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What we learned from Bengals’ victory over Buccaneers

The Bengals started off the preseason on a victorious note, beating the Buccaneers 23-12. But the score was much less important than what we learned during the game.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The preseason is all about learning. Training camp is a good way to evaluate the team, but there is no substitute for real game situations. Even during the white versus black scrimmage, everyone was wearing shorts for limited contact. While the preseason doesn’t matter to most, it matters to the coaches and the players who are on the fringes of the roster.

With that said, the Cincinnati Bengals started off their preseason in an exciting fashion. After falling behind in the first quarter, third string quarterback Jeff Driskel led the Bengals to a 17-3 run in the second half. Given that this is the first football game of 2017, there is a great deal we can learn, but Driskel is a good starting point.

Jeff Driskel is a viable option at quarterback

The second year player was a pleasant surprise for Bengals fans on Friday. He went eight for nine with no interceptions, one touchdown, and a passer rating of 148.6. On the ground, he rushed for 34 yards on 5 carries (two of which were kneels at the end of the game) and one 18 yard touchdown. To sum up his performance, he led the offense in all passing and rushing statistical categories except for rushing attempts (he was tied for fourth on that stat and still had the most yards).

Driskel was signed by the Bengals last preseason after the was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the sixth round last year. There has been talk about trading AJ McCarron, but the Bengals have rejected every offer that has come their way. While Mike Brown and Marvin Lewis don’t anticipate Andy Dalton going down with an injury again (knock on wood), the inevitable possibility is probably what is keeping McCarron in Cincinnati. If Driskel can continue to meet the high bar that he set for himself on Friday, the Bengals might be able to get as much as a second round pick offer before McCarron becomes free agent. With all of the injuries that happen in the NFL, it is almost a certainty the Bengals will continue to get calls.

Jeremy Hill is still at the top of the depth chart

After a few seasons of underperformance and with the Bengals drafting a running back in the second round this year, it seems the Bengals were getting ready to move on from Jeremy Hill. While his name was first on the depth chart released last week, rookie Joe Mixon looked poised to steal some of his carries.

Hill was second on the team in carries with seven, behind Tra Carson’s eight, and carried the load for the first team’s offense. Though he only posted a 3.9 yards per carry, he was also the victim of some poor blocking on a couple of plays. While Mixon and Giovani Bernard will still crowd the backfield, Hill looks like he will remain the starting running back, for now.

Speaking of Mixon...

Joe Mixon looks every bit as good as we hoped

Mixon posted 31 yards on six carries, averaging 5.2 yards a carry. He also added an 11 yard reception to his stat sheet before his night was done.

Mixon was making people miss all over the place. There is no way the Bengals can have a weapon like that at their disposal and not use it routinely.

Starting tackles were good, but not great

Take another look at Mixon’s catch. Because Mixon’s playmaking ability was so amazing, you probably didn’t notice it was left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi’s missed block that got to him. McCarron’s first look was downfield, but pressure off the edge forced him to offload the ball to Mixon, where Mixon would then steal the show.

Unfortunately, this happened all night to Ogbuehi. Maybe Bengals fans are spoiled having watched Andrew Whitworth protecting the blind side for 10 years like an angry watchdog. Either way, we still want to see Ogbuehi improve. He had some good blocks, but he had some bad blocks that make us forget about the good blocks.

His right side counterpart Jake Fisher fared better. Fisher did not have any blatant misses like Ogbuehi, but almost all of the pressure on Dalton and McCarron came from the edges. The Bengals are going to need to find a solution at the tackle position in a hurry if they want to make a serious playoff push.

The interior line has a bright future.

On the bright side, the young interior linemen looked superb. Trey Hopkins (who the Bengals signed as an undrafted free agent back in 2014) played the entire first half at right guard. Andre Smith says it was a coach’s decision for him to miss the game, but it may have really had to do with an elbow injury he’s been nursing. Hopkins has surprisingly thrown his hat into the ring for the starting right guard spot and has had Smith holding onto it for dear life. Hopkins, who got the nod on Friday, made a strong case for himself. Smith re-joining the team this offseason was obviously a short-term solution for the sudden departure of two veteran linemen in the offseason. But if Hopkins can hold on to that position, he can provide the Bengals with good blocking for a long time.

Christian Westerman entered the game at left guard in place of Clint Boling during the second quarter. Westerman also had a wonderful game, paving the way for some long runs for Mixon.

This Mixon run for 13 yards was a great performance for the entire offensive line. Ogbuehi (70) moved his man out of Mixon’s way, which was one of his best plays all night. Westerman (63) and center Russell Bodine (61), who has had his fair share of criticism, made the key blocks downfield that stretched the run from a four yard gain to a 13 yard gain. Hopkins (66) and Fisher (74) were able to keep their blocks, showing what the Bengals can do when the line plays at their best.

By the way, on the play before, Westerman had a key block that allowed Mixon to squeeze right behind him for an eight yard gain. Is it coincidence that Mixon’s longest runs on the night were paved by Westerman?

T.J. Johnson entered the game at center in the third quarter. Though he only played with the second line (though he was next to Westerman), he had another great performance. Johnson was all over the place as well, going downfield to block for the run and keeping defenders away from the pass.

Kent Perkins, another undrafted free agent from Texas, had a good game at left tackle for the second/third team. While he didn’t have any eye-popping plays, he made very few mistakes. It will be interesting to watch him in the next few games to see if he can make any sort of noise on the Bengals’ offensive line.

The defensive line is as deep as they are tough

With Pro Bowlers Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap leading the defensive line, the Bengals look good up front. In a quest to find productive counterparts at defensive end and defensive tackle, the Bengals rotated 10 players throughout the first quarter against Tampa Bay’s first line. These are all the defensive linemen that played on Friday: Atkins, Dunlap, Pat Sims, Wallace Gilberry, Michael Johnson, Will Clarke, Jordan Willis, Carl Lawson (technically considered a linebacker), Brandon Thompson, DeShaun Williams, and Andrew Billings.

Marvin Lewis has his work cut out for him when he goes to decide which of these players are going to make the 53-man roster. There was constant pressure on the Buccaneers all night no matter who composed the front four. While the pressure may not have been obvious at first, Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston’s mobility helped him escape on multiple occasions. On the Buccaneers second offensive drive, they had to punt because Winston was forced to get rid of the ball before he wanted to on the last few plays of the drive. Ryan Fitzpatrick and Ryan Griffin, who were less mobile than Winston, felt the weight of the pressure the whole game.

Chris Smith, who the Bengals had traded for this offseason, set up shop in the Buccaneers’ backfield. There were few players on the field who had a bigger impact than Smith (who Pro Football Focus graded as the team’s best player of the night). It seemed like Smith was in the backfield every play, even to the point play by play commentator Brad Johnson attributed Smith for plays he didn’t make. For more on his monumental performance, click here.

Willis made an impressive impact as well. The rookie out of Kansas State had a sack on the night, as well as two QB hits. The play after his first QB hit, he chased down Buccaneers running back Charles Sims from the backfield. This goes to show that he can make plays all over the field.

Lawson and Billings are two young players with huge upsides. Lawson played both linebacker and defensive end, showcasing his athleticism as he performed well at both positions. Billings was good to see after missing a year due to injury. He is a solid defensive tackle that can plug any holes in the middle of the line.

Jake Elliott is not out of the race yet

Jake Elliott’s training camp was, frankly, disappointing. The Bengals thought he was the solution to the abysmal kicking situation in Cincinnati when they drafted him in the fifth round in 2016. He underperformed in training camp, however, which led Randy Bullock to take the front-running position in the kicking competition.

However, Elliott was two for two on the night, sinking a 45 yard field goal and an extra point. On the field goal attempt, Elliott split the uprights perfectly and buried the ball in the back of the net. If confidence was an issue, Elliott has taken care of it.

In addition to his placekicks, his kickoffs were impressive, too. This is where he has the edge over Bullock. The Bengals will want Elliott to win the job after investing a fifth round pick in him. He has three more weeks to prove he’s the man for the job.

The Bengals are headed toward the playoffs again

Every unit on the team had some positive moments. After a down year in 2016, there is massive room for improvement on this heavily talented roster. The Bengals were missing some key players and still looked strong in most phases of the game. 2017 is going to be a good year in Cincinnati and I don’t think that’s an overreaction.