CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon wheeled around from his chair, stood up at his locker and attempted to take the majority of the blame for the least productive rushing attack in the NFL.
"I take it personally on me," said Mixon, who has 27 rushing yards through two games. "These two performances I've been displaying have been terrible. You (can) call me the peon right now."
Unfortunately for Mixon and the Bengals, it’s not that simple. How the blame should be divided is up for debate around Cincinnati’s locker room, but what is abundantly clear is the issue needs to be remedied quickly, starting with Sunday’s game at Buffalo (1 p.m. ET, CBS).
"We’ve sat in there as a unit and as a team and hammered out all the reasons for our lack of success so far," Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. "It’s very clear that it’s the entire unit. (We need) 11 guys functioning together in conjunction with the coaches putting us in the right positions."
In the Bengals’ 21-20 loss at Seattle in the season opener, the AFC’s leading rusher in 2018 didn’t have many chances to run the ball.
Taylor said the Seahawks opted to load the box with multiple defenders and dared the Bengals to throw the ball. According to NFL Next Gen, 14.3 percent of Cincinnati’s offensive snaps were against a defensive scheme with six or fewer players near the line of scrimmage. But Seattle never put eight men in the box.
However, based on how Cincinnati read the defense, quarterback Andy Dalton attempted 51 passes for 418 yards and two touchdowns in the one-point loss.
To compound the Bengals’ rushing woes, Mixon suffered an ankle injury in the second half and did not return. While it could have been much worse, the injury limited Mixon in practice before last Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers.
The Bengals were routed in a 41-17 defeat and Mixon had 17 yards on 11 carries. Because Cincinnati was chasing a sizable deficit for most of the game, rushing opportunities were limited. When Mixon did get the ball, he said the ankle wasn’t an issue.
"I have to run with my feet and my eyes, so that has nothing to do with how I performed," Mixon said.
The main problem is Mixon tends to be looking at clogged running lanes. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Mixon has been stuffed (no gain or a loss) on 41.2 percent of his carries, the highest rate in the league. On the Bengals’ 33 rushing attempts this season, they have had a blocking advantage on 72.7 percent of the carries. But that edge has led to 59 rushing yards, the lowest total in the NFL.
The way Taylor described it, the Bengals were often a block away from springing Cincinnati’s rushers for a big run. Mixon’s only rush of 10 or more yards was called back because of holding.
The poor blocking was one of the concerns in the preseason as the offensive line entered the year as one of the biggest question marks. That’s compounded this week as starting left tackle Cordy Glenn is out indefinitely because of a concussion and left guard Michael Jordan is out for at least a week because of a left knee injury.
Second-year lineman Billy Price, who is expected to start this week in Jordan’s spot, said the line has to do a better job for Mixon.
"If you get Joe on the second level, third level, it's going to be a good day for us," Price said. "We just have to continue to work and continue to grind and make sure that we keep Joe not dodging tackles in the backfield."
Mixon is as eager as his fantasy managers to put up triple-digit rushing totals each week. He believes he’s an elite running back. And if he performs that way this season, he will make a strong case for a richer, renegotiated contract (his rookie deal is set to expire at the end of 2020).
After a lackluster two weeks, Mixon is determined to improve.
"There ain't no reason right now that I shouldn't be at least averaging 120 to 125 yards a game," Mixon said. "At the end of the day, that's all on me."