It’s always rewarding when a hefty investment finally seems to pay off. However, it’s a shame when that happens at your expense.
For the last handful of years, few teams have put in more high-priced draft capital in their defensive lines than the San Francisco 49ers. They’ve used a first-round pick on a defensive four times in the last five years (three with a top-10 selection). In total, they’ve drafted seven in that timeframe. They also signed a free agent edge rusher to the fourth-most expensive edge rusher contract in the NFL this year.
The 49ers’ front four has been a juggernaut in the making for years now, and it was out in full force against the Bengals on Sunday. But why was their most dominating player someone know one really knew about?
In a group with names such as Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas, Dee Ford and Nick Bosa, none other than Ronald Blair was the unit’s highest-graded defender and pass rusher per Pro Football Focus.
A fifth-round pick from the 2016 NFL Draft, Blair has been a fairly replaceable edge defender over the years. Last year, Blair officially registered 5.5 sacks as a rotational player, and entering year four, that’s about who Blair is at this point. He can be a flash in the pan against the run or the pass, but he can’t be counted on as a regular contributor.
The Bengals seemed to believe this too, and they paid they price as he had probably the best game of his career.
So, Blair can eat against tight ends. Lesson learned.
As it’s been said, there were a few times were Blair won against Cincinnati’s tackles, but he didn’t need to all the time. Guys like Bosa, Buckner and Thomas won plenty on their own. This unit was firing on all cylinders, and the Bengals’ offensive line got beaten up—literally.
First, Andre Smith exited the game with a groin injury, causing John Jerry to come in and finish the game at left tackle. Truthfully, Jerry performed like an upgrade and came away as the team’s second-highest graded pass protector behind John Miller.
According to head coach Zac Taylor, Smith’s injury shouldn’t keep him out of next week’s game against the Bills, so Jerry figures to go back to the bench.
The same cannot be said for left guard Michael Jordan, who injured his leg at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Taylor said Jordan will miss next week’s game, leaving the Bengals options for how to replace him.
The most logical option is to just play Billy Price at left guard. Trey Hopkins is doing a fine job at center and moving him over would just make the line worse. Thankfully, they kept Hopkins where he belonged in this game after Jordan was carted off and inserted Price at left guard for the first time in his regular season career.
How did he do? There were five plays that stood out to me.
That penalty hurt (not really considering the score), but it was encouraging to see Price come in and play smoothly at guard. He hasn’t operated there on an extensive basis since college, and some would tell you he was a better prospect at that position than he was at center. I would’ve agreed with that assessment.
Injuries stink and you especially never want to see rookies deal with them, but with how much Jordan struggled in the first two weeks, it would’ve been wise to see what Price could do instead. This gives him an opportunity to rejoin the starting lineup at a position that better fits who he is as a player.
The competition won’t be getting any easier. The Bills have a complete defense and will be tough to stop at home. Price and the rest of the offensive line would be making a monumental statement if they were to limit Ed Oliver and the rest of Buffalo’s front four. If they don’t, 0-3 is looking like a foregone conclusion.