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Mixon rushed for 95 yards and a touchdown and caught five passes for 54 yards against the Colts. His 149 yards from scrimmage were the most by a Bengals running back in a season opener since Essex Johnson had 142 in 1973.
“He looks like a big leaguer,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Looks like he does it all well. Big, fast, elusive, tough. Pass protection. Catches out of the backfield. Screens. I don’t know what he didn’t do well. I’d like to say he’s a guy you have to stop, but you have to stop everybody on that offense.”
Last season, Mixon was competing with teammate Jeremy Hill for snaps, but now it’s his time to shine.
“Last year, he was in a different position. He wasn’t the starter. It wasn’t his position,” Bengals running back coach Kyle Caskey said. “Now it is his position and he’s taken ownership of it. He’s not worried about when the next carry is going to come or when he’s going to get back in the game due to the rotation. He’s playing consistently because he knows the chances are going to be there.”
Mixon scored his first touchdown of the season by following defensive end Sam Hubbard up and over a pile to help put the Bengals up on the Colts in the fourth quarter. Then he ran into the end zone and celebrated by dancing to Drake’s “In My Feelings,” a song that spawned a viral dance movement over the summer.
Mixon is constantly moving, whether he’s dancing after a touchdown or bobbing his head to a different Drake song in the locker room. He exudes confidence, even if he isn’t verbalizing it these days, perhaps remembering how it fell flat the last time he publicly voiced his opinion.
Mixon expressed his disappointment to reporters last October following a 29-14 loss to the Steelers by pointing out how Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell carried the ball 35 times. Mixon had only seven carries, all in the first half.
“Me, personally, I feel like I can do way more than [Bell] did,” Mixon said at the time. “I only had seven carries. I can’t showcase nothing if I don’t get the ball. There’s nothing else I can say.”
His words didn’t go over well with his coaches, or with Bell, who went on his Twitter account to accuse Mixon of copying him. Mixon, who said he had once looked up to Bell, changed up his celebration and his style and didn’t say much about the incident again.
Now that Bell is staying away from the Steelers with no timetable for his return, Mixon has the chance to put some meaning behind those words, and his teammates wholeheartedly agree.
“You mention Le’Veon or [Todd] Gurley,” teammate A.J. Green said. “He’s right up there with those guys.”
A lot has changed since Mixon and Bell’s “feud” gained attention before flaming out just as quickly. Hill left Cincinnati in free agency, and the Bengals declared Mixon would be the “bell cow” running back this year.
“My approach has always been the same,” Mixon said. “Right now I’m at a point where whatever I can do each and every day to get better and improve my game and help my team to be in the best situation possible.”
The off-the-field controversy that surrounded Mixon and the team when he was drafted last year has died down.
Mixon dropped to Day 2 of the draft after a video associated with an assault incident that occurred in 2014 was released a few months prior. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault after punching a woman in the face and breaking her jaw following an argument at a restaurant in Norman, Oklahoma, celebrating his 18th birthday. Mixon was suspended by Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops for the 2014 season but returned to rush for 2,027 yards and 17 touchdowns over the next two seasons.
The Bengals believed Mixon was worth all of the negative attention they received at the time. They liked Leonard Fournette, who went No. 4 overall, but Mixon ranked close behind on their board.
“As a player, the film spoke for itself, so that wasn’t the issue,” Caskey said. “The issues were what they were, and once you get to know a guy outside of football, it shows pretty quickly the type of person he is and the people he surrounds himself with. … He has a really good group of people around him, so that really made me more sure than anything.”
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis saw something in Mixon as well. When Lewis first met him, he was reminded of a 16-year-old in a man’s body. He saw a big kid who always wanted to hang out at the facility. Lewis said last season that he hoped Mixon never lost that enthusiasm.
“He was the first person to congratulate John Ross [following his first career touchdown on Sunday],” Lewis said. “I’m sure he was the first one in the end zone with Clayton Fejedelem. So, no, it hasn’t changed one bit. He is the first one at everything and to congratulate his teammates. Within the football game, his spirit and drive is evident in that huddle.”
If Mixon stays out of trouble and keeps that same drive, the only thing that will hold him back from a breakout year at this point is himself.
“As long as we don’t defeat ourselves, it’ll be very, very hard to stop our offense,” he said.