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Joseph Ossai Looks To Return And Give Bengals Edgy Depth

Joseph Ossai in his great debut.
Joseph Ossai in his great debut.

Here's that extra draft pick supplying some depth on the Bengals fertile defensive edge even before director of player personnel Duke Tobin works some draft board magic next week.

How about a guy that already knows the Bengals' playbook well enough that he's already called a stunt with Sam Hubbard? Already, he's got seven pressures in one game. Already he has 38 NFL snaps under his belt, one of them against new Bengals right guard Alex Cappa. And he's already sacked Tom Brady.

The thing is, they've already drafted him.

Of course, Joseph Ossai did all that in one of the more memorable and bruising Bengals' debuts in recent memory. During last season's preseason opener, Ossai, the third-rounder from Texas, suffered a pair of injuries that ended his rookie season that got off to a quicker start than those of even Ja'Marr Chase and Evan McPherson.

Chase, the Bengals first-rounder, ended up as the most prolific rookie receiver in NFL regular-season history. McPherson became the most prolific rookie kicker in NFL playoff history. After rehabbing a total tear of the meniscus in his knee and a torn ligament in his wrist, Ossai vows to fill the void left by the first games he's ever missed since seventh grade.

"By the time (training) camp rolls around, I should be full go," Ossai said Monday from Austin, Texas. "To say I'm excited is an understatement."

File the Bengals under the same category. Ossai had a good enough camp last year that when the Bengals lined up for their first third down snap of the year against Brady and the Super Bowl champion Buccaneers, he went to the left edge and Hubbard moved inside. Ossai knew he was being a bit audacious since he had yet to threaten the perimeter, but when he saw what defensive line coach Marion Hobby told them during the week, Ossai called a stunt with Hubbard.

"I was wide-eyed and bushy-tailed," Ossai recalled. "I had seen it in the meeting room. Not on the first play. First, you're supposed to make them feel that presence with that speed on the edge.

"(But) I called the stunt and stepped inside. And the center just comes and lifted me off my feet. A real welcome to the NFL moment, for sure. I love telling that. It's the first time ever that someone hit me and my feet just came off the ground. I wasn't mad about it. I was like, 'Wow, we're in a different league."'

This is why the Bengals think they've got something in the 6-4, 253-pound Ossai. Sure, the speed was a lure last April, but the high motor of an intense mindset, evidenced by his aggressive first snap, was just as attractive.

"A lot of enthusiasm. A lot of passion about the game. He had a real good motor in college," says senior defensive assistant Mark Duffner, who Zoomed with him so many times last draft season. "He's very competitive. He's a very explosive athlete. We think he's ascending. He's a player who's got length and speed. That's what everybody is looking for on the edge."

After watching Ossai flattened by the estimable Ryan Jensen, Hobby put him back in on the next third down, called another stunt and reminded Ossai of one of his camp lessons. Take right tackle Tristian Wirfs up the field and if he couldn't get the chip on Cappa to give Hubbard more room, then keep the feet moving. Keep fighting off the block.

Which is exactly what he did, knifing inside Wirfs (called the best right tackle in the NFL on that same TV broadcast) and suddenly Ossai was cradling The GOAT.

"I was more excited about the execution after getting blown up," Ossai said. "The very next time I was able to stay focused and execute. I was more excited about that. I didn't realize I sacked Tom Brady until I got to the sidelines. I was thinking, 'Oh my Gosh.' I felt like I should have taken a picture."

Ossai has watched it and the rest of his debut a few times. That play ended Brady's night, but Ossai kept going. He played 31 more snaps from scrimmage, five on special teams and got another quarterback hit on his last play when he hurt his wrist late in the third quarter.

Despite feeling his knee buckle covering a kick early in the second half, Ossai finished with seven pressures and two run stops and Pro Football Focus gave him the third highest grade of any defensive rookie that first weekend behind only a pair of first-rounders in Denver cornerback Patrick Surtain II and Patriots quarterback Mac Jones.

"Sometimes during the course of the year I had to go find some film," Ossai said. "It was good to see. It was reassuring because I would think, 'Has this left me?' It was reassuring to me because that was the beginning of the season and as the season goes on, you get better as you experience more, especially as a rookie."

He won't sugarcoat it. It was extremely tough for a guy who had never missed a game to watch. He sat in on all the defensive line meetings until late in the season. He calls it "a blessing and a curse," because absence made the heart grow fonder.

"It was getting too much," Ossai said. "The boys were doing amazing. I was feeling I wasn't doing anything to contribute to this glorious season we were having. That took a toll on me and I had to step back a little bit and give myself a mental break.

"But even then my appreciation for the game kept going up. My pure enjoyment of the game sky rocketed. To get this chance, not many guys get it to play this great game."

When he watches those first 38 snaps, Ossai spends a lot of time thinking about execution. About putting Hobby's words into action. There are those seven pressures on the pass, but he's particularly encouraged by two run stops. He said he had been having trouble with a certain reach block during the week on an outside zone run, as well as diagnosing bootlegs. During the game, he was able to make the plays, one by getting into the backfield and running down the back from the other side.

"I was able to spend extra time on it in camp and through repetition I was able to get in the game and not be a deficiency," Ossai said.

That's an obvious fit in head coach Zac Taylor's burgeoning locker room culture. He made it to Super Bowl week in L.A. and was exhilarated watching his mates play on what he calls the biggest stage. "It just makes me want to get back with these guys and play in it," he says.

Last month, he noticed Brady ended his retirement and that he and Tampa Bay are on the Bengals schedule.

"I texted the group," Ossai said. "It's exciting. People were saying it's the preseason. It doesn't count. Now we've got them in the regular season. If you've been watching the last decade or two or three, you've seen that guy dominate the sport from the quarterback position. It's definitely an honor to be on the same field with him."

After a year away, Ossai has been reminded what an honor it is just to be on the field.