The Cincinnati Bengals are unbeaten through two games this preseason but the most telling outing will be Sunday when they play at Buffalo.
This “dress rehearsal” is treated most like a regular-season game before teams turn to their backups in the preseason finale to get a last look at players who might be on the bubble for roster spots.
Cincinnati is 2-0 with wins against the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys, while Buffalo is 1-1 and coming off a 19-17 win against Cleveland last week.
Here are five things to watch for Sunday:
1. Week 1 starters
For the most part, the starters in this game will be the ones Marvin Lewis trots out in the opener at Indianapolis on Sept. 9, and the first-team offense and defense should get the most playing time they’ll see this preseason.
However, Lewis indicated earlier this week there are several young or new players he still wants to see against Buffalo’s regulars.
On offense, that most likely applies to the ball carriers and receivers, as the line still needs time to jell. This week’s depth chart still lists guard Trey Hopkins and tackle Bobby Hart occupying the right side, and those seem to be the two spots not totally settled as far as starters go.
»RELATED: Nothing settled on offensive line
“Just good tempo,” Lewis said when asked what he’s looking for. “We are going into the game, and I want to see each guy touch the ball just so many times. We have experienced players who have played, so it’s not like I need to see Joe (Mixon) carry the ball 10 times. If he carries the ball two times, I’m good and let’s move on to the next guys.
“We have other guys competing to stay here. That’s more of the focus.”
Wide receiver Cody Core, one of the players seemingly on the bubble, was sidelined for practices this week, which could open up opportunity for rookie Auden Tate. Tate has been impressive as a big target in practices, and a strong performance on special teams could be a swaying factor for a roster spot.
2. Eyes on the rookies
Center Billy Price will no longer be the Bengals’ only rookie starter, as Jessie Bates slides into the free safety spot opened with the release of George Iloka – who is now with the Vikings — on Sunday.
»RELATED: Bates eager to take on starting role
Bates has impressed since he came in as a second-round draft pick this spring, but admitted he needs to keep working on his tackling – something he felt he showed improvement in last week at Dallas when he tied for the team-lead with four tackles. Sunday will mark his first (unofficial) NFL start.
3. Eifert’s status still uncertain
Lewis continues to remain non-committal when asked about whether Tyler Eifert will see his first game action since last September. He’ll play “when everyone feels good about it,” Lewis said.
Eifert has said he doesn’t necessarily feel he needs to play in a preseason game to be ready for Week 1, but it’s hard to imagine Lewis won’t want to give him a little playing time to make sure he’s good to go.
The one-time Pro Bowl tight end is coming off back surgery that sidelined him for all but two games last year. He made the trip to Dallas last week but was listed as an inactive before the game and he’s been practicing as usual this week during the 30-minute windows open to media each day, including a walk-thru on Friday.
4. First opportunity
Defensive tackles Josh Tupou and Andrew Brown haven’t had a chance to play yet this preseason because of injuries sidelining them for almost two weeks but both were back to practice this week and are expected to play.
The Bengals cut eveteran Chris Baker on Friday, and there are some big decisions to make with the backup spots on the defensive line. Brown and Tupou are among the young players fighting for spots, and Lewis specifically mentioned wanting to see them in Sunday’s game.
5. Familiar faces
There are several connections between these two teams, as the Bengals acquired linebacker Preston Brown as an unrestricted free agent and left tackle Cordy Glenn via trade from the Bills this offseason. Former Bengals center Russell Bodine and backup quarterback AJ McCarron are now with Buffalo after leaving in free agency this offseason.
McCarron is likely out after suffering a shoulder injury that at first appeared to be a fracture in his collar bone. He returned to practice Wednesday but was limited and the Bills are expected to start Josh Allen on Sunday.
Bills fans likely will show some love for Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver Tyler Boyd, who connected on a 49-yard touchdown pass in the 2017 regular-season finale to beat the Ravens and send Buffalo to the playoffs for the first time in 17 years. Donations of at least $550,000 to both players’ foundations can be traced back to Buffalo, as Bills fans contributed as a sign of appreciation for ending their postseason drought.