As soon as Clint Boling announced his retirement, we knew the Bengals were going to have an open competition at the left guard spot. We didn’t know there would possibly be one at center as well.
And there might not be one, but as long as Trey Hopkins is with the team and he’s not starting, there probably should be.
Hopkins had to wait three injury-filled years before earning a chance to start in 2017. His run at right guard that season was largely forgettable, but his six-game stretch at center in 2018 was not. It looked like Hopkins found his home last year. Unfortunately, it was always going to be temporary.
The team invested a first-round pick in Billy Price to solve the problem at center, and the only reason Hopkins was playing in his spot was because he was out with a foot injury. For them to change course and crown Hopkins as the answer would paint their evaluation process as flawed. Not many franchises would take that L so quickly, especially one that has had an...interesting track record with first-round picks.
Fast forward eight months and Price is dealing with yet another foot injury—plantar fasciitis this time—which gave Hopkins starting reps at center to begin training camp. Price returned before the first preseason game and normalcy returned as well. But that first game wasn’t very kind to Price and he struggled, noticeably. The team has claimed he’s continuing to deal with his condition, but it hasn’t limited the amount of in-game reps he’s seen. So how much of that claim is really true?
Whatever the case, Hopkins took over Price’s spot last week in practice while Price was relegated to backup duties. But that wasn’t the only development happening in the riveting drama we know as the Bengals’ offensive line.
All that commotion in the middle and the left guard spot was quietly seized by rookie Michael Jordan.
Cincinnati’s third fourth-round pick from this year’s NFL Draft was nothing more than a third-string center/guard in the spring. Before Boling officially called it a career, the team had plans to keep Jordan at center so he could master his snapping ability. Those plans evaporated at the same time their depth at both guard spots did with Boling gone and Alex Redmond suspended for the first four games. Soon enough, Jordan found himself with the second-team at left guard behind John Jerry, who was signed to soften the blow of Boling’s retirement.
Similar to Price, Jerry was unimpressive at left guard against the Chiefs. The man last played football in 2017, so that wasn’t too surprising. But head coach Zac Taylor and offensive line coach Jim Turner wasted no time to give Jordan a try the following week. New left guard. New center. Just like that.
So, how did the two new starters do against one of the better defensive fronts in the NFL? Let’s examine some key plays featuring Jordan and Hopkins against the Washington Redskins.
You don’t need the end zone angle to tell that this run was designed to go between left tackle Cordy Glenn and Jordan at left guard. Look at how Jordan works up to seal off the linebacker inside while Glenn keeps the edge defender outside; right there is your point of attack. The reason running back Joe Mixon has to bend this run back to the right is because of Hopkins, and slightly because of Jordan.
The task Hopkins has to complete here is an extremely difficult one: reaching the shaded 1-technique Jonathan Allen and seal him off to the right. The problem with this is if Allen explodes through the gap Hopkins is trying to keep him out of before Hopkins can get out in front of him, which he does. Hopkins attempts to work across Allen’s frame but the third-year player is just too strong off the snap. Mixon has to bend it back for a four-yard gain, but the play is called back to a phantom hold by right guard John Miller.
Jordan’s a rookie and this was his first start, but a savvy move he could’ve made here was to give Allen an inside arm bar while climbing towards the linebackers. Fully committing to the combo block may’ve prohibited Jordan from reaching his own spot against the linebacker. This is already a tough block for Hopkins to make, and Jordan could’ve helped him out ever so slightly.
On the ensuing play, Jordan and Hopkins execute what is known as a centerfold, where the backside guard simply folds around the center. This is a staple in power schemes.
From a technical standpoint, you want to see Jordan not open his hips as much when folding. With his hips ever so slightly open, it takes a bit longer for him to square up to second-year defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne, who just like his teammate Allen, is a stud run defender.
Payne reads the movement of the Bengals’ line and keeps with his assignment of the B-gap. He loses outside leverage on Jordan for a split second and when Jordan has to overcorrect to center his frame on him, he regains leverage and tosses Jordan to the side. Payne makes the stop but Allen is charged with unnecessary roughness, eliminating Payne’s hard work and bailing out Jordan.
You can see Allen disengage with Hopkins once running back Giovani Bernard crosses the line of scrimmage, but by that time, Allen shouldn’t have been in a position to make a play on Bernard had the other blocks been completed.
The pass protection in this game was, by-and-large, very solid. Allen just gets the better or Jordan here off of the snap.
Allen doesn’t even get that good of a jump but with Jordan’s hands not set in a low position, Allen goes right for the chest. Jordan has no choice but to try and utilize a ditch-effort hug technique and swallow Allen whole. Luckily, Hopkins notices Allen working inside towards that A-gap and helps Jordan out.
While Hopkins helped out Jordan on that play, the Redskins slanted their pass rush to the right side of the Bengals’ line, which had Hopkins isolated for most of the time. As a result, Jordan ended up helping out Glenn a handful of times in pass protection. This was one of those plays, and it ended up in catastrophe.
The Bengals are lined up in a 3x1 formation, meaning they have three receivers to the left and one to the right. Yet, Andy Dalton has his eyes focused on the right side for his entire drop back. That’s where the progression of this play begins, because it’s really a one-read play to take advantage of running back Trayveon Williams’ “Texas” route against the linebacker.
Payne sees this and alters his rush towards the A-gap to Hopkins’ right, but he keeps his right hand on Hopkins’ left shoulder. With his eyes still keen on Dalton, that hand placement grants him the opportunity to disengage and launch his left hand up right in the throwing lane Dalton quickly, but evidently, telegraphed with his eyes.
When defensive lineman shoot their hands up to bat down passes at the line of scrimmage, our initial response is “why didn’t the offensive lineman knock him into the dirt?” For most instances, they should. This was an-ultra quick reaction play made by Payne, and Hopkins was the unfortunate victim.
My biggest worry for Jordan is how he manages to play with leverage while being 6-6. On this play, I’m impressed with how low he stays out of his stance. But it’s clear that Jordan’s hands are what need the most work right now.
If you’re low, your hands show be low as well. Establishing leverage is half the battle; utilizing it is the other half. Your hands should be low and tight in preparation for a down block like this. Low and tight is not how you’d describe Jordan’s hands here; high and wide would be more accurate.
Jordan’s frame is exposed and Allen has control over what happens next. He forces Williams back to the A-gap where Hopkins and Miller had originally combo-blocked Payne out of the play, but Payne is able to help Allen make the stuff.
Despite these few mishaps, Jordan played relatively well considering how tough the opposition was. Allen and Payne make up quite reasonably the best run-defending defensive tackle duo in the entire NFL, so to see them dominate against a rookie in Jordan is nothing to be too worried about. These plays happened to be mostly negative in regards to Jordan, but he had positive reps as well.
As for Hopkins, his performance was much like how he fared last year: nothing too special, but the job was done right. He is also not talented enough to handle Allen and Payne ever snap of the way, but neither is anyone else on the Bengals’ offensive line. When he switched to left guard with the second team, he got to display his advanced feel for second level blocking.
The Bengals could do worse than having these two start against the Seattle Seahawks when Week 1 rolls around, but that doesn’t look to be the case with Price practicing with the ones this week. Price was also taking reps at guard on Monday, so nothing is set in stone quite yet.
That’s what makes the Hopkins situation baffling. He’s clearing one of the team’s best blockers but no one wants to commit to him in the long-run. With turmoil continuing to happen in this position group, it makes no sense to keep Hopkins on the bench.
At age 27, Hopkins is who he is at this point, and if Jordan develops into the type of player Hopkins is, that’d be a win for the Bengals. They seem prepared to give Jordan every chance to succeed, they need to do the same for Hopkins.