Rather than the typical questions like how does Carson Palmer look, will the backup quarterbacks resemble quarterbacks, or can the offensive line keep battling to keep Palmer upright, I wanted to look at different areas to watch for this Saturday's game against the Buffalo Bills.
YOUNG AND BUBBLE SECONDARY TO GET OPPORTUNITIES. With news that the Bengals will be missing key players in the secondary against Buffalo, it's a good excuse to see our younger backup/bubble players against the opposing first-team offense. Cornerback Jonny Sears, listed behind David Jones as the team's fourth string cornerback, could see more playing time, depending on how quickly the team takes Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph off the field.
Sears, having a good training camp this year, was one of my surprise picks to make the roster this year; though I'm not saying he will make the squad. Considering that the team is stocked with talent in the secondary, especially at cornerback, it might even seem unlikely. Morgan Trent's three-interception performance against the Eagles and David Jones' 24-yard interception return for a touchdown hurts his chances. Still, this will be a good opportunity for Sears to make things much more complicated.
However, the safety position seems in much worse shape this weekend. With Williams out, and Ndukwe possible sitting out, Gibril Wilson is already out for the season. That leaves Chris Crocker to start at free safety and third-string strong-safety Kyries Hebert. After that, the Bengals will have Rico Murray, Jeromy Miles, Tom Nelson and Marvin White rotating in. While none of those players seem like candidates to play much during the regular season, Williams' durability will be a constant attention-grabber throughout the regular season, prompting a seemingly unimportant debate on how stocked the team can build safeties through the practice squad.
CAN ANY BUBBLE WIDE RECEIVERS TAKE ADVANTAGE? With two preseason games to go, players that sit on the bubble -- guys likely to get cut, but could still make a run for a roster spot -- are running out of time. No position on this team explains that more than wide receivers; a constant stream of debate on this very site. According to Joe Reedy's speculation, if Bryant doesn't the 53-man roster because of a variety of reasons, the team's receiver roster could look like this: Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens, Jordan Shipley, Andre Caldwell, Quan Cosby and Jerome Simpson. If Bryant makes the roster, then it's down to Cosby or Simpson.
So the reality is that any remaining roster battles between receivers will likely be fought between Cosby and Simpson. If Bryant is gone, both stay. After that, you have a choice between Matt Jones, Dezmon Briscoe and Maurice Purify. All three receivers have combined for four preseason receptions for 53 yards receiving -- all of which came against the Dallas Cowboys. Jones and Briscoe were shutout against the Broncos and Eagles and Maurice Purify, dealing with an injury, hasn't caught a pass all preseason.
If Jones, Briscoe or Purify hope to make any noise to a complicated debate, it has to happen Saturday night. Their time is running out.
CAN A PLACE KICKER PLEASE STAND UP, PLEASE STAND UP? It's not that I miss Shayne Graham, who holds several franchise kicking records; his history of missing clutch kicks have been well documented. Yet, he converted 85.2% of his career field goal attempts. Like him, hate him, that's nearly 10% higher than the combined 76.1% conversion between Mike Nugent and David Rayner. While you might not miss Graham, you really don't get the feeling that the team is any better off. Perhaps that's a bit unfair to Mike Nugent, whose only field goal attempt this preseason came on a 59-yard attempt after dealing with a groin injury during training camp. David Rayner has had more opportunities, converting four of six field goal attempts. However, his misses have come at a manageable distances (for a professional kicker) of 44 and 36 yards.
We spent some time detailing their careers, especially during pressure situations. We counted six field goals that Nugent either tied or won a game late in the fourth quarter; a quarter in which Nugent converted 84% of his field goals (21 for 25). Through his first three seasons with the Jets, Nugent kicked five field goals that brought New York to within a touchdown or field goal.
Is Rayner the leading candidate to win the job, simply because he's attempted more field goal attempts? Or will the Bengals use Nugent much more exclusively during the final two preseason games to get a better sample size than one 59-yard attempt?
HOW LONG (AND PRODUCTIVE) WILL ANDRE SMITH PLAY? It's very likely that if Andre Smith doesn't start, he'll get a bunch of repetitions against the Bills this weekend. With Anthony Collins likely missing Saturday night's contest, the Bengals will be severely limited. With Andrew Whitworth starting at left tackle, either Dennis Roland or Smith will start on the right side. After that, it's Gabriel Manns and newly signed Chris Rodgers.
Since he didn't have a very productive Training Camp, you figure that Smith will get the bulk of the team's offensive snaps, mostly to expediate the time he's missed. How soon will Smith get on the field? Has he progressed enough to start after struggling through much of last week's game against the Eagles?
I also want to see how Rodgers, whose just another one of Lewis' beloved utility offensive linemen, performs.
HOW MUCH WILL VINCENT REY (NOT MAUALUGA) FACTOR? Bengals undrafted free agent linebacker Vincent Rey is a 6-foot, 240-pound muscle of linebacking madness. He comes in with a great work ethic and a Duke career spent as a wrecking machine, recording 330 tackles -- including 28 tackles-for-loss -- during his three-year starting career. Dude has a nose for the football. His 13 preseason tackles ranks second behind Geno Atkins, most of which have come during passing plays and on special teams. He has largely impressed Marvin Lewis, who will have to debate how many linebackers he's going to take into the regular season.
Locks: Dhani Jones, Rey Maualuga, Keith Rivers, Michael Johnson, Brandon Johnson.
The question is numbers. If the Bengals take six linebackers, then Rey will battle with Abdul Hodge and Roddrick Muckelroy. You could factor in Rashad Jeanty, a likely PUP candidate and Dan Skuta, depending on if he makes the team as a fullback (which seems very unlikely). However, it seems very possible that the team takes seven, if not eight linebackers, to build special teams with linebackers like Hodge, Rey or Muckelroy.
Any one of these linebackers could make a great impression in the final two games to lock up the remaining roster spots. How many spots available is unknown.