The most notable newby was Chris Smith, who for the second straight week was Cincinnati’s highest-rated player by Pro Football Focus. His 90.4 overall grade will likely earn him a spot on the PFF Team of the Week again as well. It’s hard to truly measure how good a player is when he’s often going against second and third-string tackles, but Smith did actually get some reps with the starters on Saturday.
One of his few snaps with the first-team defense came as close to a quarterback pressure as you can be a on patented Alex Smith dumpoff:
“He’s been getting after that quarterback,” Carlos Dunlap told Bengals.com of Smith. “Obviously, he’s a great natural pass rusher and that’s what we’re looking for – guys who can close the game and get after the quarterback.”
Veteran tackle Eric Winston went up against Smith plenty in camp, and he had some strong praise for the promising pass rusher.
“He’s got a little bit of (Elvis) Dumervil in him in the sense that he’s not tall but he’s very long-armed and he plays with a lot of leverage,” said Winston. “He probably doesn’t have the strength of Dumervil, but I think he has more moves and he’s crafty with what he does. I’ve been impressed with him.”
The Bengals have former franchise left tackle Andrew Whitworth (in part) to thank for finding Smith. After the Bengals and Jaguars played in the preseason last year, Whitworth praised Smith’s talents to defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, who later pushed for the Bengals to acquire Smith via a conditional seventh-round pick.
“I was watching tape of him in a game and I was like, ‘Man, who is this guy?’” said Guenther. “And I was walking in from practice the week we were playing Jacksonville and I said (to Andrew Whitworth), ‘Did you watch that kid they have at defensive end?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah. He’s got a spin move, he’s got an up-and-under, he’s got speed to power, have you been studying him? That kid’s really good.’ So I told (Director of Player Personnel) Duke (Tobin) and he said that he may be on the bubble for them and I said, ‘This is a guy that we want to pick up.’”
But while Smith was a force on the edge throughout the night, so too was rookie Jordan Willis. The third-round defensive end had a solid showing in training camp, but he’s really turned it on in his first two preseason games.
After earning a solid 82.2 PFF grade in Week 1, Willis registered an 80.2 grade against the Chiefs. His 81.2 average is the second-highest of any Bengal through two preseason games, trailing only Smith.
Against the Chiefs, Willis’ most memorable play was one he didn’t quite finish, but it was a still a great look at his ability to burst off the edge and get under his blocker to pressure the quarterback:
Near the end of the fourth quarter with the game already lost, Willis was still giving it his all on a fourth-down run by the Chiefs, which he set the edge on and held his ground to help force the tackle for loss:
It’s not pretty, but Willis makes it work with relentless effort and fight. That stop was one of the few bright spots on an ugly night for the defense, so perhaps he’ll earn more reps with the first-team defense going forward.
Seeing those two produce pressure as much as they have has Dunlap excited about the potential of this youth movement on the edge.
“We’ve got some young talent that can help us,” said Dunlap. “Like I’ve been saying this whole time, we have a lot of young talent.”
Willis was projected by some experts as a late first-round pick in this year’s NFL Draft. His preseason outings have certainly showcased why he was so highly regarded at one point, but for whatever reason, Willis fell to the Bengals in Round 3 before being scooped up. He didn’t draw as much praise as fellow rookie Carl Lawson in training camp, but it’s been WIllis who’s been a complete defensive end and made an impact versus the run and pass. Lawson unfortunately was slightly injured in the first preseason game and sat out on Saturday.
What looked like a major question mark coming into training camp has suddenly become one that, while there’s still some kinks to work out, you feel a lot better about heading into the regular season. Smith and Willis need to keep up their production against first-string linemen, but they’ve both shown enough ability and talent to think they’ll do just fine at the NFL level once the regular season arrives.