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How the Bengals’ AFC championship run provided a valuable career start for several young players

CINCINNATI, Ohio — First impressions are everything.

Going straight into the NFL is a transition for even some of the most talented athletes coming out of the college ranks. Jumping in and making an impact is even more difficult. Last year, wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase showed up from his first ever game en route to an All-Pro season that led the Bengals to their Super Bowl run.

A year later, players like 2022 third-round pick and defensive tackle Zach Carter found themselves thrown into the fire just weeks into their rookie season. Carter started for the Bengals seven straight games after DJ Reader went on injured reserve with a knee injury following a Week 3 win over the Jets.

He played in every game this season, including all three of the Bengals’ playoff games. Carter capped off his season with an AFC Championship appearance, a tough game for any player of any experience to achieve.

To get to the big game as a rookie? He told cleveland.com that he was also in awe following their 23-20 loss to the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.

“Dude, it’s a blessing. It’s a blessing. There are a lot of kids that play this game in the NFL. They haven’t had the opportunity to get this far. It’s a blessing. You can never take that for granted,” Carter said after the AFC championship game.

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Carter was one of seven rookies on the Bengals’ roster that was part of the team’s run at the conference title game. While all seven have seen game action this season, only five of them, including Carter, have started a game for Cincinnati. Even when Reader returned to action, though, Carter remained a part of the defensive line rotation and that probably won’t change in the foreseeable future.

“Some guys go their entire career and never get that far. Making it my first year and getting a taste of it will only make me hungrier. The younger kids around me will only make us hungry. I’ve already told Cam (Taylor-Britt), Dax (Hill) and the younger kids that we’ll be back. The guys before us set the standard,” Carter said.

Rookie cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt can best relate to the baptism of fire. Taylor-Britt was placed on injured reserve in the preseason with core surgery.

Just weeks after being activated by IR, he found himself leaving for an injured Eli Apple and later Chidobe Awuzie after Awuzie’s season-ending injury. He started nine games, finished with 55 tackles and made his first and only pick in the division win over Buffalo.

The Bengals relied on Taylor-Britt during Sunday’s loss, a game in which Taylor-Britt vowed he would go after Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. It never happened, but he got close, almost jumping and picking up a pass in the game.

“I didn’t know I was going to be on IR. I didn’t know that Chido (Awuzie) was going to get hurt or that I’d end up starting or anything. It’s just a blessing to get this far,” Taylor-Britt said.

One exception to that group of rookies is sophomore Joseph Ossai. Ossai’s rookie season never happened as a preseason injury at Tampa Bay ended his year before it even started. However, he has made a significant impact offensively with Carter in 2022. Like Carter, Ossai has played in every game this year but hasn’t started.

He had 3.5 quarterback sacks and a combined 11 quarterback hits this season. His best-of-himself came in Week 13 against the Chiefs when he sacked Mahomes on 3rd down with minutes left in the game on the Chiefs’ last drive of the game to help seal a 27–24 win. Head coach Zac Taylor called that sack “the hustle of the century” after the game.

Sunday’s rematch with Kansas City is one Ossai is quickly walking away from, though after his late penalty on Mahomes with eight seconds left in the game helped the Chiefs into field goal range, setting up the game-winning kick Harrison Butker’s 45-yard run. He said he has since “found peace” from the unfortunate game and is not overlooking the impact he has had this year.

“I always say this: at this time last year I was on the sofa. So, just to be able to be in this game, in this stadium, in this dressing room with these guys, is a blessing,” Ossai said after the match. “I’m sorry that things didn’t go your way, but it’s a great blessing.”

Other rookies, meanwhile, like left guard Cordell Volson and long snapper Cal Adomitis have started most of the season and will likely stay in their respective positions as long as they stay in Cincinnati. Rookie safety Dax Hill, who played a handful of snaps at safety and slot corner, has mostly seen a role on the specials teams but could play a bigger role if starting safety Jessie Bates hadn’t returned the next season.

For now though, all those rookies now know what it’s like to play with championship potential.

Mohammad Ahmad covers Bengalis for cleveland. com. You can follow him on Twitter @MohammadAhmadTV and read all of his coverage at StrictlyStripes.com.

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