The third game of the preseason will resemble the regular season more than any other. Unlike the rest of the preseason, the projected starters played the entire first half. What we say now is less speculation and more observation. Predictions can be made with more certainty and opinions will now have more foundation.
This is as close as we will get to “real football” until the regular season opener on September 10th. Only a Cincinnati Bengals victory would have made Sunday more enjoyable. As anticipation toward the regular season grows, here is what we have learned after the Bengals’ 23-17 loss to the Washington Redskins.
The offense can score
It is hard to believe it took the first team offense three games to score. Jeremy Hill broke the silence with a diving three-yard touchdown on the Bengals first drive. On that possession, Andy Dalton and the offense could do no wrong. Hill pounded the rock, Dalton and A.J. Green were in sync, and the line had some shining moments. A perfectly drawn up play was a fitting end to an excellent drive.
Critics will say, “but the starters only gained 38 yards after that possession.”
Yes, that is true. The Bengals looked strikingly different in the following drives. But Green was right when he said the fans need to relax. Winning is not the goal of the preseason. Perhaps the coaches selected some plays to evaluate certain players as opposed to running plays that would gain more yards. The team is still trying to figure some things out after all. Bengals fans should be content with the one touchdown. The offense has that spark it needs. The score came after a long drive that started on their own 13-yard line. To score on such a long possession requires consistency and discipline—both things that you need to have to win regular season games. The Bengals showed they have what it takes.
If this dry spell continues during the regular season, then panicking will be acceptable.
Trey Hopkins has won the starting right guard position
The spot at right guard belongs to Hopkins now. He played 34 snaps at the position, which is more than anyone else at guard. The story at that position throughout training camp has been the battle between Hopkins and Andre Smith. After returning from Minnesota, Smith was expected to grab that spot. Instead, the nine year veteran played with the second team on Sunday at his natural position of tackle.
The Bengals have given up on the idea that Smith will play guard. Hopkins, an undrafted free agent, has won the job outright, and will start the season lined up at that position. So far, he looks like he fits in well. In all likelihood, only injury can keep him from occupying that spot.
The offensive line showed more new looks
Smith may have lost his starting spot, but he has not lost his importance on the line. The only position he has ever played in the regular season is right tackle, but he moved to the left side on Sunday. He acted as more than just a stand in, however; he was one of the highest graded players of the game by Pro Football Focus. Given that the left side is the most important side of the line, this might indicate Smith has the edge over fellow veteran Eric Winston, who played right tackle on Sunday. If starters Cedric Ogbuehi or Jake Fisher are to go down or underperform, Smith will likely be the next man up. Just because Hopkins stole his spot at right guard doesn’t mean the Bengals won’t find a way to use him.
Before the first line left the game in the second half, Clint Boling was replaced by T.J. Johnson. Listed as a center in the roster, Johnson made his first appearance at guard this preseason. Christian Westerman had previously played at left guard with the second line, and performed well, but did not return to the that spot on Sunday. When the second line took the field, Johnson resumed his backup center duties and Alex Redmond took over at blind side guard. Westerman played right guard, which could mean he is sliding down the depth chart. But, it could also be Marvin Lewis fiddling around with the lineup.
The defensive line was mixed around as well
If you thought you knew the Bengals defensive line, think again.
First of all, defensive end Michael Johnson played 25 snaps, one shy of Carlos Dunlap’s defensive line-high of 26. This is surprising, given his sinking popularity. More than 2,000 Bengals fans think it is time for the Bengals to move on from Johnson, which is 84 percent of all fans who responded to a Cincy Jungle poll concerning Johnson. Despite his growing criticism, the Bengals might be looking for a way to keep Johnson on the roster.
Paul Guenther and the Bengals threw out some interesting formations that involved Johnson playing on the interior part of the line. Perhaps they are testing him in a new position to see if they can use him elsewhere in the lineup. Or perhaps they want him on the field with some other talented players, such as Jordan Willis or Chris Smith.
Whatever the reason, he seemed to do better on the inside. His best play of the day came from the defensive tackle position in the first quarter when he forced an intentional grounding penalty from Kirk Cousins. Aside from that, he seemed to get consistent pressure on Cousins from that position.
Should the Bengals still part ways with Johnson? Let us know in the comments.
The second interesting observation about the line was Carl Lawson’s involvement at defensive end. Lawson was a defensive end coming out of Auburn, but the Bengals were looking to turn him into a linebacker. For most of the preseason, however, he has played the majority of his snaps at defensive end.
Because of the new formations, it is hard to tell whether his role was blitzing linebacker or true defensive end. For example, in Chris Smith’s sack in the first quarter, the Bengals defense lined up in a five-man front. Nick Vigil was the only true linebacker on the field as five defensive backs joined the squad. Was Lawson supposed to be a second linebacker? The line was composed of Dunlap, Smith, Geno Atkins, and Wallace Gilberry; was Lawson playing as a fourth defensive end? We can’t say for sure.
With a possible suspension looming for Burfict, the Bengals are looking for his replacement. Even though Vincent Rey is the backup for all three linebacker positions, and even though he played in Burfict’s spot while he was being evaluated for a concussion, this seems like a great opportunity to have Lawson play outside linebacker. One would think that on Thursday the Bengals will want to explore that option just to be sure. One thing seems certain: Lawson will succeed at whichever position he finds himself playing.
He did play linebacker during the second half, but this communicates he is a defensive end primarily.
The cornerbacks and safeties were rotating
Darqueze Dennard and Dre Kirkpatrick were able to play together for the first time this preseason. The Bengals are still trying to solidify the pairing that Guenther will field for Week 1 against the Ravens during Adam Jones’ suspension. William Jackson and Dennard have gone back and forth the entire training camp and preseason battling for that opening day spot. It bodes well for Dennard that he started on the boundary with Kirkpatrick. After all was said and done, he had 29 snaps over Jackson’s 20. Is this an indicator that Dennard has the lead?
Jackson did have his fair share of reps at the position, however. When Jackson entered the game, Dennard slid over to slot corner. While Josh Shaw handled the bulk of the slot duties last year, he was busy playing safety, leaving the slot vacant.
Because of injuries to George Iloka and Shawn Williams, Shaw was pressed into duty at safety. He shared the load with Derron Smith and Clayton Fejedelem. The Bengals are hoping for Iloka to return in time to square off against the Ravens, leaving only one empty safety spot to fill. Smith led the pack with a whopping 43 snaps, while Fejedelem and Shaw totalled 34 and 30 respectively. All three had ample opportunity to showcase their abilities, but if the season started today Smith would probably be the next man up to fill in for Williams.