Margus Hunt comes into Saturday's game at Paul Brown Stadium off an impressive preseason opener.
It is preseason and not the regular season and the Jets hail from the AFC East and not the AFC North.
But when the Bengals hook up with head coach Rex Ryan's crew at Paul Brown Stadium Saturday at 7 p.m. (11:35 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) it is the closest thing they'll get to the street fight they'll get up both alleys of scrimmage on Opening Day in Baltimore Sept. 7.
"You know when you play him, it will be a line game,' said Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "His offensive lines and defensive lines play well. He believes in the trenches. It's always a good game in the trenches."
Whitworth (calf) probably won't play and right tackle Andre Smith (concussion) definitely won't, making the game a nice test for the backups and rookies facing one of Ryan's classic revolving-door defensives lines that finished third in the NFL against the rush last season.
It is where the Bengals should reap the benefit of picking up two veteran backup tackles in the offseason, Marshall Newhouse and Will Svitek, in their matchups against slippery outside rushers Calvin Pace and Quinton Coples. And where a rookie center like Russell Bodine is going to get a challenging welcome to the NFL moment from Jets nose tackle Damon Harrison. The 6-4, 350-pound Harrison, otherwise known as "Snacks," is in the middle of a unit that feasted on holding runners to 3.4 yards per rush last season.
"They're a good, physical group. Big guys that do a lot of moving around with blitzes and they're complex," said Svitek, who played at right tackle in one game against the Jets last season while playing for New England. "They'll be all over the place and they're good players."
On the other side of the line, the Bengals are looking for their prized 2013 draft project to keep emerging after a fine training camp against a beefy, physical Jets front that paved the way for the league's sixth best running attack. Backup left end Margus Hunt, a second-round pick last year, is coming off an impressive opener in Kansas City and is bidding to become a regular part of the line rotation.
With Jets backup quarterback Michael Vick expected to play plenty in relief of Geno Smith (and maybe even a series with the starters); Saturday should be another gauge of how far Hunt has come chasing quarterbacks.
If you ask his position coach and teammates, they say he is already a different player than the befuddled rookie that made the transition from SMU to the NFL in just his fifth season of football.
"He's better. He's improving. I see it daily," said Bengals defensive line coach Jay Hayes. "He does stuff that is really making me looking forward to having him in the rotation where I know he can do some stuff.
You only have to look at one play last week against the Chiefs to know this isn't the same guy. On the Bengals' first defensive snap of the second half, Hunt took Chiefs right tackle Jeff Linkenbach and airmailed him with one arm on his way to sacking quarterback Tyler Bray. Linkenbach may not be a household name, but he's not a stiff as a guy with 33 NFL starts in his four seasons.
Hunt is no dummy. He noticed that Linkenbach had just come into the game.
"He was stumbling to get his balance and I happened to really strike him at the right time and the right place," Hunt said. "And that was stumbling over him and trying to keep my balance to get to the quarterback. It was a mess, but it all happened so fast."
Now they hope the 6-8, 290-pound Hunt is on the fast track. He said he wanted to concentrate on the bull rush going into last week's game after a year of trying to figure out everything else.
"It's something that always comes in handy. You have to use it to keep them honest. If they're sitting soft and it's easy to use it," Hunt said. "If not, you just have to go work on your moves."
Hayes says it is all pretty simple.
"He's starting to understand leverage," Hayes said. "If he is a knee bender and he goes from low to high on people, he can be devastating."
But it goes beyond that. There the nuances in the nooks and crannies of what Hunt calls "a cat and mouse game,' between rusher and protector. Hayes says its starts with the bull rush and Hunt's improved hand placement has allowed him to bull more and more.
"I just want him to take advantage of his tools and one of his tools is that he's a big, strong powerful guy. If he gets hand placement and uses his God given gifts, he can do that as well as anybody and then set up stuff off of that," Hayes said. "He's using his hands better this year. He's getting them in the rights spots. If he can get them inside, he can do whatever he wants to do instead coming outside and in and then punching him in the chest. When he gets punched and stands up at 6-8, then that's not as good. He's getting the first punch in and knocking them back."
He used his hands again a few snaps later to have a shot at another sack, but he couldn't finish off Bray with two hands. Veteran defensive lineman Robert Geathers knows what length can do for a pass rusher. Uncle Jumpy Geathers stands 6-7 with 62 career sacks.
"If you can play low like that with that height, you'll be unstoppable. Kind of like my uncle," Geathers said. "(Hunt) has done better in the run game. He's playing low. He's a freak athlete. He's so rangy. You can hardly ever find big guys like that that can move. He's going to help us. He's ready to prove he's worth a second-round pick. He's playing faster this year and I just think that means he's more comfortable with the system."
Hunt has been listening and watching rushers like Geathers, Wallace Gilberry, and Carlos Dunlap for a year and it seems to be clicking in.
"I feel more relaxed in there. I feel I know what I'm doing and the responsibilities I need to know," Hunt said. "I'm not really concerned about making a serious mistake. Mistakes happen. But during some plays I know I have the freedom to play what's going on and we knew it was going to be a pass. You just have to get there and rush."
Svitek, the nine-year pro on his third team, has worked against Hunt this camp and has come away talking about his quickness.
"He's obviously a young player, but he's good. He's got strength. I wouldn't say he's raw," Svitek said. "I've been impressed with his get-offs."
Hunt reminds Svitek of the guys they're playing on the edge Saturday from New York, the 6-4, 265-pound Pace and the 6-6, 290-pound Coples.
"In terms of frame, he's got a similar body," Svitek said. "Long-armed, real big guy with power rushes."
But the Big Three upfront, Harrison and defensive linemen Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, make the Jets go and it's hard to match them up because just like he did when he was coordinating the Ravens defense, Ryan doesn't let them line up in the same place twice.
"You'll see everybody at one time or another," Svitek said.
And that goes double since there's a shot Svitek and Newhouse could flop from left to right tackle during the game. Svitek played most of this camp at right tackle when Andre Smith went out the second week with a concussion and Newhouse played left until Whitworth started doing team drills this past Monday. When Whitworth rested Wednesday, Svitek took his spot and Newhouse went to right.
"Marshall and I both have experience playing both sides," said Svitek, who has 18 starts in 74 NFL games. "You try to do one thing well, but if you can't then you focus on the fundamentals and try to get comfortable. It's what you have to do in this league especially if you're a role player type of guy."
The Bengals would love to give quarterback Andy Dalton the time to throw against the limping Jets cornerbacks. Dee Milliner, last year's first-round pick, is out with a high ankle sprain and third corner Dexter McDougle is gone for the year with a blown ACL. Antonio Allen, a safety, started playing corner Monday and is expected to start. Also starting is safety Jaiquawn Jarrett, a career backup.