The Weekly Lineman, much like the Bengals, needed every minute of that bye week. But, unfortunately for your eyes, we’re back.
Injuries have decimated the Bengals’ roster all over the place. The reserves for both the offensive and defensive lines have been exhausted, which has required multiple waiver claims and free agent signings to be made throughout the start of the regular season.
In a way, this has been a positive. We’ve been able to see how both groups have been able to handle adversity and get a sense of what their depth is like. Obviously, it’s very clear where they stand on both of those fronts, but for the evaluation, it’s nothing more and nothing less than questions being answered.
So, where do the Bengals stand through eight games up front on both sides of the line of scrimmage? Let’s go position by position.
If you told anybody Andre Smith and John Jerry they’d be starting at left tackle for an NFL team this season, you would’ve had a hard time convincing them.
Going into OTAs with both Cordy Glenn and Jonah Williams on the roster, it’s been Smith and Jerry, who were both signed over the summer, holding down the blind spot position for the Bengals this season. The fact that neither play was a natural left tackle before only solidified how much of an emergency this has been.
Smith got the first chance at starting and has played as good as a career-long right tackle who was signed a month before the season would be expected to play. Having never been able to win with athleticism, Smith’s natural power in his game has also mostly evaporated, which compounds on his inability to match speed off of the edge. Through four weeks, Smith had Pro Football Focus’ ninth-worst pass blocking efficiency, and his work in run blocking in a zone scheme hasn’t been much better.
An ankle injury in Week 5 forced Smith out of the lineup for the last three games, allowing Jerry to take a crack at the position for real. Jerry had already supplemented Smith twice before due to injury and poor performance, but with Smith’s injury more severe this time around, Jerry was placed there for an extended period.
To everyone’s surprise, Jerry looked great in his first extended action against the Cardinals in Week 5. Things eventually regressed back to the mean in the following three games, but Jerry at least has notable flashes that indicate he can play the position to some degree. His work in pass protection feels more natural and he’s able to reach block much better in the ground game compared to Smith.
While that all’s been happening on one side, Bobby Hart has been soloing the right tackle spot. Week 4 against the Steelers was a disaster for the fifth-year tackle, but the rest of Hart’s 2019 thus far has been along a consistent wavelength of inferiority. He himself has not allowed many sacks or quarterback hits outside of the Steelers game, but his game hasn’t really changed. His flaws still allow competent pass rushers to beat him with power and inside counters. It really depends on the level of competition he goes up against on a given week.
It’ll be interesting to see how they address these positions when and if Glenn and Williams return. Hart probably keeps his job and Williams gets inserted at left tackle, but that depends on how Glenn is doing and where he gets initially inserted into the lineup.
Interior offensive linemen
Keeping on the subject of Glenn, they could really use him at left guard as well, where the team wanted him to play with a healthy Williams. Without him and recently-retired Clint Boling, the left guard spot has been—by far—the weakest spot along the line.
Michael Jordan got the reigns to start the season and his Week 2 injury was almost a blessing in disguise. Jordan was utterly overmatched in both phases of blocking and looked helpless against defenders who could easily expose his lack of leverage.
Filling in for Jordan and his injured knee was Billy Price, who at first, looked fairly decent. A positive showing in Week 3 against the Bills made Price the more attractive option at the position. After looking dreadful at center in his rookie season, this was the hope for the former first-round pick. Price was a guard before he was a center and it could be argued that his natural position doesn’t have him snapping the ball.
Nevertheless, Price was replaced by Jordan against the Steelers, who proceeded to have an abysmal performance that week. The coaching staff opted to stick with Jordan the next week against the Cardinals. Jordan’s incompetence continued to show, so Price came back in the next week. Unfortunately, Price didn’t prove to be much better in the following three games; a stretch that had him last in the league for pressures allowed for guards.
Price’s issues have always been connected to his lack of length and quickness. He rarely reaches his landmarks with his hands on drive blocks and ends up having to lunge and compromise his already small frame. He can be stout when defenders try to bull rush him, but much like Hart, it really depends on who he goes up against.
In short, they’re screwed right now at left guard. But at least they’ve had a serviceable option at right guard with John Miller. One of the team’s few free agent signings, Miller has been largely the same middling player he was with the Bills. His highs are promising, but inconsistencies in pass protection still plague his game from time to time.
Miller injured his groin against the Ravens in Week 6, forcing Alex Redmond to retake his spot from last year. As you could’ve guessed, nothing’s changed for Redmond either. When he connects in run blocking, he can generate movement. But his lack of control gets him into trouble more times than not.
In the middle of all this mess is the lone bright spot, Trey Hopkins. If you remember the first half of last season, Hopkins’ 2019 season should not be a huge surprise. Hopkins has proven to be a natural talent at the center position. He’s currently PFF’s 10th-ranked center and has been by far the most consistent member of the entire offense in Cincinnati. The front office needed to extend Hopkins—who’s playing on a one-year contract—yesterday.
As it turns out, just adding Kerry Wynn was not enough to strengthen this position.
The starters, Carlos Dunlap and Sam Hubbard, have been solid. Hubbard’s progression into his second year has been promising at times, but there’s still more that the defense needs him to be. Who he is right now, an adequate pass-rusher who can set an edge from time-to-time, is fine. But he’s a rotational player who isn’t best utilized with the 57 snaps per game he’s being given right now. His 463 total snaps ranks 18th among edge defenders around the league.
Part of the reason why Hubbard has been out there so long has been because of injuries. Carl Lawson has been dealing with a hamstring injury that has kept him out of four games thus far. It’s clear that the injury had been bothering him because outside of the Seattle game in Week 1, he hasn’t looked like his usual self. Hopefully he stays healthy throughout the remainder of the season.
Dunlap has also been dealing with injuries, which caused him to miss his consecutive games for the first time in nearly a decade. His gradual decline from one of the league’s most all-around players at the position has been notable, but he still can provide a spark, provided he’s healthy.
The aforementioned Wynn landed on Injured Reserve three weeks ago after playing just 11 snaps in the first two games. His concussion took him out of commission for a month and the team was forced to use Andrew Brown in his place. Brown has, unsurprisingly been a non-factor on the edge outside of his Week 7 performance against the Jaguars, where he racked up six pressures. The sooner the team can get him playing inside, the better.
Finally, Anthony Zettel was signed before Week 7 to combat the injuries to Wynn, Dunlap and Lawson. It’s been two years since Zettel has been a consistent player since 2017 when he was with the Lions, but as the fifth body in this group, he’ll do for the time being.
Interior defensive linemen
The conversation always starts with Geno Atkins here. While it may not seem like it, Atkins has been pressuring quarterbacks at an elite level for starting defensive tackles. PFF has him tied for fifth with Aaron Donald in terms of pass-rushing proficiency. Opposing offenses are just running all over the Bengals and that’s where Atkins has been just good, not great, over the course of his prime. Much like last year, his overall impact has been minimized for factors outside of his control.
Next to him, Andrew Billings and Josh Tupou have been sufficient at the 1-technique spot, though Tupou has been rotated heavily behind Atkins at 3-technique as well, due to Ryan Glasgow ending up on Injured Reserve for the second year in a row. Both Billings and Tupou are integral factors for why teams are averaging 3.7 yards per carry when running behind the center and right guard, per SharpFootballStats.com. If they continue to play like well into the second half, both of them should be candidates for new contracts in the offseason.
The rookie of the group, Renell Wren, has been more or less a pawn to begin his career. Over half of his 85 snaps have been on the edge, but that’s been because of the injuries they’ve suffered there. The team doesn’t view him as an edge, and now that they have enough bodies there, Wren will likely go back to being inactive. If he gets more opportunities to play, they better be inside, where he requires much needed exposure and development if they hope to maximize his potential.