In a mere coincidence, neither one of those players took a snap that year and made their respective debuts this past season. For one, William Jackson III, it was about as good of a first-year a cornerback could ask for not playing any meaningful football in over 20 months.
For the other, Andrew Billings, the growing pains were more evident.
One of the youngest players to enter the league in 2016, Billings was likely to be eased into the rotation at nose tackle behind former starter Domata Peko and Pat Sims, giving him time to develop better hand usage and reading blocks and play design.
Having missed all of that year, Peko and Sims were forced to stay on the field more than they should’ve and their level of play declined. Last offseason, Peko left Cincinnati for Denver and seemed to resurge his career a bit, and Sims would stay on for the last year on his two-year deal.
By OTAs in May, Billings was fully healed and packed on a tremendous amount of weight, getting up to 337 at one point. He eventually got that number down to 325 for the season, but Billings never played at Baylor above 320.
The player we saw win defensive player of the year for the Big 12 in 2015 was moving around 310-315. The added weight helped out the power aspect of his play, but other issues arose as well. And that made for a season with plenty of ups and downs.
Brute strength can never be underestimated. Billings greatest asset is his natural power and when he got his hands locked into the frame of opposing blockers, he could combine that power with leverage from already having a low pad level being 6-1.
Here, he’s unmoved by the guard’s attempted combo block and rag dolls the center out of the gap with his hands to meet the ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage.
The more Billings played, the more comfortable he began to look reading blocks at the snap and reacting upon that recognition. Shaded on the center’s left shoulder, Billings side steps to the opposite a-gap in anticipation that the offensive line will be taking stretch steps to block for a zone run. The center attempts to pass him off the the guard who thinks Billings is going to stay in his gap and doesn’t realize Billings blew by his shoulder until he’s already in the backfield.
The fullback senses Billings is coming in hot and turns his path towards him, leaving Clayton Fejedelem unoccupied screaming towards the ball carrier where he and Billings sandwich him for a tackle for loss.
A little over a week ago, offensive lineman guru Brandon Thorn wrote a fantastic article for USA Football regarding the backside drag hand and its importance in blocking for outside zone (check that out after you finish this).
The drag hand is the inside hand against a shaded defender that’s used to generate movement and displace defenders out of the gap on the move, it’s the first step upon engaging a defensive lineman in such a manner. The center here did not get that drag hand in properly and Billings made an example of him.
The center managed to get out in front of Billings after just two stretch steps, but Billings locked into his shoulders and established complete control of where he was going to go, which was in the dirt.
Billings didn’t do much with his 127 pass-rushing snaps, and going forward, we shouldn’t expect a lot of pressures or sacks from him, but he did manage to disrupt this flea flicker. His quickness off the ball to cross the center’s face gave him an avenue for his one-armed bull rush to flourish and almost walked back to the quarterback who just barely got the ball out before Billings buried him.
Billings doesn’t have short arms for defensive tackle standards (33”), but even at Baylor, he had trouble finishing plays and getting his hands on ball carriers in the backfield. He has a small tackle radius and leaves stops on the field because of it sometimes.
On this play, him and Ryan Glasgow execute a perfect tackle-tackle twist that exploits both the center and the right guard. Billings lowers his head and decreases the surface area of which he can wrap up the ball carrier, who easily spins out of the tackle attempt and salvages decent yardage.
In a lite 6-man box, Billings acts as a two-gap player and initially does a good job of showing color in the a-gap and crossing the face of the guard back to the b-gap when the ball carrier makes his cut outside. He gets off the block a little too late but has a chance of stopping the play at the line of scrimmage, but whiffs.
A tough play to make for sure, but a play that a high level player would’ve made indeed.
Perhaps the most inexcusable example from this past season. Billings is, by some mistake from the offense, left unblocked and can stop a goal-line run in its tracks, but once again, can’t quite get his hands on the ball carrier right in front of him.
You can see how long it takes for him to get his feet under him to square up to make the stop and those precious split seconds cost him and the defense six points.
When Billings didn’t win with his hands, he had severe balance issues and just generally holding ground at the point of attack. Getting blown off the ball by 4-5 yards is never a good thing and Billings needs to work on reseting his hands quicker and getting them lower off the snap to establish better leverage.
Handling double teams are also an area that needs improvement. Anchoring is important for defensive lineman and it wasn’t a concern I had for Billings. This is where I question if his overall balance was diminished with all the added weight he put on.
Geno Atkins is able to not only generate power, but absorb it and neutralize it because he can withstand force with incredible lower body balance and core strength. Billings is top heavy and if lineman can get under him, he has shown to have trouble recovering and holding ground.
Disengaging and getting off blocks is so crucial and it’s a process that begins before the snap. If you just mindlessly lower your head without a plan or keeping track of the flow of the play, you’re going to be washed out of it.
Billings did himself no favors on this rep and while the rest of the Bengals front adequately closed down on their fits, Billings would take himself out of a lot of plays where his gap would remain vacated and extra yards were the result. More in-game experience can remedy this, but it’s still a red flag for him now.
What can’t go understated is the difficulty of playing high level football after not playing football for an extended period of time. It’s what makes Jackson’s 2017 so remarkable, and Billing’s 2017 understandable.
Back in 2014, Geno Atkins was coming off a torn ACL and clearly wasn’t playing at the level he was capable even several months after surgery. Not everyone has the power of cell regeneration of Adrian Peterson. A torn meniscus isn’t a torn ACL but it’s not a bruised kneecap either, and it’s okay if Billings wasn’t quite who he was before the injury.
At only 23 years old entering his third year, Billings’ story is far from finished after a shaky first year. He’s got competition in newly signed veteran Chris Baker projecting to start, but Billings should be in better shape this training camp than last year.
334 was Billings’ final snap count, and in all likelihood he’ll finish this year around that number depending on the health of the defensive tackle group. The Bengals need to do a better job of stopping the run this season if they want to continue being a proficient defensive unit.
Billings needs to take the next step to make that happen.