The Cincinnati Bengals have a chance Saturday to start the preseason 2-0 for just the 10th time in their 50 seasons when they face the Kansas City Chiefs at Paul Brown Stadium.
Of course a fast start in August is hardly a harbinger of real success, as only three of those previous 2-0 preseason starts occurred in years that ended with the Bengals in the playoffs.
There will be things far more compelling than the final score, and here is a list of six to watch for — other than rookie running back Joe Mixon, who no doubt will be the focal point of most fans as he tries to build on his impressive debut:
There’s a chance first-round pick John Ross and running back Giovani Bernard could make their debuts after sitting out against Tampa Bay, although it seems unlikely in Ross’ case given that this past week was the first time he did any 11-on-11 work in practice.
Bernard has been a full participant since camp started July 28, but he is still less than nine months removed from ACL surgery, so they Bengals may elect to rest him one more game before giving him a handful of carries next week at Washington.
The Bengals aren’t saying it, but it’s clear their plan is to start Trey Hopkins at right guard in the season opener Sept. 10 against Baltimore.
Hopkins has been working with the first team for most of training camp, while Andre Smith, the listed starter on the depth chart, has been splitting his second-team reps at guard and right tackle, the position he played the first nine years of his career.
“Any time a spot’s open and there’s competition, everyone steps up and everybody’s excited,” Hopkins said. “It’s just extra motivation when you come out here for practice and come out here for games, that you have something to prove and have a set goal in mind.”
Hopkins played the entire first half against Tampa with the first-team line (save for Christian Westerman replacing Clint Boling at left guard for the final series), and the group didn’t allow a sack while leading a rushing attack that averaged 4 yards per carry.
Jeff Driskel’s performance last week against Tampa Bay — 8 of 9 for 97 yards and a touchdown and five carries for a game-high 34 yards and a score — magnified the debate of whether the Bengals can afford to keep three quarterbacks on the roster for the second year in a row.
The Bengals kept Driskel on the 53-man roster all of last year because they didn’t want to expose him to waivers for fear he would be claimed, and that was after a mediocre preseason. If the former University of Florida and Louisiana Tech quarterback turns in another strong performance against the Chiefs, he will pretty much ensure another team will claim him if the Bengals try to sneak him on to their practice squad after cutdown day.
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Starter Andy Dalton (13 snaps) and backup AJ McCarron (15) should see their workloads increase slightly against Kansas City, which would reduce the snaps for Driskel. But Driskel did all of his damage against the Buccaneers on his first two possessions. If he has success moving the offense again, he’s going to force the coaches and front office to make a tough decision come Sept. 2.
Kansas City kid
Speaking of encores, rookie defensive end Jordan Willis, a Kansas City native, should have plenty of chances to build on his impressive debut from a week ago with rookie fourth-rounder Carl Lawson nursing a shoulder injury.
The Bengals used Lawson as a third-down rusher on the opening series of the game last week, and it’s fair to assume he won’t play tonight after being limited in practice all week. That means Willis, who had two quarterback hits and a sack against the Tampa Bay second string, should get a chance to test himself against Chiefs starting tackles Eric Fisher, the first overall pick in 2013, and Mitchell Schwartz, a 2012 second-rounder.
Cornerback KeiVarae Russell is battling for a spot for the second year in a row after the Kansas City Chiefs cut their third-round pick at the end of the 2016 preseason.
Russell spent most of 2016 on the Bengals practice squad before being activated for the season finale, in which he played just one snap and recorded an interception. Russell appears to have the inside track to be the fifth and final corner, and he would love to solidify his standing against his former team.
“Every game is important to me, but this one a different feel to it,” Russell said. “There’s nothing malicious about it where I want to go out and show them. There’s no anger, no resentment, nothing. I’m not trying to show those coaches they made a mistake. The main thing is to show these (Bengals) coaches that I’m consistent in my play and they can count on me to play well and keep getting better.”
Russell was in concussion protocol earlier in the week, but he returned to practice and was a full participant Wednesday and Thursday, so he should have a chance to build on his performance in the opener against Tampa Bay, when he had five tackles and a pass defended in addition to a tackle on special teams.
Tra Carson, a 2016 undrafted running back out of Texas A&M, led the Bengals in carries last week with eight for 32 yards in addition to turning in the team’s longest reception with a 23-yarder on a screen. But that was with Cedric Peerman sidelined with a hamstring injury.
Peerman returned to practice this week, so Carson and Peerman will have a chance to compete head to head for what appears to be the final spot at their position.