Eli Apple, the Bengals cornerback Twitter loves to hate, has contested everything in this training camp. From quarterback Brandon Allen's constant throws to the incomparable Ja'Marr Chase to his social media habits.
"I've made more of an emphasis this camp to stay off of that stuff. Instagram. Especially now," Apple said this week. "I'm just trying to lock in. Put my mind somewhere else."
It must be working because after what could have been February's devastating go-in-the-tank experience covering the Rams' winning pass from the one-yard line in Super Bowl LVI with 85 seconds left, Apple has emerged as confident and as pesky as ever.
He's playing well enough that he's annoying Chase, arguably the best receiver in the game. And Apple told Bengals.com last week that Chase is his favorite NFL player. But all's fair in love, war and training camp.
"He pisses me off. I'm not going to lie. He pisses me off a little bit," Chase said. "But it's just part of football. Competitive. Just get better as teammates.
"He just talks a lot. He brings his own energy. That's just the type of person he is. He's just aggravating."
Chase, who plays and observes a lot older than his 22 years, sums up Apple like this: "He's a villain with a good heart." For an NFL cornerback, that's the highest compliment.
"He's come a long way from when I first met him," Allen said of Apple's arrival a year ago. "He's obviously bought in. He understands what he's being asked to do out here a lot more. He never seems to be out of position. He always seems to be doing the right thing. He's going against Ja'Marr a lot and that's not easy."
Just look at social media, which treats training camp plays like, well, the winning play in the Super Bowl. Whenever Chase beats him – and Chase beats everybody _ it is Cooper Kupp all over again. So it's a good thing if Apple isn't out there these days because even when you win some and lose some the fangs are out.
"Reading books," said Apple of what he's doing with his time now.
Such as "The Alchemist," and "The Pilgrimage," novels with themes of self-discovery. Also "Atomic Habits," a book no doubt recommended by new cornerbacks coach Charles Burks that explores life-changing possibilities with small changes in routine.
"Self-help books. Mental stuff. That's what I'm doing right now," Apple said. "One thing that's kind of stuck out is trying to be at the mountain top every day. Feeling like you're a champion every day. It can be tough going through a Super Bowl loss. But take every day with the right attitude and right approach."
Apple admits he has thick skin. He has to smile when asked why he hasn't got off Twitter before.
"I don't know. I'm used to it now," Apple said. "I've been through the hardest part of being an NFL player. Being traded, suspended. I'm used to everybody saying stuff."
Before Kupp got position ever so slightly on Apple for Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford's winning throw, Apple was a big reason the Bengals got to that moment. He stepped into the starting lineup from virtually day one when Trae Waynes was never healthy, helped tip a playoff road win in the last minute and turned the AFC title game with a tackle of the ever-elusive Tyreek Hill on the Bengals 1 as the first half expired.
"Eli's been a really solid player for us," said head coach Zac Taylor this week. "People judge things off of … We've got a ton of guys who maybe there were plays to be made, but I thought Eli was really solid down the stretch. That's why we re-signed him. We like what he's been about. He's a great communicator with those guys on defense. We're certainly happy to have him. He competes every single play. That's what you want from those DBs.
"Guys are going to get beat. You better have a short memory. I think all of our guys do a great job putting (a play) behind them and come back and get right in your face the next play. That's what we want to see. That's the mentality we want. He certainly fits that mold."
The day Apple signed back, about a month after the Super Bowl, he already had put it in perspective when he told Bengals.com :
"It was a good throw and catch by two pretty good players. I wish I could have got hands on at the line, not open my hips, lock my hips … A split second. Just enough separation … Technical stuff like that. I could have played the ball better. Changed the game. Possibly won it."
This week, he was coming from the same place: "Great player made a great play."
Now he's going against a great one every day.
"He's just got to go to the next place and he's been making some plays," Chase said.
A 280-character short memory to go with a novel's long perspective.
"I think he's more comfortable being out there with calls," Allen said. "He's been doing it for lot longer now, so I think he's kind of found his comfort zone and he's excelling in it."
PLAYER OF THE DAY: LT Jonah Williams
The first day in pads meant Williams has officially begun his training camp scrums against Trey Hendrickson, the Bengals' relentless soul on the edge who has picked off 23 sacks in his last 25 games.
Williams, the fourth-year player who never had a rookie year, is emerging as a solid, not-so-silent presence these days. Suddenly he's quietly gone from making his first NFL start in Joe Burrow's first NFL game to one of the senior Bengals. Only two starters on offense have been here longer than him, Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon.
He had a one-on-one pass rush drill Tuesday that made some noise. He tied up Hendrickson twice in their two shots against each other and in team drills he kept quarterback Brandon Allen clean long enough for him to complete a 30-yard go ball to wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase.
"You win some, you lose some and you get better along the way is how I see it," Williams said as he walked off the practice field.
Williams recently got some high praise from new center Ted Karras. Karras, a product of the Patriotic Belichick-Brady Super Bowl culture, quickly recognized that Williams was the first draft pick of the Zac Taylor Era in 2019 and the senior Bengal in the offensive line room.
"Jonah's a great leader," Karras said. "I've relied on Jonah Williams very heavily."
Williams has no doubt that the matchup with Hendrickson in the last two camps has helped make him better along the way.
"A great player. I think he honestly has one of the best, if not, the best get-off in the league," Williams said. "His first couple of steps are so fast that it really forces you to be good with your sets or else he's going to get you."
Williams came into the NFL with a big-league approach to the study of the game and now at 24 he's that much sharper and has embraced a leadership role noted by the insightful newcomer Karras. He's the only 2021 Opening Day starter on the line in the same spot and when the Bengals went out and signed three new O-line starters after the season it had him looking at a 2019 photo of the group.
"I was the last man standing," Williams said. "When it comes to building a consistent culture in the locker room, it's the ones who have been there who are the ones to pass it on. And then you bring in great character guys like we have and their little tidbits to add to the culture. We have a really great room and I'm proud to be one of the leaders."
Karras isn't a rah-rah guy and Williams isn't a chatterbox. But they complement each other nicely. Williams, so diligent and good at studying film that he was basically an advance scout late in the rookie year he was on injured reserve, likes to do his leading one-on-one.
"Teddy's the center, a vocal leader of the team," Williams said. "I definitely can contribute knowing the system really well and having a lot of time in. I'm more I'll go up and talk to a guy if I see something."
PLAY OF THE DAY: WR Ja'Marr Chase
Think Pittsburgh last season late in the first half at old Heinz Field when Chase stunned the Steelers with 37 seconds left and broke a 7-7 tie. Remember when he stretched out on a go ball and caught the back end of the ball at the last instant?
That's what he did Tuesday in team drills. He got great initial separation on cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and as Awuzie is want to do, he closed fast and reached out to disrupt Chase as he looked behind for the ball. Allen put the ball out in front and, as Chase has done all camp, he plucked it.
For the last week there have been some Titanic battles with Chase against Awuzie and the other No. 1 cornerback, Eli Apple, in a slew of contested balls. Apple got nicked up before that play and didn't return to the practice, but he expects to be back the next time the Bengals are on the field on Thursday.
And Chase is enjoying the competition.
"Eli and Chido have been giving me good looks all year," Chase said before practice. "Eli is a different corner from Chido. Chido is definitely more feet, Eli is more hands since he's longer. It's just giving me different looks and what I should be prepared for before the season."
QUOTE OF THE DAY:
Chase on Apple's competitiveness:
"He's a villain with a good heart."
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