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Bengals Weekly Lineman: State of the lines heading into Week 1

The Bengals made some crucial decisions recently on both sides of the line of scrimmage. We examine if they’ll pay off like the team expects.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals Contract Extensions The Cincinnati Enquirer-USA TODA

It’s just my luck that such a dichotomy has formed between the Bengals’ two groups of trench players. It’s truly a yin and yang situation.

You have the position group that was the topic of every national media outlet when the discourse turned to the Bengals last year in the offensive line. The subject was as unavoidable as the group was horrid a season ago.

Then we turned the page to 2018, and the Bengals got to work on fixing it. Paul Alexander was let go, and Frank Pollack was hired. Right tackle Bobby Hart was signed, left tackle Cordy Glenn was acquired, and center Billy Price was drafted in the first round.

Is all well in front of quarterback Andy Dalton and the Bengals offense?

We hope so, but we just don’t know for sure yet; not when the group took four weeks of preseason to switch around and rotate players to find its true starting five.

On the other side of the ball, it’s been nothing but prosperity. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap were extended, edge rushers Carl Lawson and Jordan Willis bulked up, and Andrew Billings looked like his old self. They looked unstoppable in the preseason, and they consistently knocked around the offensive line in training camp.

So here we are, days away from the Bengals opening their regular season at Indianapolis. One group of players have an entire side of the ball relying on their improvement, and the other relying on their continued dominance.

Let’s review what we think we know about the 18 offensive and defensive lineman on the Bengals roster.

Offensive line

The Starters

  • Cordy Glenn, LT
  • Clint Boling, LG
  • Billy Price, C
  • Alex Redmond, RG
  • Bobby Hart, RT

In a span of nine months, the Bengals have nearly completely altered their offensive line. Three new names are going to start this Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts (four if you don’t count Redmond essentially starting the last two games last season), and their work to revamp the group will start showing return value. But my fear is that it’ll end up being this.

Whenever I’ve read about this offensive line being better than the one before it because of two obvious upgrades, my mind immediately takes me back to 2016. The group was lead by Andrew Whitworth, Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler, and still managed to allow 41 sacks and the team’s two leading rushers failed to average over four yards per carry.

Those stats aren’t the kind to tell the whole story. But if that season told us anything, it’s that an offensive line is only as good as its weakest link, or links in this case. And that’s the area of concern once again for the Bengals.

In 2016, there was Cedric Ogbuehi and Russell Bodine to constantly worry about at right tackle and center, respectively. In 2017, there were four positions to be concerned about, and the problems clearly amplified. Now, we’re back down to two...hopefully.

For the second year in a row, the Bengals had a competition at right guard. This year, it was Alex Redmond who ended up climbing to the top. My faith in Redmond at the beginning of summer was minimal because of his lackluster and limited tape. There were some positives to take away from in those final two games, but not enough to fill me with confidence going forward.

Redmond looked a little bit leaner in training camp, and a little bit quicker as a result. He slimmed down to a point where he could be more of a fit in a zone-blocking scheme, and flashed much better footwork in pass protection.

But the ugly reps still existed, and if Redmond wants to hold onto his starting spot, he needs to prove he can be consistent in his aggressive craft. He’s got the full support of Lewis behind him though.

Next to him at right tackle is Bobby Hart, who is playing for slightly more than veteran minimum right now on a one-year deal. The former seventh-round who came into the league in 2015 pick beat out the team’s first and second-round picks from the same draft class. If that doesn’t tell you the nature of the situation, nothing will.

Like Redmond, Hart lost a little bit of weight and at the very least looks more nimble in his pass sets. It’s his erratic hands that are a cause for concern, and we saw how a legit edge rusher in Demarcus Lawrence took advantage of them.

These two are the biggest question marks in pass protection, and we haven’t even mentioned the issues this unit has proven they have in run blocking.

The additions of Cordy Glenn and Billy Price at left tackle and center should payoff. Clint Boling should continue to perform at an above average level at left guard. But we’re gonna find out real soon if the work they did to improve this unit was or wasn’t enough.

The Reserves

  • Jake Fisher, OT
  • Christian Westerman, OG
  • Trey Hopkins, C/OG
  • Cedric Ogbuehi, OT

Sometimes we have to sit back and realize how much we don’t know what teams are thinking. A couple months ago, I was certain Christian Westerman and Jake Fisher would be starting at right guard and right tackle this week.

Little did I, or anyone else know, the team would quickly snuffed any chance of either of those two not only not starting at those positions, but not even playing those positions at all.

The Westerman situation is nothing short of confusing, as anyone with a pair of eyes could see him have one of the best preseasons on the team. His admirable work at left guard still did not give him a chance to start at right guard in any of the games. He finally got reps there last Thursday, but they weren’t enough to change anything.

At the very least, the Bengals have one of the best backups at the guard position this season.

The same cannot be said about the tackle situation, as Fisher and Ogbuehi are listed as the backups at left and right tackle. We know who both of them are, and we know how little they’ve progressed, if at all, since they’ve arrived. Both saw time at each position this preseason, and odds are only one will be active on game days. Whichever one that is, will be counted on to relieve either Cordy Glenn or Hart.

It was quickly realized in training camp that Trey Hopkins and Ogbuehi were Redmond and Hart’s true competition, and neither could hold them off and are now backups. With Hopkins now on the bench, his value is backing up all three interior spots, as his work backing up Price at center will give him the edge over Westerman if only one can be active. The role should fit Hopkins nicely.

Defensive line

The Starters

  • Carlos Dunlap, DE
  • Geno Atkins, 3T
  • Andrew Billings, 1T
  • Michael Johnson, DE/3T
  • Carl Lawson, DE

For as much reservation we may still have about the offensive line, the expectations for the defensive line are rightfully through the roof. This year’s group may be the most talented a Bengals defense has ever had in recent memory, but it will still ride and die by its two most valuable players.

Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins both secured a bag last week and agreed to third contracts with the Bengals that paid each of them a combined $43 million guaranteed at signing. There’s no debate if they were worth what they earned, as the Bengals defense has relied on their pass-rushing prowess for the better part of a decade.

Even though Dunlap has the slight edge over Atkins in the team’s career sack leaderboard, it’s Atkins who is rightfully recognized as the elite talent at his position. Before Aaron Donald came along, Atkins was the premier 3-technique in the league, and has remained a top-five player at the position for the majority of his career.

His new four-year deal will make sure his prime will end while he’s in a Bengals uniform, and there will be no question which team Atkins will represent when he’s inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Both Atkins and Dunlap will be playing in Cincinnati until at least 2021, and by then, the team would hope they have their young talent playing beside them locked in for the future beyond then. Two integral pieces of that future are a couple of fourth-round picks in Carl Lawson and Andrew Billings, and each put on a show this preseason.

In the base defense, we’ll see Billings next to Atkins as a shaded nose tackle. He’s shown he’s fully recovered from his meniscus injury he suffered in his rookie year, and that quickness and explosion is back to full levels.

Finishing plays in the backfield is going to be crucial for Billings in his second season playing, we know he can get there quicker than past 1-techniques for the Bengals, now they need him to make more plays when he gets there.

But run defense is well behind pass-rushing when it comes to winning games. Assuming Billings does his job on first and second-down, the Bengals will be relying on Lawson to continue providing a spark off the edge on third-down.

After bulking up to near herculean levels following an 8.5-sack season, Lawson will have his eyes set on double-digit quarterback takedowns, and the sack race between Atkins, Dunlap and him on third-down will be exhilarating to watch.

Lawson should be considered a “starter” because the Bengals play in their nickel personnel more than their base, and Michael Johnson will once again be featured in both. In the meaningful preseason games, Johnson was featured with the first team at defensive end and 3-technique on third down with Lawson taking his place on the edge.

Johnson’s effectiveness is still diminishing, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he were rotated more out of those two spots as the season persists.

What’s interesting from the preseason was how Johnson, Dunlap and Lawson each played on both sides of the formation depending on the strong-side and weak-side of the offense. Johnson was playing across the tight end in base, and Dunlap was in nickel.

They aren’t going to be limited to rushing from one edge anymore, and that should boost Dunlap and Lawson’s pass-rushing production.

The Reserves

  • Jordan Willis, DE/3T
  • Ryan Glasgow, DT
  • Josh Tupou, 1T
  • Sam Hubbard, DE/3T

The two names that should rotate with Johnson are Jordan Willis and Sam Hubbard. With Dunlap under contract for three more years after this season, Willis looks to be Johnson’s heir apparent. He almost officially became the new Johnson when the veteran was released and on the open market for a whole day, but Johnson did return and is getting compensated the same before he was cut.

But Willis should still see increased playing time from last season when he was on the field for just 31% of the defense’s snaps. His ability to set the edge was on full display in the limited chances he got, and now he’s up 20 pounds from when he was drafted a year-and-a-half ago.

He also showed much better handwork as a pass rusher this preseason from the edge and inside at 3-technique. He figures to be Johnson’s primary backup and play more and more as the season wears on.

I went over the expectations for Hubbard yesterday in our rookie preview. Hubbard should expect similar usage to what Willis got last year, and in Ryan Glasgow’s case, he shouldn’t expect any more time than he got last year (36% of defense’s snaps).

Often times, Glasgow was relied on to play both interior positions in the base defense when Billings was either banged up or showing signs of rust from his injury, and Atkins needed rest. The same scenario could be in store for Glasgow this year, as he’s listed as Atkins’ backup at 3-technique, but he may be the only reserve at defensive tackle active.

The other defensive tackle besides Glasgow is Josh Tupou, who made the team over rookie Andrew Brown because of his ability to play the run at 1-technique. But if the defense wants to use all five of its edge players, Tupou might not be dressed that much, unless he gets the green light and Hubbard is forced to wear street clothes depending on the week.

Either way, the defense felt the need for Billings to have a true backup, and look committed to keeping Glasgow rushing b-gaps, a decision that may not turn out as favorable as they think.