Joe Mixon was frustrated.
Accustomed to breaking off big run after big run for Oklahoma, the rookie running back couldn’t even get back to the line of scrimmage with the Bengals.
Big plays? Just getting a couple of yards was the best he could do. Finally, he accepted that sometimes that’s the way it goes in the NFL, and things started to change.
Mixon ran for a career-high 114 yards Sunday during a 30-16 victory over the winless Cleveland Browns, his first big game in the pros.
The Bengals (5-6) hadn’t been able to run the ball at all until Sunday, managing a total of 100 yards in only one game previously.
The breakthrough came after Mixon accepted that a 3-yard run in the NFL isn’t a failure, and he ought to just embrace it instead of trying to make something out of nothing.
“It’s very physical here every play, and that’s the difference,” Mixon said. “Coming from Oklahoma, they have a great line, you have those holes and you’ve got to just go. Here everybody is bigger, stronger, faster, smarter. You’ve got to keep trusting and believing.
“Keep getting the 2-yard run, the 3-yard run, and eventually something will break.”
The Bengals deemed Mixon worth the criticism when they drafted him. Mixon punched a woman in the face at Oklahoma. After other teams passed on him, the Bengals decided to take him the second time around.
“I love it here,” Mixon said. “I appreciate them for picking me up.”
The Bengals loved his versatility as a power runner who can catch passes and make defenders miss. Mixon started the season sharing the role with incumbent Jeremy Hill, who became a close friend. When Hill suffered an ankle injury and had surgery, Mixon became the primary back.
Even so, the running game had nowhere to go. A struggling offensive line created few holes. Mixon kept trying to force a big play when it wasn’t there. A low point came during a win in Denver two weeks ago when Cincinnati rushed for a total of 49 yards.
After that game, Cincinnati’s running game ranked the worst in franchise history and last in the league by far, averaging 3 yards per carry.
Once the Bengals got ahead of the Browns on Sunday, they decided to finish it off by running the ball.
They used extra blockers and opened holes for Mixon. On a clinching 75-yard drive, Mixon had runs of 15 and 14 yards before scoring on an 11-yard run.
“Not only were we in position where we had to run it, but we did a nice job running it,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said.
“It has you coming off the field with a good feeling. I like how Joe finished his runs. He seemed to get some rhythm going there and was a physical force. And a couple of those holes were really nice to have in an NFL game.
“So it leaves you with a good taste in your mouth, for a few hours.”