The Gut Check No. 453: Get Joe Mixon Now

Matt Waldman breaks down the Bengals ground game and despite the fact that the opponent was the Colts, recommends that fantasy owners "buy-high" on Joe Mixon. 

 

In the midst of fantasy football's overreaction week, there are times to consider bold moves. Acquiring Joe Mixon is one of them.

Maybe someone sniped Mixon from you or you're concerned about the values of Ezekiel Elliott and David Johnson operating in struggling offenses. Or, you drafted Le'Veon Bell — once seen an essential piece of the Steelers offense — and discovered that James Conner has rendered Bell a luxury.

Whatever your reason, Mixon is a good choice if you need to pay the premium for an every-week starter at running back. Skeptics will note that Mixon's 22-touch, 149-yard performance came against a toothless Colts defense.

This is true. It's also true that when you analyze the process instead of the end result, you often earn actionable insights. Seven of Mixon's touches reveal that the Bengals ground game is better than last year and this improvement will make Mixon one of the 12-most consistent fantasy starters at his position this year.

Updated Note 9/14/2018: Even with Billy Price suffering an ankle sprain in Week 2's Ravens game, Mixon is worth acquiring. His upside won't be as great during the weeks that Price is out unless the line earns a huge mismatch. Even so, the injury does not appear bad enough that he'll be out for more than a few weeks. The Bengals have enough weapons that Mixon should remain a viable starter.

the 2018 Bengals have an upgraded ground game

The addition of Cordy Glenn and Billy Price are two significant reasons that Mixon will be productive. Glenn was a key part of a Bills offensive line that helped LeSean McCoy produce in Buffalo as a top-10 fantasy runner for the two seasons he started at least 15 games.

The rookie Price is a solid prospect with strengths that create versatility for this ground game. He's facing a learning curve — and there were a number of plays in this game where Price wasn't at his best — but what he does well benefits Mixon and in this respect, he had moments where he was terrific.

The return of Tyler Eifert and upgrade of John Ross places pressure on the secondary, forcing them to respect the deep third of the field. This gives Mixon breathing room against defenses that lack a pair of true shutdown cornerbacks because opposing safeties must account for Eifert, Ross, and Green.

Two deep threats create favorable numbers on the ground

Cincinnati's offense can align Ross and Green in ways that force a safety to cheat towards them and away from the trenches. While most offenses can align personnel in ways that create favorable numbers for the offense versus the defense on the ground, Ross and Green are so dangerous in the vertical game that pairing them to a side will often force the opponent to notably cheat three to their side and create an even man-on-man match-up on the ground.

Because the safety must play deeper and closer the side of Green and Ross, it also gives Cincinnati the luxury to use two tight ends while creating this scenario when other teams might need a deep threat split from the formation. In this respect, Green and Ross create an opportunity to get its best run-blocking personnel on the field.

the Bengals have run game flexibility thanks to its personnel

Both of Cincinnati's tight ends are skilled receivers, but Eifert is a seam-stretcher with a Pro Bowl resume. Whenever he's detached from the offensive line, it puts safeties and linebackers on notice to account for him as a dangerous intermediate threat.

However, Eifert is skilled enough as a stalk blocker that he provides tremendous flexibility for the Bengals offense. Eifert's alignment automatically makes him a vertical threat to the defense because he runs routes and catches the ball like a receiver. His size and blocking make him a second tight end who can seal one side while teammate Tyler Kroft plays in-line and seals the inside, creating a big lane for Mixon.

The fact that Cincinnati can use two-tight end sets but morph them into three-receiver alignments poses binds for the defense. Cincinnati can also shift alignments in response to how the defense lines up pre-snap and when Cincinnati makes its opponent pay for one look, it can shift into another and create mismatches for Mixon on the ground.

Mixon's screen game is top-notch, thanks in part to A.J. Green

Mixon established that he was a reliable receiver last year. He thrived in the Bengals screen game and this remained true last week against the Colts.

The addition of Glenn and the mobility of Price also improves the team's execution of these passing plays. In this case below, both Glenn and Price stay at home to set up the guards' work downfield.

Green's role in the screen game shouldn't go unnoticed. He's a good blocker who can force opponents to run with him for 10-15 yards before he must engage. When he does, he's a skilled blocker who doesn't let up.

Speed to the edge And Speed on the Edge

John Ross' speed also creates long, rushing lanes on the edges for the same reason as Green. This duo's speed on the edge benefits Mixon, who has enough speed to the edge that he can outrun the angles of many safeties.

Don't underestimate Ross' role in this play because that fade route he runs to force the cornerback downfield is by design. The Bengals use that speed to set up this run to the weak side — against the tendency of strong-side runs we normally see from these alignments.

Give a running back a one-on-one in the open field, and it's his job to win it. Mixon has the speed to get it done and generates a chunk play.

Rookie Center Billy price gives Cincinnati tremendous run-game flexibility

The local media covering Cincinnati wasn't excited about Price's performance this weekend. He got shoved around a bit as a pass protector and he failed to connect with his assignments on specific types of run blocks. Still, Price's ability to pull and seal a linebacker in space is impressive work that not every center can do in the NFL.

A pulling center often eliminates the need for an offense to always run to the side of the tight end — or even use a tight end. There's a lot more formational flexibility for the offense and it leads to unpredictability, which is the goal of a scheme.

A team can line up in a variety of alignments every week but if the opponent knows that the personnel in that alignment can't get the job done, the opponent won't respect what that alignment hints at doing. For instance, Atlanta's offensive line is best-suited to zone blocking. While all teams run a combination of zone and gap plays, they are different styles of blocking and it means certain linemen are often better at one style than another.

Zone blockers aren't earth movers as much as athletic players who use their opponents' movement to their advantage. Gap blockers are powerhouses to dictate action. Last week, Atlanta's zone-favored offensive line ran a gap play against Philadelphia's Fletcher Cox and Haloti Ngata in the red zone, which isn't an easy task for a good gap-blocking team, much less the Falcons.

The Eagles didn't respect Atlanta's attempt because it knew it could stop it without doing anything unusual. When Cincinnati's offensive line can force an opponent to account for multiple possibilities because the Bengals have proven its versatility, the ground game becomes less predictable. Washington and Philadelphia's lines have this versatility.

Creating his own space

After sharing all of these improved facets of the Bengals offense, one thing remains true from last year: Mixon is an excellent back who creates yards when a play breaks down. His ability to drop his weight and open his hips in tight spaces makes him an elusive runner.

Mixon produced a shade outside the top 30 at his position last year in standard and PPR formats. With his ability and the upgrades to the offensive line, Mixon is worth the risk of acquiring at the value of a top-10 running back. Get Giovani Bernard as a handcuff if you can because he's capable of top-15 production in PPR formats if Mixon gets hurt.

However, don't worry about Bernard cutting into Mixon's time because the Bengals stated this spring that Mixon would be the featured back and based on the tap above, using one back in every situation further enhances the unpredictability of the offense.

Congratulations to those of you who drafted Mixon. Good luck to those of you trying to acquire him.