CINCINNATI – Like the first umpire’s yell of “Play Ball!”, the first crack of the football pads signals a change of seasons. Fall arrived in Cincinnati on Sunday as the Bengals practiced in full pads for the first time this training camp.
The day included the running of the Oklahoma drill, a series of one-on-one battles between offense and defense that produces pancake blocks, big hits, bravado and woofing galore. Two players line up, one whose job it is to block the other who has his eyes on destroying the oncoming ball carrier.
It’s not quite Thunderdome, but you get the idea.
“It’s a hard thing to evaluate basically. It’s the essence of football but not played as much that way,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “It is good. Some guys really show that they will put their face in that way.”
Orson Charles, tight end by trade but now also getting snaps as a fullback hybrid, won all three of his matchups against linebackers Rey Maualuga, Vinnie Rey and J.K. Schaffer, driving Schaffer into the ground in decisive fashion. John Conner, all fullback, got into Vontaze Burfict good and drove him backwards in one encounter, but rookie linebacker Bruce Taylor beat Conner’s block later. Rookie safety Shawn Williams delivered the biggest hit of the session after throwing rookie wide receiver Roy Roundtree aside.
“They put me up against receivers,” said Williams. “I’m used to at Georgia going up against tight ends and fullbacks. So it was kind of easy.”
NFL training camps used to always be about hitting. That’s not so much the case nowadays. There is a tempo to practice, an emphasis on working on techniques and making sure you have your assignments downs for every play. The hitting will come but rules changed with the latest CBA two years ago. Two-a-day practices are dinosaurs. Teams have a walk-through in the morning and are limited to the number of practices in pads they have throughout camp and the season.
The Bengals don’t practice in full pads once the regular season begins. The point of training camp is to get ready for that first regular season game, not to have your guys beat up and unable to play.
“Everyone wants to compete, but even with pads on you have to take things within reason,” said defensive end Robert Geathers, now in his 10th season. “There is still a fine line in how to practice the right way.”
Some players, mostly those still in their first couple of seasons in the NFL, can get a little too amped up in practice. Burfict was one of those players on Saturday when the Bengals practiced in shoulder pads for the first time. But you’d rather have it that way than needing to light a fire under a player.
“You’ve got to be fully locked in every single time you step out onto the field,” said rookie running back Rex Burkhead. “Make sure you know your assignments, make sure you know your playbook because every single play there is something, a little detail, that you’ve got to know. You have to make sure you’re on top of it because if not you’re going to get called out for it.
“We were in pads maybe more often in college but it was the same mentality, take care of your guys. But you have to make sure you’re doing your job, make sure you’re getting that initial contact, but at the same time once the season comes you want these guys around.”
The final bout of the Oklahoma drill is always a headliner. Big name vs. Big name with the rest of the team circled around them cheering them on.
Sunday it was tight end Jermaine Gresham for the offense against All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins.
Gresham asked for the matchup. He had earlier come to a stalemate against James Harrison. Gresham and Atkins are good friends, but Gresham was going to do anything to win this time, even if it meant getting a head start on the snap count.
There are no referees in the Oklahoma drill but Burfict threw a towel up in the air in protest and a mini melee ensued, all in good fun, of course.
“He cheated. He tried to cheat, I should say. He got caught,” said Lewis, smiling and chuckling.