No rookie class under Zac Taylor has ever experienced a normal season opener. The fourth Week 1 game under Taylor’s watch turned out to be the whackiest of them all, and only four first-year players got to be a part of it. But that was the least surprising aspect of the game.
After Allan George was waived and re-signed to the practice squad, the only rookies on the Cincinnati Bengals’ 53-player roster were the four healthy members of their 2022 NFL Draft class. Cordell Volson earn the starting gig at left guard, Dax Hill and Zach Carter assumed their roles as key reserves, and Jeff Gunter was waiting to see if he was even going to be active on game day. Gunter did dress, but he was the only rookie to not play any snaps on offense or defense. He ended up with 20 snaps on special teams.
Volson’s role as a starter was going to result in him playing the most snaps out the four, but many were shocked to see how little Hill—and to an extent, Carter—saw the field in Week 1. Let us begin with the fourth-rounder who had one of the toughest assignments on Sunday.
It took all of one play for the North Dakota native to have his welcome to the NFL moment. Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive tackle Cameron Heyward got into Volson’s chest right off the snap and maneuvered around him to get to Joe Burrow. The Bengals’ quarterback would get sacked for the first of seven times on the day. We know what disaster would come on the ensuing play.
That would not be the lone sack Volson would allow, but many have forgiven him for the additional blunder. The Bengals attempted to pull Volson across the formation and leave him on an island against the only other Steeler pass-rusher better than Heyward: T.J. Watt. Volson got to his spot with haste, but the recognition from Watt rendered it useless. To no one’s surprise, Watt ended up with the takedown on Burrow in a collapsed pocket.
Two sacks allowed would lead one to believe it was an overwhelming negative debut for the rookie, but it was not. Volson flashed his upside in pass protection. The third time he faced Heyward in pass pro, he executed a successful snatch and trap, leaving Heyward flailing towards the turf. Several more clean wins in true pass sets led to Pro Football Focus grading him out at a respectable 74.2 in that regard.
Volson was never going to shut out Heyward, Watt, or anyone else he went up against in his first regular season outing. The bad plays happened, and he persisted to create positive ones. That’s enough encouragement to let him develop as a starter.
Cincinnati’s five turnovers and special teams snafus have garnered all the attention this week while the defense has been unfairly set aside in the shadows. Lou Anarumo’s unit limited Pittsburgh to just 16 points and three fewer first downs in five full quarters of play. That they were able to keep the Steelers off the field meant the rotation at defensive line wasn’t needed as much.
Carter, as a result, only saw 11 snaps in relief of BJ Hill at 3-technique. Such a limited debut doesn’t warrant any substantial takeaways. We know what his role is, and on days where the defense will be better tested, he’ll be relied on more often.
The same logic only somewhat applies to why the Bengals’ first-round pick amassed just six snaps in his first game. Hill had about as good of a preseason as you’d hope for. There’s been no indication that he’s not mentally ready for exposure against starting offenses. The only reason why he rode the bench for 90% of the game is that they didn’t need him, which can be deemed true considering the defense’s success, but Hill isn’t necessarily part of a rotation.
The belief was that he’d be prominently featured in three-safety sets out of the gate. That simply wasn’t the case against a Mitchell Trubisky-led offense. Perhaps the reasoning lives in that statement.
No matter how little Hill plays every week, we still want to track how and where he’s being used throughout the year. He are the first splits of the season:
Where on the field was Dax Hill?
- Free safety: four snaps
- Box player: two snaps
So, will we see Hill more often in the next few weeks? If the quality of quarterback has any weight on the decision, perhaps not. Cooper Rush and Joe Flacco are the next two passers set to face Cincinnati’s robust defense. Different offenses require different game plans, but there’s a strong possibility that Hill is just being eased in slowly.