RSP’s J Moyer Running Backs And the Coaching Carousel: Joe Mixon And A Streak of Tigers (Cincinnati)

RSP contributor J Moyer continues his deep dive into NFL backfields with intriguing coaching changes.  This week, he examines the Cincinnati Bengals, who are trying to replicate Sean McVay’s success in Los Angeles.

Coaching changes can have a profound impact on the production profiles of NFL offenses. Never was this more apparent than when Sean McVay took over the Rams in 2016.

The new head coach transformed Todd Gurley from an uninspiring 278-carry, 885-yard season under Jeff Fisher—an output that led analysts to wonder if Gurley was a bust—to the focal point of a wide zone offense that complemented Gurley’s strengths and led the runner to first-team All-Pro honors.

Friends Of McVay: Zac Taylor, Joe Mixon, And Rams Midwest

Eager to share McVay’s precocious success, the trend of hiring young, offensive-minded head coaches with ties to the Shanahan-Kubiak tree intensified this offseason. This was most apparent in Cincinnati’s hiring of former Rams’ quarterback coach Zac Taylor.

While McVay’s success is the exception rather than the rule, the Bengals host an array of skill talent that resembles what McVay and Taylor had access to in Los Angeles. Implementing a similar scheme could potentially enhance production for every member of the Bengals’ offense.

The Talent

Joe Mixon may be the closest talent comparison to Todd Gurley in the NFL. He is a big, thickly-built back with elite explosiveness and acceleration. His lateral agility and balance are also outstanding.

These traits help Mixon thrive when he reaches open space. Watch Mixon utilize these traits to gain chunk yardage in a variety of ways while executing Wide Zone Weak, which is, coincidentally, the staple run play of Sean McVay’s offense.

Often, backs with such dramatic physical talent struggle to navigate tight quarters, manipulate blocking angles, and maintain scheme discipline. As a result, they make high-risk decisions that can lead to negative plays in the NFL.

Mixon is no exception, especially when running Inside Zone and Duo—plays that rely on rapid reads and manipulation of the middle linebacker. While Mixon improved his footwork efficiency in 2018, he still occasionally misses reads, executes uncontrolled jump cuts, and makes risky decisions.

Mixon stands out as a receiving back. He utilizes his agility and burst to create separation when aligned as a receiver, and catches the ball easily from multiple catch angles—even with contact imminent.

Most of his targets in 2018 came from inefficient check-down passes, but Mixon thrived when targeted downfield and on designed screen passes.

Behind Mixon is a capable stable of backs. Gio Bernard is a steady veteran who catches the ball well and is a reliable, disciplined inside zone runner. Bernard lacks Mixon’s explosion, a trait that is a hallmark of the most effective backs in the Wide Zone scheme. Bernard likely will spell Mixon occasionally for between-the-tackles runs but is no threat to force a significant timeshare.

Trayveon Williams and Rodney Anderson are both talented sixth-round picks who could earn a role in the offense. Williams showed elite vision and footwork efficiency while leading the SEC in rushing yards in 2018. He also catches the ball and pass protects well.

Consider him a threat to usurp Gio Bernard as a 3rd-down and inside zone change-of-pace runner. Anderson is a big explosive back with a long injury history who may provide early-down production in case of injury to Mixon.

The Scheme

Zac Taylor has declared his intention to lean heavily on the Rams offensive scheme. As illustrated in the video breakdown above, the Wide Zone run scheme stresses the defense horizontally, allowing the running back to read across several gaps before making a cut and exploding upfield.

According to charting done by Zach Betz (@alltwentytwo), the Rams ran Wide Zone 212 times, or 57 percent of all running back carries, in 2018. While only running wide zone on 22 percent of the carries I charted, Mixon averaged 7.8 yards per attempt, with explosive runs (>12 yards) on 19 percent of those plays.

Mixon is an elite talent-scheme fit in this offense and he should also see improved utilization as a receiver. Sean McVay aligned Todd Gurley in the slot more often than any other NFL running back in 2018 per Pro Football Focus.

Early-down targets to running backs from the slot tend to create opportunities for a dynamic runner in space, typically one-on-one assignments with a linebacker. Expect Taylor to deploy Mixon similarly.

It’s notable that Mixon’s receiving stat line in 2018 is nearly identical to Gurley’s pre-McVay production in 2016.

Mixon-Gurley Receiving Comparison

Gurley more than doubled his receiving yardage and scored six receiving touchdowns after McVay’s arrival. While he may not reach quite those production levels, Mixon should see a significant increase in both volume and efficiency with more creative use as a receiver.

Don’t be surprised if Mixon takes a leap in production, continuing to parallel Todd Gurley. Mixon should take to the scheme like a tiger to water…

The resulting increases in efficiency could elevate Mixon to All-Pro status

Follow J Moyer on Twitter @JMoyerFB.

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