Sun, 20 Sep 2020

Reunion Of A. J. Green And Joe Mixon Fire Bengaldom's Imagination

Cincinnati Bengals
08 Aug 2020, 21:58 GMT+10

Maybe it is just coincidence. But probably not.

In the five games running back Joe Mixon has racked up at least 20 carries while playing with wide receiver A.J. Green, the Bengals are 5-0.

Including that last one. Way back on Oct. 28, 2018. Back when Mixon banged it 21 times for 123 yards against the Buccaneers at The Paul to set the stage for Green's diving-tumbling-crawling-mega clutch-11-yard catch over the middle on the game's next-to-last play that translated into the winning field goal.

Maybe that's why Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan found himself on Friday talking maybe more about Mixon than even the other not so average Joe in town, rookie quarterback Joe Burrow.

And Callahan isn't forgetting about the other first-rounder making his NFL debut Sept 13 against the Chargers because left tackle Jonah Williams missed all of his rookie season last year with a shoulder injury.

After Williams spent a slice of the offseason working with recently retired Joe Staley, the six-time Pro Bowl left tackle for the 49ers, the Bengals' eyes bulged when he came back so much sleeker and re-configured. The kid doesn't look like a center any more.

"Really," Callahan said, "what ended up happening with him is he got a year to re-shape his body."

Green, it seems, has re-shaped nothing. From what they can see, he's still got game-breaking springs. To have him back on the field for the first time since he was carted off the field in the first 45 minutes of the Zac Taylor Era up in Dayton during the opening practice of training camp has players and coaches buzzing.

Amazing that Green has never taken a snap in game with Taylor on the sidelines and Callahan in the press box. But Callahan confirmed Friday that Green certainly knows his way around what is now Burrow's playbook.

"He's been great. It's been really fun seeing No. 18 run around the field," Callahan said. "It gets me pretty excited. I know Zac feels the same. He works really hard. He was engaged all year long last year given the circumstances. Obviously, he's worked really hard to rehab and get himself healthy. He looks fantastic, and mentally he's been the All-Pro that he is. I'm excited. I'm really, really excited to have him playing football for us this year."

Even though Mixon is embarking on extension talks in this, his contract training camp, Callahan says he's the same upbeat guy. He's watched the tape. He knows in the last two seasons Green has been shelved, Mixon has been their MVP.

"He's the Energizer bunny. He's jumping up and down and running his mouth and having fun playing football," Callahan said. "I mean, he loves playing football. He loves his teammates. I think he's everything that you want in that regard. He goes out and does his job. He plays hard. He practices hard. He puts the work in mentally and physically. He's kind of been the heartbeat of our offense here, especially last year, but the last couple of years I would say, without being here, just watching from afar. Between him and A.J., those guys have been the driving forces behind the energy of the offense."

Now they're both here and Bengaldom can only wonder of the riches if both stay healthy.

In the opening sessions last season, Mixon was an afterthought despite coming off a 1,000-yard season. After six games he had just 74 carries, tied for 18th most in the league. He was on pace to have fewer than 200 carries. That had only happened twice in this century for the Bengals bell cow. The winless Bengals were dead last in rushing.

But in the last eight games, after Taylor, Callahan and offensive line coach Jim Turner ripped up the run game, Mixon got the ball and the Bengals started staying in games. Over the second half of the season Mixon led the NFL in carries and led everyone but Derrick Henry in yards. The Bengals were sixth in rushing, won two games, lost one in overtime and three more by a touchdown or less. Mixon's 278 carries were the most by a Bengal since BenJarvus Green-Ellis had the same number for the 2012 Wild Card Bengals.

No wonder Callahan has bestowed upon us a new term in Mixon's honor:

Volume Carrier.

"He gets better as he gets more carries. As the season went along we got better getting him more touches," Callahan said. "When he's touching the ball 20 plus times, the total at the end of the game means his numbers are usually pretty good. He's been very effective as far as just pure touches. Carries and catches.

"The more Joe touches the ball the better it is for our offense, without a doubt. All the ways we can find to get him the ball, the better it's going to be."

And then there's other Joe. The guy that has to get the ball to Mixon and Green.

Burrow.

Callahan concedes the challenges are immense for a rookie quarterback with no pre-season games. Maybe that's the biggest challenge. A) The First Hit and B) Being Out There Alone for the first time without coaches.

"Getting hit for the first time. That's usually a big part of it. All quarterbacks kind of have those jitters," Callahan said. "They don't get touched in practice. They don't feel a live rush. Especially for a kid who hasn't played NFL football and for a rookie quarterback generally that first time that rush comes live at you full speed it's a little bit different than college.

"He was playing against great players in the SEC, that's as close as you're going to get to NFL speed and tempo, but that first pass rush, that first hit, that first time they get jolted around kind of reminds them that it's time to play football again. You'd like that to happen before obviously before the opener, but we don't get that this year."

But the guy seems to be up to it mentally. Callahan has been talking to this guy through a screen since March, so he knows all he can know about the guy. No surprises. They've unloaded the playbook on the kid because that all he's been able to do. And he's been able to spit right back at them through the screen.

So, full speed ahead.

"You always go at the speed of the quarterback. Everything that we do is geared toward how much you can handle, and the volume that he can handle and the speed in which we can put it on him," Callahan said. "So far, I would say, he has not proven that he's needed any more time to study and learn than anybody else that I've been around. We kind of throw it all at him.

"We've had so much time to meet virtually and non-virtually so far, that really the installation hasn't been an issue at all."

So far, the first-rounders are giving off vibes that have coaches and teammates murmuring to themselves. There is Burrow's confidence and Williams' commitment.

Turner and assistant Ben Martin raved about Williams' work ethic even when he was sidelined last season. They could see the body talking the shape by the time he left before the Covid. He still won't play bigger than 310 pounds, but it's a buffed 310. Once he got cleared he headed west to hunt down Staley.

"He looks like a pro, he doesn't look like a college kid anymore," Callahan said. "His build and physique he kind of changed, not completely. But (when) he walked up to get tested when he first got here, I was like, 'Woo, hey, Jonah it's good to see you man.' He worked as hard as anybody last year. He was in every meeting. He was working on his own. He is well prepared to take that spot."

With Green and Mixon leading the kids, Callahan is banking on his offense growing up fast, too.

Sign up for The Tampa News

a daily newsletter full of things to discuss over drinks.and the great thing is that it's on the house!