The Cincinnati Bengals will play a nationally televised game preseason game for the fifth year in a row Sunday night when they play the Jaguars in Jacksonville on NBC.
The game likely will be the final tune up for the regular season for most of the Bengals starters. Head coach Marvin Lewis rarely plays the starters in the final preseason game, and with this year’s finale coming just four days later on Thursday against Indianapolis, there’s no reason to believe Lewis will deviate from the plan this year.
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The added production value of a nationally televised game added to the fact that starters are expected to see their most significant action should make for interesting viewing Sunday night.
Here are seven things to watch in the game:
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis traditionally plays his starters into the third quarter in the third preseason game, but there are a few reasons to doubt whether that will be the case Sunday night.
The rash of injuries the team has already been through this preseason make lead Lewis to be a little more conservative. And getting more snaps for guys like quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green isn’t important now that they’re in their primes as it was earlier in their careers when they entered the league as starters from Day 1.
Dalton proved that last year when he left the third preseason game with a neck injury after just 17 snaps and didn’t play again until the regular-season opener, when kick-started what would be the best year of his career with 269 yards, two touchdowns and a passer rating of 115.9 in a 33-13 win at Oakland.
Whether it’s Dalton running the offense or backup AJ McCarron, as it’s been the last two weeks, the Bengals will try to extend the success they have had running the two-minute offense at the end of the half.
McCarron directed a five-play, 54-yard drive that resulted in a touchdown with 47 seconds left before halftime in the opener, and he took the Bengals on a 12-play, 77-yard march that produced another touchdown and left just 12 ticks on the clock before the break at Detroit.
Dalton directed scoring drives on the final possessions of the first half (not counting kneel downs) in four of his final five games last year.
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Last week Dalton got his first chance to throw passes to rookie wide receiver Tyler Boyd in a game situation, and Sunday night will be the first chance for free-agent Brandon LaFell to connect with Dalton.
LaFell missed the first two games with a hand injury but is expected to make his Bengals debut tonight. While Pro Bowler A.J. Green remains Dalton’s top receiver and no doubt will be targeted, look for Dalton to try to get the ball to LaFell and Boyd early.
Dalton’s first pass to Boyd in Detroit resulted in a great diving catch by the rookie, but the second attempt was high and a little behind Boyd.
This likely will be the last opportunity all the receivers will have to build some live-game chemistry with Dalton before the regular season begins Sept. 11 in New York against the Jets.
Friday’s report that Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert expects to miss at least the first three games of the regular season and the fact that backup Tyler Kroft is still working back from a knee injury puts a lot of importance of C.J. Uzomah’s role.
A fifth-round pick out of Auburn last year, Uzomah only appeared in five games as a rookie, playing 48 snaps while catching one pass for 4 yards.
While Uzomah will be counted on to catch passes while both Tylers are out, the more important thing to watch is how effective he is as a blocker, which is something he rarely was asked to do in college.
Early returns have been positive for running back Jeremy Hill, who suffered a sophomore slump last year, slumping to a 3.6-yard average after a monstrous 5.1 showing his rookie year.
Half of Hill’s six carries this preseason have gone for at least 8 yards, including a 9-yard touchdown last week, but he’s been pulled from both games after barely breaking a sweat.
He should get a chance to get into more of a rhythm in Jacksonville, and the coaches want to see him continue to be more decisive in hitting holes instead of a lot of the juking and shifting that led to the lower production last season.
Green, LaFell and Boyd are locks to make the 53-man roster. Brandon Tate appears to have earned himself another season after a solid preseason. And sixth-round rookie Cody Core has been impressive in proving he can play at this level.
That leaves eight receivers fighting for what is likely to be one remaining spot. In reality, it’s more of a three-horse race between Alex Erickson, James Wright and Jake Kumerow.
The decision won’t be announced until Saturday, but it could be made Sunday night with their performances.
Wright has proven the knee injury that derailed his 2014 season and cost him all of 2015 is behind him, and Erickson has made some splash plays in his limited opportunities. The receiver with the most on the line against the Jaguars is Kumerow, who has yet to play in the preseason due to a hamstring injury.
The Bengals head into the game thin at tackle with both Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher rehabbing injuries, which could create problems against a Jacksonville defense with a lot of quality edge rushers.
Eric Winston is likely in for another heavy workload at right tackle, but there isn’t much experience behind him. And with Winston being a 10-year veteran and Andrew Whitworth in his 11th season, Lewis could opt to sit them earlier than the other starters.
If Jacksonville plays its starters into the third quarter, as many teams do in the third preseason game, guys like Trey Hopkins and Trip Thurman, who aren’t true tackles, could have their hands full.