Jordan Willis could be more than run-stopper for Bengals

CINCINNATI -- All Bengals defensive end Jordan Willis needs is an opportunity.

Coach Marvin Lewis and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin have both said they plan to get the second-year player on the field more this season. Lewis knows that the taciturn Willis wants it badly.

"It's important to him and he works at it, and he studies it," Lewis said. "He's conscientious. "He wants to be out there. He wants to be a starter, and he's going to continue to press to do that. We don't want to keep him from pressing with that. That's a good thing."

But with a deep pool of defensive line talent, how does Willis fit? He doesn't even have much of an idea right now.

"There's a lot of changing that's been going on here," Willis said. "I don't know if I'll be on the field on third down. If somebody gets hurt, if somebody gets tired, things may change, but going into the game, I don't know what's going to go on with me. It's the same thing on base downs. I may get 10 plays, I may get ... I don't know what's going to happen."

When Willis was taken in the third round of the 2017 NFL draft, it seemed as if the idea was to have him one day succeed veteran Michael Johnson. For a few hours last Saturday, that seemed like a strong possibility when Johnson was cut during the roster trim to 53, but he was re-signed and voted a team captain just 24 hours later.

It's assumed Johnson will maintain his starting role at right defensive end for now, with Carlos Dunlap at left defensive end. Carl Lawson will be the main contender to sub in when the Bengals are in their third down and nickel packages.

That would appear to leave Willis the odd man out, but Lewis was adamant that's not the case, even if it means he's going to see some time moving inside as a defensive tackle.

"Jordan is going to have a role on third down as well, he's going to sub both sides," Lewis said. "He'll be the first rotation guy at either end in base downs. We tried to give him an equal amount of work inside this preseason in pass-rush situations so he would get comfortable with that. Because I think he deserves an opportunity to play, and the better you play, the more opportunity you have to play."

Opportunity wasn't something Willis saw much of last year, at least not as a pass-rusher. He finished with only one sack, but his main usage was against the run, not against the pass.

"If we can get him more opportunities in terms of rushing the passer, maybe he'll have the chance to show what he can do, because I think he does have some pass-rush ability," Austin said. "Last year he really excelled versus the run. Everybody knew the pass rush, but they weren't sure in terms of the run game, and he ends up being a really strong person and really good at the point of the attack."

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Willis played 62 percent of his snaps against the run last year and only 12 snaps in third-down passing situations compared to Lawson's 172.

The Bengals' defensive line combined for 34.5 sacks, with 15.5 of those coming on third down. That's how then-rookie Lawson picked up 3.5 out of his 8.5 sacks, when he came in as a substitute on third down and in nickel situations.

It's tricky for any player to come in and out of a game without a chance to build up consistency. It's certainly tricky for a lineman whose main goal is trying to outsmart the man he's lined up against.

"The more you're out there, the more you'll get to set guys up and get a feel for things," Willis said. "But when you're coming in and out of the game, it's kind of harder to set guys up."

He added: "If the quarterback is holding the ball, somebody is going to eventually beat the guy and get a win. ... But if you're on the field getting quick throws and you're getting subbed into the game, it's just different. It's different on how you're going to affect the quarterback."

Lawson and Willis certainly have the tools to be an effective tandem. They combined for 21 sacks in their final seasons in college (9.5 sacks for Lawson at Auburn, 11.5 sacks for Willis at Kansas State). When Willis graduated, he ranked third in school history with 26 career sacks.

He might not be as flashy as Lawson, but the pedigree is certainly there.

"He does not get enough credit as a pass-rusher," Dunlap said. "I love the way he rushes. He definitely is always around the quarterback in one form or fashion. He may not be as quick and lightning as Carl, but I think a lot of times you see them both back there."

Willis was the 2017 preseason leader with four sacks and wreaked havoc against the Cowboys' backups in the second preseason game. It's not easy to go from that to riding the pine but don't expect him to say much about it publicly. He'd rather prove it.

"It's not really discussed and maybe it's not discussed not to step on other people's toes," he said. "It goes on everywhere in the league where guys are coming in and out of the game. It's not like it's just here. But that could be frustrating at times [for young players], but there's nothing you can do about it. Whenever you are called get in, you just get in and do whatever you can."

He added: "I know what I'm capable of when I get the opportunity to get out there and try to set up my rushes."