Bengals’ Collins ‘in a way better spot’ to match up with Steelers’ Watt

La’el Collins knew he got beat in his matchups with Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt in the season opener, but the Cincinnati Bengals right tackle chalked it up to a “great player making great plays.”

It didn’t help Collins that he was still working through a back issue that kept him out of training camp until two weeks before the season started. His recent form looks drastically different than his first four games when he allowed nine pressures, six hurries and two hits and earned ProFootballFocus pass blocking grades as low as 27.7.

Now, 10 weeks after his disappointing Bengals debut, Collins gets another chance to prove himself against the 2021 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Cincinnati (5-4) plays Pittsburgh (3-6) on Sunday at Acrisure Stadium, and Collins said he’s in a better position now to handle a player of Watt’s talent.

“What I was playing with those first three weeks, it’s not even close to where I’m at now,” Collins said. “I feel definitely in a way better spot.”

Among the memorable moments in that Week 1 matchup, Watt tossed Collins to the ground on his way to sacking Joe Burrow for a 10-yard loss with 3:48 left in the fourth quarter. It didn’t count because of a defensive holding penalty on Cameron Sutton, but Collins knelt down on the ground after the play, clearly disappointed and probably fatigued, while Watt celebrated.

Watt left the game with a pectoral injury two minutes later but finished with six tackles, one sack (in addition to the one that didn’t count), three tackles for loss, one quarterback hit, two passes defensed and an interception he tipped to himself at the line of scrimmage. He missed the next seven games but returned last week against the Saints and is full-go for Sunday.

“He’s a really good player,” Collins said. “He plays hard, doesn’t come off the field, plays all downs and you rarely see that from a defensive lineman. Those guys are always rotating, but that guy plays almost every snap.”

Bengals coach Zac Taylor said he thought Collins did a “pretty decent job” the first time he played Watt, but noted Collins has looked better every game that’s passed as he’s feeling more comfortable, physically, and in the system.

The coaching staff had tried to help Collins in that matchup by putting an extra body on him with guys like tight end Drew Sample and running back Samaje Perine helping on double teams. Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said the lack of time in camp showed on the tape, and “there were some things he probably admittedly will say he needs to do better,” but the Bengals have been pleased with his progress since then.

Cincinnati’s offensive line as a whole has improved since allowing 13 sacks over the first two games.

“I definitely feel like I’ve gotten better,” Collins said. “It comes with time and reps. That’s the beautiful thing about an offensive line. For an offensive line to grow, everybody has to be tied to the hip. Everybody has to be operating at the same level at all times. That’s the only way it’s going to work. We’ve done a great job of finding that.”

Collins said the idea that it would take some time to build chemistry wasn’t overblown, so it makes sense the offensive line play has improved with more games.

The Bengals are coming off their best game offensively, rushing for 241 yards in a 42-21 win over the Panthers in Week 9 before the bye. Before that, they had a wildly disappointing setback at Cleveland but put up 65 points combined in back-to-back wins in Weeks 6 and 7.

Cincinnati seeks to build off that momentum Sunday.

“Pretty crazy,” Collins said. “It was one of those things where we just felt it, you know, from practice to the game. And you know, just kind of felt it just started to turn over and turn over. So I can’t really pinpoint it (how it came together) because all we’ve been doing is putting our nose down and grinding.

“I will say, it just showed us what we have, I mean what we truly have and what we truly can do. We just got to trust our training. Trust our coaches, and we’ve just got to execute the play that’s called.”

SUNDAY’S GAME

Bengals at Steelers, 4:25 p.m., Ch. 7, 12; 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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