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Analyzing Billy Price’s NFL debut and whether he actually whiffed on run blocks

Cincinnati Bengals center Billy Price wasn’t graded favorably as a run blocker against the Chicago Bears. We’re wondering why.

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NFL: Cincinnati Bengals-Training Camp The Cincinnati Enquirer-USA TODAY NETWORK

During Cincinnati’s first preseason possession against the Bears, Bengals center Billy Price took a Neil Armstrong-sized step to his left, extending his arms and guiding defensive tackle Eddie Goldman down at the line of scrimmage. Running back Joe Mixon cut behind his starting center and Price’s assignment was accomplished. Unfortunately, Akiem Hicks, who received a quick shove by right guard Trey Hopkins, was too quick for right tackle Bobby Hart’s backside block. Mixon was limited to a two-yard gain with more than 11 minutes remaining in the first quarter.

Still, Price did his job.

“The kid looked solid,” writes the mothership. “He’s still adjusting to the guy right over top of him, but he gets to the second level and knows where he’s going and what he’s doing.”

The biggest lesson for a rookie center is adjusting to the speed of defensive linemen. Training camp initiated those lessons with Price knocking helmets with a probable Hall of Famer in Geno Atkins.

“Yeah, you’re not used to that speed.” said Price early during training camp. “I haven’t played football since Dec. 29 and the last guys I played against were college guys. Playing against professional athletes, we’ve got some talented, quick guys over there and I wasn’t expecting it. I guess I undervalued their quickness.”

If we’ve learned anything from the Bengals’ first preseason game, there are a handful of plays falling on Price’s shoulders. If a defensive tackle is occupying a lane designed as the point of attack, with flanking guards assigned to opposing linebackers, Price needs an advantage over his opponent. A quick step, a subtle jab by Cling Boling or Hopkins (or Christian Westerman or Alex Redmond), anything. And it didn’t feel like he struggled in adapting to the NFL, especially since he was trained at a football factory like Ohio State.

Others offered more measured analysis.

“Price’s debut was a tale of two halves, as he performed quite admirably in pass protection but imploded at times in the run game,” writes Pro Football Focus. “Focusing on Price’s strength, he didn’t allow a single pressure on any of his 12 pass-blocking snaps and he ended the contest with a pass-blocking grade of 77.8, the fourth-best grade among rookie centers with at least 10 snaps.”

For an NFL rookie making his fake-football debut, that’s not bad, right?

“No offense to Pro Football Focus, but I really don’t give a damn what they say,” offensive line coach Frank Pollack reflected when asked about Christian Westerman’s score.

Oh, OK then.

Following A.J. Green’s 22-yard reception in the first quarter, Mixon fought for a couple yards off the right tackle. Price and Hopkins doubled down on Hicks, while Hopkins chipped away targeting John Timu, who would eventually make the tackle. Price could have been called for an offensive hold, but as my high school coach for the Mason Comets memorably said, “if they don’t catch you, then it’s not a penalty.” Life lessons, Coach H.

On the ensuing play, Price targeted Goldman on a stretch-like scheme designed to influence Chicago’s defense towards the sidelines. Unable to reach his target — who was discarded by Clint Boling anyway — Price redirected upfield and targeted a linebacker, then a defensive back. If you failed to block your primary assignment, find someone else to hit. Nice work.

Price didn’t appear to have much difficulty against Goldman and Hicks in the passing game; in fact he stonewalled their attempts mostly each time, especially Joe Mixon’s 24-yard touchdown reception.

With 6:33 remaining in the first quarter, Giovani Bernard entered the game and took a handoff on a sweep to the left. Cordy Glenn, Price, and Hart pulled left while Boling and Hopkins blocked down. Price turned the corner, leading the way for Bernard, and sealing defensive back Eddie Jackson, who had no impact on the play.

Still, Pro Football Focus wasn’t very forgiving, writing that Price had “whiffed on a number of run blocks.”

I’m not sure if that’s a fair assessment.

After several viewings of Thursday’s game, I never noted Price “whiffing” on anyone. He lost battles, sure. Such as a first down run with 10:53 remaining in the second, where Roy Robertson-Harris grabbed Price’s shoulders, wrapping behind the center, and individually making the tackle. This wasn’t a whiff; Price lost his leverage, mostly because Robertson-Harris displayed a move Price wasn’t expecting. That’s just inexperience. That’s being a rookie. Lessons are being learned.

Without breaking down Price’s performance into arbitrary grades/numbers, I’m comfortable in arguing that Price played well during his first fake-football game. There are many examples, such as those listed above, or the second down play with 8:51 remaining in the first half, where Price took on Nick Williams and then took on Kwiatkoski. Awareness is good. Adjustments and adaptation are better.

Regardless, if Pro Football Focus grades are celebrated as gospel (they shouldn’t be), then it should be noted that Glenn (50.7) had a worse run-blocking grade than Price (51.3), while Bobby Hart (55.4), Jake Fisher (52.4), T.J. Johnson (53.1), and Kent Perkins (55.7) were around the same level. The best run-blocker from Thursday’s win over the Bears? Cedric Ogbuehi at 66.3.

We hear you, Pollack.