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Bengals Weekly Lineman: Jay Tufele pulling off the No. 97 jersey

Tufele thrived in New Orleans after being thrown into the fire.

NFL: DEC 05 Jaguars at Rams Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The release of Geno Atkins in the 2021 offseason was as bittersweet as it was expected. The Cincinnati Bengals needed the cap space to complete their free agency class, and Atkins, who had just turned 33, was well past his prime. It was the right time to end the partnership, and the eight-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle seemingly decided it was also time to hang up the cleats for good.

What bothers me is that we never got an official goodbye from the Bengals. Atkins going off into retirement in complete radio silence was no surprise, but there was no real send off for one of the best players in franchise history.

There were reports of Atkins drawing interest from teams late in the season, so it’s possible that he wasn’t officially done with football for most of last season, and this may explain why the Bengals never made any sort of farewell to him.

Perhaps the more obvious hint was that the No. 97 jersey remained open for the entire season.

Was there a path for Atkins to re-join the team at some point? There were opportunities towards the end of the year when depth at defensive tackle was getting thin, but nothing ever came close to substantializing. Opening up was never something Atkins wanted to do, and now that he’s a full-blown family man away from the sport, I doubt we’ll get an answer any time soon.

Now a year-and-a-half removed from Atkins’ release, his old jersey number was eventually going to be used again. Enter Jay Tufele.

Whatever you thought of Tufele coming out of USC in 2021 shouldn’t change after one season in the NFL. He had the poor luck of being drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the lone year the team was led by Urban Meyer. As everyone knows, Jacksonville experienced a comedically awful lost season last year, and Tufele became an expendable piece invested by a coaching staff that was disbanded. He didn’t find a spot in the Jags’ new defense, and was subsequently waived.

As one of three players claimed by Cincinnati after final cuts, Tufele joined the Bengals right before the regular season as the 10th defensive lineman (ninth as soon as Khalid Kareem went on I.R.). Interior depth was needed for the Bengals’ scheme that was based out of 5-2 fronts with three defensive tackles, and Tufele essentially took Tyler Shelvin’s roster spot after Shelvin was demoted to the practice squad.

There’s little downside to picking up recent drafted players for nothing. Tufele was on the Bengals’ radar during the 2021 draft, but they had to watch the Jaguars take him before any of their three fourth-round picks. When presented the opportunity to swap out Shelvin, who was taken 16 picks later, for the 22-year old Tufele, the Bengals didn’t hesitate. And they were able to retain Shelvin on the practice squad; a win-win for all parties.

Replacing Shelvin with Tufele wasn’t exactly a one-for-one, though. Shelvin is a true nose tackle, while Tufele was almost exclusively used as a 3-technique in college. He’s still listed at just over 300 pounds, significantly lighter than D.J. Reader, Josh Tupou, and Shelvin, who’ve all played nose for Lou Anarumo’s defense this year.

In all likelihood, Tufele was brought in to provide depth behind B.J. Hill and Zach Carter, both of whom are primarily 3-techs. Reader and Tupou would handle A-gap duties, and Shelvin would remain an emergency backup in case of injuries.

Well, the Bengals had an emergency against the New Orleans Saints.

Tupou exited the game after just 19 snaps, and Shelvin wasn’t elevated prior to the game. Tufele was the next man up, and was called onto the field for the first time this year. Anarumo didn’t simply stick him at nose for the remainder of the game, but in the few chances he got there, he surprisingly stood out.

Let’s take a look at how the new No. 97 fared against the Saints’ run game.