Bengals Break Camp: What Have We Learned?

Well, it's over. Already. It was here one day, gone the next. The anticipation for it immense. The silence of its exit, more so. On Thursday, the Cincinnati Bengals broke camp and closed quick stay at the dormitories in Georgetown. The principle of Training Camp remains, but the iconic Georgetown college in which the team practices, is closed. So with the Bengals "breaking camp", what have we learned?

KICKING COMPETITION. The team's competition between Dave Rayner and Mike Nugent was delayed, with Nugent missing some time with a groin injury, forcing him to sit during the team's opening preseason game. Rayner's only opportunity to kick the football for points, came with 1:34 left in the game, kicking a point after attempt when the Bengals scored their first points. With kickoff duties, Rayner did kick the football three yards deep into the endzone to start the game. After Jordan Palmer's touchdown pass to tight end Darius Hill with less than a minute in the game, Rayner forced the Cowboys to take a touchback.

Nugent has since returned to the field and on Thursday, he missed one (36) of four attempts, converting yards of 32, 39 and 44. However, training camp didn't offer much competition between the kickers and previous battles during minicamp went neck-and-neck, neither coming out as the winner. However, one could argue that Nugent's history of injury could be a serious mark against the place kicker.

BATTLE FOR THE #3 RECEIVER. If you were one that could figure out the roster of wide receivers, and then the depth chart, I'd either call you a prophet, or a liar. The fact is, not much has been settled. Once you get past the team's starters in Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, the battles are tight. Jordan Shipley had a nice showing against the Cowboys, targeted three times, catching two passes for 17 yards. Andre Caldwell, the receiver arguably in competition as the team's slot receiver, was targeted four times, failing to record a reception. Shipley did return a beautiful 63-yard punt return, but realistically, that won't have much influence on the team's offensive lineup; he was expected to make the team anyway.

Did Jordan Shipley have a better camp? There were many praises for his skills as a slot receiver from writers like Peter King and James Walker. If I were to answer today who is ahead of whom, I'd say it's Shipley. But not so much that Caldwell couldn't rebound. His experience, renewed work ethic and familiarity with Carson Palmer does give him a slight edge, only to be repealed by Shipley's performances during the preseason.

I know that once he returns, Antonio Bryant will factor heavily into the discussions. However, since he's out for the time being with no known return, we'll hold that discussion for when he actually applies.

DID MATT JONES RISE? I don't believe the Bengals will take more than six receivers heading into the regular season. First of all, the team isn't expected to be a pass-heavy offense; if anything, they'll remain balanced, yet hopefully more efficient. Therefore, once you get past expected roster winners, such as Ochocinco, Owens, Bryant, Caldwell and Jordan Shipley, you have one spot remaining. Many suspect Jerome Simpson will take a spot because his level talent is very high; yet he struggles adapting to this offense. Many have praised his training camp, but that's nothing new. Against the Cowboys, Simpson caught two of five passes for 14 yards receiving.

With a team leading three receptions for 42 yards receiving against Dallas, I believe Matt Jones' performance gave him an edge on the team's roster. If Jones' preseason continues, then he could push Simpson and Dezmon Briscoe out only because I get the feeling that the Bengals are looking at the here and now, and not the future. While he has a nice level of talent and could be a contributor for the future, I think Briscoe is a prime candidate to make the team's practice squad. We just have to hope that he doesn't offer much on film for another team to claim him off waivers.

However, by no means am I claiming Jones will be the team's sixth and final wide receiver. There's still a month away for competitions and anyone can claim it. But does Jones have the early advantage? I think it could be argued that he does. When it mattered during a game that didn't matter, he rose.

QUAN COSBY IS BEHIND THE EIGHT BALL. The one player that cringed seeing Jordan Shipley's 63-yard punt return, was Quan Cosby. While he was one of the league's better punt returners last season, Cosby offers little value as a wide receiver and I don't see him beating out Briscoe, Simpson or Matt Jones for the sixth spot. If Shipley's ability to return punts continues to impress like he did against the Cowboys, then Cosby is a roster cut because Shipley offers two roles on a roster packed with talent.

YOU HAVE TO GET MICHAEL JOHNSON ON THE FIELD. While it's still early, the transition to linebacker has been impressive for Michael Johnson. Before our first viewing, the coaches have continually praised Johnson's performances and talent as a linebacker. This makes me conclude one thing. Based on his game against the Cowboys, we have to find a way to keep Johnson on the field. I don't believe he'll replace Rey Maualuga, unless our starting strong-side linebacker is tired or injured. And I doubt the team will sacrifice Dhani Jones so Maualuga can slide over as a middle linebacker in 2-3 linebacker formations -- 3-4 packages is a much different story.

They could put Johnson in during passing downs, in a pass-rushing package where Maualuga isn't playing towards his strengths as a cover linebacker. All that being said, I would expect to see Johnson in a three-point stance more, while lining up as a linebacker in different third-and-long packages.

THE DEFENSIVE TACKLE ROTATION IS DAMN GOOD. I still expect Domata Peko and Tank Johnson to start as defensive tackles when the season kicks off. But the team rotating guys like Pat Sims and Geno Atkins is very exciting, because of the continuous rotation of fresh legs with little drop in overall talent. All the while, the unlikely Orien Harris had a strong performance against the Cowboys. While I wouldn't be surprised if Harris makes the squad, his fate ties in with Jonathan Fanene, who tends to slide inside as a defensive tackle in nickel packages. In that case, there's no justified reason to hold onto Harris. But again, I wouldn't be surprised if they kept him on the roster.

THE OFFENSIVE LINE REITERATES SIMILAR CONCERNS. When Cedric Benson has the football, this offensive line can be devastating; especially when you see Dennis Roland playing tight end and going into motion like the freaking Kraken. However last year, the offensive line was young and inexperienced. To prevent Carson Palmer from being assaulted, the team's offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski used shorter drops and quicker routes to naturally protect Palmer because the defensive pass rush couldn't reach the quarterback in time. Those concerns remain.

SAFETIES ARE HITTERS. I love that our safeties are hard knockers. Roy Williams had several nice hits against the Cowboys and the newest safety, Gibril Wilson recorded the most tackles among the secondary, including one tackle for loss. Not even a linebacker recorded more tackles. However, covering tight ends is going to be a concern. Even though Wilson made several nice stops, he was also a victim in coverage, allowing several 10-plus yard receptions, most notably against tight end John Phillips. I believe the team's secondary is perhaps the strongest aspect of this defense. But if the pass rush and linebacker coverage is weak, I worry that the safeties will noticeably struggle in coverage; especially against tight ends.

BACKUP QUARTERBACKS. Yea. Do we really need to keep talking about this?

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