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Weekly Lineman: Diving into Jordan Willis’ first game with Bengals

One of the newest faces on the Bengals’ defense made some splash plays in the preseason opener.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

We’re back at it.

It’s been far too long friends, but we’re starting anew. We’re going to keep things the same though. For those who’re new, welcome to the Weekly Lineman. Every week we’re going to break down some of the best and worst moments that occurred in the trenches from the Bengals’ game the prior week. The goal has always been to create a better understanding of what happens on a play-to-play basis, and to diagnose what went right and what went wrong. Let’s get started.

Jordan Willis was a player I was skeptical about. A “hand in the dirt” edge rusher with first round production and athleticism, and third round film at best coming out of college. The film aspect of his evaluation is what ultimately decided his draft fate, and all throughout the offseason he was the forgotten newcomer in comparison to the golden boy Carl Lawson, who was drafted 43 picks after Willis. Lawson may’ve looked better in practice, but it was Willis who recorded the first sack of the Bengals’ preseason.

Snap jumping is production, but with an asterisk next to it. On the road, offenses will utilize silent counts due to crowd noise, which makes it easier for the defensive line to guess the snap based on visuals and past snap counts. I don’t know what Willis did to jump the snap so perfectly, but it worked. When a player jumps the snap into a speed rush, you want to look for the proper lean in his first couple of steps, because you can’t dip around a tackle’s vertical set running straight up like a tree. Willis maintains his acceleration while bending enough to flatten himself around the arc and gives the right tackle little chance to interfere. If you watched Willis’ pass rushing reps leading up to this sack, you’d have a good idea what he was trying to accomplish. Here’s his first seven in chronological order:

Paul Guenther and staff kept things simple for Willis, who pinned his ears back and attacked the backfield constantly save for a few edge setting opportunities on running plays. Willis tried and tried again to win around the corner and failed in a multitude of ways. Whether it was getting his hands locked with the tackle, or running himself too far upfield, he showed no intention of countering inside. He was dead set on winning with speed and bend only, and his adversaries on both sides of the formation were having none of it. The one positive I took from this series of attempts was the first one, actually.

Putting specific traits on display is more telling than results in this stage of a player’s career. No edge is getting a sack on a pass that was thrown 2.25 seconds from the snap as shown here, so focus on the process. Willis comes off the ball in good time, and immediately gets his hands over his eyes. This means he’s properly leveraging himself against the tackle, and thus advantaging himself to counter his punch. Once his hands are high, he dips to get the tackle leaning from the waist, which is essentially him raising the white flag. Once the tackle is bent over helpless, Willis swims around him and leaves him in the dust.

This rep was won by Willis, but he did himself little good by taking the longest route to the quarterback, which goes back to him avoiding the inside shoulder of the tackle. It’s something to monitor going forward.

After these seven snaps, Willis did record his first pressure of the night by getting a quarterback hit.

In this 4-3 under look, Willis is the right defensive end lined up at what looks to be the 5T spot, putting him on the outside shoulder of the left tackle. Lawson, who is aligned on the line of scrimmage as SAM linebacker outside of the tight end, takes on the left tackle, leaving the left guard in a one-on-one with Willis. By shooting his hands into the guard’s chest, he is able to keep his hands free to disengage and work around him. Because Lawson took the left tackle all the way behind the quarterback, the B gap is ripe for the taking, and Willis takes advantage. Similar to what you saw from his sack, Willis’ natural ankle flexion (noted by his flexibility testing at the combine) allow him to plant his inside foot and flatten around the arc without losing speed in his pursuit, which helps him get to the quarterback in time to effect the throw from behind.

Finally, let’s look at the three reps leading up to the sack:

The first one shows Willis’ only instance of an inside counter in the form of a spin move. It’s safe to say its effectiveness isn’t that of a Dwight Freeney, and that’s mainly due to timing. All pass rushing moves require pinpoint hand placement and punctuality to work consistently, and this spin move has neither of those. By taking an extra step to turn around, he ends up too far up field. He completed the first task, which was to get the tackle’s butt facing the front of the quarterback, the execution that followed however is where the move failed. It’s okay, it’s his first game, but this is one of the better examples to show just how much Willis has to go to become a nuanced edge rusher.

The next two snaps have him playing left defensive end at the Wide 9T spot, these were excellent opportunities to see him convert speed to power if he decides to use a bull rush, or to see how he takes advantage of a more forgiving angle to the quarterback. The hand usage is a lot more instant and violent on these plays, which is encouraging. He has the athletic profile of a player who would thrive at that particular alignment, it wouldn’t be the worst thing to see more of that.

Just some general thoughts on the offensive line to close this piece out: Trey Hopkins, Jake Fisher and Christian Westerman all played an aggressive and tactical game. In run blocking, they looked for work and displayed great pad level to generate movement for any running back that ran behind them. Hopkins should clearly be starting somewhere on the line and if the only spot available to him is right guard, so be it. Westerman saw most of his action at left guard but he’ll likely be counted on to backup both sides of the center if he makes the team.

Next up the Bengals exhibition against one of the more balanced front sevens in Kansas City, who were without two of their better players in Chris Jones and Bennie Logan last week. If either of them play against the Bengals, the interior offensive line should be a focal point to watch for this Saturday.