Skip to main content

Hobson's Choice: On Verge Of Opener, Bengals Answer With Depth And Defense

Something old on the left (running back Joe Mixon) and something new on the right (defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi) as the Bengals beef up the offense and overhaul the defense.
Something old on the left (running back Joe Mixon) and something new on the right (defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi) as the Bengals beef up the offense and overhaul the defense.

I'm 53 years old and a proud life long Bengals fan. The North is brutally challenging but I'm expecting these players won't be intimidated by the past. Do you think this team is prepared mentally for the division grind? Brett Starkey, Flatwoods, KY

BRETT: We know the club certainly values your support

Let's start with Joe Burrow. If last year anyone wasn't sold on Burrow's toughness, competitiveness and ferocious mindset, how about now?

He has come back from one of the most challenging injuries any athlete can suffer to answer the bell for the start of the season playing the game's most challenging position. It's a huge feat both mentally and physically.

After watching what he did in college and then here this past month exorcise the demons of the pocket, very doubtful this guy is going to be intimidated by Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale at M&T Bank Stadium or Mike Tomlin's Steelers at Heinz Field. For your team leader to anchor the psyche with that mindset, that's huge.

Plus, you've got a dozen veterans that have arrived in the last year or two that know what mastering the grind looks like because they've been in at least one post-season game. And two of them on defense, tackle Larry Ogunjobi (Cleveland) and slot cornerback Mike Hilton (Pittsburgh) have done it in this division.

There's no secret to winning the AFC North. It's not intimidation. It is defense. The last three times the Bengals won it (2009, 2013, 2015), the defenses were ranked fourth, third and 11th, respectively. The fact they'll roll out on Opening Day five defensive starters that have also started a play-off game (Ogunjobi, Hilton, Trey Hendrickson, Chidobe Awuzie and Eli Apple) suggests they're not going to get beat by being intimidated on defense. Or on Joe Burrow's offense.

Hi Geoff,

It feels odd to go into the season with so many new faces at CB. With some newcomers on the D-line as well, do you think the D will be better at stopping big plays this season, assuming the offense does its part? Tony Martin, Middletown, OH

TONY: Odd, but I think you'd agree it's something they had to do after generating the fewest sacks in the league last season and allowing the most rushing yards in the last three years. I'm not sure about much anymore, but one thing I'm pretty sure of is that they're going to be much better on defense. You saw it in training camp and you saw it in the preseason games. The first unit gave up no points and, I get it. It's the preseason. But go back to the last year they played preseason games with the 2019 starters.

On the first drive of that season against Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City they gave up a TD drive of 83 yards in less than four minutes. (Tom Brady, who beat Mahomes in the last real game, went down on six plays before the Bucs punted in Tampa on the first drive of this year.) In the first half in the third preseason game, a bunch of the starters gave up 214 yards to Eli Manning and rookie Daniel Jones. You didn't see any of that stuff go on this preseason.

And it shouldn't. Since March of 2020, those 2019 starters have been replaced by two third-round draft picks and veteran free agents to whom they've committed nearly $230 million.

So, yes. This defense should be better at stopping the big plays. And everything else.

Geoff, I always really enjoy the column. I've been a Bengals fan since the mid 70's. This is my first time asking a question. Do you feel that the Billy Price trade was smart considering the thin experience of the rookie backup center? Dan Oliver, Dayton, OH

DAN: Thanks very much for reading and for the astute question and please write again. I'm sure that got kicked around internally before they pulled the trigger. I hear you. Trey Hopkins has played all of three snaps and is going to be barely eight months removed from ACL surgery when he faces Mike Zimmer's Vikings in next week's opener. What if he has a problem and suddenly rookie Trey Hill is in there the third week of the season at Heinz Field trying to decipher the unforgiving Steelers front?

But I like the decision they made. You can't keep three centers. Hill can play all three spots while Price is pretty much just a center. (And a better center than people think.) There's been some hesitancy in the past when it comes to giving kids a shot on the O-line (they probably got a little gun shy after the Cedric Ogbuehi pick), but going with vets like Cordy Glenn and John Jerry didn't seem to be the answer and there's no question that developing young, NFL physically talented players like Hill is better than one-year tape jobs.

Now, do you take some lumps early? Maybe, but there seems to be a better return on getting them in there to develop if you think they can play and you can go all the way back to Andrew Whitworth moving to left tackle from left guard early in his rookie year and left guard Clint Boling starting on Opening Day.

They've also got two veteran guards to help Hill on the field if he has to play early. Not only every team, but every position has to have the right balance of vets and kids and they seem to have it in the combined 15 NFL seasons of Quinton Spain and Xavier Su'a-Filo countering the rookie interior backup line of Hill, D'Ante Smith and Jackson Carman.

Still questions on the OL and still questions at WR. Are we better on the OL? No sacks in preseason but against vanilla defenses. Chase and his drops. But it's preseason. Are we better than last year? The world wonders. John Dahlgren, Clinton, MI

JOHN: And the world is going to have to keep wondering until around 4 p.m. on Sept. 12. Then we'll have our first returns. Say what you want about vanilla defenses and all that in the preseason. But no sacks given up by the first group are no sacks. Period. So, yes, it's an improvement.

Look, they did what they had to do on the offensive line. They signed a veteran tackle in Riley Reiff. They drafted an O-lineman in the first two rounds when they took Jackson Carman in the second. Then they drafted two more who are going to end up starting for them pretty soon here in D'Ante Smith in the fourth and Trey Hill in the sixth.

And, more importantly, they changed the culture up front when they re-hired Frank Pollack to coach the line and, really, you have to give head coach Zac Taylor a lot of credit giving Pollack the title of run game coordinator. That suggests to me not only a tweaking of the scheme but a change in mentality. Because while they've made these changes, Burrow's best protection is an effective running game. So there's more to it than adding personnel and we'll find out the rest of the formula with the game plan.

As for Chase, please read on.

Butch: How much money did Bengals save by replacing Gio with Evans; replacing Daniels with Hill: and replacing Price with Hill (who according to Zac still has a ways to go in his development)? Bill Huffman, Hamilton, OH

BILL: Not enough to make the moves for financial reasons, from what I can see. It may have even cost them more because defensive tackle Mike Daniels was supposed to make $1.5 million and new defensive tackle B.J Hill makes $2.1 million, according to

These were football moves. They were not financial moves. As someone has wondered to me, perhaps they're making a mountain out of more Hills (B.J. and Trey?)

I wish I could take credit for that. Anyway, Trey Hill, the back-up center, makes $666,000 in his rookie year while four-year first-rounder Billy Price is set to make $2 million. But Price costs $1.6 million in dead money, according to So they lose about 250 grand in the exchange if you're doing it solely by the depth chart.

But you have look at the entire roster. They were looking to beef up the defensive line and B.J. Hill is going to play a lot this year. And he's young (26) and may have a bright future here. So you hate losing Price, a guy they respect. But you add a quality defensive lineman in B.J. Hill and you work to develop Trey Hill, a guy off a good preseason and plays three spots on the offensive line. To me, that's a football in-and-out and not a money one.

When the Bengals opted to re-sign back-up running back Samaje Perine at two years, $3.5 million after the coaches were comfortable using him more than Giovani Bernard in the last few games, that's the move that knocked out Bernard. Not rookie Chris Evans. When Gio turned down a pay cut right after they signed Perine, they didn't go into the draft looking for a rookie pass-catching back making $666,000 such as Evans. Football not finances. When it comes to the D-line, they certainly haven't skimped. If you look at the starters, it could be the highest priced in football with Hubbard, Hendrickson, Ogunjobi, and Reader.

Why cut Trenton Irwin after keeping him on roster. He was very solid... Practice Squad? Roy Bunch, Dunkirk, IN

ROY: They read your mind and did exactly that on Friday, a few days before we got your e-mail. They had to go with seven cornerbacks instead of seven receivers for health reasons in the secondary so they needed the room. When they sign a quarterback to the practice squad, someone is going to have to go but it's probably not going to be Irwin. Everyone agrees on Irwin. It was just a numbers pinch not a talent issue.

With the team going against what they normally don't do is trade so you see a trend of more trades coming and the team getting better? Lance Bodily, Layton, UT

LANCE: When I talked about the team not doing what it normally does with the Billy Price deal, I meant just straight player-for-player deals. They've never been shy about making trades around final cuts, there's just usually something added involved.

They've made some impactful cut-down deals in the recent past for such players as Ryan Fitzpatrick, former first-rounder Reggie Nelson and former second-rounder Taylor Mays. Some haven't been as impactful (they got a sixth-rounder from the Patriots for linebacker Marquis Flowers) and one trade they desperately needed to make last year when they were riddled at defensive tackle and picked up Christian Covington in one of those rare straight one-for-ones. So I don't think they did anything wildly different. And from what I hear, they were itching to make more trades but other teams wanted to hold onto their vets.

I'd like to no why the Bengals staff didn't let Ja'Marr Chase play way more snaps in than what they did. Why not play him and and let him catch 5 or 6 balls or let him play till half time to get over his drop problem? John Wilson, Ripley, OH

Doubters are saying Chase is scared to be hit and will not adjust to the NFL. I believe he will be fine . I think he is young and just needs some lengthy game time experience, your thought? Craig Munyan, Somerset, OH

JOHN AND CRAIG: *That's a great idea to keep him out there to restore his confidence. Until something bad happens and he's done for the year. And then everybody wants Taylor fired for getting the No. 1 pick hurt in a meaningless game. That's just the way it is. Zac's not Forrest Gregg and it's not the early '80s. Rather those three snaps than what John Harbaugh and J.K. Dobbins are going through in Baltimore right now.

You know something can happen. It's happened here. That's what practice is for. Heck, practice isn't even safe. Taylor saw that with A.J. Green, so how can you blame him?

OK, practice isn't a game. But in preseason it is. Chase would get more out of a throwing session with Burrow than a scrimmage with a guy he'll rarely see in a game, Brandon Allen, playing in front of a back-up offensive line. Because it makes absolutely no sense to risk Burrow to get Chase more catches.

And, besides, that's the one thing Chase has done. Catch. He's done it here in practice. He did it in college at a record rate. I mean, the people who are saying Chase is afraid to get hit must be on some bad hallucinogens. Here's a guy that led the country with 20 touchdown catches and had the second most catches with 84 in the most competitive college league in the nation.

And he's afraid to get hit?

I don't care who's saying it. Keyshawn Johnson. Joe Biden. The father of Bengals practice squad tight end Thaddeus Moss.


C'mon man.

Agreed. He'll be fine. I think missing 2020 has been underestimated. Not only did Chase miss a year, he did it while transitioning to the highest level. How about the Pro Football Talk headline of last week that has Lions GM Brad Holmes "downplaying," the rough preseason of offensive lineman Penei Sewell, the guy many wanted the Bengals to take instead of Chase at No. 5? The one thing they have in common is they didn't play last year.

Chase is going to be fine. He'll make a big third down catch early next Sunday and he'll be off.

The Bengals preseason loss to Miami was a sad reminder of Coach Taylor's 2-13-1 record in 1-score games. It doesn't count in the preseason, but how was the team's morale after that loss? Seemed like a sad end to an encouraging preseason. Alexander Griffin, Durham, NC

ALEXANDER: I have to disagree with you. In the last six minutes the Bengals got beat by a practice squad quarterback playing against their practice squad players. The guys who are going to decide if Taylor goes to 3-13-1 in one-score games were on the sidelines wearing ball caps. When they beat the Bucs by one score in the preseason opener, that didn't mean anything, either. Not when the first teams take six snaps. They took even fewer against Miami and the first defense didn't play at all.

Just doesn't amount to very much in my view. But, you're right. Everyone knows that you have to win the close ones. I think that's why the Bengals signed defensive veterans such as Hendrickson, Ogunjobi, Hilton, Awuzie and Ricardo Allen and traded for B.J. Hill. Hold the lead. Win the game.

Hey Geoff thank you for taking time to answer fans questions. I was really surprised Thad Moss was cut considering the fact Burrow said he was going to be a big part of this team. Could you see him back on the Bengals? Greg Luther, Cincinnati, OH

How can you cut Moss knowing that he is a playmaker and has awesome chemistry with Joe, I know they say special teams play a part, but you put in Wilcox and he gets hurt and you keep him over a proven college player with awesome genes. Tom Anderson, Aurora, IN

GREG AND TOM: Thank you for taking the time to write. Even though the Bengals cut Moss, they have high regard for him as a guy and his ability as a pass catcher and that's why he's still here on the practice squad. In this offense, the tight ends aren't the playmakers and are called on to do a lot of blocking. Moss is on the smallish side of NFL tight ends, so he's learning a new role. Wilcox is a little bigger and a little faster and he came back to practice last week after suffering a concussion, so he's fine. So is Moss and the chemistry with Burrow as he learns the NFL could always turn into a role.

And they can't just blow off special teams. Those are the guys that have to play it and Wilcox can run and knows what special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons wants because he was here last year.

I'm looking forward to the new season. Cam Newton was just released. What are the chances the Bengals pick him up for a backup/insurance policy at QB? Tim Kilmer, New Bremen, OH

TIM: I just don't see it. I don't think Cam is ready to carry a clipboard and sit. This is Burrow's team and bringing in such a big personality like Cam doesn't make a lot of sense. Plus, Brandon Allen knows this scheme as well as anyone. And, yes, of course, he's no Cam Newton. But when Allen played last year, he played well enough to beat Dallas if not for three straight fumbles to open the game and Miami if the offensive line had held up. Cam is a fine player, still has got something left and he'll go where his skills can be accentuated.

Because so much pre time is made for week one's game. How much of a let down is it to a team if they lose that game? Joe Bentley, Garrison, KY

JOE: It's not one game that's so important. It's the opener that is so big because it is such a tone-setter. There are only 17 of these things. You only have to look as far as Bengals history to see that.

This is the 40th anniversary of No. 3 QB Turk Schonert coming off the bench for a struggling Ken Anderson to save the opener and literally the first Super Bowl. His old teammates have a deep fondness and respect for the late Schonert and how his cool resourcefulness pulled them out of a 21-0 hole less than a dozen minutes into the season. They won it, 27-21, and they wonder if without him if the season would have blown up right then instead of exploding into Super Bowl XVI.

Of course, we've also seen it go the other way, too. A dozen years ago in the opener at Paul Brown Stadium the Bengals were 28 seconds away from a 7-6 win over the Broncos in which they had stoned Denver on 215 yards of offense. But somehow Kyle Orton, backed up on his 13, saw a tipped pass end up in the arms of Brandon Stokley for a freakish 87-yard miracle that was the longest winning touchdown pass in the final two minutes of a game.

That would have crushed so many teams. But the '09 Bengals were just starting on one of the more remarkable and resilient seasons in club history. The next week they went to Green Bay, where Carson Palmer outdueled Aaron Rodgers, and they went on to sweep the AFC North to win it at 10-6.

So while the opener is big, it is only game as the '09ers can attest.