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Weekly Lineman: Bengals pass rush has a party in Redskins’ backfield

The Bengals’ front four is ready for the real games to begin.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Washington Redskins Kareem Elgazzar/Cincinnati Enquirer-USA TODAY Sports

In 2016, the Washington Redskins possessed an offensive line that was fourth in the league in sack percentage per Sporting Charts, and the Cincinnati Bengals made them look like a second-rate unit on Sunday. In the dress rehearsal third preseason game, Cincinnati’s front four continued to look revitalized and infused with newfound athleticism as they have in the past two exhibitions. It was a diversified attack that featured some old fashioned concepts, but let’s start with the man of the month, Chris Smith.

Last week I wrote about how Chris Smith found multiple ways to get to the quarterback against the Chiefs. The trend continued here. The Bengals utilized a cover 1 bear front on their first nickel package, which is a five man front with two edges, two three techniques and a zero technique with a safety coming down into the box. The Bengals traditionally like to use a defensive end at three technique on third down, a role that Wallace Gilberry has had for the past few years. Here, both Gilberry and Smith are the three techniques, and Gilberry, along with Geno Atkins at the zero technique spot, slant their rushes to the left, allowing Smith to stunt around them and get a clear path to quarterback Kirk Cousins.

Because the running back left in for protection focuses on linebacker Nick Vigil, the left guard is forced to pick up Smith coming around, leaving Gilberry free to get to Cousins first. Smith fights through the pickup and finishes the takedown.

Smith has fought relentlessly to get playing time with the first team nickel defense, and has produced inside and on the edge. The Bengals defense prides itself on a heavy rotation of pass rushers, and Smith has earned the role as the leader of that rotation off the bench, if not even earning more snaps at right defensive end than incumbent starter Michael Johnson.

Regarding Gilberry and Johnson, both looked much more comfortable rushing inside than outside:

Gilberry is pretty much washed in terms of providing any outside presence and should be regulated to inside pass rushing only, if he is the final defensive lineman the team keeps. The same could be said about Johnson:

With a simple swat of the hands upon impact, Johnson blew by the right guard and forced Cousins to get rid of the ball, causing him to get flagged for intentional grounding (how does he not finish though?). If anything, Johnson’s drop off from an athleticism perspective could be answered with more opportunities as an inside rusher, where his path to the quarterback is shorter and requires easier rushing angles. As a plus, this gives Smith, and rookies Carl Lawson and Jordan Willis more chances to get on the field on the edge, where they both continued to flash as well:

This sack is typical Lawson. For a guy who has notable athletic limitations, he knows how to make the most of his rush. This is far from the prettiest sack you’ll see, but it’s made possible by Lawson’s craft at just 22-years-old. Lawson has stiff hips. He knows it, we know it and Redskins left tackle Trent Williams knows it. He can’t just bend seamlessly and turn the corner; he has to work harder. By turning his shoulders after swatting away Williams’ punch, he not only gives Williams a smaller target, but helps himself fully rotate his hips to flatten around the arc after taking Williams eight yards back. Lawson gets under Williams, who can’t run him out of the pocket, and Lawson finishes. Lawson will probably never become a perennial 10-sack guy, but his seasoned technical ability as a young and nuanced pass rusher can still make him a long-lasting career. And he wasn’t done with Williams yet:

This was an even better rush. It’s tough to see from this angle, but this was yet another planned rush from Lawson. He starts with an inside arm stab to Williams’ chest, and counters with a slap with his outside hand. This gives Lawson a chance to go around Williams again, and this time, he flattened around the arc much quicker with that same rotation of his shoulders to quicken his bend at his hips. Unfortunately, the end of the rush is the counter-balance to Lawson’s ability. As he tries to finish while turning the corner, he trips and falls short of Cousins, the result of his lack of flexibility in his ankles. Yet, he still managed to impact the throw, and drew a holding call on Williams.

Editor’s note: upon further review and with the help of twitter user @GenesChinTD, I failed to see Williams grab Lawson’s jersey from behind, hence the holding call. This was the cause of Lawson’s stumble around the corner.

The future folks. From the wide nine alignment, Lawson converted speed to power and pushed back the backup left tackle into Cousins. As a result, Cousins backed up into Willis, screaming off the edge, who fought through his own block on the edge and turned the corner effectively. Willis popped Cousins and forced a fumble, which was recovered by DeShawn Williams.

The one guy we really haven’t seen much of this preseason is Atkins, but he’s been getting consistent push like usual. The more the guys on the edge continue to command attention, things will open up for the former All-Pro.

The first string offense played very well on the first drive of the game that ended with a Jeremy Hill goal-line touchdown, and that was in part due to the offensive line not allowing any disasters to occur. But there were still some sour moments, specifically with second level blocking:

There’s about four whiffs combined in these two clips. Russell Bodine and Jake Fisher both have good angles on their targets but miss. Bodine gets pushed in the back by Boling and falls in front of the linebacker who proceeds unimpeded, while Fisher just plain misses his guy and forces Joe Mixon to get the first down on his own. You can see the difference between Mixon and Hill when it comes to doing it on their own, even though there wasn’t much for Hill to do in this specific example. On his toss sweep, penetration by linebacker Preston Smith forced Boling and Cedric Ogbuehi to take longer paths to the second level, and causing them to whiff as well.

Trey Hopkins had an up and down performance from my perspective, but such as the case with Andrew Billings and Jake Fisher, more reps is the best remedy. T.J. Johnson actually got in with the first team in Hopkins’ place at right guard, but didn’t look any better than normal. It would be a surprise if Hopkins wasn’t starting at right guard on September 10th against the Ravens.

In the most telling preseason game, we’ve seen what this new Bengals pass rush is capable of, now it’s time to see which players fighting for a spot will end up making the best final push against the Colts.