BENGALS LT JONAH WILLIAMS VS. BROWNS RE MYLES GARRETT
You could probably make Sunday's matchup (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paul Brown Stadium a father-son deal with Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan going against dad Bill Callahan, the Browns offensive line coach. But after the Bengals didn't get the ball back for a final drive Sunday, it's a good time to remember that it is players that are supposed to decide games.
Still, the Callahans' fingerprints coat Sunday's game as the 5-3 Bengals try to go to 3-0 in the AFC North against the 4-4 Browns and go up a monstrous 2.5 games on them in the division.
Brian Callahan is the Bengals' poet laureate of protections as head coach Zac Taylor's third-down guru and quarterback Joe Burrow's keeper. They go against Cleveland's frightening pass-rush tandem of Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney as they craft a bit of a different look that the Browns saw last year.
The Bengals are lining up a little heavier this year and a little more straight up under center, which could be an antidote for the fast and furious Garrett. But Cleveland has more than Garrett and Clowney with beastly vet tackle Malik Jackson and pass-rush backer Takk McKinley, a guy the Bengals tried to get on the field last year but he was coming off injury.
Bill Callahan, one of the century's more respected NFL line coaches and the college position coach and mentor of Bengals offensive line coach Frank Pollack, mans Cleveland's punishing first-in-the-NFL rushing attack that has swung the series the Browns' way in the last three seasons.
(Remember, in the last 15 Battles of Ohio before running back Nick Chubb arrived in 2018, the Bengals had lost three games. They're 1-5 since Chubb began to dominate the series like Bengals backs Corey Dillon, Rudi Johnson and Cedric Benson once did.)
But on Sunday, this is Garrett's game to wreck. The man has an NFL-best 10.5 sacks, five in his career against the Bengals and last season's two sack-strips of Burrow. None, though, against Williams, the Bengals third-year left tackle finally healthy after being taken No. 1 in 2019 who stood toe-to-toe with Garrett in their only full meeting.
Williams left last season's second game against the Browns with a concussion, continuing the bad luck that began when he missed all of his rookie season with a pectoral injury after starting 44 games at Alabama. He missed the next two games and got back for a couple of more weeks before a knee injury wiped out the final month.
But knock on a large plank of wood. He hasn't missed a snap this year since training camp.
"He's getting to play into a rhythm. He was in and out last year and the year before," Taylor says. "The experience getting to the rhythm he was in at Alabama. He's doing a great job of getting himself ready for every Saturday and the opponent he was facing and game plan and a lot of the things we were impressed with as we interviewed him. Now to get him to play every week, he feels more comfortable."
That interview is one of the more impressive in Bengals scouting combine history and went a long way in making him the 11th pick and first in the Taylor era. From spreadsheets to scouting reports, Williams had been extolled for his NFL work habits and they haven't left him. When he sat out 2019, then offensive line coach Jim Turner dubbed him as something akin to a scout.
But nothing beats snaps against NFL rushers. According to Pro Football Focus, Williams has allowed 14 pressures this season, fewer than veteran left tackles such as Nate Solder, Eric Fisher, Alejandro Villanueva, and Donovan Smith. Fewer than Cleveland's own Jedrick Wills, Jr. And the same number as Bengals right tackle Riley Reiff, the 10-year veteran Williams believes has aided him coping with moves on the edge.
"I think he's helped me and the entire O-line quite a bit," Williams says. "He's a great player, but even if you took that away, just his presence in the locker room has been great for us. Having a leader and a guy like that who is always doing things the right way and takes a lot of pride in doing it the right way. I think that's been big for us. I appreciate having him both on the field and in the locker room."
But the biggest thing for him has just been to play.
"It's good just having my spot locked down and when they call the O-line, I'm going up there," Williams says. "It's good to have and it helps to be fully healthy and continue to build week-by-week and be limited in practice. I've taken every single rep since OTAs so it's a good feeling."
Williams began looking at Garrett on Tuesday, his day-off, after video director Travis Brammer uploaded the players' iPads with various individual cutups of their foes.
"It's kind of what everyone sees when they watch him. How explosive, fast and powerful he is. And he has a good arsenal of moves and a different variety of things that he uses," Williams says. "I think he's continuing to develop as a pass rusher. I feel like he has more moves that he uses more regularly. He doesn't just rely on his speed and power as much."
The one full game Williams played against Garrett was impressive in last year's second game of the season. During a monstrous 72 pass-blocking snaps, Williams allowed just four pressures with PFF charting him for a hit and three hurries.
Garrett's sack-and-strip that night came when he switched sides and lined up inside over right guard Fred Johnson in his first and only NFL start at guard. Williams expects Garrett to be moving Sunday.
"I think on some of their more exotic pressure looks on third down and other pressure situations that's when you see him moving around more," Williams says. "Hopefully we stay out of third-and-long for most of the game, but I think that's when we'll see it."
Brian Callahan is going to be there for him. The Browns may look different up front with the addition of two terrific players up in Clowney and Jackson (old friend Andrew Billings is backing up Jackson and fellow tackle Malik McDowell), but the Bengals also are different.
Williams and center Trey Hopkins are the only starters on the O-line that started the last game against Cleveland. Plus, they're using more heavy and QB-under-center formations than last year designed to help the run game and protection. They've run double tight ends 20 percent of the time and triple tight ends five percent, compared 15 and one, respectively last season.
"We've done a good job in our heavy personnel," Brian Callahan says. "We've been efficient. We've thrown the ball. We've screened. We've play-actioned, we've run it, strong, weak, inside, outside, in all different ways. It's been pretty versatile for us, and we've put a lot of different looks on tape so you can't just dial into one things for us, I don't think, in that package. It's still not something we are going to run 40 plays a game but it's helped us in spots. It's allowed us to get some momentum late in games when we needed it to finish it out. I think we're a much better team all the way around than we were a year ago. I think they are, too."
Plus, the Bengals are under center more than last year. They've run about 500 plays this season with about 300 out of shot gun and 200 under center, about 60-40. All of last year they took only about 250 under center and the halfway point of the season isn't until Sunday's halftime.
"I've always felt being under center in the run game really helps balance it all up for your play-action game," Callahan says. "It's always easier to run some of the run concepts from under center. It times up better. The angles are better, not that you can't do it from the gun. We do plenty of that. There is some benefit to being under center in the run game, for sure."
But it's about the players, right?
"It isn't necessarily about how much schematics and protection," Callahan says, "but more about you just have to go block them. That's a challenge. That's sometimes harder than the scheme is."