Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin may have made mention of an 'elephant in the room' in an interview with Tony Dungy (about the Patriots), but there has been a mountain made out of a molehill when it comes to running back Le'Veon Bell and his counterpart for the Cincinnati Bengals, rookie Joe Mixon. After the Week 7 win by the Steelers, Bell and Mixon had a few things to say on social media that mutated as it spread virally. Monday Night Football should be interesting as the two rushers go head-to-head - of sorts - in trying to prove who the better back is and propel their teams to the win.
It's not unusual for teams to build up an opponent, or view them, as a rival when they seem to have very physical, hard-fought games against each other. In the case of the Steelers and Bengals, they face each other a minimum of two games per season (divisional play) and have met each other several times in the playoffs. Both teams have seen some ugly things happen on the field: penalties, poor choices, chippy play and even all-out scrums. With Pittsburgh and Cincinnati being relatively close geographically, the fans tend to enjoy fueling the fire as well in what is seen as a regional battle for supremacy.
There have been plenty of players who've had individual rivalries. Most Steelers fans can remember the Hines Ward/Ed Reed feud that never seemed to keep a smile off of #86's face no matter how heated it got. That took place before it was a nearly everyday occurrence for some Twitter feed to light up and become a trending topic over something as small as play style, imitation, wearing mismatched uniform items and sarcasm without directly naming names.
When the Steelers hosted the Bengals, Mixon had not yet emerged as Marvin Lewis' primary back. In fact, Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard were both listed higher on the depth chart. Part of that was the fact that Mixon is, after all, a rookie. Mixon rushed for 48 yards on seven carries in the Bengals' first three offensive drives, but after the game, he expressed frustration that he did not get a single carry for the remainder of the game. Bernard ran three times for eight yards, Hill rushed four for seven yards; Mixon was in the game in the third quarter, but the Bengals didn't utilize him and they were getting their rear ends handed to them.
Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor (who had just taken over for ousted Ken Zampese) admitted after the game, "In the last two games that we won somewhere between probably two and five of our skill position players were probably pissed at me after the game...That's NFL football. Not everyone is going to be happy with their touches all the time."
Mixon sulked in front of his locker after the Bengals loss. "I felt like (Le'Veon) Bell got the ball 35 times. I get it seven. All in the first half then don't touch the ball again...If it worked in the first half why not do it in the second?" Bell actually finished the game with 134 rushing and 58 receiving yards. "Me personally, I feel like I can do way more than [Bell] did. Like I said, I only had seven carries. I can't showcase nothing if I don't get the ball. There's nothing else I can say," Mixon said.
Later, Coach Lewis told the media that the game situation, long downs that needed to be converted and bad situations, did not dictate continuing to try to run against the Steelers. Veteran receiver A.J. Green, who didn't have spectacular numbers (no second-half catches), either, verified how the game was going by saying, "In the first half we ran the ball pretty well, second half we couldn't do a whole lot of that. (The Steelers) played Cover 2 the whole game. We were running the ball pretty well...that made them get out of their Cover 2 a lot. We had a run-pass option because we were running the ball so well." Unfortunately for Cincinnati, the Steelers figured out how to adjust at halftime and it's hard to argue that anything was working when the Bengals offense could only muster 19 yards in two-plus quarters.
When Bell took to social media, it was admittedly petty. Most Steelers fans saw it as Bell trying to 'school' the rookie on how he should earn his own stripes, be his own player, instead of trying to imitate him. They say imitation is a form of flattery, but Bell didn't see it that way - or at least didn't appear to.
Le'Veon Bell apparently has a message for Joe Mixon pic.twitter.com/Q9weJzzDWY
— Jonathan Jones (@jjones9) October 29, 2017
The fact that Mixon started wearing an arm sleeve and mismatched gloves is hardly a big deal to most players and fans. Photos show that Mixon didn't do it until the Bengals played the Colts (one week after the loss to the Steelers). And, as soon as Bell went off, Mixon stopped doing it.
Joe Mixon looked up to Le’Veon Bell, but when they meet Monday night (8:25-ESPN, Cincinnati’s Channel 5) when Mixon’s Bengals meet Bell’s Steelers, probably not so much anymore. If Mixon is looking up to anybody it is Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch, his fellow Bay-area product who has been checking up on him since he was in middle school. And boyhood hero Michael Vick.
According to Jeremy Fowler of ESPN, Bell said, "The week we played (the Bengals) last time, (Mixon) said certain things that he's way better than me and things like that. The week after that, he's trying to wear everything I'm wearing. That's the only thing that's kind of confusing to me. I'm kind of confused by the whole thing. He's his own player, I'm my own player. We'll go out there and do our thing."
Le’Veon Bell said he’s still confused by Joe Mixon saying he can do ‘way more’ than him, then ‘wearing everything I’m wearing’ in his next game. pic.twitter.com/B6hO5nSXRo
— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) November 29, 2017
Thank goodness he put that to bed, right? Cue the dramatic rivalry music ... now!
Monday Night showdown face to face
Entering the game, Bell is leading all other NFL rushers with 981 yards on 252 carries. He has five rushing touchdowns to add behind his name on the official stats sheets. Bell also has 61 receptions for 396 yards and has once again moved into a position where Ben Roethlisberger had become comfortable throwing to him and Antonio Brown over the rotation of wide receivers who've had ups and downs this season. In fact, Bell very well could be considered the Steelers' number two receiver right now. He's on pace for 367 carries (the NFL record for touches is 492 in a season). Last week, Bell had 183 scrimmage yards and set a Steelers record with 12 receptions by a tailback.
— Christina L Rivers (@3Rivers_Writer) December 1, 2017
Mixon has numbers that are not unlike 'rookie numbers', but has benefitted from the Bengals sending Jeremy Hill packing and giving Mixon a shot next to Bernard to be a difference-maker since they last met the Steelers. On 150 carries, Mixon has 484 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. He has added 26 receptions for 258 yards.
Scout Fantasy lists Mixon as the number four rookie running back as of Week 13, with Leonard Fournette (1st), Christian McCaffrey (2nd) and Dalvin Cook (3rd) ahead of him. Kareem Hunt is listed as fourth. The problem is that those are fantasy football considerations, not real-game statistics. Hunt is the second-highest rated rusher in the league behind Bell as Week 13 kicks off. Comparatively, Mixon may be making more people miss (and gaining more yards after the initial hit than many rushers), but his 484 yards are a far shot from 890, let alone the 765 yards Fournette has put together. Remember, Scout is listing fantasy points only.
On Monday night, there may be some fireworks as Bell and Mixon try to show who is the better rusher and all-around back on the field. Hopefully, the two will do as Bell inferred - be the player they are - and leave any extra-curricular activity outside of Paul Brown Stadium. It would do zero good for the duo to take the rivalry atmosphere of comparisons and verbal barbs onto the turf and create unnecessary drama or penalties. The game is already a charged one. I'm looking forward to the two rushers putting on one heck of a good show as they tear up the turf and get involved in improved passing games on both squads. Here's to letting the feet do the talking.