Andrew Billings is impressive.
Surrounded by celebrated defensive linemen like Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Carl Lawson, Sam Hubbard, it’s easy to understand why Billings could get overlooked. However, if Cincinnati is going to improve its 30th ranked rush defense (127.9 yards rushing/game allowed last year), Billings figures to have a central role in that growth.
It’s important to understand a few things about the Bengals’ starting defensive tackles: Geno Atkins plays the three-technique, lining-up over the guard’s outside shoulder. Billings is the nose tackle, playing anywhere between either guard’s inside shoulder. Whereas Atkins penetrates using speed and leverage, Billings has the strength and disposition of a bull at a Slipknot concert.
“He’s killing it,” Bengals linebacker Nick Vigil said via Bengals.com. “You watch tape from the other day and he’s all over the place, cutting off ball carriers, making tackles for loss, taking on double teams. For a nose guard he’s doing everything you want him to do.”
Billings had a fairly pedestrian outing against the Chicago Bears, playing 10 snaps through three possessions. His Pro Football Focus score wasn’t good (46.7 overall and 55.5 against the run).
However, his effort against the Cowboys was nothing short of amazing.
He impacted nearly every run, and had a few pressures on the quarterback. Pro Football Focus gave him an overall score of 90.1 with a team-high 86.8 grade against the run. While we subscribe to the Frank Pollack School of Pro Football Focus, these grades are absolutely legit.
But enough of that. Let’s review.
With 13 minutes remaining in the first quarter, the Cowboys have first down from their own 38-yard line. Center Joe Looney snaps the football and pulls to the right. Billings, who outraced left guard Connor Williams to the gap, forcs running back Rod Smith to bounce outside. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick holds Smith to a one-yard gain.
Billings similarly showed quickness with 3:44 remaining in the second, forcing running back Bo Scarbrough to take a two-yard loss because he redirected... into Jordan Evans.
These are the plays you can only hope for with a nose tackle; traditionally, players at the position put up minimal numbers in the stat sheet. But if they’re able to disrupt blocking assignments, congest running lanes, or redirect running backs, they’re doing their job. Tackles, pressures and sacks are an added bonus — the things that get you mentioned in Pro Bowl discussions.
While he disrupted several runs, Billings also secured a handful of tackles.
Dallas has first down from their own seven-yard line with 5:43 remaining in the second. Quarterback Cooper Rush hands off to running back Bo Scarbrough on a stretch-like design to the right. Billings splits center Joe Looney and left guard Connor Williams, wrapping Scarbrough four yards deep in the backfield.
Go ahead. Watch it again. We’ll wait.
Dallas, with second-and-14 from their own three-yard line, only manages a yard on the next play, largely because Billings has the strength of an unmovable greco-roman God. A great multitasker, Billings entertains his opponent before reaching around and minimizing Scarbrough to a two-yard gain.
Billings isn’t just an anchor for a speedy defensive line; his relentless pursuit is equally impressive in its own right. On the first play of the second quarter, the Cowboys have second down from the Bengals’ 27-yard line. Prescott pitches the football to Smith and Billings tracks him down from behind, limiting Dallas to a three-yard gain.
Even if he’s not directly making tackles or redirecting opposing running backs into other Bengals defenders, Billings is congesting lanes like seasonal allergies. With 8:56 remaining in the first quarter, Dallas threatens from Cincinnati’s 39-yard line. Cowboys left guard Connor Williams and left tackle Tyron Smith double Billings, trying to clear the way for running back Rod Smith who was aiming at Cincinnati’s nose tackle. Billings didn’t make the tackle but he clogged the lane.
As a pass rusher, Billings is monstrous though limited to one move: bulldozing everyone. Sometimes he accidentally spins, but his go-to move is digging his tree trunks into the ground and driving. Here’s an example of his efforts around the 13:34 mark in the second.
I’m not sure if Billings can sustain the production he put up against the Cowboys all season, but even a fraction of it will help Cincinnati improve its rush defense. If he does sustain this level of production, the Bengals could legitimately have two Pro Bowlers at defensive tackle.