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How Health and Trey Hendrickson Are Helping Joseph Ossai Eye A Break-Out Season On Bengals Edge

DE Joseph Ossai warms up before kickoff of the Seahawks-Bengals game on Sunday, October 15 in Week 6 of the 2023 season.
DE Joseph Ossai warms up before kickoff of the Seahawks-Bengals game on Sunday, October 15 in Week 6 of the 2023 season.

In the first injury-free offseason of his curious pro career that's careened from the spectacular to the somber on the edge of the Cincinnati defense, Joseph Ossai is staring at the Bengals' second most famous right wrist.

Pro Bowl sacker Trey Hendrickson, who took Ossai under his wing last year on the field and off it during weekly ministry meetings, advised him to stick around Paycor Stadium with the Bengals strength staff instead of at home in Texas.

"These guys are great," Ossai says of the staff. "Joey (Boese), Todd (Hunt), Garrett (Swanson), they put together a great program. It's free. So that's also a perk and you just get to hang out with the guys. Work out with your boys. Work out with your teammates. It's a great atmosphere, to be honest."

Ossai has finished his Tuesday morning workout. But he's sticking around for the lunchtime hoop crowd's shooting contests. He's working on his left-handed shot, icily staring at the rim as if it were one of the 17 quarterbacks he's knocked down in just 30 games.

"It's fully functional," Ossai says of the right wrist that still has a screw in it from that first surgery. "I can grab, I can push, I can do what I need to do. But I'm shooting left because I get the full snap of the wrist."

Start with the wrist because that's where it all begins and ends as Ossai hopes to end an almost Shakespearean skein of ill fate with a break-out year.

When he fell on it in Tampa Bay in his first NFL game in the 2021 preseason opener (a few plays, it turned out, after he injured his knee almost as badly), it ended one of the most fantastic debuts in Bengals history as well as his season. Pro Football Focus graded him the league's top defensive rookie of the season's first weekend with seven pressures in 23 rushes that included sacking Tom Brady on his second NFL snap.

By the time he figured out how to play with the wrist after the surgery, he started to hit his stride late in the 2022 season when he tore his labrum. Instead of cashing it in, he taped it up and played the best ball of his career in the playoffs before having another offseason surgery.

"There were guys out there playing with a lot worse," Ossai says.

Despite another grueling offseason rehab, Ossai kept it going in an accelerated training camp and looked ready to break out until a high ankle sprain on his last series of the preseason finale wiped out the first six weeks of the season.

(Are you keeping track of all this unadulterated bad luck?)

Ossai never got back into the mix with just 177 snaps last year as first-rounder Myles Murphy and vet Cam Sample grabbed the playtime behind Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard and now everyone wants to know what ever happened to Joe Ossai.

How about just life?

Such as the high ankle sprain.

"A freak play," Ossai says. "It was a pass rush. I was held up on the tackle and the guard kind of chipped me a bit while I was locked and then my foot was kind of in this awkward full extension position right when he hit me. Just an unfortunate play."

A twist. A jerk. A step.

An NFL life.

"I don't know," says Ossai when asked if it's all very frustrating. "But I will say there are a lot of great guys in that room. From a coaching standpoint, it's tough to pull some guy. At that point, you just have to deal with the hot hand and Murph had a year, Cam had a year.

"All those guys. All those guys were balling out. It's just a patient thing at that point. Then when you do get an opportunity, you make the best of it and do your best because it's the NFL. Everybody is great."

Ossai is a popular figure around here.

"Great guy. Hard worker. I'm so glad I never see him anymore," says Nick Cosgray, the Bengals rehab guru.

"He wants it. Basketball, too," says Hunt, who joins in the lunchtime shot games of "PIG," and "50."

"He's doing a nice job training hard to try and callous his body so he can get ready for what's coming down the road," Boese says. "It's good to have him around. I do think he lifts the competitive nature of the room and he's a hard worker. He's very gifted. He has all the tools to be one of the best pass rushers in the league. "

Ossai is also bright, not to mention committed, as evidenced by what he did with the bad shoulder down the 2022 stretch. It's not lost on him that Hendrickson hangs out so much in the weight room that he's the fourth strength coach. The two have become close.

"This past year, he just helped me develop, helped me with my pass rush mentality, and then also just out of football," Ossai says. "We would go to a church ministry at night once a week. Outside of football, we both found something that we could kind of connect with and just him mentoring me.

"It was good to see that it just wasn't football, it was also life. Things like my faith and just holding on to God and he was really a big part of me and my mentality and just my mental health last year."

Now that he's able to grind it every day, that also helps. So will this. According to Pro Football Reference, Ossai has 17 QB knockdowns and 4.5 sacks in 30 games. Hendrickson had 18 QB knockdowns and 6.5 sacks in his first 30 NFL games.

And it's not like Ossai hasn't done it. He has when the lights have been the brightest. In the last half of the Bengals' 10-game winning streak in 2022, Pro Football Focus' weekly grades had him consistently as one of the Bengals' top pass rushers.

In what amounted to the 2022 AFC North title game, he scored the back-breaking touchdown when he fell on a Hendrickson sack-strip in the Ravens end zone and had six pressures on the day.

In the AFC Divisional, he set the tone when his inside rush forced Bills quarterback Josh Allen into an incompletion on the first series. The next week in Kansas City in the AFC title game, in vintage Ossai fashion, he had his greatest and toughest game on the same night with four pressures on 20 rushes.

He takes a deep breath and exhales.

"Frustration, yes. But I just have to be thankful because I'm still here. A lot of people don't last as long in the league," Ossai says. "I'm still here. I'm still able to move. I'm still healthy enough to play the game. If there's that, then the possibilities are always endless.

"I'm holding on to God. It is frustrating to always be going through an injury, but whether you like it or not, that's always building character, always building something. It's helping you learn something you didn't even know you needed to re-learn. That's just been these past three years. Learning. When I do get the chance, when you do get the opportunity, you have to go out there and put it all together."

That's how he compartmentalizes what happened in Kansas City, where he played like a man possessed stalking the ever-elusive Patrick Mahomes.

It will be recalled with 21 seconds left in a 20-20 game, the Chiefs had the ball on the Bengals 47 and were looking at second-and-four. Ossai kept his big game going and split Pro Bowl left guard Joe Thuney and center Creed Humphrey to force a hurried incompletion.


With Mahomes dancing on the sideline 17 seconds from the Super Bowl, Ossai tried to cut off him at the pass on the killing five-yard scramble. How do you hold up 17 seconds from the Super Bowl? The refs said you don't and hit Ossai for 15 yards for hitting Mahomes out of bounds.

Game, set, match.


"It's been quite some time and I've had a lot of time to sit back and reflect and you just have to move forward," Ossai says. "Take the game how it comes. Learn from it and move forward. Can't go back and fix it, so you have to move forward and try to get back in that situation and then make the right decisions."

Hendrickson has been a big factor there. The man who has the third most sacks of the 2020s takes the decade a minute at a time and counsels the same.

"The next play mentality. Not dwelling on the past play and just having that mentality of taking the fight to your opponent, whoever's in front of you," Ossai says of Hendrickson's philosophy. "You dictate even though they know the snap count, they know, the play, they know where they're going. It's your job to dictate to them what's going to happen. That's every snap, every play. You versus him. If you win your matchup first, everything will take care of itself.

"He's phenomenal. He's phenomenal," Ossai says. "He's always locked in, and he can just laser focus and when he smells blood, he goes for the kill."

Hendrickson has gone beyond blood and worked with Ossai on the brain.

"A couple of things with my pass rush aiming points and just working angles," Ossai says. "What I learn from him every day is his get-off. It's the best in the league and I'm not going to lie to you. His first step, his twitch, his ability to key."

Hendrickson tells him he moves off the tackle's move. When Hendrickson had some offsides called against him last year, Ossai went back to the film.

No offsides.

"It's just sometimes it's just so insane and so fast. The ref, I guess, is in disbelief and throws the flag. But he's insane," Ossai says.

He shakes his head. He tells Hendrickson, yes, he's trying to start his move the same way.

"I'm like, yeah, that's easier said than done," Ossai says. "I'm looking at him and still not getting off as quick as you are. For him, it's just years of work."

And then there are some things not so easily said than done. Like being able to shoot baskets at lunchtime and savoring a workout. The target today is running backs coach Justin Hill, a torrid shooter.

"(Faith) has just gotten stronger and that's the beauty of life," Ossai says. "You go through things and it's meant to help you get stronger and grow. If things are easy all the time, no one's ever going to face that adversity and learn what it is to come out on the other side. It makes it sweeter when you do come out the other side."

Then Ossai is calling for the ball on the other side and jacking up another one lefty.