It's a new season flush with stripes for the Bengals and you know because Joseph Ossai's tears have dried on his vow to get back to the Super Bowl. How new? One of the men who did get there, new teammate Orlando Brown Jr., says Ossai will be a big factor when they do.
"I just love his style of play. I feel like he does a really good job using his hands, using his athletic ability," says Brown, the Bengals' new left tackle. "I played him twice last year and I saw him do some crazy stuff where normally for a young guy of his ability, you don't really see that. Unless it's from guys like Myles Garrett. Freak athletes. He's got the natural ability to be special."
Gone like Brown's fire engine red No. 57 he wore for the Chiefs in last year's AFC title game that disappeared in the maw of Mahomesian heroics. Gone like Ossai's rookie season of 2021 vanished after one preseason game because of injuries. Gone like the torn ACL cornerback Chidobe Awuzie is healing in rehab.
"He's already through that. He's already good. Ossai is a strong-minded player," Awuzie says. "I know what he's built of."
Awuzie and Ossai trace their roots to the Igbo people from southeastern Nigeria.
"I know how our families are," Awuzie says. "He won't have any quit in him. That will only make him stronger. I know he's going to welcome all the adversity that comes with that and I know he's already a better player because of it."
Ossai, the Bengals' always-seems-to-be-in-the-moment edge rusher who began his first NFL season sacking Tom Brady and ended his second one in a not as successful pursuit of Patrick Mahomes, has had a challenging but reinvigorating offseason.
Not only did his chase of Mahomes that ended up out-of-bounds in the last deep gulps of a 20-20 AFC title game get a 15-yard flag that led to the Chiefs' winning field goal that denied the Bengals a second straight Super Bowl berth, but he also hyperextended his knee. And he had already been playing for more than a month with a labrum that needed offseason surgery.
Ossai left the Arrowhead Stadium field in tears that night and while he says he's still processing the moment he's also past it because he has been uplifted by family and friends. Plus, he says, his rehab has been good enough that he's vying for a return to the field by the start of training camp.
"It was great to get back home and have family around me and having people remind me I had a decent game," Ossai says. "The motivation is not that play but losing in general. What I did before the play, what I did during the play, it doesn't matter. What does matter is losing. We lost. That's motivation enough. Not the fact I messed it up. Obviously, that's extra motivation. We lost that game. That's motivation enough. We need to get back there. We will get back there. I have full confidence in this team's potential."
Ossai just turned 23 years old last month and he has spent all of them gaining strength from his family. It's been 15 years now since Emmanuela Ossai, his mother, won the Diversity Visa Lottery program sponsored by the U.S. State Department that paved the way for her family to move from Nigeria to Houston.
A graduate of the University of Lagos with an economics degree, Emmanuela Ossai went to work as a contractor and spent the family's money on land instead of a car and eventually built a house on it. When they came to America, she donated it to the church.
"He's been through a lot," says edge Sam Hubbard. "Coming here from a different country, going through the injuries. Mental toughness is definitely part of his game. He closed that chapter many months ago. He's over it. A million things could have gone differently in that game. He's in a good place mentally. He's working hard, rehabbing hard. He's one of the favorite guys on the D-line. Joseph is always happy. He's made a lot of plays for us."
The last play eclipsed how big of a lift Ossai gave them last year in what amounted to his rookie year rotating behind Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson. He lined up in and out during his first 279 NFL pass rushes and, per PFF, had more pressures (25) on fewer snaps than guys like Jadeveon Clowney and Bud Dupree.
How about the play before the last play? Second-and-four from the Bengals 47 with 21 seconds left?
Ossai, as he did on the first third down the week before in the AFC Divisional win in Buffalo where he helped set the tone with a pressure of Bills quarterback Josh Allen, lined up inside, split left guard Joe Thuney and center Creed Humphrey and harassed Mahomes into an incompletion. Complete with the CBS crew of Jim Nantz and Tony Romo raving about the game Ossai was having.
"Vaguely. Vaguely," says Ossai when asked if he remembers that one. "That play is kind of overshadowed in my mind.'
Pro Football Focus isn't vague. It ranked him the Bengals' top pass rusher in the game with four pressures. The last hit on Mahomes?
His new teammate could see what was going on. Orlando Brown had lined up against him back in Cincinnati on Dec. 4. The Bengals, trying to stay even in the AFC North race with the Ravens, were locked in another blood feud with the Chiefs at Paycor Stadium. Cincy led, 27-24, with 4:09 left, but the ubiquitous Mahomes had the ball on the Bengals 33 and needed just three yards on third down.
But there was Ossai, now lined up outside over Brown as linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither moved up near him to show blitz. But Davis-Gaither dropped into a zone and Ossai tore inside after catching Brown in a vertical set as Mahomes fled the pocket. But Ossai didn't give up and followed, lunging through the air to tackle him by an ankle for maybe their biggest sack of the year because the Chiefs missed the field goal and never got the ball back.
That's what made the play. Not his initial step past Brown, but the second effort on the rebound.
"I was mugged up on 59 (Davis-Gaither) in a three-man front," Brown says. "I was in a situation where I thought it was two-on-two and it ended up being a one-on-one. He made a hell of an inside move and his hustle made the play at the end of the game.
"I think that's a guy that plays with a lot of effort, a lot of passion. It hurt him a little bit in the game in Kansas City, but ultimately it's the same reason he was able to make that play on me in the (first) game to end the game … I'm sure he won't let it happen again … But that's who he is as a player. He's super, super athletic, plays and works really hard. I've got a ton of respect for him and his approach."
It's another black-and-orange year. You know, because Ossai's new teammate no longer has to worry about this scouting report:
"Athletic guy," recalls Brown of those two weeks of preparation, "who has really good moves and really good feel for the pass rush."
You know it's new because Ossai tells you.
"The ultimate price will be going back and winning that thing and obviously going back to the Super Bowl and I'm looking forward to that," Ossai says.