It was difficult to watch the Cincinnati Bengals’ 2020 season unfold. Not only did the team add on 11 more losses to its now five-year playoff drought, a couple of legendary players ended their Cincinnati careers on disappointing terms.
Geno Atkins is the one that comes to my mind first.
Last year was not supposed to be Atkins’ final season with the Bengals. By all accounts, he was looking as sharp as ever before a shoulder injury sidelined him for the first four games. Even when he returned, he never played a lot of snaps, and he made next to no impact with the reps he did get. He was never fully healthy, as evidenced by the surgery he underwent near season’s end.
In his previous 10 years with the Bengals, Atkins had returned from injury before. This was also when he was still at the top of his game and wasn’t in his early 30s. Instead of waiting to see if he could return to form one last time, the club released him to save salary cap space.
It was not the end either side truly wanted. Atkins built a Hall of Fame resume with the Bengals and no one would’ve blinked an eye if he finished his career with the franchise who drafted him. He’s still looking for a new opportunity, but the Bengals were quick to turn the page and find a replacement.
Larry Ogunjobi wasted no time proving he was the right choice for the job.
Ogunjobi, who has been mentored by Atkins since he entered the league in 2017, was a square peg in a round hole during his previous stint with the Cleveland Browns. He was primarily used as a nose tackle despite his clear skills as a pass-rusher and collegiate production in a more aggressive role.
The Bengals have plenty of nose tackles. They needed a penetrator. On Sunday, Ogunjobi proved just how impactful he is at his new position with his new team. I broke down some of his best plays against the Minnesota Vikings in the video below:
To say the Bengals needed this is an understatement. Injuries destroyed their plans at defensive tackle last season. In the past, the club would cite injuries as an excuse not to properly address roster issues. As long as the players come back healthy, it’ll be like adding new players, right?
Not this offseason. Zac Taylor, Lou Anarumo, and Duke Tobin took one look at the position group they had last season and decided to act. Ogunjobi was the headliner, fourth-round pick Tyler Shelvin was the injection of youth, and the trade for B.J. Hill, who not so quietly had two sacks on Sunday, was the consummate progressive move.
They transformed a position full of liabilities into a dynamic and diverse group of athletes. Sunday really did feel like the culmination of their efforts.
Ogunjobi’s debut was definitely a point of interest heading into Week 1, but everyone wanted to know how Joe Burrow would look in his first real game back from reconstructive knee surgery. Burrow played fine, but our concerns should’ve been directed at the guy who snaps the ball to him.
Trey Hopkins didn’t play like his usual self, plain and simple. The veteran interior lineman was cleared to play over a month ago. He had been limited in practice and only played three preseason snaps, but he’s gone through ACL surgery and recovery before. He’s a pro’s pro and has played a lot of NFL football. When he’s on the field, he’s expected to play up to his standard. He simply didn’t on Sunday.
Upon further review, it really didn’t seem like his left knee was the cause of his struggles. It looked more like pure rust:
When Burrow was struggling early on in training camp, it wasn’t because his knee was giving him issues. He was experiencing aspects of the game he hadn’t seen since late last year.
Burrow was at least given the reps to work through his struggles. Hopkins, on the other hand, was on a pitch count with D.J. Reader throughout the month of August. Billy Price took a lot of the reps with the starters while Hopkins was being eased back into action. Hopkins only played as much of the preseason as Burrow did. He probably could’ve used some more exposure, but even in hindsight, holding him out of action just eight months after his injury can still be viewed as the wise move.
These occasional lumps may be something the Bengals will have to accept from Hopkins at the start of the season. The more he plays, the more he’ll acclimate back to his usual standards. Even with the Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers lurking on the horizon, the process can’t be easily expedited.