Aug 10, 2012; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap (96) is helped off the field by trainers during the game against the New York Jets at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Frank Victores-US PRESSWIRE
Those bloodthirsty for live tackling got a quick reminder of the carnage that comes with full contact. Before most fans could get out of the beer line, Travelle Wharton rolled around on the turf like someone had shot his knee off with an elephant gun. It was so soon and so severe that the stadium couldn't even talk about it. Fans around me tried to make other conversation, as if downplaying the injury could somehow make it less serious. Once the cart rolled out though, we knew he was effed for the year and that was that.
When Rey Maualuga hobbled off almost right after Wharton fell, collars were loosened and worrisome heads began to slowly shake. And when Carlos Dunlap flipped us all out with what looked like another bad knee injury, I wanted to cancel the game altogether.
How will this team make it through 19 more games if they can't get through six minutes of real football without crucial players dropping like flies? I've never been so terrified in the preseason.
Whenever something bad happens, though, I try to put the positive spin on it, and the immediate spin on an injury problem is that it gives the backups their big moment in the spotlight. So for the rest of the night, I kept an eye on said backups, especially Clint Boling.
Since the Jets hired Rex Ryan as their coach, they have always looked the part of an AFC North team. They're a big, physical 3-4 defense that tries mauling the opposing run game and never shuts up—a perfect test for Boling to get a taste of the real thing.
Boling doesn't have the gorilla gut that Wharton does, so my concern was that the young man's strength might not be up to snuff, but, for the most part, I thought he held up nicely. What I really liked was his ability to quickly find and engage the second-tier middle linebackers in the 3-4 scheme. He seems like a fairly athletic guard, perhaps not the flexible marvel of Kevin Zeitler, but still a guy who can move downfield with ball carriers. On the longest run of the night by BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Boling pushed David Harris backwards for about 10 yards which sealed the corner and allowed Green-Ellis to make the turn down the sidelines. I thought he held up okay in pass protection too. There was just one play where I would say he lost when Quinton Coples blew him up and pushed him backwards into Bruce Gradkowski's throwing motion. The defenses within the division will be even more talented and a lot more amped up come regular season, but it was refreshing to see the youngster hold up well in his first mini test.
Another quality backup emerging is Roddrick Muckelroy of the linebacker ranks. In the five or so practice events I've watched this season, Muck displayed his effort and smarts, consistently being in the right places to make plays. I thought he looked very comfortable out there rolling with the number-ones, flowing to the ball carrier and tackling with excellent technique. A lot has been made of the noisy Vontaze Burfict—and for good reason—but Muckelroy continues to quietly elevate himself up the depth chart as well. Before his injury, Maualuga came out with good energy and focus, even racking up a quick sack, but when he left, a formidable defense remained and to me that shows the capabilities of these defensive backups.
Missing Dunlap, however, is just not something I am comfortable with. Robert Geathers is somehow going to finish out the sizable contract extension he signed in 2007, which I still find surprising, but for now he is hurt too. Geathers has always been a solid run-stopping end, but since racking up double-digit sacks in '06—a season that led to his big extension—he has yet to tally over four in any single season since. The team seems fairly pleased with Jamaal Anderson, picked up from the Colts in the offseason, but he too has never wowed anyone and just seems like another big body to load up front on defense. I do like DeQuin Evans though. He's a bit undersized for an end, but he has motor and speed, displayed on a play where he ran down Tim Tebow near the sideline and forced the hefty lefty to chuck the ball out of bounds. He is another guy who at times turns heads at practice, and for the most part seems like a guy who knows nothing in the NFL is guaranteed. I know that Dontay Moch has been lining up with his hand on the ground as a pass-rushing end, and I know speed-rushing is his apparent expertise, but I have yet to really notice the guy make any plays. While all of these other options bring something unique to the table, none of them are even close to wreaking the kind of havoc that Dunlap can. It's enough to make me miss Frostee Rucker and Jonathan Fanene a little bit.
That being said, I did like the pass rush I saw early on in the game, especially from the linebackers. It was welcomed news to hear Zimmer say that he was prepared to blitz Manny Lawson off of the edge more this year. Lawson was an absolute terror in college as a pass rusher and had some of those moments in San Francisco as well, but he has never lived up to his college-days hype. But Lawson is a guy who has stood out in practice and forced Sanchez into a sack on Friday night. Zimmer sent the linebackers right away against New York and never allowed either Jets quarterback to get all that comfortable. If Dunlap misses significant time at any point this year, I would expect to see even more linebacker and safety blitzes to compensate for his loss, though it won't be the same.
In general, Week 1 of the preseason became a testament to the value of depth. On the one hand, I would rather experience team-wide injury earlier than later in the season, so that bodies can heal and youngsters can improve for the all-important stretch run at the end, and we knew somebody at some point was going to go down with a major injury, but seeing so many so soon was jarring. It will be interesting to monitor the waiver wire at the guard position. Will the Bengals take that familiar stroll back to their favorite scrap heap and toss a guy like Vernon Carey into their shopping cart, or will they strap up and go to war with Boling in the trenches? And what will happen in Atlanta on Thursday? More injuries? I guess they can't be helped. Every team will have to deal with the same problems throughout the year, and, as mentioned, it might be good to get them out of the way now, but from a fan perspective, I could do without another week like the first one.
Mojokong—When a win is a loss.