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    Joseph Ossai Expecting Big Things for Himself, Bengals’ Defense in 2024: ‘Everybody’s Clean and Crisp’

    Knee, wrist, and shoulder injuries have derailed Joseph Ossai's first three seasons with the Bengals, but the defensive end is finally fully healthy.

    CINCINNATI – Joseph Ossai feels like a rookie again. And that’s a good thing.

    The defensive end just completed his first fully healthy offseason since 2021 when he was a wide-eyed rookie third-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals.

    “It makes a world of difference when you’re not having to take time off and then start from scratch and build, build, build,” Ossai said following Thursday’s final practice of the team’s mandatory minicamp.

    Cincinnati Bengals DE Joseph Ossai Finally Fully Healthy

    Ossai instantly was impressive in OTAs, training camp, and his first preseason game as a pro in 2021, including a sack of Tom Brady on his second career snap.

    But knee and wrist injuries suffered later in that preseason opener landed him on season-ending IR, and the decision to delay surgery until December led to him not being fully cleared until August, nearly a year after the injury initially happened.

    By the end of 2022, he was playing really well and had the best game of his career in the AFC Championship Game at Kansas City until disaster struck. Not only did his late hit on Patrick Mahomes with eight seconds remaining put the Chiefs in position for a game-winning 45-yard field goal, Ossai suffered a knee injury on the play.

    But it was a shoulder injury he had been playing through that required surgery and once again put him behind in OTAs last spring. He started feeling like himself again midway through training camp, but then he suffered a high ankle sprain that left him fighting from behind for the rest of the season.

    This spring, the only thing he’s had to focus on is football.

    “The biggest difference is mentally, being mentally stable and being able to see yourself in a position to deal with the things you need to, as far as taking on blocks,” Ossai said. “You’re not thinking about how you’re moving, or you feel a pinch and you’re thinking, ‘Did the surgery go well? Is everything healed? Am I going to be completely ready?’

    “So, yeah, just mentally, it’s been a world of difference,” he added. “Even though we’re not going full speed against each other, the individual drills are full speed. To go through that and not feel anything that’s putting doubt in your mind, that’s the biggest thing I would say.”

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    After taking some time off to travel — Prague; Budapest, Hungary; Milan; London — after last season, Ossai is heading into what he hopes will be the healthiest — and perhaps wealthiest — year of his career.

    “Perfect timing,” he said of his contract season coinciding with full health.

    “But nothing changes for me,” he continued. “My work ethic isn’t changing because it’s a contract year. No way. Yes, it does heighten things a little bit. I’ll admit that. But I’m not worried about it because my work ethic has never changed. It’s been the same since my freshman year in high school.”

    Ossai played just 177 snaps (16.1%) last season, which was half of the workload he had in 2022. He finished with one sack and seven pressures, one of which led to a Logan Wilson interception against the Cleveland Browns.

    Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo often pointed to Ossai being behind due to injuries whenever the topic of the defensive end’s lack of playing time arose.

    At the NFL Combine in February, Anarumo’s tone changed as he singled out the University of Texas product unprompted. Answering a question about 2023 first-round pick Myles Murphy’s increased role in 2024, Anarumo made sure to enter Ossai into his answer.

    “Hopefully we’ll see not only Myles but Joseph,” Anarumo said. “Joseph is not rehabbing anything this year. He’s in there every day, every day, just working on different things. I’m anxious to see a healthy Joseph Ossai as well.”

    In addition to giving Trey Hendrickson a series off from time to time, look for Ossai to come in as an extra pass rusher on third downs, oftentimes lining up inside.

    Despite losing team captain DJ Reader in free agency, the defensive line has a chance to be the deepest position group on the team. In addition to the top five edge rushers in Hendrickson, Murphy, Ossai, Sam Hubbard, and Cam Sample, the team signed defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins in free agency and drafted defensive tackles Kris Jenkins (second round) and McKinnley Jackson (fourth round) to pair with B.J. Hill.

    “I’m extremely excited about this season because we (the defensive linemen) look great,” Ossai said. “Even the whole defense, we look sharp.”

    MORE: What’s Next for Bengals WR Tee Higgins After Signing Franchise Tag?

    You could argue the defensive struggles last year were a bigger reason for the Bengals missing the playoffs than the season-ending wrist injury to quarterback Joe Burrow.

    Miscommunication in the secondary and the second-highest number of explosive plays allowed doomed the group. And those who experienced it, including Ossai, are entering 2024 with something to prove.

    “Of course. Of course. We all know,” he said. “We’ve been working on it. It’s all we’ve talked about. The biggest thing is the communication. And through OTAs, we’re sharp. You can see the young guys are talking, the old guys are talking, everybody’s clean and crisp. I’m excited to see how it all plays out.”

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