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Bengals Week 1 rookie report: Damion Willis, Michael Jordan turn in solid first starts

There was nothing too substantial to reflect on from Willis and Jordan’s respective debuts in the starting lineup.

Cincinnati Bengals v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

For how young the Bengals roster is, most of their rookies did not play very much in their Week 1 matchup against the Seahawks. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. But there’s still much to learn about the first-year players who did not appear in this game often.

Two of those players are tight end Drew Sample and linebacker Germaine Pratt. Sample first came onto the field for the offense’s second drive of the game and was flagged for holding on his very first snap. Sample was crowned as the NFL Draft’s best run-blocking tight end from this year’s class, and his very first contribution to the running game was a negative one. Go figure. It’s a shame he’s a bust now.

Sample played two more snaps for the offense, giving him three for the day, which is just as much as Pratt got for the defense. In the one series he was featured in, he recored a defensive stop in the running game. He’s now the Bengals’ best linebacker—only I’m partially joking.

Playing just two snaps in front of him on the defensive line was Renell Wren, who was activated over guys like Jordan Willis and Andrew Brown. Turns out, there’s really no need to play three nose tackles, even against a team in Seattle that likes to run the ball more than the average team.

But what about the two rookies that started for Cincinnati? Let’s go over their regular season debuts.

Wide receiver snap leader Damion Willis

That’s right. Not Tyler Boyd, and not John Ross III. Willis’ 67 snaps lead all players aside from the starting offensive linemen and quarterback Andy Dalton. He topped Boyd and Ross mainly because he was on the field for 15 of the offense’s 16 run plays, which isn’t too surprising considering how much head coach has raved about Willis’ run blocking.

As a receiver, Willis saw five official targets come his way. Dalton went his way six times, with one of them resulting in a defensive pass interference right near the goal line:

The targets Willis did haul in weren’t anything special, but it was good to see Willis look comfortable at the catch point and get some actual production under his belt:

Anyone could’ve told you Willis wasn’t replacing A.J. Green’s production, but with Ross and Boyd playing the way the are, he won’t have to. Maybe next week we’ll get to see Willis attack some deep balls like he did in the preseason.

Taking the good with the bad with Michael Jordan

Unsurprisingly, the Bengals’ biggest issues were along the offensive line. The pass protection largely held up for most of the game, but the run blocking was porous and one of the main factors in head coach Zac Taylor opting to have Dalton drop back to pass 56 times.

Among the five starters on the line, Jordan perhaps had the most up-and-down performance. He produced some positive plays in the run game, but put together an imperfect game as far as pass protection goes; allowing four pressures in the process.

One of those four allowed pressures resulted in the game’s first sack:

The good news for Jordan was that he never had to face off against Jadeveon Clowney, who was kept on the edge for nearly the entire game. The bad news was that he went against Quinton Jefferson, who put together a career game on Sunday, a decent amount. Jefferson was the one who beat Jordan and sacked Dalton here.

There wasn’t much to highlight as far as run blocking goes, but Jordan did a nice job here sealing off ascending defensive tackle Poona Ford, helping Joe Mixon run for his biggest rush of the day...resulting in six yards.

Jordan was the second-lowest graded lineman for Cincinnati ahead of just John Miller (who didn’t play all that bad himself) but it’s too early for Taylor and offensive line coach Jim Turner to pull the plug and insert Billy Price in for him. The growing pains are to be expected for a player as young and unpolished as Jordan is. The best way to get through the rough patches is to grant him with experience, as long as he is ultimately capable of building off his mistakes.

For an undrafted free agent and a late fourth-round pick, Willis and Jordan turned in solid first starts in a hostile environment. Now is the time for them to keep progressing, and against the 49ers at home is a great place to start that process.

Don’t expect to hear much about Ryan Finley or Jake Dolegala this year, as neither will be relevant unless Dalton gets hurt. We might see some Trayveon Williams action on special teams here soon when he returns from injury, but that might not be for another week or two.