. At the end of the game, we don't want to be stuck and say, 'Ah, this guy didn't get enough plays or that guy didn't get enough plays.' ... But, that's just part of balancing out how the numbers go.”

That’s in addition to a mediocre offensive line and a tendency for his usage to disappear in certain games. Out of 12 games, Mixon carried the ball at least 20 times in only five. The Bengals were 4-1 in those games.

The lack of a run game was understandable in the case of some blowout losses in which the Bengals fell too far behind to do anything but pass. However, in games such as a 24-10 loss to the Broncos, it was more puzzling.

Mixon averaged 7.4 yards per carry in the first half against the Broncos, rushing eight times for 59 yards. When they came out for the second half, his first attempt was called back by a holding penalty, and the Bengals ran the ball with Mixon only three times (for 23 yards) out of 17 offensive plays the rest of the quarter. By that point, the Bengals were down 21-10 in the fourth quarter and did not attempt another run play with Mixon.

After the Raiders game, in which Mixon ran for a career-high 129 yards, Lewis mentioned that the coaches had said a few weeks prior that they wanted to emphasize leaning on Mixon. That would’ve been around the time of losses to the Browns or Broncos.

“Joe, Gio and [Boyd] -- those guys are making plays for us, and we’ve got to keep riding on their shoulders,” Lewis said.

Considering how many playmakers the Bengals have lost this year, it certainly makes one wonder what could’ve been if the Bengals had figured that out sooner.

“The way he's playing, it brings something to the team. I think guys see him running hard and it's nice to bust out on a 47-yard run,” Lazor said. “You always like it when the running game can help add those explosive [plays]. I think earlier in the year it was mostly coming from the passing game, and when the runs start popping out to change the field position too, I think guys get fired up for that. I think he just keeps getting better. ... Hopefully, he’s one of those guys still at the beginning of what he can be.”