BENGALS O-LINE VS. JETS D-LINE
With the demanding and detailed Frank Pollack back running things, the Bengals offensive line is almost always the last group off the Paul Brown Stadium practice field and Wednesday was no exception as they prepared for Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in New Jersey against Pollack's old Jets club.
As one of its prized rookies detailed why his group is paying so much better in the last month, with nice comedic timing right guard Jackson Carman glimpsed some veterans coming in off the field and raised his voice to make certain they heard him.
"Quinton Spain did a great job picking up that twist," Carman announced. "Trey Hopkins getting the calls communicated. And Riley Reiff on the blocks."
Which explains as best as anything how the Bengals offensive line has gone from beleaguered to better since quarterback Joe Burrow got hit 15 times in the first two games. Pollack and assistant Ben Martin have ladled together a simmering recipe of young talent and veteran guile on and off the field that threw off some steam in last Sunday's 41-17 dismantling of the Ravens.
After the line paved the way for the Bengals' biggest day ever against Baltimore's big, bad and always good defense with a monstrous 520 yards, Pro Football Focus had them ranked 10th in pass blocking efficiency.
But the symbol of how far this line has come came on the two touchdown runs at the end of Sunday's game on Joe Mixon's 21-yarder and Samaje Perine's 46-yarder. Both in the wide zone that Pollack has cultivated and both with the Ravens jamming the line knowing the Bengals were going to drain the clock with the run.
Word from the bench is that Pollack tried to keep up with Mixon into the end zone as he exuberantly ran down the sidelines while watching the play open up.
"It was exciting," Pollack said. "They loaded the box. Zero look. I would say it was 11 in the box and to see everyone on the field getting into their fits, straining, was great. At every position. Not just the O-line. Every position. … It was great to see everyone had hat placement … The margin of error is thin and everybody has to execute and that was fun to see."
As usual, Hopkins, the cerebral nerve center of the line, boils down why they're improved in a week the veterans are warning the Jets have the most physical front they'll face all season. If the Bengals have a "Q,' in Spain, the Jets have their own "Q," in talented tackle Quinnen Williams, the third pick in the 2019 draft.
"Just time. More snaps in live situations with the line that's out there," said Hopkins, who again rested his knee Wednesday. "You look at training camp and I wasn't out there much and there were a lot of moving parts. Now it has settled down and it's just more reps together."
The line that eats together wins together. After Pollack opened up the season taking them to a downtown steak house, he urged them to keep it going with a weekly dinner for bonding purposes and it has morphed into an every Thursday night deal with rotating restaurants and player-hosts.
Pollack only made the suggestion. He no longer attends.
"This is a player-driven league. It's all about the players," said Pollack, who knows as a backup lineman for the Joe Montana-Steve Young 49ers of the '90s. "They love it. It's a long-standing tradition in the league to get together like that.
Spain wondered where all his buddies were last year.
"I understand with the corona and all that stuff," Spain said. "But I feel like we still could have been able to do something. We got tested every day, so we know we didn't have it. We didn't have to go out, we can be at each other's houses. Just doing something. It's just the team bonding."
No one is more representative of how thing have settled down up front than the leadership and play of the seven-year veteran Spain at left guard. The Cincinnati Enquirer's Charlie Goldsmith observed Wednesday that it was a year ago this week when Spain arrived in Cincinnati and after spending five days holed up in a hotel for COVID protocols, he had just a walk-through under his belt before he made his Bengals debut playing all but the first series in the win over Tennessee and then starting the next three games at three different spots.
"Just to hear those stories from last year, it speaks volumes of his approach to the game," Pollack said. "He's a pro's pro and he's put together an outstanding run of games. Great football awareness. His football IQ is off the charts and he's willing to share it."
Spain has dug in and started every game at left guard, just like Hopkins at center, Reiff at right tackle and Jonah Williams at left tackle. The only change has been at right guard, where the knee injury to Xavier Su'a-Filo has given the second-round pick Carman a chance to impress.
Compare it to last year's night-at-the-Improv juggling (much of it because of injury), when the Bengals started three different left tackles, four left guards, four right guards and four right tackles.
When Spain got here, he said his best position was left guard and he's been right. PFF has ranked him as the 17th best guard in the league, 15th in the run, but his leadership is immeasurable. One of Pollack's categories is "Nasty Finish Double-Plus Knockdowns." Spain is the leader.
"I feel like all my seasons was the best. I feel like the world recognize me now, then I was back then coming in undrafted," Spain said before Wednesday's practice. "Nobody looked at me: 'He's undrafted, he aint no draft pick.' But I'm getting a lot of attention now so I'm happy about that, but it can't stop me from coming to work and staying consistent though.
"I just play with a chip on my shoulder. They don't expect nothing from me. Me being undrafted, I've got to fight for everything I have."
That chip-on-the-shoulder has meshed nicely with Carman's with blue-chip pedigree as a second-rounder from national powerhouse Clemson. They not only share an agent, but, Spain, thought, the same experience coming into the league.
"When he came in overweight that's when I had to talk to him. I had that problem, too, when I came out of college because it was hard for me to make my way," Spain said. "I told him, 'Bro, I've been through everything you're going through. At the end of the day, you were drafted, I was undrafted. You have a chance. I didn't have a chance. I had to earn that.' I was just giving him things I learned about the NFL, that's all."
Spain says he had no one to tell him that when he was a rookie. When Spain sat him down for that one-on-one, Carman was smart enough to listen.
"Q was there for me in the early part of camp and he helped me with more than just football," Carman said. "Just transitioning into the league. Learning everything about things that don't quite get taught about playing in the NFL. Really helping me keep it in perspective. It's a business and you have to bring that to work every day. I'm eternally grateful."
Mark down Carman for one of those "Nasty Finish Double-Plus Knockdowns." That's exactly what he did on Perine's run. And he did it ten yards downfield. A rare pancake in the NFL.
"He dumped the guy," Pollack said. "There was some physicality there. That's how you want to finish a play, finish a game."
Now it's time to eat. The word is that Fred Johnson is hosting this week's Thursday nighter. Spain was looking to get the details after Wednesday's practice.
"When I first got here last year, I was, 'Hey, you guys don't even hang out? Once I leave work I don't do anything with each other?' I made a big effort," Spain recalled. "I'd pick Trey's brain. 'Come on Trey, you won't come to dinner with me? What's going on?' This year he said, 'I'm going to start doing things.' It started from then. It started clicking."
Hopkins had to laugh when that was relayed and he started looking for Spain.
"Go ask Q how many times he has invited Trey to eat and he has not showed up," Hopkins said. "The answer is zero."
But Hopkins sees that chemistry is a nice plus along with the consistency. Playing for a demanding coach in the face of a wave of critics is going to bring you together fast.
"Whenever you're winning, it makes everything a lot easier," Hopkins said. "It's kind of Pollack's mentality. He did the same thing when he was here the last time. When you're under somebody like that, you circle the wagons so to speak. It becomes who you are. It becomes the character of the O-line."
His players have high regard for Pollack's own experiences as a player and it's mutual. He likes what he sees going on.
"We have a great locker room," said Pollack, who emerged from one with a Super Bowl ring all those years ago. "I've said it multiple times to a few coaches the last couple of weeks. How guys work, how they interact. They care. The excitement on the sidelines when one group has success has been incredible. Offense. Defense. Skill guys. O-line guys. There's a special vibe. That's a credit to the head coach."
They will tell you it starts up front over an appetizer.
"How am I supposed to trust you and (we) can't even hang outside of football?" Spain asked. "I understand it's work, but what we do outside of work, it's a bond."