I’ve semi-often referred to tweets that felt relevant to me after watching NFL game film. This one stuck with me re-watching the Bengals defeat against the Chiefs:
Only two NFL teams last year had all five offensive linemen play at least 90 percent of their snaps.— Cian Fahey (@Cianaf) August 13, 2017
Both played in the Super Bowl.
The Tweet explains that the teams that make it the furthest are almost always the healthiest teams. Not necessarily the best, or the most talented, or the most well put together, but the healthiest. No position group’s health, and therefore continuity and chemistry, is more important than the offensive line. However, it wasn’t all health that put the Cincinnati Bengals out of this statistic last year. Three of their opening day starters played more than 90% of their snaps: Kevin Zeitler (99.9%), Andrew Whitworth (98%) and Russell Bodine (97.5%) never missed extended time. But two of those players are gone now. Of the two who didn’t pass the 90% threshold, Clint Boling (86.7%) was the one who was hurt the most. The other, Cedric Ogbuehi (62.3%) didn’t get to 90% because of his inadequacy.
The Bengals return two starters at their 2016 positions from last year’s squad, with presumably two fresh faces to the first team, now that Trey Hopkins is looking like the projected opening day starter at right guard. This group has been bashed constantly throughout the offseason because of their lack of individual abilities combined together. I’ve for sure posted my fair share of skepticism. But some of the players have shown to be capable of becoming better as individuals. The real issue, is how quickly they can all gel together. Because with this amount of inexperience playing together, mistakes will be made, and if one guy messes up, an entire play is at risk. And that’s what we saw a lot of against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Bengals’ second preseason contest.
Two of the first three plays the Bengals ran were pin and pull sweep runs out of the shotgun with Jeremy Hill, they went for a combined 13 yards, as Hill ran behind Boling and Ogbuehi pulling around the formation to the right. The fourth play, shown above, was the continuation of power used on the opening drive, this time with Joe Mixon. You can see where the play went wrong in slow motion. At the snap, Hopkins at right guard needs to turn nose tackle Bennie Logan (96) to the left and effectively seal him off. Hopkins rushes this reach block and effectively transfers his weight up and loses balance while engaged with Logan, giving him the leverage advantage. Logan gets his hands above his eyes and gets great movement into Mixon’s path.
Meanwhile, Boling is pulling around Hopkins and is met quickly by linebacker Ramik Wilson (53) in the gap, who read the play design from the get-go. Timing on power concepts like these is so crucial when you have lineman pulling around the play, and if you run it too often, and the defense starts to adapt a more downhill mentality, it can be disrupted easily. Wilson sheds Boling’s block and combines with Logan to stop Mixon for no gain.
Two plays later, let’s check on Ogbuehi. For the most part, the battle between Ogbuehi and Dee Ford featured a good number of “wins” for the Bengals’ third-year left tackle, upon looking at those one-on-ones, it was pretty clear that Ford for the most part didn’t have a clear plan on his rushes, or his lack of athleticism got in the way of what he was trying to do, and Ogbuehi took advantage in both instances. Here though, you can see glimpses of Ogbuehi’s 2016 struggles. When Ford is able to convert speed to power coming out of a two point stance, Ogbuehi loses his base and Ford charges through. Of course, Andy Dalton’s pass attempt was out of his hands before Ford could get to him, but had the play required Dalton to hold the ball half a second longer, a more disastrous result may’ve ensued.
Anyone who knows a damn about interior defensive lineman will tell you play recognition is one of the more crucial traits one can have, perhaps the most important trait of them all. It’s hard to tell from this angle, but Logan (he had a very good game) is lined up as the nose as a 0T, he’s right on Bodine’s helmet, which means he’s a good distance from Hopkins’ outside shoulder at right guard. Yet, somehow he manages to elude the ace block by Bodine and Hopkins and fills the primary gap for Hill between Hopkins and right tackle Jake Fisher. That’s excellent pre-snap intellect combined with solid execution. Logan was supposed to be easily snuffed out by the double team of Bodine and Hopkins and instead both of them end up flailing and falling to the turf.
Tight end Tyler Kroft had the more difficult task of clearing out Allen Bailey, who outweighs him by about 40 pounds, without even a chip from Fisher as he goes into the second level. The play is blown up from the start, and Hill is only able to gain a couple yards.
Man, nobody could get any push on Logan this game. The Bengals try more power, this time with H-back Ryan Hewitt in the backfield. Hewitt out in front and Boling following behind him should blow this gap wide open, and the initial crease is there, but again, Kansas City’s backside presence shuts the play down. Bodine can’t get any push whatsoever against Logan, and even Hopkins has issues turning away rotational defensive end Rakeem Nunez-Roches, even after Fisher, this time, helped out with a little shove. Mixon’s natural Le’Veon Bell-like patience is on display here, but when Bell does it, holes don’t evaporate, they expand and become more visible. Here, the longer Mixon waited, the worse his choices became.
With no hesitation I can say that Chris Smith is the second best defensive end the Bengals have. He’s more reliable than what’s become of Michael Johnson, and he’s more refined than what Jordan Willis is right now. Unfortunately, Smith’s roster spot can’t be safely assumed, and he’s playing like his job is on the line. Just look at this get off:
When I wrote about Smith back in April, I’ll be clear, I didn’t think he had a good chance to make the team. Going off his minimal production on such a poor pass rushing team, it was hard for me to expect much from him, but his on field athleticism was never a mystery. Smith is very fast and explosive, but not very flexible, as seen by his first pressure of the game:
I find myself saying this about most pass rushers who sometimes can’t finish, but it’s mainly because of their lower body flexibility. They can’t bend from their hips and maintain their desired path without losing velocity and altering course a bit. When that happens, busted plays like this can occur.
The very next play, Smith attacks with a plan. He knows the tackle is going to account for the speed and explosion Smith showed a play ago, and Smith uses that against him. By using his inside arm to further leverage himself, Smith executes a near perfect inside spin move through the space provided by the tackle overstepping his set. You’d like to see Smith finish there, but still, pressures matter.
Smith isn’t done yet. Not long afterward, Smith was once again the first off the ball, this time at left defensive end, and completed the holy trinity by notching his first sack of the preseason. After attacking outside with speed the first time, and inside with quickness the second time, he used a full throttle bull rush and attacked the tackle head on. His pad level, hand placement, and leg drive were all correct and he got the tackle off his feet and made his way to the quarterback. The Bengals haven’t seen this kind of mix of athleticism and nuance off the edge from someone other than Carlos Dunlap in a while; it’d be a shame if they decide to prevent it from continuing in the regular season.
So far, the defensive line has outplayed the offensive line, but both units have had their share of individual standouts. If Smith gets some time with the first team against Washington this week, he’ll have a chance of going up against who many consider to be the best tackle in the game in Trent Williams. On the other side of the ball, rookie Jonathan Allen will get some one-on-ones with Hopkins and Bodine, while Ogbuehi and Fisher get to deal with Preston Smith on the edge. It should go a long way in determining how up to snuff this group of linemen project to be this season.