A common narrative in the NFL nowadays is the vast discrepancy of talent between offensive and defensive linemen comparatively. The athletes are starting to line up in three-point stances and attacking downhill from an early age rather than bulk up to the range of 275 pounds and move backwards. If you watch enough college football, you’ll see how little is asked of offensive lineman in most offenses to combat this change.
But in the preseason, when backups play other backups for the majority of the game, that’s when you really notice the talent differential between the two. And the Bengals 21-13 victory over the Dallas Cowboys was a prime example of this as the game went on.
The starters on the Bengals defensive line didn’t generate enough pressure against the tremendous unit that Dallas trots out there every week, even without All-Pro Center Travis Frederick. But there were still some wins that showed up on tape, and the matchup I was most intrigued about was defensive end Carl Lawson against left tackle Tyron Smith.
Through the first quarter, Lawson was having a rough time fighting around and through Smith’s long and powerful frame. The rest of the Bengals defensive line was having trouble in their one-on-one reps as well, and Lawson had the toughest matchup of all of them. But he wouldn’t let Smith leave the game without causing him a little trouble.
Not even Smith, a two-time first-team All-Pro blocker, is safe from Lawson’s dreaded shot-put pass rush. He attacks Smith with a hard speed rush, in a much better stance when engaging the move, and sticks that inside arm right where it needed to be to get Smith off balance and to open the inside lane.
Lawson gets pushed back by a recovered Smith, but never gives up on the play and attempts to chase down quarterback Dak Prescott. The touchdown obviously occurs, but Lawson can keep his head up regardless for his phenomenal effort.
Smith and the rest of the first-team offense for Dallas would exit the game after this drive, and now it was Cameron Fleming’s turn to handle Lawson, who took the majority of reps at defensive end with the second-unit. (NSFL warning for Cowboys fans)
The hard sell to the outside is what makes this move so unstoppable. It rotates the tackle’s shoulders towards the outside, therefore closing the distance between Lawson and the inside shoulder he’s targeting. Once he pins it, it completely turns the tackle around and renders them completely off balance. And it’ll never not be enjoyable to watch.
Two plays before this, it was defensive end Sam Hubbard who put the Cowboys in a second and long situation with a great impact play.
Beating the terrible Chaz Green this easily should be a requirement to confirm you are an NFL-level edge rusher. Hubbard makes light work of Green by completely negating his punch and using his above average flexibility to finish around the outside angle he took. He would later find success with this same rush against Dallas’s third-string right tackle.
Hubbard had a productive day, and this tape is now out there for the rest of the league to game plan for. Hubbard has impressive bend at the top of a speed rush, but teams with quick tackles can take that away if he can’t work back inside. We need to see Hubbard utilize multiple ways to win if he wants to produce against starting-level competition.
This was a similar issue with Jordan Willis last year, and he showed noticeable signs of improvement against Dallas.
Again, note the tackle Willis is going up against. The Cowboys have their own Cedric Ogbuehi in Green, but the process Willis shows here is impressive nonetheless. His athleticism allows him to work off power moves, but his lack of useful handwork limited his capacity as a pass rusher last year. Here he shows his growth as he strung together a couple moves to generate a solid pressure.
*Mike White, not Matt White.
But he may not make their roster, so who cares.
Just like before, the combination of moves gives Willis the angle to win around the edge, and utilize his bend to flatten around the arc in a timely manner for his second sack of the day.
Willis had an impressive preseason last year as well going up against backups, and we saw that pass-rushing production not translate over into the regular season. But we’re seeing a better process from Willis, who is already an effective edge-setter in the run game.
The Bengals may not cut starting defensive end Michael Johnson this year, but they have to be content with what his backups have shown thus far. Can they improve still? Absolutely. But this position group has quickly gone from a weakness outside of Carlos Dunlap, to a strength in not a lot of time.