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Bengals Weekly Lineman: Midseason thoughts on the O-line and D-line

So many injuries have impacted both of the Bengals’ frontlines this season. Where do both units and their players stand now?

NFL: OCT 25 Browns at Bengals Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The NFL season can oftentimes be a war of attrition. It certainly has been that way for the Bengals.

A combined 24 players have played on the Bengals’ offensive and defensive lines and are still with the team. It’s easy to forget who has played where and when in these last two months, so for the latest installment of The Weekly Lineman, we’re going to review what each of these 24 players have done this year, and give some Pro Football Focus-perspective if they’ve played enough snaps.

Jonah Williams

PFF rankings out of 27 starting left tackles

  • Pass blocking grade: 16th
  • Run blocking grade: 14th

Much like his quarterback, Williams has been an effective player in nearly every game he’s played in aside from a couple games. He ran into trouble early on in his career debut against the Los Angeles Chargers and, like the entire offense, struggled against the Baltimore Ravens.

Williams’ pro-ready technique is what has stood out when watching him work. He has near-perfect synchronization with his hands and feet no matter if he’s pass-protecting in a vertical set, or he’s down-blocking in a run play.

The one problem Williams has been running into is lunging at the waist if he happens to misses with his hands. Early in the season, he was a bit susceptible to inside counters due to slight mistiming with his punches, but he’s done well in fixing that as the season has progressed.

When he’s on the field, Williams has a clear case for being the Bengals’ best offensive lineman.

Michael Jordan

PFF rankings out of 28 starting left guards

  • Pass blocking grade: 24th
  • Run blocking grade: 11th

The positive strides Jordan took towards the end of the 2019 season haven’t always shown up in his 2020 tape. He’s arguably the group’s most inconsistent starter and the pitfalls of his game are sloppy at best.

What gets Jordan in trouble the most is his inability to consistently play with a low pad level. This was a persistent issue against the Cleveland Browns back in Week 2. He loses the leverage battle too often in pass protection, but his length and quickness help him recover enough to where he doesn’t get cleanly beaten.

As a run blocker, Jordan has been noticeably more consistent. He was starting to find his stride before he missed the final Weeks 6 and 7 before he missed the team’s win over the Tennessee Titans in Week 8. The coaching staff may want to see him back at left guard agains before making a full-time switch to Quinton Spain at that spot.

Trey Hopkins

PFF rankings out of 32 starting centers

  • Pass blocking grade: 10th
  • Run blocking rank: 24th

In his first year playing under a starting-level contract, Hopkins has been his classic stable self. Similar to Williams, Hopkins exhibits natural movement abilities and awareness in his sets. He rarely gets beaten in pass protection and typically does enough in the run game.

At this point, Hopkins has to be used to having new faces constantly pop up next to him. He’s done well handling communication duties with the rest of the offensive line despite having four different right guards play next to him in the seven games he’s started in. In my personal charting, he pitched back-to-back perfect performances in pass protection against the Philadelphia Eagles and Jacksonville Jaguars in Weeks 3 and 4.

Hopkins will return to center this week, and rightfully so. Center is the position Hopkins is at his best at, and he’s ascension as a leader in the locker room fits that position perfectly.

Alex Redmond

PFF rankings out of 25 starting right guards

  • Pass blocking grade: 24th
  • Run blocking grade: 6th

Redmond was the third option in the Bengals’ three-week effort to replace Xavier Su’a-Filo at right guard, and he’s done fairly well for his established standard of play. He impressed in his first start back in Week 4 and again in Week 8 as the lone season-long starter that played in that game.

There’s nothing wrong with being a serviceable spot starter at any offensive line position, and that’s exactly what Redmond remains to be. He’s almost overachieved as an emergency practice squad call-up, and with Spain, B.J. Finney, and Xavier Su’a-Filo in the picture now, the team needs to see what they can do to upgrade the position.

Bobby Hart

PFF rankings out of 30 starting right tackles

  • Pass blocking grade: 20th
  • Run blocking grade: 8th

It’s not an exaggeration that we’ve seen Hart play the best games of his career this season. His showing against the Browns in Week 7 was something we’ve never seen from him before. Hart also played abnormally well in Week 6 against the Indianapolis Colts, making his Week 7 game a sign of true progression.

Much like Redmond, Hart has had more consistent success in terms of run blocking, which is why he stayed on the field leading up to his breakout performance.

Unfortunately, Hart injured his knee at the end of that Browns game, causing him to miss Week 8 and as well as Sunday’s game against the Steelers. He may not an answer for the long-term, but he’s improved notably despite still having obvious limitations in his technique.

Fred Johnson

We quickly learned that Johnson’s future in the NFL is not at the guard position. Johnson was abused when starting at right guard early in the season and rode the bench until Week 7 when Williams suffered his stinger injury. He turned in a gutsy performance at left tackle against the Browns after coming off the bench and followed it up with a shaky-but-effective day against the Titans a week later as the starter at right tackle.

At the very least, the Bengals should know by now that Johnson should stay on the outside going forward. Johnson is currently on the Reserve/COVID-19 list and is unlikely to be able to play for Hart at right tackle on Sunday.

Billy Price

It seemed like Price’s career at guard officially ended after his disastrous outing at right guard back in Week 3. Price was placed below Redmond on the depth chart after Johnson also failed at that spot. The former first-round pick didn’t get another shot on the line until Week 7 at center when Hopkins went out of that game with a concussion.

Price hadn’t played center since the Week 14 of the 2019 season when he came in for Hopkins for one snap. Before that, it hadn’t been since Week 17 of 2018. Price provided a boost in the run game, but was a clear downgrade in pass protection. He put together a similar performance against the Titans a week later, and he received a game ball for it along with helping out Quinton Spain in his first game with the Bengals.

As long as Hopkins is healthy, Price is his backup.

Hakeem Adeniji

We finally saw the Bengals’ sixth-round pick play significant snaps two weeks ago as Adeniji filled in for Williams at left tackle. Adeniji has practiced at every position aside from center this season, but the Bengals waited until his natural position opened up in the starting lineup.

Adeniji played okay against a struggling pass-rushing unit and he’s the projected starter at right tackle with Hart out and Johnson unlikely to be back in time. The narrative surrounding where he is in his development may change after a day of facing T.J. Watt for the Steelers, but the opportunity will certainly be there for him to make some noise.

Xavier Su’a-Filo

Su’a-Filo played 44 snaps before he landed on I.R. with a left ankle injury. The Bengals cleared Su’a-Filo to practice earlier in the week, but it’s unclear if he will indeed start at right guard against the Steelers.

As soon as they believe Su’a-Filo is ready to make a full return, they need to see how he plays in order to clearly evaluate the right guard position in the offseason.

Quinton Spain

If Su’a-Filo isn’t quite ready to return, Spain becomes the next best option. He impressed at left guard against the Titans after joining the team not 48 hours prior to kickoff. He’s been a left guard for his entire career and, in all seriousness, is probably the Bengals’ best option at that spot.

But if the plan is to see if Jordan can improve at the spot he’s been the starter at since last year, Spain can take over at right guard without issue. As our own Matt Minich stated this week, it may even be better for Adeniji to play next to Spain if Adeniji has to play right tackle against the vaunted Steelers’ pass rush.

Spain should be starting at either guard spot by the end of the year. He’s simply too good not to.

Shaq Calhoun

Calhoun got his chance to make an impression at left guard against the Titans, as the team planned to rotate Spain and him at the position throughout the game. The coaches simply saw Spain handle the position well and tossed that rotation plan down the drain.

It was the right decision, as Calhoun belongs on the sidelines anyways.

Carl Lawson

PFF rankings out of 57 starting edge defenders

  • Pass rushing grade: 18th
  • Run defense grade: 39th

There’s Lawson, and everyone else on the Bengals’ defensive line. He’s not on pace to match his 2017 sack total of 8.5, but he’s exhibiting valuable consistency as a pass-rusher.

After a somewhat quiet start to the season, Lawson broke out against the Eagles in Week 3 with two sacks and tackle for loss to go with four total pressures and five defensive stops. That game was the beginning of the end of Lawson’s career as a rotational player and he asserted himself as a full-time starter not long after that. This of course kicked the Carlos Dunlap situation into high gear, but it was a clear turning point of Lawson’s career.

With a strong second-half, Lawson will set himself up to earn a sizable second contract.

Christian Covington

PFF rankings out of 67 starting interior defenders

  • Pass rushing grade: 54th
  • Run defense grade: 48th

Covington, who joined the team a week before the season began, has played more snaps at defensive tackle than any other player for the Bengals so far. He’s provided very little as a pass-rusher, but has done well enough holding his gaps in run defense.

The defense will need to rely on him for the remainder of the season with how much turmoil has occurred at the defensive tackle position.

D.J. Reader

PFF rankings out of 67 starting interior defenders

  • Pass rushing grade: 43rd
  • Run defense grade: 21st

Part of that aforementioned turmoil involves Reader, who was placed on I.R. after Week 5. He had just come off his best game as a Bengal in Week 4 against the Jaguars before he tore his quad against the Ravens in Week 5.

Reader is the future of the position for the Bengals, and we saw that future on display before it was delayed until next year.

Sam Hubbard

Hubbard was also injured in that nightmarish Ravens game. He’s spent the last month on I.R. and is set to make his return on Sunday against the Steelers.

Before he injured his elbow, Hubbard was one of the best run-defending edge defenders. It was good that he was producing in that area, because he was invisible as a pass-rusher at the same time. He needs to make that long-awaited jump to make the impact the Bengals so desperately need in that area.

Amani Bledsoe

In Hubbard’s absence, Bledsoe was forced to step up as a starter opposite of Lawson at edge. Bledsoe has only played about half of the defense’s snaps since stepping in for Hubbard, and the rotation at edge has been necessary because Bledsoe is just too limited of a player to be out there for the majority of the game.

Bledsoe will still be used as a rotational player going forward this season, as his work as a run defender gives him value.

Mike Daniels

A nagging groin injury has forced Daniels to miss four games this season. When he’s been on the field, flashes of his prime are still evident and that’s why he remains a starter on this defense. Here’s to hoping he stays off the injury report for the remainder of the season.

We caught up with Daniels in an exclusive interview a couple days after the Titans game.

Khalid Kareem

Kareem is slowly but surely finding his way in this defense. He’s played almost exclusively at the left edge spot and has been needed to play more and more as the season has progressed with so many injuries at the position group. He’s been rotating with Bledsoe at that spot while Hubbard was on I.R.

Expect Kareem to continue seeing snaps at that position even with Hubbard back in the fold.

Geno Atkins

It’s been unnatural watching the Bengals play with football with Atkins in uniform, but not making an impact. Atkins missed the first month of the season with a shoulder injury and has been a mere afterthought in the defensive tackle rotation since he debuted in Week 5. Atkins is apparently fine with what his role has become, and it’s entirely possible he isn’t entirely healthy.

Atkins will not play on Sunday due to family reasons, and it’s a legitimate wonder if this is the beginning of the end to his time in Cincinnati.

Xavier Williams

When the defense lost Reader, Williams was signed to help soften the blow. He actually started the first week he was in Cincinnati back in Week 6 and has been rotating with Atkins since then.

Much like the rest of the defensive line, Williams offers very little as a pass-rusher and is just a body to fill a gap. His playing time has only decreased since his arrival.

Margus Hunt

Hunt is the latest addition to the Bengals’ patch job defensive front and has been fairly solid in a diverse role. He actually started in Week 8 at defensive tackle as the defense deployed a 5-2 front to combat the Titans’ run-heavy offense.

Hunt is currently on the COVID-19 list and may not be able to play on Sunday.

Kahlil McKenzie

McKenzie has seen action in three games this season. He was elevated from the practice squad twice and was signed from the practice squad before the team’s Week 6 game against the Colts. McKenzie hasn’t seen the field since then.

Andrew Brown

Similar to McKenzie, Brown has been stuck on the Bengals’ practice squad since after Week 6. He was waived after that game to make room for Hunt on the active roster. He’s played in just four games this season.

Freedom Akinmoladun

Akinmoladun hasn’t played since Week 4 when he took seven snaps against the Jaguars. He’s been a practice squad body for the entire season thus far like McKenzie and Brownn.