CINCINNATI — As the Bengals discovered in 2022, losing starters along the offensive line late in the season can have devastating effects.
Jonah Williams dislocated both kneecaps over the course of the season. La’el Collins tore his ACL in Week 16 in New England. And Alex Cappa went down with a foot injury in the regular season finale against the Ravens. Ted Karras injured his right knee in the playoff win in Buffalo.
The Bengals scrambled and filled the gaps with Hakeem Adeniji, Max Scharping and Jackson Carman, while Karras powered through against Kansas City in the AFC Championship.
The Bengals have a fascinating challenge ahead in building their offensive line, namely the depth behind the starters.
And La’el Collins might be key to all of it.
The veteran right tackle will likely begin the season on the physically unable to perform list, giving the team weeks of roster flexibility to determine what to do with Jackson Carman.
Carman had some embarrassing moments at right guard in the preseason opener but so did the rest of the offensive line. Carman is a powerful force in the run game.
Bad gaffes in pass protection can sometimes look horrific – and they are when you’re assigned with protecting Joe Burrow. But it’s apparent that the Bengals still believe in Carman and his athletic ability. When he’s engaged, he’s still a monster.
“I really want to work on not flipping as early in my sets, staying longer in demeanor and being able to re-fit my hands sooner, especially on those outside moves,” Carman told me after watching film from last Friday. “And then being able to get more depth from my inside foot and being able to stay level in my base at the same time.”
Preseason games have not provided Carman’s best moments, and certainly the last two years are clear examples of that. His left guard performance against the Giants in preseason Week 2 in 2022 led to the emergence of Cordell Volson. His best game probably came in the divisional round as a left tackle when he was sealing off the outside for Joe Mixon as the Bengals dominated the line of scrimmage in a 27-10 win.
Do the Bengals look at their tackles as one big box? Or do they break it down more detailed? That’s what’s impossible to know without actually being in the room with Frank Pollack.
We’ve already seen the Bengals move their tackles around this summer in camp. The big difference this year is that we essentially know all five starting positions, which is a huge improvement from year’s past. You have to go back to the mid-2010s when the Bengals were in full throttle with the Andy Dalton offense to find a year when the Bengals had as much certainty in their offensive line.
The big questions now are what to do with Jackson Carman and La’el Collins when and if Collins is ready to go. Yes, they can stash him on PUP but ideally, the Bengals would love to have Collins on the field and producing pancake blocks.
Would Collins be able to fight Williams for his right tackle job? That all depends on how effective Williams is at the position.
La'el Collins taking it day by day on his knee but feeling stronger each day. Wants to compete for his right tackle job when he returns pic.twitter.com/GR9l1IHwqz
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) August 13, 2023
“It’s very complex, a lot of ability. We’ve got a lot of potential in the room,” Collins said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys that are doing a lot of great things. And it’s just great to be able to go out there and watch them continue to improve, watch them continue to get better and knowing the type of coach that we have, I mean it gives you this every reason in the world one go out there and go a little harder even more. Absolutely.
“From my standpoint as a competitor, I’ve been doing this for a long time and you know obviously get back on the field would be the is almost like the end goal, right? Like right now is the execution part where you got to focus on a day-to-day and stay locked in. We’re about the results. So I’ll focus on the day-to-day, focus on the process execution, the results (will) take care of itself.
And for Carman?
“My plan is to do whatever my coaches ask me to do to the best of my ability,” Carman said. “Whatever they have me do, I’m there to do it as soon as possible and the highest level possible.”
Carman took snaps at second team left tackle on Sunday and Monday. D’Ante Smith moved over to right tackle. Carman has played all over on the line and does have that versatility but his best spot might also be his most familiar – left tackle, where he protected Trevor Lawrence’s blindside at Clemson.
“We will continue to work, continue to look at different things up front and really with all the positions, but it is still relatively early in the process,” head coach Zac Taylor cautioned Monday. “We have only played one game and have two left. There will still be some things we can look at.”
Collins will start the season on PUP and then continue his work with an eye on returning sometime during the season. He plans on proving first that he can help the team immediately, like Carman, in whatever role is asked. But for Collins, that eventually means battling for his right tackle gig.
“Absolutely. I mean, obviously, when I’m healthy, I feel how I feel about myself. But my job right now is to stay locked in now and help the guys as much as I can, give them all the feedback that I can, you know, while we’re out on the practice field to the game field.”
“For those guys, I’m here for whatever, but they may need any kind of advice, any kind of things that they might not understand. That’s what I’m here for. And once I get to that point. So I’m back on the field, then that’s going to take care of yourself.”
There was another “hold your breath” moment late in practice Monday when Tee Higgins fell to the ground trying to make a catch on the far sideline. As the pass fell incomplete, Nick Scott fell on Higgins while Cam Taylor-Britt collided with him as the trailing corner. The three fell down and Higgins and Taylor-Britt were a bit slow getting up and Higgins did not play a snap the rest of the practice. Afterward, Higgins said he was fine after falling awkwardly, “nothing too major, just came down awkward on my leg.”
Higgins was also asked Monday by Bengals radio voice Dan Hoard about the bond he, Ja’Marr Chase and Tyler Boyd share.
“Yeah, man, it’s just we’re like brothers,” Higgins said. “Blood couldn’t make us any closer. We love each other like we’ve got the same momma. It’s great to have two guys like that. They’ve got my back and I got theirs at the end of the day. It’s just one of those things and one of those relationships that nobody can break.”
"We're like brothers. Blood couldn't make us any closer." Tee Higgins on the closeness of he, Ja'Marr Chase and Tyler Boyd. pic.twitter.com/J7RsnDtswy
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) August 14, 2023
Higgins and Tyler Boyd and the rest of the Bengals plan to catch up before Friday’s game with their former teammate Jessie Bates. The safety signed a four-year, $64 million deal in the offseason with the Atlanta Falcons.
“It’s gonna be good to see my boy Jesse, man,” Higgins said. “Definitely gonna joke around a little bit. I know TB will. TB has been with him longer than I have, but man, it’s gonna be good to see my boy.”
For the first time in camp, the Bengals dealt with significant rain during practice. The team ran and threw in the heavy showers, with mixed results. A deep pass from Jake Browning went off the chest of Chris Evans down the left sideline while Trevor Siemian was able to complete a pass deep over the middle to Trent Taylor. The practice was primarily a big win for the defense with Trey Hendrickson intercepting a returning a pass for a touchdown.
There was another batted down at the line of scrimmage and the corners had a strong day in coverage, keeping Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins contained. The running game, with Joe Mixon in court defending himself in court against gun-related road rage charges and Trayveon Williams days away from returning, featured Chris Evans with the ones and Chase Brown with the twos. Evans and Brown both had several solid runs over five yards as the run blocking seems to be stronger with each passing day.
The Bengals also worked on some different pressure packages on Monday, with several from Dax Hill and Jalen Davis getting in on quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Jake Browning, flushing the quarterbacks out of the pocket.
Speaking of Evans, he again opened some eyes with some good work on special teams, as he made the opening tackle of the game on kickoff coverage. He also had the game’s biggest run of 33 yards. He’s working on his blitz pickup. It’s all a matter of stacking gold bars, trying to make the team for a third straight season as a 2021 sixth-rounder out of Michigan.
"Darrin (Simmons) said every play is like stacking gold bars. Whoever's got the most gold bars at the end of the season is the winner." Chris Evans was feeling it in first preseason game. pic.twitter.com/jo55IXGd0p
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) August 14, 2023