If there has been a consistent bright spot for the Bengals in an otherwise rough season, it has been the play of running back Joe Mixon, especially over the second half of the season. Mixon enters Week 17 just 25 yards shy of 1,000 and looks to become the first Bengal since Cedric Benson (2010-11) to post consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
Since Week 10, Mixon has been playing at a Pro Bowl level. In those seven games, Mixon has rushed the ball 151 times for 655 yards and three touchdowns, while adding 15 catches for 163 yards as well for a stout 818 total yards (117 per game). Mixon enters Week 17 with 20-plus carries in three straight games and has racked up 332 yards (111 per game) on the ground during that span.
Included in that productive run was a season-high 146 yards rushing and a touchdown against the Browns in Week 14. Mixon gashed the Browns for 6.3 yards per carry and 13.3 yards per catch en route to 40 yards receiving. He set his season-highs in rushing yards (146), receiving yards (40) and total yards (186) all against the Browns this year. It should also be noted that Mixon averages 37.2 yards receiving per game against the Browns for his career, the second-most against any opponent he has played multiple times.
Mixon's big day started a rough stretch for the Browns run defense that has really struggled here in December. In the four games prior to that Week 14 game against the Bengals, the Browns had allowed just 89.5 yards rushing per game to their opponents. Unfortunately, things changed dramatically starting with Mixon, and the Browns have allowed 648 yards rushing (216 per game) over the last three weeks.
Cleveland has allowed an individual 100-yard rusher in each of those games, and teams are averaging more than 6 yards per carry against them during this ground explosion. Not to mention, the Browns opponents have rushed for six touchdowns over the last three weeks with five of them coming in the losses to Arizona and Baltimore, both of whom rushed for more than 225 yards against the Browns.
Stopping the ground game and Mixon will be key for the Browns to get back on the right track in Week 17. While they can cede some yardage on the ground and get a win, as Week 14 proved, they will have to be dominant in the red zone again if they let Mixon run wild. The Browns are 1-4 this year when allowing an opposing 100-yard rusher, with the lone win being over Mixon and the Bengals, so it is just best to keep him bottled up and to attack the Bengals porous offensive line in obvious passing situations.
Check out photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Bengals Sunday by team photographer Matt Starkey