PITTSFORD - Offensive tackle can be an awfully lonely position in the NFL, especially for a rookie.
That’s a lesson that Buffalo Bills second-round draft pick Cyrus Kouandjio has learned a month into training camp.
With the game tied in the dying seconds Saturday night against Pittsburgh, Kouandjio was beaten to the outside by Steelers linebacker Vic So’oto, who proceeded to sack Bills quarterback Jeff Tuel, forcing a fumble the Steelers recovered to set up the game-winning field goal.
It was the type of play that gets an offensive lineman’s name in the newspaper for all the wrong reasons – something that has happened on more than one occasion for Kouandjio this preseason.
“I don’t disagree. Even on the sidelines, I see something bad happen and I put it into a category of, ‘oh gosh, he’s not playing well,’ ” Bills coach Doug Marrone said Monday.
A funny thing happens when Marrone turns on the tape, though.
“I go back and I watch the film and there are some really good things he’s doing, too,” the coach said. “I think when you play tackle, it’s almost like when you play cornerback. When you do make a mistake, everyone in the stadium is able to see it.
“But then when you go back and watch the film, play-by-play and individual plays, he’s actually doing better than my perception on the sideline, which I’ve always taken a lot of pride in. He is progressing and getting better.”
After the Bills’ first preseason game against the New York Giants, Marrone made a point to mention how difficult it is to play tackle in the NFL. He explained why he feels that way in more detail Tuesday.
“It’s really probably the combination of the speed and the power,” he said. “I believe in training inside out, so you always train for power first before you start training for speed, and you can get yourself in trouble there. In college, you rarely see the combination of speed and power and in this league a lot of those players have that.”
A former offensive lineman who takes a keen interest in working with that unit during every practice, Marrone continued on about the challenge Kouandjio faces.
“If you’re worried about guys getting on the edge of you and then they bull rush you, you look really, really bad. And if you’re sitting on the power, then a guy can run right around you,” he told The Buffalo News. “So it takes a while to learn how to read those moves and study those opponents. … The good players in this league keep a diary or book on every single player and watch every single snap. That’s their job, to go against them, and they’re doing the same on the offensive guys.”
Kouandjio has failed to mount any sort of challenge for the starting right tackle job. He’s been outplayed by seventh-round pick Seantrel Henderson. As a second-round pick, that’s a disappointment no matter what the team says.
During a joint practice last week with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Bills offensive line coach Pat Morris barked at Kouandjio, “you might as well be Venus de Milo.” (Save a trip to Google – it’s the famous Greek statue with the missing arms).
Marrone, though, is confident that a breakthrough is in Kouandjio’s future. At 6-foot-7 and 322 pounds, with 35 5/8-inch arms, he easily passes the eyeball test.
“He has the skill to play in this league and we just have to keep developing it,” the coach said.
To his credit, Kouandjio hasn’t looked for excuses.
“I’m playing professional ball. It’s tough,” he said. “It’s a position where you’ve got to be on your game every single snap. I’ve got to keep pushing.”
Coming from Alabama – which lost four games in Kouandjio’s three seasons – the 21-year-old admitted the pro game has been “slightly” tougher than he expected.
“It’s just another challenge in life, you know?” he said. “In college, you might have a few guys you go against that have a really good move or two really good moves, but these guys here have like five different moves that they’ve perfected. They’ve been here for a long time.”
Kouandjio let out a little laugh when told about Marrone’s comparison of tackle to cornerback, and how one bad snap can erase all the other good ones.
“Yeah, that’s why we get paid. I was thinking about it last night, the last game that we had. I had 30 good reps, where I just dominated. Then that one bad rep, that’s the name of the game,” he said. “That’s why tackles get paid so much. They’re paid to take on that burden. It takes a level of maturity to play tackle.”
So even when he has been beaten, Kouandjio has adopted a cornerback’s mentality – get ready for the next snap.
“You can’t have a normal confidence level at tackle, you have to be extremely confident. You can’t be average — you’ve just got to go in there and do your thing,” he said. “I don’t have a choice. This is my job. This is the path I chose, and I knew that this was going to be part of it. I have to get up and keep pushing forward.”