Thursday night football is usually messy. Funky things tend to happen due to players and teams on shorter than usual rest from playing on Sunday. But almost every time, there are a surge of injuries because maybe football players shouldn’t be playing football twice in five days. Just a thought.
The Bengals and Ravens each suffered injuries on Thursday night, one of them being the foot sprain that Bengals center Billy Price suffered. Price, who injured his shoulder at this year’s scouting combine, was able to fully practice throughout training camp and took reps when he could in mini camp and OTAs. He’s gone through some rough patches on the field since he debuted in August during the preseason, but his health had remained strong.
At the end of the first quarter, Price was taken out of the game due to his injury, and the Bengals depth was tested against a strong defensive line. Backup center Trey Hopkins didn’t use to be a backup, as he was the team’s starting right guard last year. He’s played all over the offensive line in his five years with the team, and this year, he was given a legitimate chance to earn a spot at center in the preseason and proved to be much more viable than incumbent T.J. Johnson.
On Thursday, we got a glimpse of Hopkins at center when the snaps counted for real.
Running outside zone was a major struggle for the Bengals offense even with Price at center. The Ravens are plenty aware with the Bengals running game (which hasn’t quite changed in Lazor’s new system) and aren’t going to get gashed with nine box defenders.
Hopkins’ reach block is admirable here, but it’s ultimately what causes Mixon to bend the run back to his third read on the backside, where the Ravens have completely collapsed on the play.
The slightest of mistakes against the best players will lead to catastrophe. Hopkins’ false step on this down block happens in a fraction of a second, but that’s all nose tackle Brandon Williams needs to control Hopkins off the snap. He discards him easily and does his job of forcing Bernard to the outside where the Ravens have fill defenders waiting.
On the next play though, we see much better efficiency from Hopkins out of his stance and gets on Williams immediately. False steps can be caused by mistaking the play-call/pre-snap protection, but sometimes their just a mistake made on the fly. Specifically from centers, they have a much more strenuous task to get a clean snap off then enter there set or get downhill with proper hands and footwork. The difference can sometimes be night and day like we saw from Hopkins.
Once again, Hopkins does a decent job exploding laterally out of his stance off the snap to match Pierce on the reach block. Pierce’s strength is matched by few others around the league, so if you can’t get out in front, you better fight him back to the line. Hopkins does just enough for Mixon to scamper around to the hole created by tight end Tyler Kroft and right tackle Bobby Hart on the front side of the play.
Switching focus to the Bengals right tackle, Hart was considerably better in pass protection in this game in comparison to last Sunday against the Colts. Here he does a good job of mirroring the edge rusher with a wide and active base to brace against power. The bull rush comes and with a hop step backwards, Hart is able to absorb it and fight it off with good initial hand placement.
The Ravens lost their defensive coordinator Dean Pees to the Titans after he retired and then unretired in a matter of a month. Their new defensive coordinator Don Martindale deploys a similar scheme to Pees, but didn’t utilize many delayed and disguised blitzes against the Bengals early on. In the second half, that started to change.
The Ravens have three down lineman, but look like their blitzing with five. On the right side of the line, they have three potential rushers against just right guard Alex Redmond and Hart. Hart’s instinct and potential communication with Redmond is that the linebacker over Redmond is blitzing, so Hart has responsibility over the 4i defensive end that’s lined up over him.
But the linebacker drops back in coverage and edge rusher Terrell Suggs blitzes from the wide edge. Hart is forced to adjust as Redmond takes the 4i and Hart has to open his stance to face Suggs. He whiffs with the minimal time he has to mirror him, but the ball is out quickly to negate it all.
The Ravens pass rush was much more effective in the second half because of those aforementioned adjustments Martindale seemed to make. Here the Ravens have five rushers twisting all over the place and confusing the Hell out of the Bengals offensive line. At least Hart and Redmond handled their twist perfectly until Redmond lost his footing again.
With Redmond incapacitated, Hopkins is forced to pick up his guy, and abandon the overload rush from the right side of the defensive line. Quarterback Andy Dalton is flustered out to his left, and throws it away.
Isolating just on Hart, he picks up the stunting rusher perfectly and just like the vast majority of his pass blocking snaps, gets the job done. There’s still plenty of room to be desired from his day on the ground, but with the passing game as efficient as it was for the first-half, the good outweighs the bad.
The Bengals are expecting Price to return to his spot at center for their Week 3 matchup against the Carolina Panthers, but they should feel at least comfortable with what Hopkins brings as a backup. He has his flaws but there weren’t many bright spots and bad plays from his tape, juts a lot of level play.
And that goes for the rest of the line. The Ravens didn’t really bring the pressure until the second half, but the Bengals offense looks equipped to counter it with their passing game.