The Cincinnati Bengals kicked off their 2017 season with a solid win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The first-team offense looked solid and the defense gave up yards but held on to allow just a field goal on the opening drive. Classic Bengals football. It’s hard to draw conclusions yet though. The preseason is a time for evaluation and for fringe guys to try to make an impact on their way to earning a roster spot on the 53-man squad, so we have to be careful with our takeaways from last Friday night’s matchup with Tampa Bay.
There are some things working against us to actually analyze most of the guys in the preseason, mainly the lack of quality film, but also that second, third and fourth units barely throw deeper than 12 yards or don’t throw at all. The Bengals’ revamped pass rush didn’t give many opportunities for their fellow defenders to shine either, as they affected the game dearly in its second half and it looks like the Bengals could be vastly improved in that department after a few years of relying solely on Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap. As Bengals great Louis Breeden said during the broadcast when asked about their side of the field, getting to the quarterback is crucial, and the additions of Jordan Willis, Carl Lawson and Chris Smith have been encouraging so far.
John Sheeran took care of the linemen in his The Weekly Lineman column, so we’ll focus on the rest of defense, which had a few letdowns, some big plays and gladly took what the Buccaneers backup quarterbacks gave them. One thing the defense showed is it has the depth it was missing last season and some cuts will be very tough.
Darqueze Dennard vs William Jackson III
Without Dre Kirkpatrick, the Bengals went with the two guys who are fighting for the start in Week 1 against the Baltimore Ravens, former first-round picks Dennard and WJIII. Adam Jones, who’ll miss that game due to a suspension for his offseason arrest, only played in the red zone and matched up against star wide receiver Mike Evans.
While it looks like Jackson has the edge for the job, neither had a particularly special performance on Friday. Dennard had a few poor plays though. On one he got victimized by Evans on the sideline, and then he appeared to blow his assignment in the end zone, allowing the same receiver to drop underneath and almost score. That play was one in which Dennard manned the slot, as both Dennard and WJIII took turns inside when Jones was on the field.
Pushed or not, Evans is a freak athlete and Dennard will always be at a disadvantage. Having Kirkpatrick back will help; he was sitting out of the first preseason game due to a fractured hand, suffered early this offseason. He is healthy now and fully cleared, but the Bengals were playing it safe on Friday.
Jackson shined with his tackling, but also had a couple of poor plays. One was negated by a drop by Evans, but it should have been a first down conversion for a big gain had quarterback Jameis Winston thrown the pass ahead instead of a little bit behind.
Tampa Bay ran the pick play perfectly, but Evans had a huge separation very quickly. Other than that, Jackson was alright, and his tackling was pretty solid and fundamental.
KeiVarae Russell is a keeper
You might remember the kid for his only NFL snap, but Russell looks good to hold on to his roster spot when the regular season arrives. Nothing against Bene Benwikere, but Russell is young and athletic and while he didn’t get a chance to make a play on the ball this time around, he showed his willingness to get his hands dirty on the running game. I never get tired of pointing out how important it is for a defender to be fundamentally sound while tackling, which he was on Friday.
As the Bengals will probably keep five or six cornerbacks on their 53-man squad and Jones, Kirkpatrick, Jackson, Dennard and Shaw are safe, Russell is competing basically against Benwikere for that sixth spot, if the Bengals keep that many. The former Panthers defender had a mixed performance against the Bucs, but he’s also the more experienced guy and will have the chance to rebound on Saturday.
Jordan Evans has the tools to be a contributor for this team
Picked in the sixth-round Evans is a very fast linebacker who could be an asset. His range and size are there, and that is what you cannot teach. He played the most snaps in the unit on Friday and had a team leading six tackles.
He needs to improve in the passing game, where his awareness is still a work in progress, but he’ll probably make his mark on special teams early on, as the Bengals usually deploy only two linebackers and he has at least four guys ahead of him in the pecking order.
Marquis Flowers is frustrating
Everything that I said about Evans could have been true for his fellow sixth-rounder, who in his fourth-year with the Bengals managed to impress at times against Tampa Bay’s fourth-stringers, while also looking lost against the same guys a few times.
He showed he’s at his best when his job is to attack the gap and collapse the blockers - and had another good effort on a play where Josh Tupou got the tackle, looking bad when he actually had to keep containment and let the play come to him.
It’s only the preseason, and there’s still three more games for players to make an impact before the 53-man roster takes shape. The evaluation progress is hard due to the quality of the opposition and the diversity of the plays called, but it’s these guys’ best chance to show the coaching staff they deserve a role on the roster or practice squad.
We’ll see on Saturday against the Chiefs who keeps making progress and who won’t be around for much longer.