BENGALS OFFENSIVE LINE VS. STEELERS DEFENSIVE LINE
When the Bengals take on the Steelers Sunday (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Fox 19) at Heinz Field, an age-old rivalry enters a new age. It's ushered in by the Bengals' own Ohio bred quarterback when Joe Burrow of Athens takes on Findlay Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Ben Roethlisberger behind his new-look offensive line.
But some things never change. The Steelers are playing their same old same old defensive scheme and getting to the quarterback better than ever, leading the league in sacks, hits and pressures and the percentage of generating pressures per pass.
So, naturally, this has to be the matchup of the game even though uncertainty stalks the Bengals' new look up front, which may look even newer than in the win over Tennessee two weeks ago. The Steelers are 8-0 for the first time ever while terrorizing the NFL with 15 turnovers as quarterback kryptonite T.J. Watt leers from a recent Sports Illustrated cover.
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor pretty much said on Wednesday the middle of the line looks to be back intact with center Trey Hopkins and left guard Michael Jordan returning after missing the Titans game. There is also hope that left tackle Jonah Williams (neck stinger) is back after he went limited Wednesday. But right tackle remains a mystery with Bobby Hart (knee) not practicing Wednesday after missing the Tennessee game and his backup, Fred Johnson, is on the Covid list with availability unknown.
But if Williams can't go on the left side, what the Bengals can hang their hat on is the depth they've got emerging at tackle after sixth-round pick Hakeem Adeniji made his first NFL start at left tackle against Tennessee and didn't allow Burrow to get hit.
Taylor was comfortable putting Adeniji on the franchise's blind side because he knew Adeniji was comfortable over there after playing most of his college career on the left. Adeniji has impressed everyone by his ability to move around (he may one day be a starting option at four spots), but he'll tell you he also feels most comfortable on the left side.
It was a matter of tempo in that first start.
"The adjustment to the speed. To realize NFL snaps aren't practice. It's a different speed than practice or college," Adeniji said. "That was the most difficult part, but the coaches and my teammates did a great job making things pretty easy for me."
The Titans may have one of the worst pass rushes in the league, but after allowing just three pressures on 42 passes, according to profootballfocus.com, Adeniji received raves from Taylor to Burrow ("super athletic") and Willie Anderson, one of the Bengals all-time tackles, went to Twitter to praise him.
"People just don't know how hard that is to do," Anderson said this week. "It's not that you're a backup. It's just that you don't get the reps in practice. And then for a rookie to go in there without a training camp … Impressive."
Adeniji, the Kansas Jayhawk Bengals offensive line coach Jim Turner wanted to draft early and often, is one of the reasons the Bengals feel so much better about the second half of this season compared to last season. Here's a guy sitting on their own bench who has all the intelligent, athletic and versatile markings of a starting NFL lineman.
"You just have to stay focused and execute. You'll see a lot of things," said Adeniji this week as he talked about the Steelers. "You've got to be patient and if you trust your technique and watch the film and you're prepared, then you should be in good situations."
Anderson, who played in 22 of these Bengals-Steelers tractor pulls during the '90s and 00s, couldn't have said it better: "They're running the same stuff I played against. They attack bad technique. They try to overwhelm you."
If it sounds like Adeniji has the brains, he does.
Graduated in the top 10 percent of his high school class.
"Hakeem is a point of pride for Garland, Texas and Garland High School," said Jeff Jordan, his high school head coach who let him be the ball boy in fifth grade as Hakeem avidly followed the career of his older brother Moshood. "I've known the family for a long time and they're awesome people."
Graduated in four years from Lawrence with about a 3.15 grade point average in business management.
"That's the way my mom wanted it," Adeniji said. "More school than sports."
Then he blew away the Bengals at the last Senior Bowl, where they coached the South, and when they crossed the sidelines to interview the North players Turner saw what the Bengals scouts had already charted about his impeccable intangibles. The scouts had already checked a lot of the boxes off their work in the fall and now it was time for the coaches to look. Plus, when he moved into guard for some effective work, well, what was there not to like?
"We had a good connection then and funny enough we end up getting back together," Adeniji said of Turner. "He told me he always had his eye on me and liked what I can do on the field and off the field."
But then, it has always seemed to work out for Adeniji just when it seemed like it wouldn't. For the life of him Jordan couldn't understand why the college recruiters didn't flock to him. He had the athleticism, the length, toughness, the smarts. What it came down to, Jordan thought, is that Adeniji played his senior year at 243 pounds and they just weren't sure how big he was going to get.
Adeniji was all set to commit to New Mexico when the offer got pulled. Then he planned to follow his brother to the Air Force Academy when a stunning letter in June told him the school couldn't take him because of an allergy to nuts.
His mother sent an anxious note to Jordan. What could be done at the late date for college? It just so happened that Jordan had just left Garland to become the director of player personnel at Kansas and he laid it out for the Rock Chalkers. Hakeem was better than anyone they had on the offensive line.
"Then he came in, started the first game and never missed one in four years," said Jordan, who has the same job at SMU. "His athleticism is really unbelievable. He's one of these guys that had to grow into his body. When he was a freshman and sophomore, his arms and legs were so long. When they told him he had to gain weight, I never saw without food in his mouth."
At 6-4, 302 pounds, Adeniji is all grown up. Along with his dad, he says the biggest influences in how he got there were Moshood and mother Joke. Joke, a TV anchor in Nigeria before coming to the United States about 30 years ago, had no problem communicating what she sought for her sons.
"The things they did to push me, motivate me, support me is second to none," said Adeniji, who can tell you his brother is older by five years, ten months and 17 days. "My mom was on me about everything. She was never easy on me. My brother was always there for me. He set the path. Just being first generation from here and my mom was tough on me with every little thing to the point where I'm tough on myself about every little thing."
He's not one of these guys lugging a late-round-chip-on-the-shoulder selection everywhere he goes. He gets it. A lot of people thought he'd go higher. Willie Anderson, who talked to him about training with him before Adeniji decided to stay home in Texas, thought he was a fourth-rounder.
"At the end of the day, I know there are going to be people under and over recruited. There are going to be people over and under drafted," Adeniji said. "My job is to get an opportunity and make the most of it and control what I can control."
That's how Adeniji is one these guys that allowed Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan during the bye to favorably compare their notes from last year to this one. Even though their offensive line is so uncertain just a few days before that Steeler pass rush.
"I've learned through multiple times in life, it's not about where I'm taken or how I'm viewed," Adeniji said. "It's about what I do. As long as I go out there and produce, everything else that I want will come."