Offensive linemen and referees have something in common. The less you notice them, the better for the offense.
Over the last five years, you couldn’t go a week without noticing something awry from whomever was playing right tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals. Defenses game-planned to attack the position, and even when they didn’t, they had no trouble achieving pressure from that edge.
It’s standard practice to judge an offensive line by the sum of its parts. They succeed or fail as a unit. Teams can work around being slightly deficient at one or two spots, but to consistently play total liabilities at the same position year after year is asking for that spot to be singled out.
This is why the entire city of Cincinnati collectively rejoiced when the team signed a 32-year old Riley Reiff in free agency.
Now 10 years in the NFL, Reiff has stuck around for this long because he’s consistently been a stable blocker with little to no injury concerns. He’s never been associated with the best of his peers, and he’s never once sniffed a Pro Bowl selection, but guys who find ways to stay above the replacement level at their position tend to stick around longer than others.
Still, when most teams sign a player of Reiff’s caliber on the north side of 30 for just one year, the fan response doesn’t normally spark a hashtag on Twitter. One team’s expendable veteran is another team’s savior of the offensive line.
Reiff hasn’t exactly been the second coming of Willie Anderson, but he has been the upgrade he was brought in to be. Among starting right tackles, Reiff ranks 13th in Pro Football Focus’ Pass Blocking Efficiency rating. This is impressive considering Reiff has been charged with allowing three sacks—the fifth-most at his position—since PBE weighs sacks allowed more than hurries and quarterback hits allowed. Aside from a handful of drive-altering blunders, Reiff has done his best to live up the hype.
There’s an advantage of coming into a new setting with pre-loaded support waiting for you. Bengals fans have been eager to see the team’s offense perform with a competent right tackle ever since #GreatBarrierReiff went viral in March. All he had to do was show up and stay healthy and general o-line frustration would go through basically every other starter before it would get to him, even if Joe Burrow spent an afternoon getting roughed up.
Compounding on this was the competition at right guard. Reiff represented newfound stability, albeit in a temporary sense. The margin of error for whoever earned the right to start next to Reiff is much lower than it is for him. Look at Xavier Su’a-Filo. After two underwhelming starts, support for Jackson Carman started to grow because Su’a-Filo didn’t exactly run away with the job in training camp and preseason play.
All of Cincinnati’s eggs at right tackle are in the Reiff basket. They did draft two college tackles in Carman and D’Ante Smith, but neither player may end up as long-term tackles with the team; never mind the fact that Smith can’t even play right now. Fred Johnson is technically Reiff’s backup, but he doesn’t even get to dress on game days when the line is fully healthy. Fellow reserve tackle Isaiah Prince has mainly been used at left tackle when needed.
They’re riding or dying with Reiff. So far, well, they aren’t dying. It’s time to bring him back into the spotlight and see how he looked against the team that drafted him back in 2012:
Instead of ride or die, survive or thrive would be a more accurate description when it comes to Reiff’s play. Survive fits better than thrive at this juncture. It’s not even that Reiff is playing bad. His PFF grades aren’t particularly good (55.9 pass blocking, 62.7 run blocking), but he’s also not losing very often.
When it came to Reiff’s predecessors, they had age and nimbleness to their game, but not veteran savvy or passable technique. Reiff is the opposite. What he brings in technical expertise and awareness, his athleticism is simply not what it used to be. It seems to be main source of his negative reps that are few and far between compared to the reps that make him invisible to the normal viewer.
This is ultimately why the Bengals agreed to roster Reiff for just this season. Signing players who’ve stressed their knees for over 8,000 snaps to multi-year deals is typically ill-advised. Will he stay over the replacement level for a 17-game slate, or will he start flirting with the line as the year wears on? They have no choice but to find out.
Through the highs and lows of the young season, Reiff has mostly stayed out of discourse involving the o-line. He monotonously hides in plain sight, much like his young counterpart in Jonah Williams, but finds himself falling victim to opposing pass-rushers due to athletic limitations. That comes with the territory of facing players up to 10 years younger than him. The current ratio of good-to-bad reps will pass for now, but as the games pile up, our eyes should start turning to him to see if he keeps his head above water.