With the Bengals set to put on the pads for the first time next Tuesday, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor used Wednesday's first practice of training camp to ease into amp-up mode.
Quarterback Joe Burrow barely threw a ball over five yards in his first two 11-on-11 sessions since last season, but the crispness of his spring work and his chemistry with first-round pick Ja'Marr Chase were on display as 90-degree temperatures blanketed the Paul Brown Stadium practice fields.
As limited as the action was, new offensive line coach Frank Pollack's presence could be felt by the urgent tempo of a position group that begins camp splayed under a microscope. The pace already been predicted before practice by one of the two players Pollack coached when he was here in 2018.
"You hear people say, you hear coaches say practice should be so hard so that the game is easy. With Coach Pollack, that is a real, that is a factual statement," said center Trey Hopkins. "It's going to be another year, everyone sees, you guys will be out there and see it's a different tempo. It's a different pace this year.
"He knows the drills that he's asking of you were going to be demanding. He knows that because he's done it so you kind of have a little bit of a different respect for a guy like that when you know, when he's just completely killing you and completely just running over you out at practice, but you know he himself has done it. You have a little bit higher little respect for him."
Hopkins is a story in himself. Make that a book. How many NFL centers are 200 pages into Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazovas they start training camp barely six month after ACL surgery? Hopkins, who began his career seven years ago with a season-ending broken leg in the preseason finale, has grown into the glue of the Bengals' much scrutinized O-line and his rapid, remarkable rehab puts him on pace to be the starter in the Sept. 12 opener at Paul Brown Stadium against the Vikings.
He won't be in 11-on-11 until maybe Friday, but Hopkins and Bengals director of rehab Nick Cosgray have clearly outdone themselves since Hopkins tore up his knee in the Jan. 3 finale.
"They have a good plan in place for me. I trust their plan for me to ease back in in here because, again, like I said its six months. I'm going to be smart about things," Hopkins said. "As long as I'm feeling good, as long as the knee is responding well, they're going to keep progressing me. I can't speak for Sept. 12 yet but I can speak for right now and saying I'm feeling pretty good.
"The hardest part, honestly, is the first weeks when you can't do too much, when a lot of it is just your body feeling those initial scars, healing, all the sutures and things coming together. That's the hardest part, because then I'm watching the Super Bowl, watching guys still playing football and I'm sitting here with an ice bag on my leg, can't hardly walk, still hobbling around."
Hopkins said he set aside three days for moping and here he is. He's doubly pumped because Pollack was the guy that moved him to center three years ago (that's where he got a three-year extension the next year) and the Bengals line played better.
"We were a better O-line. I can speak for myself. He definitely made me a better offensive lineman," Hopkins said. "He's going to be a huge asset to us on the offense line, not just physically with steps and footwork, but just the mentality that he brings."
Pollack isn't giving any jobs away. His first group featured veteran guards. Second-round pick Jackson Carman is in the que as he makes the transition from big time Division I left tackle to NFL guard.
"He's practiced at all the positions before, so it's not like it's the first time he's played (guard)," Taylor said. "But I just think the transition from college to the pros, just takes a little time. You've got to put the pads on and see how it feels. And now you're going against, you know, some -- he went against some really good players in college, but we feel like we got some good D-tackles he's going to go against and that'll be a challenge for him."
PLAYER OF THE DAY: Rookie kicker Evan McPherson certainly didn't look out of place in his first practice. The fifth-rounder calmly drilled six-for-six and topped it off with a 48-yarder.
PLAY OF THE DAY: Any run by running back Joe Mixon, who looked terrific taking his first handoffs from Burrow since Oct. 18 and the seven-yard touchdown run in Indy that gave the Bengals a 21-0 lead . Practicing in short 1970s NBA shorts he calls his workout gear, Mixon looked smooth and decisive while making reads in a run game now officially coordinated by Pollack.
Again, no surprise to Hopkins, who in 2018 helped pave Mixon's way to the Bengals' first AFC rushing championship on 4.9 yards per carry with Pollack running the blocking.
"It's exciting. Joe was here when Frank was here last time and he had some explosive runs," Hopkins said. "We were really building up that offense and building up that run game. A lot of that is mentality. (Mixon) had confidence in us because he saw how we worked in practice with Frank. "
Only Hopkins and Billy Price are here from Pollack's first run here, but Hopkins doesn't see that massive of a shakeup in what Taylor has crafted.
"I wouldn't say he's ripped it up. I just think everything is sharper. It's consistent. It's precise," Hopkins said. "It's consternation-free. There's no gray. You have an assignment you are very clear on that assignment. Now it is training that assignment to be perfect every time that play is called. There's not a time where we should call a play and we call for me to reach a shade and I should be like, oh, well, I took a bad first step. Why did you take a bad first step? We rep this every single day over and over and over. That's the kind of coach he is."
The 2018 offense, of course, is long gone and it is Taylor's playbook. But he says he and Pollack have fit the run game in rather than tear it up.
"It's a marriage. There's things that we've done, our players are familiar with, we feel like we can have success with, things that he's got experienced with," Taylor said. "Then you blend them all together."
Taylor's office is next to Pollack's and they would like to think that's a metaphor for Taylor appointing Pollack the run game coordinator.
"I mean, you know, the office setup. We share a wall," Taylor said. "So it's not like I've got to talk above a whisper just to get his attention. So Frank and I, usually, we talk about it all day."
QUOTE OF THE DAY 1:
"I just think the O-Line that has been here and has been through the ringer and just got wrecked the past couple of years in combination with Coach Pollack, who is a no-nonsense, we're going to get this thing right, and like I said, (he's) just a tenacious coach himself, I think that combination is what's going to push us to the next level this year."
- Hopkins on the No. 1 reason the offensive line is going to be better.
QUOTE OF THE DAY II
"I love this shirt, I love supporting my teammates. Jessie is a close friend and someone I want to play with for a long time. Thought it was a good shirt to wear."
- Left end Sam Hubbard on wearing a Jessie Bates III Just Believe T-Shirt at his media availability.
You have to love that on a day the Bengals conducted their first in-person interviews since the 2020 scouting combine and a certain LSU quarterback acknowledging the convenience of a drive from Athens, Ohio to Paul Brown Stadium.
Hubbard signed his four-year, $40 million extension on Monday and everyone knows next in management's sights for an extension is Bates, the defending No. 1 free safety in last season's Pro Football Focus rankings.
Presented by Gatorade, check out some of the best images from the Bengals first training camp practice on July 28, 2021.
SLANTS AND SCREENS: The defense, restricted in the spring from rushing the passer (or anything else for that matter), looked a bit feistier, particularly in coverage. New vet safety Ricardo Allen ripped the ball out of running back Trayveon Williams' hands, new middle linebacker Logan Wilson blew up a swing pass to wide receiver Tee Higgins in the backfield and reliable safety Vonn Bell knocked away a pass ticketed to rookie tight end Thaddeus Moss.
Clearly the talent is better on defense, but it may be a while for the tackles to get settled with a hamstring injury to free-agent pickup Larry Ogunjobi and nose tackle D.J. Reader coming back from a torn quad. Reader has been cleared, but they're not going to rush him and it's not clear when Ogunjobi can get back, but Taylor said he didn't think it was a long-term issue. Still, guys like Mike Daniels and Kahlil McKenzie got a lot of work at tackle Wednesday as they eased in massive rookie Tyler Shelvin with a few snaps.
The Bengals can't wait to see the new rushes of free-agent pickups like Trey Hendrickson and Mike Hilton. But first things first.
No one touches Burrow.
"It's football now. We've got pads on. This isn't the spring," said Taylor of a May and June no one was to come within ten feet of Burrow on the field.
Still. This is the 30th anniversary of a Bengals training camp when a kid clipped running back Ickey Woods for a devastating second ACL tear,
"That's always slide No. 1: stay away from the quarterback in training camp whether they're coming off an ACL or not," Taylor said. "That's just general, good football on your behalf. Take care of your teammates whether it's chipping guys on the edge or cracking. We always want to take care of our teammates. This is no different."
It's so important that Taylor goes beyond a slide.
"You try to occasionally show clips from training camps of past where young guys make that mistake of taking a cheap shot on somebody, because they think they're doing their job, because in a game they would be," Taylor said. "We're at training camp, we're taking care of our own guys so we can get through healthy."
Hubbard, ever the pro, not to mention Burrow's good friend, has some good advice.
"I don't think I get nervous when I get near him, I just try to stay away from him at all costs," Hubbard said. "You know if you won, you know if you didn't. That competitor in you always wants to see off, but it's not worth it when you got a guy back there who is a great quarterback."
The goal will be helped by keeping the ball off the ground and they'll have to do better with snaps. Burrow lost two from center, but was smart enough to get away from the ensuing melee.