Football is back and so is Margus Hunt's inability to play the game at a professional level. Small sample size alert, y'all, but the big Estonian defensive lineman did nothing to change the way folks in Cincinnati think of him, and he was, at least on the defensive end, the biggest loser of the day. To add insult to injury, his buddies Will Clarke and Marcus Hardison both had great games and made a case for bigger roles in 2016. It is only one preseason game, but there are already some things that we've learnt going back to the tape.
First of all, I'm relieved to see Andre Smith got destroyed early by Carlos Dunlap, which also allowed the starters to avoid injury as they only played one drive, and that only took so long. But focusing on the guys that needed to make an impression last Thursday, we saw a few of them stepping up against the Vikings' first unit and then their backups.
Second-year safety Derron Smith showed in the second quarter that he can attack the line as well as cover his man, and had one of the highlights of the game with a tackle for loss very close to the Vikes' own end zone.
This versatility was nice to see as the Bengals often interchange their safety's roles throughout the game and with Reggie Nelson gone, Smith is going to be the main reserve.
But the biggest star in my opinion was fellow second-year player Hardison. The 6-3 defensive tackle looked really fast and able to get penetration almost every single time the opportunity arose alongside Clarke on the right side of the line. He was even triple-teamed once by the Vikings and he almost managed to get to the quarterback. Hardison is set to have a bigger role on the team as Atkins' backup, and could prove to be a better fit for their nickel scheme than Hunt if he hasn't proven that already.
Hardison led the team on Thursday with 41 snaps partnering inside with both DeShawn Williams and impressive rookie David Dean and was able to bring havoc both against the run - like on this play facing the Vikings' starters, and the pass.
He's just too fast off the line to be contained and that showed on Thursday. He won't steal playing time from Domata Peko because he's not a nose tackle, and neither will he replace injured rookie Andrew Billings, but he can give the Bengals a lot of inside penetration that they were lacking behind Geno Atkins.
Even when he wasn't a factor on the play, it was amazing to see him in action. This was after being triple-teamed by an offensive linemen combo and the running back on play action. Hardison was eager to take revenge on the running back and he sure did.
Hardison was effective with both of the nose tackles that played alongside him, but when Dean was on the field they had some great plays. He wasn't able to get many numbers on Thursday, but Hardison had to be accounted for, giving a lot of one-on-ones for the defensive ends, although Hunt couldn't capitalize.
His tandem with Clarke was even more impressive because they gave nothing to the running backs and managed to put a lot of pressure on the left side of the Vikings' offensive line. That play below didn't end up well, but it wasn't their fault. Clarke was pretty good on his own and he looks ready to contribute regularly after having his best outing yet as a pro.
I was also impressed with third-round pick Nick Vigil, who led the linebackers unit in snaps and showed a knack for getting to the ball against the run. All of the sudden that position looks very deep, especially once Vontaze Burfict gets back in Week 4 and everyone is ready to play.
Looking at the disappointments you just can't ignore that Hunt shouldn't be a Bengal for much longer if he's going to play like that. In years past he used to shine against reserves and third stringers, but on Thursday he struggled against those mightily, not able to get any pressure.
He was supposed to be country strong and tough as Optimus Prime, but he's just useless right now and the clock is ticking for a Bengals' defense that let go key contributor Wallace Gilberry in the offseason. Hunt was given every chance, lining up both at left end and inside, to try to replicate the former's role with the team, but to no avail. He didn't look like he was fighting for his job when everybody was expecting at least some desperation given his situation, and that could end his tenure in Cincy.
Linebacker Marquis Flowers, drafted in the sixth round of the 2014 NFL Draft, didn't look at all like he played safety in college, and was lost in coverage. He lost ground to other guys in their fight to make the roster, although he played much better in the box. With Jayson DiManche playing some SAM and defensive end on nickel looks, Flowers had to man the WILL role and he struggled in my opinion. You can see, number 53, here.
As I said, he had some other nice plays and his size is intriguing to say the least, but with all the veterans, Vigil and rookie safety Clayton Fejedelem playing a lot in the box in preseason, Flowers might be on the outside looking come September if he doesn't step up in the next three weeks.
It was tough to evaluate the secondary as coaches' film wasn't available, but I just don't think Chykie Brown should stand a chance against Chris Lewis-Harris to be the team's fifth cornerback.
Again, these are small sample sizes, so let's see who fares better, or not, in the second preseason game this week.