In Bengals' 'next-man-up' world, Andrew Billings' injury opens door for others

Bengals rookie defensive tackle Andrew Billings could be lost for the season following knee surgery Monday morning, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. AP Photo/John Minchillo

CINCINNATI -- At this rate, the people here are really wishing the NFL would cancel the rest of the preseason.

From an injury standpoint, it's been a rough training camp for the Cincinnati Bengals. Months after learning tight end Tyler Eifert might miss a couple of games at the start of the regular season while he rehabs from an ankle surgery suffered in the Pro Bowl, the Bengals watched his backup, Tyler Kroft, go down with a knee problem that could keep him out until the regular season begins.

Just one day before Kroft found himself in crutches, cornerbacks William Jackson III and Darqueze Dennard also suffered injuries, with Jackson's -- a possibly season-ending chest issue -- being by far the more serious of the two.

Now, two weeks later, ESPN's Adam Schefter is reporting the Bengals have discovered that defensive tackle Andrew Billings, a highly touted rookie like Jackson, could be done for the season following knee surgery Monday morning. Billings, a fourth-round pick from Baylor, was hurt during a routine pass-blocking drill in the middle of last Wednesday's joint practice with the Vikings. According to Schefter, the surgery was to repair a torn meniscus.

It certainly isn't the news the Bengals needed to hear following the earlier onslaught of injuries, but if there's a silver lining to it, it's this: Billings' absence will open up opportunities for a couple others.

Sure, the phrase "next man up" is cliche, but it's the Bengals' way. Which means it's time to keep an eye on young defensive tackles Marcus Hardison and DeShawn Williams, a pair of second-year players who had Bengals camp buzzing as rookies last year.

In large part because of his size (6-foot-1, 325 pounds), strength (in high school he squatted more than 800 pounds) and his pre-draft first-round projection, Billings had seemingly earned a spot in the Bengals' interior line rotations before he even set foot on a practice field. When he did participate in minicamp and organized team activities in the spring, his solid play confirmed that as long as he showed steady improvement, he deserved to be on the field fairly regularly.

That meant expectations were high that he would play a contributing role on the Bengals' defensive line, albeit in secondary and tertiary ways. Geno Atkins and Domata Peko, the veterans who have been playing side-by-side since Atkins was drafted in 2010, still were going to be the Bengals' starting tackles. But in certain situations, Billings probably would have relieved one of them as Cincinnati tried to keep it's line fresh.

Although they only played three snaps in Friday's preseason opener against the Vikings, Atkins and Peko showed just how dominant the Bengals' starting line could be this season. On the unit's very first play, Atkins pushed Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater backwards 10 yards before a Bridgewater stiff-arm prevented him from recording a sack. One play later, Atkins got the sack. A play after that, good push from the Bengals' interior line helped ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson collapse pressure on Bridgewater before he rushed a throw that fell incomplete.

Though Hardison might not have had the sacks or other tangible numbers to show it, he still was generating his share of pressure in Friday's game. He was a constant backfield presence.

Williams has been the same way the past two years, too, despite the fact depth at the position forced him onto the practice squad nearly all last season.

But with Billings now out, he has a stronger chance at having a roster spot this year.