Bengals breakdown: Can running backs do more in 2022?

Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon (28) runs near Los Angeles Rams outside linebacker Leonard Floyd (54) during the second half of the NFL Super Bowl 56 football game Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

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Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon (28) runs near Los Angeles Rams outside linebacker Leonard Floyd (54) during the second half of the NFL Super Bowl 56 football game Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Joe Mixon recorded the third most rushing yards in the NFL last year, but the Cincinnati Bengals’ running game ranked among the bottom half of the league’s 32 teams in its overall production.

That’s fine with a passing game like the Bengals’ but can Mixon and the other running backs do more to help the offense take another step – or simply keep up with the ever-improving competition in the AFC?

ExploreBENGALS BREAKDOWN: Quarterbacks

Cincinnati’s rushing attacked ranked 23rd overall with just 1,742 yards, while Mixon accounted for 1,205 of those in his best season since the Bengals selected him in the second round of the 2017 draft. The value could lie more in how the running backs assist in the aerial attack, but a solid running game can open things up more for the offense.

Let’s take a look at the performances of the Bengals’ running backs last year and how they are expected to stack up in 2022 with help from some analysis and data from Pro Football Focus.

This is the second in a series of pieces breaking down each position group for the Bengals. Part 1, featuring the quarterbacks, ran Sunday. Up next: Wide receivers.

RUNNING BACKS ON THE ROSTER

Starter: Joe Mixon

Reserves: Samaje Perine, Chris Evans

Others in the mix: Trayveon Williams, Shemari Jones, Elijah Holyfield

MIXON BY THE NUMBERS

2021 stats: 1,205 yards rushing, 13 TDs on 292 attempts (4.1 yards per carry); 342 yards receiving and 3 TDs on 42 catches; 1,519 yards from scrimmage

PFF grades for 2021: Mixon ranked 14th of 62 qualifying halfbacks with a 79.2 overall grade. He was 12th of 52 halfbacks in run grade (82.1), his highest in five seasons, and he was 29th of 58 halfbacks in receiving grade (63.7).

PFF ranking for 2022: PFF ranks Mixon as the ninth best running back going into this season, listed among the Tier 3 “good starters.” He’s listed seventh among all running backs in the site’s fantasy rankings, though.

PERINE BY THE NUMBERS

2021 stats: 246 yards, 1 TD on 55 carries; 196 yards receiving, 1 TD on 27 catches; 442 yards from scrimmage

PFF grades for 2021: Perine received an overall grade of 62.2, a rushing grade of 67.4 and a receiving grade of 64.6, but he did not have at least 20 percent of the league-highest volume so he was not given a ranking by position like Mixon.

No projections for 2022

EVANS BY THE NUMBERS

2021 stats: 17 carries for 77 yards (4.5 yards per attempt); 15 catches for 151 yards and two TDs

PFF grades for 2021: Evans received an overall grade of 75.4, a rushing grade of 63.6 and a receiving grade of 84.3, but he did not have at least 20 percent of the league-highest volume so he was not given a ranking by position like Mixon.

No projections for 2022

FURTHER ANALYSIS

PFF ranks the Bengals’ running back group in “Tier 2: Good backfield (very good starter or very good depth)” and 14th best overall. That number would rise if Perine and/or Evans were more productive.

“Joe Mixon had the best season of his career last year in Cincinnati, ending the year ranked second among all running backs in offensive snaps (886) to go along with a career-high 82.1 PFF rushing grade,” PFF analyst Ben Linsey wrote about the Cincinnati backfield. “Samaje Perine fills in behind him as a middle-of-the-road No. 2 option who notably took an important third-and-1 carry in the Super Bowl. This past year’s draft selection Chris Evans did show some promise as a receiver (82.3 PFF receiving grade) in limited action in 2021.”

Mixon could be looking to get more involved in the passing game in 2022, and if the Bengals can sell him to opposing defenses as a true threat in that area, perhaps he will be on the field in more third- and fourth-and-short situations. Last year it was too predictable the Bengals would run the ball on those plays if Mixon was in the game.

In PFF’s individual running back rankings, Mixon was ninth. Linsey noted how big of a jump Mixon made last year, following a disappointing 2020 campaign that ended after six weeks because of a foot injury. He earning just a 65.3 PFF grade before the injury, in his first season after signing a four-year, $48 million extension.

“The 2021 season provided an opportunity for Mixon to bounce back, and he answered the call,” Lindsey wrote. “His 0.2 PFF WAR finish last season was tied with Jonathan Taylor for the highest in the NFL, driven by a significant role in a Cincinnati offense that made it to the Super Bowl.”

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