Wins and losses matter not in the preseason, and neither did this result, a 23-12 win by the Bengals. Nevertheless, it was great seeing Cincinnati get back in the win column and build some positive momentum as the regular season is inching closer.
On this night, the Bengals were without John Ross, Giovani Bernard, Cedric Peerman, Dre Kirkpatrick, Tony McRae, Brandon Wilson, George Iloka, David Dean, Andre Smith and C.J. Uzomah due to injury, though none are considered too serious.
The only thing that can be taken away from preseason games — especially the first one — is how well did each player do, and were there any injuries?
Here is a look at who that applied to most for the Bengals on this night:
Joe Mixon was the star in training camp for the Bengals, but Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard did enough to keep this position in flux going into the preseason opener. Mixon is who everyone expects will become the featured running back in this offense, but he must first unseat Hill as the starter while holding off the veteran Bernard, something that proved challenging in camp.
On Friday, the Bengals gave Bernard the night off while special teamer Peerman was out due to injury. That meant more snaps for Hill and Mixon. The former made the most of his with a good showing against the Bucs’ starting defense. Hill showed great explosion and burst through the line for several big gains, something we rarely saw during his injury-plagued 2016 season.
Of all the backs who played, Hill was slightly more impressive, being that most of his yards came against starting defenders. He further entrenched himself as the starter entering the regular season., but he’ll need to keep playing well to keep his job with a young rookie making noise...
While Hill performed great, Mixon was no slouch himself. He too showed nice burst and vision while also showing he can be a threat in the passing game against largely Bucs second and third-stringers, though he made some plays against starters as well.
Mixon has looked like the same guy at OU. pic.twitter.com/ft6getRp04— Billy Marshall (@BillyM_91) August 12, 2017
Joe Mixon making multiple defenders miss in space. pic.twitter.com/Y6n9nOZ71e— Billy Marshall (@BillyM_91) August 12, 2017
For a rookie, Mixon is already showing a nice blend of patience, burst and elusiveness that’s had the Bengals gushing throughout the offseason. Hill may be the starter, but Mixon is nipping at his heels for touches.
With Andy Dalton locked into the starting quarterback spot for the foreseeable future, AJ McCarron and Jeff Driskel are just trying to put out good film so another team can eventually sign them to nice deals. McCarron will hit free agency next year (though what type of free agent he’ll be remains to be seen), so even a mere preseason game is important for his stock heading into what should be a nice payday.
As for Driskel, he’s simply trying to win a spot as a developmental quarterback with the Bengals or another NFL team. After Dalton and McCarron played in the first half, Driskel was given the entire second half to showcase himself.
Driskel did just that and then some, rallying the Bengals from a three-point deficit to an eight-point entering the fourth quarter. He did so with back-to-back touchdown drives to open the third quarter.
One touchdown came on a very nice run by Driskel.
The other came on a red-zone strike to Josh Malone, finishing off a fantastic night for the third-string quarterback. He may not make the Bengals’ final roster, but Driskel is making it likely he’s on someone’s roster this year.
The offensive line has been firmly under the microscope this offseason, and the preseason opener was no different. Each lineman came into this game with a lot to lose or gain depending on how well they performed.
That was the case for Trey Hopkins, who’s been one of the bright spots through camp, and that continued into the preseason. Hopkins has played so well that he actually got the start at right guard vs Tampa Bay over Andre Smith, who ended up dressing but not playing. That’s likely because of an elbow injury that caused him to miss half of Monday and all of Tuesday’s practices. Even though the Bengals gave Smith a one-year, $3.5 million contract this offseason, they’re giving Hopkins a fair shot at this starting spot, and he continues to impress.
Against the Bucs, Hopkins played very well and opened up some nice holes for Hill and Mixon to get big runs. He may not be the starting right guard come Week 1, but Hopkins should have a major role in this offense for the first time in his three-year career.
The pass rush was easily the Bengals’ biggest weakness on defense in 2016, but it now has the potential to be a strength if training camp is any indicator. That’s thanks in large part to the addition of Jordan Willis, who was regarded among the best pass-rushers in this year’s draft class.
Wills did plenty of good things in camp, and his first preseason action was much of the same. He was a menace off the edge and also made several nice chase-down tackles from behind, the kind you normally see from linebackers.
But Willis’ greatest asset is his pass-rushing prowess, which led to him getting the first sack either team had in this game.
Yo! Jordan Willis with the get off, bend, and finish. pic.twitter.com/QnQh7PZG7Z— Billy Marshall (@BillyM_91) August 12, 2017
Willis was also a big winner simply from incumbent starter Michael Johnson looking like a shell of himself.
Michael Johnson spin move fail. Nice catch by Brate. This Tampa offense will be a problem pic.twitter.com/LhPmw7InIv— Billy Marshall (@BillyM_91) August 11, 2017
If this keeps up, Willis will be taking Johnson’s spot sooner rather than later.
While Willis was a stud, Chris Smith was the best defensive lineman of either team on this night. Smith has been a forgotten man on the Bengals crowded defensive line, but he made sure that won’t be the case going forward.
Against the Bucs, Smith was as close to unblockable as a defensive end can be. He terrorized Tampa Bay throughout the night, whether it was rushing the passer or tackling ball carriers from behind.
Smith is still facing a tough battle to make the final roster, but if he plays like this in the next three preseason games, he’ll be a lock for the 53-man squad.
No one player may be under a bigger microscope than Cedric Ogbuehi. The former first-round pick has been vastly underwhelming through his first two years in the NFL, and Year 3 isn’t off to a great start.
After an up-and-down showing in camp, Ogbuehi struggled in first preseason action, getting beat badly on several occasions.
Ogbuehi was also walking at the end of several running plays that were still going instead of running to the ball. Again, the microscope is firmly on Ogbuehi, who did have some nice moments tonight, but not enough to feel any better about him going into the regular season.
With Willis and Smith shining, Will Clarke needed to have a good showing to keep his spot on the final roster secure. He failed to do so and was a ghost for most of his time in the lineup.
Clarke has been a borderline bust through his first three years with the Bengals, and it doesn’t look like the light has come on in Year 4. He’s likely to be waived during final cuts unless injuries to other guys allow him to steal a spot.