Bengals pass rush gets boost with newcomer McKinley, return of Hubbard

CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals continued their efforts to improve the pass rush this week and are hoping the addition of new defensive end Takk McKinley and the return of Sam Hubbard from injury provide a boost for the second half of the season.

Cincinnati claimed McKinley off waivers after the Atlanta Falcons released their 2017 first-round draft pick Tuesday after he had criticized the organization on Twitter for not granting his trade request.

McKinley likely won’t be available until next week because of COVID protocols but Hubbard’s return from injured reserve comes at an ideal time as the Bengals set to face the unbeaten Pittsburgh Steelers, whose offensive line ranks second in the league with just 10 sacks allowed. Hubbard was cleared Monday and has not yet been added back to the 53-man roster but is expected to play Sunday at Heinz Field.

“At the start of the year there was all that talk about the defensive line being the strength,” Hubbard said Thursday. “We had some injuries and some things go on where we’re not really talking about that at all. We’re one unit and we’ve got a standard. As a defense, everyone flying to the ball, playing as hard as you can and doing their job and I think we’re playing well, better and better every week together. Just demanding effort and accountability from everybody is something we focus on as a group.”

Hubbard missed three games after dislocating his elbow in a loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 5, and Amani Bledsoe, who spent all of his first NFL season on the Titans' practice squad last year, has been starting in his place with rookie Khalid Kareem, a fifth-round draft pick, also seeing significantly more time.

Kareem said Hubbard “brings an extra level of juice and energy that everyone always feeds off of,” so it’s good to have him back. The defensive line could use more consistency in terms of personnel, too, as there has been a lot of moving pieces this season because of injuries to interior linemen like D.J. Reader, Mike Daniels and Geno Atkins – the latter two whom are back.

“It’s always better when you have a D-Line that’s been around each other for a while,” Kareem said. “That bond and knowing where each other will begin the rush and knowing how to cover for each other, that’s definitely key. But it’s really just a next man up mentality. Coach (Nick) Eason always preaches let your energy and effort be contagious, and that’s something we really try to do on this D-Line.”

The Bengals needed to add at least one more defensive end, though, after trading away disgruntled end Carlos Dunlap three weeks ago. It seemed after the trade deadline passed Nov. 3, Cincinnati was just going to have to make do with what it had in the building already, so McKinley’s acquisition was a bit of a surprise, although a welcome one.

The defense ranks 25th in the league with just 11 sacks, and McKinley is a low-risk addition to try to improve those stats as he’s in the final year of his rookie contract. McKinley has been limited by a groin injury this season and hasn’t recorded a sack in four games, but he finishes his time in Atlanta with 17.5 sacks and 45 hits on the quarterback over three-plus seasons.

While the team won’t be able to utilize McKinley right away, players such as Kareem will continue getting more reps. Kareem said he felt like he did OK in the first eight games, getting his feet wet and adjusting to the league, but now he’s got enough experience he’s got higher expectations for himself.

“At this point Coach (Gerald) Chatman, he’s like, ‘You’re not a rookie anymore,’” Kareem said. “He said, ‘You played eight games in your NFL career so you should be good. Your feet should be nice and wet, just go out there and play.’ But what I probably need to work on the most is just being more violent in everything I do, be more violent my pass rushing and when I’m rushing just be more precise with it, don’t really be hesitant and like I said, just be more violent and precise.”

The Bengals have their work cut out for them in preparing for the Steelers' offensive line and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is tough to bring down and is getting the ball out of his hands quicker than any other passer in the league. Roethlisberger has been getting his passes off in an average of 2.27 seconds, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

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