Thankfully, the preseason is over. The injuries to third string quarterback Jeff Driskel and rookie wideout John Ross reminded us again how pointless and potentially fatal that fourth game at the end of August truly is. Not only did the Bengals lose to the Colts after missing three field goals, they risked losing AJ McCarron for no reason when he had to step back into the game. Not ideal.
Other than that, Thursday’s clash between the two NFL neighbors was nothing exciting, unless you’re a member of Jarveon Williams’ family or a fan of Colts punter Rigoberto Sánchez, who was excellent. Some players didn’t helped their cause at all, but like in kicker Randy Bullock’s case, I don’t think it mattered much because the coaching staff probably knew before the game who they were keeping and who they were not prior to the game.
On defense, the two main takeaways from the loss were the performance of sixth-round pick Jordan Evans and the underwhelming showing by veteran cornerback Bene Benwikere, who ended up getting traded to the Cowboys on cutdown day. Tony McRae, and fellow sophomore KeiVarae Russell have been better along the way and while Russell made the 53-man roster, McRae was offered a spot on the practice squad, but instead bolted for the Ravens’ practice squad.
Jordan Evans is the future
We’ve seen athletic wonderkids playing great in preseason before, with pass rusher Dontay Moch being the best example and Margus Hunt (who made the Colts’ roster) another. However, Evans has been so good that it’s impossible to think he won’t have a role with the Bengals in the near future.
Coming into the preseason, we knew the kid was fast, but he showed in August he can do it all, not only run. We’ve talked about him in almost every single film room piece we’ve made, and every time the conclusion is that he can become a starter and a prototype three-down linebacker for Cincinnati.
On Thursday he was fantastic, and according to ProFootballFocus.com he recorded a defensive stop in a third of his 18 snaps.
Not only can he be a weapon going up against an opposing tight ends or running backs one on one, his closing speed is a very good thing to have in the middle of a zone defense—including on third down and short, although the Colts eventually converted on fourth down.
His rushing defense has evolved from shaky to good in these four weeks, albeit against third stringers. Evans can and will tackle in the open field and is now more willing to set the edge on outside runs than he was in the first game, where he lost containment on a few plays.
There’s been much talk about the Bengals dealing linebacker Marquis Flowers to the Patriots with Vontaze Burfict set to miss the first three games of the campaign, but in Evans, the Bengals have all they were looking for when they drafted Flowers. After many years trying to find a safety who could play linebacker, like Taylor Mays or Emmanuel Lamur, Evans might be the guy they can deploy against any offense in the near future.
Bene Benwikere didn’t earn the job
If there was one position of strength on the Bengals defense heading into the preseason that was cornerback. Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick are a very good 1-2 combo, and redshirt rookie William Jackson III proved he belongs in the NFL quickly. Josh Shaw and Darqueze Dennard supply much needed depth, and they still have Russell, who after playing just one snap in 2016 showed why he was a third-round pick in last season’s draft.
Then the Bengals added Benwikere, who got cut midseason by the Panthers last year but was one year removed from being an important contributor to one of the best defenses in the league and going to the Super Bowl. As a young veteran he could have had the upper hand in getting the sixth spot in the unit, but his underwhelming effort against the Colts sealed his fate and he got traded to the cornerback-needy Cowboys on Saturday.
If Benwikere is on the Cowboys’ 46-man gameday roster four times in 2017, the Bengals will get the Cowboys’ 2019 sixth round draft pick.
Indianapolis completed eight passes in the entire game and three of those catches were surrendered by Benwikere, including a fourth-down conversion, the sole touchdown and a 51-yard bomb to Bruce “JoJo” Natson.
Benwikere is better than this, and at only 25-years-old he’s still got future in this league. But with Russell playing well and McRae showing a lot of grit, Benwikere was expendable.
The Bengals now have a few days to prepare for life without Burfict and Jones against the Ravens, but the emergence of young guys like Evans and a viable pass rush could go a long way in helping Cincinnati win the first game of the season.