Training camp in 2020 has been unusual to say the least, but the biggest challenge for Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor is the constant reshuffling of the schedule to make sure the team accomplishes what it needs in the shortened amount of time before games begin.
The Bengals just put on full pads Aug. 18 and are preparing for their second informal scrimmage Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, which will in some ways need to mimic what normally would have been the third preseason game had COVID-19 not impacted the schedule.
That also marks the end of training camp, and the focus then turns to final roster decisions and preparing for the Sept. 13 opener against the L.A. Chargers.
“I drive (director of coaching operations) Doug Rosfeld crazy because things can change on a whim,” Taylor said in his weekly news conference Tuesday via Zoom. “We have a very flexible staff. The whole building is really flexible and they respond really well to adversity. That’s just what I’ve been proud to see from this whole organization. There are things in the moment that are frustrating, but it’s just – you all deal with things that are frustrating in your line of work – it’s how you respond to them. We find the positives, we don’t let them get us down and we find a way to just run through that adversity and embrace it in a sense.”
In the second week of training camp, Taylor said the competitiveness of practice has caught his eye more than anything else because of how different it looks compared to last year. The offense has been better than the defense on some days and vice versa, but guys remain plugged in no matter how good or bad things are going, and the leadership is at another level as well.
As far as individuals or position groups that have stood out, Taylor singled out the tight ends. Injuries and absences in the wide receiver position also have enabled the staff to get a better look at some other candidates for jobs there. Third-year player Auden Tate especially has stepped up with A.J. Green missing a week of practice because of hamstring tightness, rookie Tee Higgins being limited to individual drills while also coming back from a hamstring ailment and John Ross just coming back from caring for his ill son in California.
Green sat out all last week after being pulled off the Aug. 17 practice early for “precautionary reasons” but he resumed work on the rehab field Monday and Taylor expects him to be back in action Wednesday with the full team.
“That wasn’t a concern when we were holding him out,” Taylor said. “We’re early in training camp and we have some other guys at that position we need to look at. I think it was smart of us to hold him out for a couple of days.”
Green could even see some time during Sunday’s scrimmage, Taylor said, noting there are portions where the players won’t be tackling.
Higgins and Ross also are expected to resume 11-on-11 drills Wednesday, and running back Joe Mixon and defensive end Carlos Dunlap have minor issues that kept them out of practice Monday as a precaution, but Taylor indicated some of the other injuries in camp are more questionable.
Safety Shawn Williams and linebacker Jordan Evans are both “week-to-week,” Taylor said. Williams was carted off with a calf injury last week, and Evans suffered a hamstring injury Monday. Taylor said “it’s too early” to predict if defensive tackle Renell Wren is out for the year. He went on the reserve/injured list Sunday after suffering a quad injury Aug. 17.
The Bengals were off Tuesday but have three straight days of practice before the next day off Saturday, leading into an evening scrimmage Sunday, which will be made into more of a preseason game atmosphere.
“We’re trying to do as best we can,” Taylor said. “Our season is going to start a little bit later in the day, so we want players to get accustomed to that. On the other side of it, we’ll have officials. We’ll have a chain gang. We’ll have coaches up in the press box, getting a chance to utilize the headsets. We’re going to make it as realistic as we can in that regard. … Depth plays into that as well as we get closer to that day. But again, we want the players to feel that atmosphere as we walk onto the home field as we’re going to do on Sept. 13.”
Taylor wouldn’t say if there would be live special teams snaps in the scrimmage but noted the team will work heavily on that area this week because some of the roster decisions come down to who can contribute in that phase of the game in addition to adding depth elsewhere.
The Bengals will hold another scrimmage Sept. 3 to replace what normally would have been a fourth preseason game.
“Depending on the depth, we’ll see how much work we can get in,” Taylor said. “… When we actually go against each other, the offense and defense are both on the field at the same time. So, you have to find ways to build in those breaks. That part has just been something we work through. We try to give ourselves some breaks, so we can get some good quality reps.”