Bengals rotate into minicamp

Posted Jun 11, 2016

The Bengals end their voluntary spring workouts this week with practices Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. We take a look at how they're trying to expand their rotation on one of the league's best defensive lines, as well as competition at some of the other spots...

Marcus Hardison brings athleticism to D-line rotation.

The locker room overheard Bengals defensive tackle Marcus Hardison last week after practice talking about how he can throw a football 80 yards. So, as will often happen in said locker room, challenges were hurled and bets were proposed with backup quarterback AJ McCarron and defensive back Josh Shaw in the middle of it all.

A bunch of guys eventually dragged him out to the stadium field, but since Hardison, who played quarterback in high school until his senior year, didn’t really have a lot of time to warm up or prepare there was no money on the line. Still, he threw it 68 yards into a breeze.

“I thought it was 70, but they said 68,” Hardison said. “I know at some point I can get it to 80.”

It just shows you how athletic the Bengals are up front and why new defensive line coach Jacob Burney is vowing to have a revolving-door rotation during games instead of featuring mainly the best players.

Usually next week’s mandatory minicamp with a practice each day on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday gives you virtually no clues about what goes on in the trenches on either side of the ball. Not with players dressed in mere helmets and shorts.

But what can be ascertained is how Burney is changing the mindset of one of the best defensive lines in the game. Sometimes it looks like a change in shifts in a Stanley Cup final out there. Yes, Pro Bowlers Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins, with nearly 25 sacks between them last season, are still going to get a ton of snaps. But it’s not going to be like the past few seasons, when they pretty much played with their four starters and Wallace Gilberry.

Dwight Freeney or no Dwight Freeney.

“In today’s game, if you think you’re going to stick four out there and they’re just going to play those 85 plays for you in today’s NFL, that’s not happening,” Burney said after one practice this week. “So you’ve got to get more than that ready to play. You’ve got to get seven ready to play. And then you can’t be afraid to put them in there.”

Last year, Dunlap led the way with 82 percent of the snaps for 13.5 sacks and right end Michael Johnson with 78 percent while Atkins (73), Gilberry (58), and nose tackle Domata Peko (50) rounded it out.  Next in line was tackle Pat Sims at just 17 percent.  The previous two seasons had major blips. In 2014 they were trying to replace Johnson and in 2013 they lost Atkins for half the season with a torn ACL.

But when the line had 45 of the club-record 51 sacks in 2012, the snaps were more distributed with the fifth man, Gilberry, getting 35 percent of them. Burney says he won’t hesitate resting a starter in the second quarter to have him in the fourth.

“It’s not tough for me, because that’s the way I’ve done it,” Burney said. “Now yeah, coordinators, they always want (starters) out there. ‘Oh, get them in there, get them in there, it’s a crucial situation.’ But what point in a game isn’t a crucial situation?

Margus Hunt figures to be in the wave.

“It is hard to stick to. ‘Oh, I want to see that guy out there.’  But that guy, his tongue is hanging out and that guy, he may be out there but he’s taking his rest on that one play that you need him because he’s been out there for the whole time. That’s just how it is. Especially when you’re talking about big guys. DBs, they can play all day long. They’re little guys. Big guys, you just have to rotate guys.”

Burney has already won over a major voice on the line in Peko, the Dean of the D with a club-high 155 games as a Bengal.

“He’s saying we have a talented group and we shouldn’t have guys taking 90 percent of the snaps and getting tired,” Peko said. “In the fourth quarter he wants our superstars to be as good as they were in the first half of the game. That’s what we were doing a couple of years ago back when we got on a roll with a rotation of guys. That’s what some of the best defensive lines do. They have a wave of guys coming at you.”

A look at two of the league’s best four-man lines last bear out Burney and Peko. Carolina went to the Super Bowl with no one on its line playing more than 70 percent of the snaps and eight down linemen playing at least 30 percent. Seattle, a two-time NFC champion in the last three years, had big numbers from Michael Bennett (82 percent) and Cliff Avril (80 percent), but the Seahawks had six players work at least 32 percent.

“You look out there and say how come, and it’s late in the game, how come you guys didn’t hustle to the ball? OK, well it’s late in the fourth quarter and he done played 75, 80 plays already,” Burney said. “You say well, he gets paid to do that. That’s what he’s supposed to do.’ Well that sounds wonderful in the cool of a room or a living room.

“After about 75 plays, and he’s given you all he’s got, it’s not enough to win. No matter how good he is when he’s fatigued like that he can’t play winning football. All of sudden you need him to run to a screen he’s not running. Those short passes or those outside plays, he’s not running, because he knows you’re not going to rest him, he’s got to rest himself. I don’t believe that’s the right way to go.”

There is also some sense in Bengaldom that young ends such as Margus Hunt and Will Clarke have been underused. But it sounds like two second-year tackles, Hardison and DeShawn Williams, are going to get plenty of work. And, of course, the thinking is fourth-round pick Andrew Billing, the run-stuffing tackle, is going to be in the rotation right away backing up Peko. None of those three have taken an NFL snap. But not for long.

Hardison, the 2015 fourth-round pick from Arizona State, is looking at the role vacated by Gilberry’s move in free agency. Gilberry buttered his bread by being able to play end in the base defense and slide into tackle for the pass rush in the nickel package.

The less he played, the more sacks he got, 3.5 on more than 1,400 snaps the last two years and 14 on 836 snaps the first two years. But if Gilberry is the first exhibit in what a wave can wash up, the key is having his type of versatility. They think Hardison, a college defensive end, has a chance to be able to go both inside and outside playing end in the base and tackle in the nickel. They’ve also seen flashes of Hunt and Clarke moving from end on any down into tackle on the pass rush.

Pat Sims always gets snaps in the run game.

But even though Hunt and Clarke were taken in the second and third rounds, respectively in the 2013 and 2014 drafts (and Clarke was talked about as a possible second-rounder), they’ve played just a combined 609 snaps.

It sounds like Burney is going to change that. Start with Hardison after he popped a patella tendon in his knee last year and missed the first two months of the regular season. He ended up being the only draft pick not to dress but it looks like he’s picked up where he left off last preseason and has the coaches looking at that 80-yard athleticism.

“Athletic enough, yeah. He’s got the athletic ability to do that,” Burney said his flexibility. “We like him inside He’s got good size. Three-technique you want that athlete, you want that mobility, and he’s big enough to hang in there and bang. He can (do both) . . . He’s just a heck of an athlete . . . We’ve got to make sure he doesn’t disappear again. As long as they’ll work at it, what I’m teaching, those things, and he is.”

Hardison is one of these guys that makes you wonder how good he’ll be once he figures it out. He didn’t play defensive line until that senior year in high school and he never played tackle until he left college and went to the Senior Bowl to start the draft process. Last year in the pre-season games, you could see him at one quarter playing end and at tackle in another quarter.

“I can do it, but I need to get playing in there in the three technique because I’m not used to playing inside,” Hardison said.. “I feel a lot better this year and more comfortable inside. Everything becomes a lot quicker at tackle than at end, but I’m getting a lot better day-by-day. Watching guys like Geno and Brandon (Thompson) has really helped me. I pick Geno’s brain every chance I get. He’s so strong and he’s smart when it comes to figuring out how they’re going to block him.”

Hardison knows his big picture depends on the little things. Still, he thinks he’ll get a shot. They’re trying to develop the mindset that when the starting four come off the field, they can replace them with four guys that can bring as much heat.

“It could be anybody,” Hardison says. “You’ve got Margus, Will, me, DeShawn, Pat, (Billings) . . . Coach Burney has been talking about a rotation since he got here and DeShawn and I were over there on the side cheering,” Hardison said.

 “But he’s a stickler for detail and little things and the only way you’re going to get on the field is if you’re doing the right things.”

So far, so good for Hardison. There’ll be no answer next week without pads. But they’ll be plenty of different helmets up front with him.

“I’m anxious to get him pads because that’s when the rubber meets the road, when they put them pads on and they start doubling and knocking and those kind of things,” Burney said. “Athletic and that kind of stuff, you can’t ask (inaudible) … the guy’s busting his tail. I like where he is.”


Mario Alford is looking to catch more consistency.

A quick look at the other positions heading into the mandatory minicamp starting with the area of the most concern. After nine voluntary practices, wide receiver remains the top question mark, although second-round pick Tyler Boyd has shown the separation and hands needed to perform in the slot . . . Sophomore Jake Kumerow has had a very good spring and is looking to carry it into the minicamp . . .  Sophomore slot receiver Mario Alford, has shown his blistering speed and his ability to separate, but he’s had a bad spring when it comes to holding on to the ball . . . They need a guy to beat man-to-man consistently opposite A.J. Green because that guy is going to get one-on-one all day long and, like Marvin Jones, he needs to beat it consistently. They think they’ve got him in former Patriots wide receiver Brandon LaFell. While he learns the offense, the drops that plagued him late last year in New England have surfaced from time to time this spring, but they think the more he’s in system the more consistent he’ll become . . .

With Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert (ankle) out for training camp, Tyler Kroft and C.J. Uzomah have had very encouraging springs catching the ball and getting open...Eastern Kentucky free agent Matt Lengel, who spent all last season on the practice squad, has also shown improvement...

They haven’t been able to get their prized sophomore tackles on the field yet. Right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi (pulled muscle) returned to drills last week and backup tackle Jake Fisher (unknown) hasn’t worked much. Both are expected to be ready to practice on the first day of training camp, but with the Bengals looking to replace Andre Smith at right tackle with Ogbuehi, the most underrated signing of the offseason is turning out to be the re-upping of 11-year vet Eric Winston after he took most of the first team snaps at right tackle . . . Undrafted Alex Cooper out of Houston, who can play a variety of spots  that include center, looks like he’s going to make a run at the roster . . .

It’s hard to judge linebackers without pads, so WILL backer Vontaze Burfict got all the headlines for cutting off his locks and going close-cropped last week...Third-rounder Nick Vigil looks to be the real deal as he works behind Burfict at WILL. . .13-year vet Karlos Dansby has been as advertised as he adjusts to SAM . . .Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga has yet to practice, but  he’s expected to be back at some point in training camp while the Bengals build their deepest backer corps in years . . .

Shawn Williams has already taken control at safety.

Shawn Williams has seamlessly stepped into starting safety. .. Starting cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick has been limited off shoulder surgery but is expected to be ready for training camp. Same with slot corner Darqueze Dennnard . . . So sophomore Josh Shaw has had plenty of reps to try and show that he can also play nickel corner as well as nickel safety . . . In the absence of Kirkpatrick, Chris Lewis-Harris has had a quietly impressive spring just being solid . . . Still, there is buzz the Bengals are talking with old friend Leon Hall about returning so he can provide depth at safety and corner. .. Seventh-rounder Clayton Fejedelem and last year’s sixth-rounder Derron Smith look like they know what they’re doing out there. But that last roster spot at safety won’t be decided until after the last pre-season game and all the special teams snaps have been reviewed . . .    



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