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Bengals preseason: Andrew Billings demonstrates talent, inexperience in NFL debut

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Bengals defensive tackle Andrew Billings played his first preseason game on Friday. The results were mixed, showing promise, upside, but also inexperience.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals-Training Camp Kareem Elgazzar/The Cincinnati Enquirer-USA TODAY NETWORK

Since he was drafted, it’s seemed clear defensive tackle Andrew Billings was projected as the Cincinnati Bengals’ nose tackle of the future, replacing the belly-rubbing Domata Peko. Unfortunately, the timeline for Billings to get started was delayed when he suffered a meniscus tear several months after being selected during the 2016 NFL Draft. Before leaving for free agency, there was even idle conversation Cincinnati would have brought Peko back to help mentor Billings. Instead Peko left for Denver and now Billings is backing up Pat Sims, who himself is entering the final year of his current deal.

Billings made his NFL debut on Friday night in the Bengals’ preseason opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with 14:53 remaining in the second quarter. Sims consumed a majority of the team’s nose tackle snaps in the game with Wallace Gilberry and DeShawn Williams making cameo appearances during passing situations.

Overall, Billings didn’t make much of an impact during Cincinnati’s 23-12 win over the Buccaneers, especially during passing situations where his repertoire is centered around bulrushes; rarely does he show an inclination to swim, rip, or even sidestep, though he does attempt each at some point. Billings has one purpose: to fiercely grip the breastplate of the opposing lineman’s shoulder pads and drive, drive, drive, and drive. His focus is singular.

With 14:06 remaining in the second, Billings angled himself into the A Gap, or more specifically, a one-technique (the outside shoulder of the center), colliding with Buccaneers center Joe Hawley while right guard J.R. Sweezy chipped Billings with a focus on the second level, where linebackers and dive-bombing safeties typically patrol. After initial contact, against Hawley, Billings secured leverage and penetrated upfield, interjecting himself into the lane that running back Jacquizz Rodgers had initially targeted. Rogers sidestepped left and took on a hard-charging Clayton Fejedelem, who wrapped him up but needed an assist from Nick Vigil to complete the tackle for a limited two-yard gain. Following an embarrassing drop by receiver Mike Evans on the next play, the Buccaneers were forced to punt.

These are the type of plays expected of nose tackles in Cincinnati’s scheme. Good tackles clog lanes, great nose tackles clog lanes and make tackles.

With 7:44 remaining in the second, the Buccaneers had third-and-one from their own 47-yard line. Billings situated himself outside of Josh Allen’s left shoulder. Allen, Tampa Bay’s backup center, navigated around Billings as right guard James Stone carved a significant inside step to take on Billings. How do I say this? Stone did absolutely nothing to impede the boisterous hunger of Billings, who muscled his way into the backfield to drop running back Peyton Barber for no-gain. Tampa Bay went for it on fourth down and ran opposite of Billings for a three-yard conversion.

Billings had nothing to offer as a pass rusher; he was knocked down several times when squaring off against one blocker with a second popping him from the side. At times he pushed the issue, trying to penetrate into the backfield, leaving himself exposed. If opposing teams run draws or counters, they could take advantage of Billings’ overzealousness.

This happened with 5:04 remaining in the second. Billings positioned himself between the center and right guard. Both offensive linemen ignored him, moving into the second level. The unblocked Billings immediately saw glory. Unfortunately, he didn’t expect Jarvis Harrison, Tampa’s left guard, until the last moment. Harrison kicked out Billings on a pull, just as running back Charles Sims navigated around Cincinnati’s defense for a nine-yard gain.

On the ensuing play, Billings immediately secured leverage against Allen, and was in a position to devour Sims. However, Buccaneers receiver Chris Godwin accidentally ran into Sims, bouncing off Billings, who lost his balance (and the running back) while Barber picked up eight yards.

Billings has had three weeks of training camp practices and one preseason game in the NFL (plus last year’s pre-injury practices). These development projects require time and each practice, game and snap are lessons that Billings will adjust his game to. With his skill set and size, Billings can be an effective defensive tackle in the NFL. How good, well, that remains to be seen.