The Bengals seem to have an idea who is going to play right guard for them in Sunday's 1 p.m. game against the Jaguars at Paul Brown Stadium, but offensive line coach Jim Turner wouldn't give a name after Wednesday's practice.
But it seems pretty clear they're going to start their third different right guard in the first four games as they try to fortify an offensive line that has allowed a league-high 14 sacks while generating the third fewest rushing yards.
Turner wouldn't name a starter, but he did say the man next to whoever it is going to be, right tackle Bobby Hart, is playing the best of his career coming off three "solid" games.
"Bobby Hart is the most underappreciated player and the most picked-on player by everybody from the media to whoever wants to talk football," Turner said in a conference call. "It's like every pressure we've ever had gets blamed on that kid. To me, nobody has put more time or effort into our offense, like in preparation for the season and understanding his weaknesses and in training and getting himself ready to play for the season."
So it could be Alex Redmond, still on the practice squad as of Thursday morning after being released following training camp. He already has 17 NFL starts at right guard and two in this system. It could be blossoming sixth-round pick Hakeem Adeniji. They could go back to former first-round pick Billy Price after he struggled in the second half Sunday. They could turn to Fred Johnson, the man that got benched for Price.
But one thing is for sure. The move to another guard is just one indication how the Bengals' front appears to be paying the price for trying to develop young players at the same time they're breaking in a rookie quarterback during a pandemic that wiped out spring ball and pre-season games and shortened training camp. The ankle injury in the opener that has shelved for several weeks the line's big free-agent acquisition, right guard Xavier Su'a-Filo, has added to the challenge.
With so little work on the field compared to past seasons, Turner indicated the offense is still trying to find out what it can do best. The one thing they can't keep doing, he says, is putting themselves in situations they have to pass resulting in Burrow throwing the second most passes in the league.
"You get behind the sticks a little bit, so we end up throwing the football. When you're throwing the ball that many times and you're asking these guys to sit there and pass protect one-on-one, at times you're going to get beat," Turner said. "Last week it was on three play-passes that we got beat in sacks. It might've been four. In all those, if you don't get them to bite on the run and they just rush that passer, there's a good chance it's going to be a sack. We've got to do a better job at selling the runs on them."
Like everyone else around here, Turner loves Burrow. If he didn't before Wednesday he certainly does now after Burrow blamed his style for some of the sacks. But the play-action game, the bedrock of what head coach Zac Taylor is trying to do here, has to be married to what Burrow does best and they need reps with the guy.
"If you just start with the run game, in general the run game, so we got a new quarterback and so the way we fit with him in the run game, how he fits in with us," Turner said. "As far as some of the stuff that's built into it. Some of the play-action passes that are built into it. Try to integrate some of the things that he's done in college into it. And then you just scheme the different teams that you're going to play. You've just got to find a groove. We've got to find something that we're good at."
From a personnel standpoint, Turner is comfortable with veterans in Hart and center Trey Hopkins as the rest develop.
He says left tackle Jonah Williams, going into his fourth NFL start, is a good player who is going to get better. He says sophomore left guard Michael Jordan is going to be a great player who isn't yet. He says sophomore Fred Johnson, his backup right tackle who got benched halfway through his second start at right guard on Sunday, can be a great player if he wants to be. He knows Adeniji wants to be.
"I think Freddy is going to be a heck of a player. I think he's going to be a heck of a player, but he better do it soon … Fred Johnson can be a heck of a pro player. The decision is his. If you look at some of the other guys, Billy (Price) has been a solid backup for us right now and then you got Hakeem Adeniji," Turner said.
"I think Hakeem can play guard or tackle. I don't want him in there at tackle right now. I want the bigger player in Fred in there right now, but I think Hakeem is developing as we speak at both of those positions and he's got the maturity. He wants it, he's there mentally and he wants to do it. So, I'm very comfortable in where he is headed right now."
That's where they are. It's the first of October and they continue to chase after that chemistry that's so elusive even when they have a spring and pre-season games.
"As this thing unfolds right now, like I said, the answers are not black and white," Turner said. "There's a reason why you practice. You practice to get better. But you also practice to compete
"You also practice to see where your guys are at, who is competing for that job and who wants that job. If he doesn't want it in practice, he sure as hell isn't going to want it in the game. We want to see mentally and emotionally who wants that job. So, they are going to compete for that job right now."