The Cincinnati Bengals will play their first preseason game Thursday night against a Chicago Bears team hitting the field for the second time after falling to the Baltimore Ravens 17-16 in last week’s Hall of Fame game.
Look for the majority of the Bengals starters to play one series, maybe two if the first is a three and out. Head coach Marvin Lewis confirmed Tuesday that linebacker Vontaze Burfict will not play with just two practices under his belt after coming off the Non-Football Injury list. It’s unlikely tight end Tyler Eifert will play any snaps as well.
Most of the game will feature players who won’t be on either roster after cutdown day Sept. 1, but the battle for the handful of spots open at the back end of the 53-man roster will begin in earnest as a few minutes of game film could outweigh hours of practice performances when it comes to the final evaluations.
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Here are five things to watch for Thursday night:
Three of the five expected starters will be playing their first games in stripes – left tackle Cordy Glenn, right tackle Bobby Hart and rookie center Billy Price.
Price, the team’s first-round pick, has had issues with snaps, but his final two practices before the game were clean, prompting him to proclaim “I think we’ve moved past from it” after Tuesday’s session. Saying so is one thing, but Thursday night will go a long way toward proving it.
As for the two players lining up to Price’s right, nothing is settled. The team had to put two names on the depth chart Monday (Trey Hopkins at RG and Hart at RT), and it will have to send two players out to play right guard and right tackle against the Bears.
Lewis said he expects the starters on the line to play longer than quarterback Andy Dalton, but there will be plenty of snaps for backups such as Jake Fisher, Cedric Ogbuehi, Christian Westerman and Alex Redmond to move closer to earning the starting job Sept. 9 in Indianapolis.
As for Glenn, he’s had the look of a solid anchor at left tackle during the first two weeks of camps, although Carl Lawson has gotten around him at times. But this will be the first chance to see how fares against edge rushes unencumbered by restrictions on hitting the quarterback.
Wide receiver John Ross is healthy and, by virtue of Brandon LaFell’s release last week, expected to start this year after a nightmare rookie season plagued by injuries and mistakes.
The question last year was when Ross would get on the field as he appeared in just three games and played a total of 17 snaps. The issue in 2018, at least at this point, isn’t if he will play, but how.
Ross has looked crisp in his routes and shown the extra-gear separation speed on deep balls, but suddenly his hands have betrayed him. The issue took center stage Saturday in the mock game when Ross dropped a wide-open pass in the end zone and had another contested ball go off his hands a few plays later inside the 5-yard line.
He uncharacteristically declined to speak with reporters after the mock game, which could be a sign the issue is starting to affect him mentally.
The Bengals defense will be fine if William Jackson, Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard stay healthy the entire season. But banking on such an occurrence – for any team at any position – would be, as former Bengals coach Dick LeBeau used to say, the height of folly.
There has been a dramatic drop off from starting corners to backups in practice after Tony McRae (ankle) and Sojourn Shelton (hand) went out with injuries. KeiVarae Russell has been beaten by starting and backup receivers alike, and rookie fifth-round picks Darius Phillips and Davontae Harris look as though they are struggling to keep up with the playbook as well the receivers.
The team signed C.J. Goodwin, a veteran of 28 NFL games, on Saturday, but two practices may not be enough to throw him into action. Goodwin is wearing No. 24, which belonged to Pacman Jones the last eight seasons, but if the rookie struggles continue, the Bengals might have to consider reaching out to Jones, who remains unsigned.
Plug and play
Defensive tackle and run-plugging specialist Andrew Billings has had an impressive start to training camp and could be one of the starters who plays a little longer.
After losing his rookie year to a knee injury suffered in camp, Billings had a lukewarm first season in 2017, something he attributed to lingering concerns about the knee. But he said it’s different this year.
“I don’t even think about trusting it anymore,” Billings said. “Last year, you worry about it when you plant, you’re looking around you feet for bodies rolling toward you, all of it. You don’t forget how it felt when you were injured, and you don’t ever want to feel that again.”
Regardless of how Billings plays against the Bears, it won’t be the highlight of his week. That will come Saturday when he graduates at Baylor. Billings has been taking spring semester classes the last two years and finished his final two classes this summer to earn a degree in communications with a minor in business.
No one will have more fans in attendance than rookie defensive end Sam Hubbard, a Cincinnati native who played at Moeller High School.
His family recently purchased 168 customized Bengals jerseys with his name and number, so if they’re willing to shell out $100 apiece for that, a $10 ticket to see his NFL debut certainly seems affordable.
Hubbard has been impressive in camp, consistently getting pressure on the quarterback whether he’s going against the first- or second-team defense. If he’s able to continue that against the Bears, it won’t be hard to find his cheering section in a stadium that could be less than half full given the fact it’s the first preseason game and the relationship between the team and its fans remains strained after ownership signed Lewis to a two-year extension following back-to-back losing years and 15 seasons without a playoff win.