Joseph Ossai and Cam Sample, who were drafted 42 picks apart last year, began their Bengals careers with different expectations.
Ossai didn’t turn 21 until last April, but his elite speed and explosion traits made him the club’s ideal third down specialist following the departure of Carl Lawson. His testing numbers and production made him a candidate to go much earlier than 69th overall, but having played on the edge for just a season at Texas, his relative inexperience and technical shortcomings pushed him out of the first two rounds.
The middle of the draft has become the franchise’s sweet spot for investing in the defensive line. Ossai fit the bill as a third-round home run swing like Sample did as a fourth-round base hit. Sample didn’t possess the quickness and flash that Ossai carried with him from college, rather it was his play strength and positional versatility that made him enticing to a defense that had little of neither up front.
In their first offseason, the plan was to get both integrated in the d-line rotation as the main reserves at edge; Ossai on the right, and Sample on the left. The vision looked beautiful in their first preseason game as Ossai filled the first half with havoc, and his second half meniscus injury filled the team with great concern.
Instead of the two of them rotating together as rookies, Sample would have to go at it alone to pick up the slack. He finished the regular season with 310 snaps in 13 games played as knee and hamstring injuries took him out of commission for a few weeks.
It was your run-of-the-mill rookie season for an edge player learning how to maximize his strengths. Sample performed exactly to expectation, but this was made to look underwhelming when combined with something out of his control.
The Bengals simply needed more behind Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard. More production, more bodies, just more. Both players were doing everything in their power to make the most out of their snaps because when one of them came off the field, the defense looked worse.
Luckily, this didn’t come back to haunt them in the postseason. The defense was the team’s better half during their playoff triumphs, and they managed a Super Bowl appearance with a rotation that desperately needed juice. The ensuing offseason saw them going an entire free agency period and NFL Draft without adding a defensive lineman, so the plan was as clear as day: Ossai was the juice.
A year removed from surgery, the expectations around Ossai remained sky-high, and even more pressure was put on his shoulders, though there has been a ramp up period. He only played 18 snaps in two preseason games last month, and just 19 snaps in the team’s first two regular season contests. Cincinnati looked inept at getting after the quarterback in those games compared to how their opponents got to Joe Burrow. Clearly, some juice was needed.
On Sunday, their thirst was finally quenched as the Bengals made Joe Flacco’s life a living Hell. Cincinnati racked up 22 pressures and sacked Flacco four times on their way to a 27-12 victory without their anchor and leader, D.J. Reader, for most of the game.
Reader’s injury is going to impact how the Bengals’ defensive line operates going forward, but the signs of growth from both Ossai and Sample should spark confidence in the unit’s ability to takeover games. Let’s see how the two of them progressed against the Jets: