Improving Bengals rookie could make first start against Steelers

FILE - In this Dec. 28, 2019, file photo, Clemson offensive tackle Jackson Carman (79) looks to block during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football game against Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz. The Cincinnati Bengals got some help for their offensive line Friday night, taking Carman with their second-round pick in the NFL draft. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri, File)
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FILE - In this Dec. 28, 2019, file photo, Clemson offensive tackle Jackson Carman (79) looks to block during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football game against Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz. The Cincinnati Bengals got some help for their offensive line Friday night, taking Carman with their second-round pick in the NFL draft. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri, File)

Credit: Rick Scuteri

Credit: Rick Scuteri

Bengals drafted Fairfield graduate Carman in second round

Fairfield High School product Jackson Carman appears on track to make his first start for the Cincinnati Bengals this weekend.

With right guard Xavier Su’a-Filo considered doubtful for Sunday’s game at Pittsburgh, Carman is expected to be next in line. The Bengals already have been grooming the rookie second-round draft pick for that role, but Su’a-Filo’s knee injury likely pushes up the timeline for his offensive debut.

Carman, who played eight snaps on special teams over the first two games, has been listed as the backup at right guard since Michael Jordan was waived with the final roster cuts.

“He has made improvements every single week since training camp started,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said of Carman on Monday. “I think Jackson’s taking the right approach there. (Offensive line coach) Frank (Pollack) has done a good job getting a lot of extra work with those guys, being hard on them on the scout team because those are a lot of their reps a lot of the time. Those guys have continued to make improvements.”

Backup left guard D’Ante Smith, a fourth-round pick who played tackle at East Carolina, also could be in the mix. Taylor said Wednesday he has confidence in both players, but it seems Carman will get the first look. Su’a-Filo didn’t practice all week.

In that case, Carman could be stepping into a challenging assignment Sunday. The Steelers have been known for their physical defense over the years, and they bring a pass rush that ranked best in the league last year with 56 sacks. Outside linebacker T.J. Watt has been nursing a groin injury but appears on track to return Sunday.

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Taylor said Carman’s flexibility, playing as a left tackle through college at Clemson, makes him a good fit for these AFC North division games.

“We know he’s a big guy and stout at the point of attack,” Taylor said. “He’s also really athletic to be able to move in space. With the guards, they’ve got to get up to the second level, get backers cut off, be athletic enough to cut off some guys in the back side. He showed all those traits as a tackle on tape. He had a high football IQ. He processed it really well. We interviewed him several times on the Zooms, felt really good about his mental IQ. That showed up over these last couple weeks as we had him in the building and practice.”

Taylor doesn’t expect Carman to be perfect his first time on the field with the offense. The Bengals have been far from that so far, allowing nine sacks on Joe Burrow from missed blocks in multiple spots on the field, and that can’t continue.

The running game seemed to take a step back last week at Chicago after Joe Mixon rushed for 128 yards in the opener, but Mixon felt he was close to popping some big runs and just couldn’t get to that next level.

Su’a-Filo wasn’t off to a great start to the season, grading at only a 50.0 by ProFootballFocus.com, and Carman has shown enough potential to warrant a chance to see if he can do better.

“These guys got to make mistakes early on,” Taylor said. “It takes guys a minute to get adjusted to life in this league and how we practice and the competition we’re playing against. He’s no different than ... we sat in here and talked about Ja’Marr (Chase) for four weeks and the challenges he had in training camp. Every position is a little bit different. You’ve got to be patient with him, and it’s going to come. When Jackson does play for us, it’s not always going to be perfect. We know that. Just don’t make the same mistake twice, keep learning, keep communicating with the guys around you and good things will come. He’s a smart football player, he’s got a lot of talent and he wants to do well. Good things will come.”

For the Bengals offense to be successful, it will be important to get the running game established early and that starts up front.

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Mixon says he’s ready to do his part. He missed both games against Pittsburgh last year because of a foot injury but had some decent games against the Steelers in 2018 and 2019, including a 105-yard rushing performance in a 16-13 loss at Pittsburgh in 2018 and two-touchdown effort in a 28-21 loss in Cincinnati that year.

“I think we’re doing a pretty decent job in the run game,” Mixon said. “I think we will do a lot better. We’ve just got to keep getting back to the basics and doing the little things better, finishing harder. We’re always just a guy away from having a break(away). I think that we’ll get better.”

Cincinnati’s offense also could be without wide receiver Tee Higgins (shoulder), so that’s one less weapon in the passing game for Joe Burrow.

The Bengals established the run early in the opener and it worked well to help open up the passing game, but the offense as a whole struggled in the first half at Chicago and Mixon finished with just 69 yards on 20 carries to account for all of the team’s rushing yards.

“We had the leading rusher in the NFL after one game, so things worked well in the first week,” Taylor said. “Then the second week we faced a really good front. There’s more money invested in that front than any team in the league. We knew there was going to be challenges. They rush the passer, they hit the quarterback. Watching Buffalo and Oakland, those quarterbacks got hit a lot against Pittsburgh. We know it’s going to be a physical, bloody game in protection and the run game. We’re ready for it, we’ve seen it. Our guys are excited about that opportunity to showcase what they can do.”