Bengals’ Ossai calls it a “blessing” to be back on the field

CINCINNATI -- Joseph Ossai only played four snaps in Friday’s preseason opener, but the Cincinnati Bengals defensive end and 2021 third-round draft pick called it a “blessing” to get back on the field after his rookie season ended before it officially began.

The former Texas outside linebacker had gotten off to an impressive start last year, standing out in early training camp practices and getting seven pressures and a sack on Tom Brady in the 2021 preseason opener against Tampa Bay. However, on his 38th snap of that game, he suffered a total tear of the meniscus in his left knee and a torn ligament in his wrist, injuries that caused him to miss the entire season.

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Ossai eased back into things this training camp and his limited snap count Friday against the Cardinals was an extension of that. He expects to ramp up the competition over the next two preseason games, starting Sunday at the New York Giants.

“The coaches do a good job of taking care of us, and they are trying to get me to the season because this time last year my season was over,” Ossai said. “So, it was good to get in there and knock some cobwebs off, a little pre-game jitters I got to feel again, and that was pretty cool. So it was dope.”

The 22-year-old edge rusher said he’s not hesitant to do more or worried about re-injury, but the Bengals are being cautious in how they use him with the long-term in mind.

“I like to play the game, just head on,” Ossaid said. “God forbid I’d rather go out in there fighting, swinging than trying to protect myself and letting us be scored on or whatever and hurting the team, so there’s no mental aspect to get over at all.”

Ossai didn’t even get back to football activities until this summer. His surgeries to repair the two injuries were spread out, so he had the knee surgery first and it wasn’t until December that he had to wrist procedure.

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During Organized Team Activities this spring, Ossai was doing some side work on his own, and after the Bengals broke for the summer, he finally was able to start working with a defensive line coach at home in Texas. He wasn’t feeling completely comfortable at the start of camp but trusted the plan the Bengals training staff put in place for him to make a healthy return.

“It took some trust in myself, but I had a lot of faith in the trainers we have here, and the coaches, you know, they’re gonna want me to come back and be my best, so I knew they weren’t gonna rush things, and we had a plan,” Ossai said. “And we set some goals based on how I was feeling or how much confidence I was having in the wrist. And we’re still building that confidence. So it’s a daily thing.”

“At the beginning they maybe had to protect me from myself because I was anxious to get back out there, but again, I had to listen to them and listen to myself because trying to jump and not take those steps can cause injury and can cause you to put yourself in horrible situations. So it was just a matter of trusting them and trusting that they want the best for me and trusting myself to not let a mental block set me back.”

Ossai said he is “really hard” on himself, so he wasn’t necessarily feeling like he was having a great camp last year. He was focusing on what he needed to improve in his technique and other corrections he needed to make.

Learning he would be out for the year was a blow simply because prior to last year, he had never missed a game since seventh grade. He watched from afar as the Bengals made their run to the Super Bowl.

“It just hurt because I wanted to be out there contributing and helping the team in any way I could and just feeling like part of the team, especially when we’re having that big run,” Ossai said. “I wanted to do whatever to just be out there. So, I would say that’s what hurt the most, not the fact that I lost a rookie year or that, oh, I could have went and done something really good or amazing that year. It was the fact that deep down I didn’t feel like I was contributing to the team.”

The Bengals are hoping Ossai can pick up where he left off a year ago and make an impact as a rotational piece in the pass rush off the edge. He is behind Trey Hendrickson at right defensive end on the team’s projected depth chart.

Ossai said he still has a way to go to get back to where he was pre-injuries, but he’s getting there.

“I’m feeling good, not back to where I left off, but it’s a process every day,” he said. “And I’m excited to be out there with them. Like I said, at this time last year I was out for the season, so just to not be out for a season again this year is a blessing. And I thank God for that. So again, I’m just excited to be out here with the team and just helping them anyway I can.”

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