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Bengals vs Cowboys: Consistency and development are needed in the second week of the preseason

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The Cincinnati Bengals head to AT&T stadium on Saturday to take on the Dallas Cowboys. We take a look at several questions and expectations for this game.

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Cincinnati Bengals v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Take two.

Here we come, Dallas. The Cincinnati Bengals are headed to AT&T Stadium for their third game since that stadium — narcissistically dubbed Jerry’s World — opened in 2009. They played there during the preseason in 2013 (the Bengals lost) and a regular season contest in 2016 (they lost that one too), which drew 91,653 folks — the largest number of human beings to ever witness a game featuring the Bengals. Dallas leads the all-time series in the preseason (2-0) and the regular season (8-4).

On one hand, the result doesn’t matter; do you remember the Bengals’ preseason record in 2013? Last year? Ever before? On the other hand, these games do matter, especially for players on the bubble trying to make an argument for sticking around.

Let’s take a look at three questions heading into Saturday’s game against Dallas.

Will Tyler Eifert play on Saturday and has “The Six” been determined already?

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals-Training Camp Cincinnati Enquirer-USA TODAY NETWORK

The general consensus, when asking if Tyler Eifert should play this Saturday, is: DEAR GOD, I HOPE NOT.

The reason is obvious.

Outside of A.J. Green, Cincinnati has limited experience at wide receiver. Tyler Boyd and John Ross have amazing potential but have encountered health, legal, and psychological hurdles. Both receivers are looking to breakout this season. The most optimistic of us are hoping for a formula similar to Green, Marvin Jones, and Mohamed Sanuone of the best trios of Bengals receivers since Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Chris Henry.

This writer isn’t going to speculate on the current trio of Green, Boyd, and Ross until there’s visual of their progression. My experience during the Marvin Lewis era dictates a “prove that you can do it” philosophy as a fan.

That shouldn’t take away from their potential though.

And there’s Auden Tate; a 6-5, 225-pound behemoth with the physicality to become a significant threat against undersized defensive backs, especially with contested jump balls.

For example: The Bengals, down by four, are on Chicago’s 33 yard-line with 2:14 remaining. Quarterback Jeff Driskel wanted to hit Ka’Raun White or Jordan Franks, both running sideline routes. The area was congested, so Driskel held onto the football. Feeling an imminent threat, the quarterback scrambled out of the pocket and launched the football down the sidelines to Tate.

Bears defensive back John Franklin didn’t have a shot.

So Green, Boyd, Ross, and Tate. Josh Malone figures to factor somewhere, and Alex Erickson is competing as the team’s returner. Is that Cincinnati’s six receivers (barring injury)?

In the meantime, there’s one question indefinitely asked about Eifert: Can he stay healthy? Since injuring his ankle during the Pro Bowl, the veteran tight end has played 10 games in two years. He’s played double-digit games in two of his five seasons.

With the inexperience at wide receiver, Andy Dalton needs a weapon like Eifert. The Bengals must find ways to keep him healthy. That includes sitting out of practice and avoiding meaningless preseason games.

Still, we ask: Will he play Saturday?

Head coach Marvin Lewis is noncommittal, jokingly hoping that Eifert’s pitch count never surpasses 50 snaps.

Is that even feasible?

Andy Dalton averaged 31.8 pass attempts in 2015 — Cincinnati’s last successful season and the last season Eifert did anything worthwhile. NOTE: I removed the five pass attempts against Pittsburgh in 2015 when he gpt hurt and only averaged his attempts in 12 games. Dalton averaged 33.1 passes between 2016 and 2017.

If Cincinnati keeps Eifert on a pitch count of, say, 50 snaps, then most of those will be passing plays. Would that be too much of an indication to the opposing defense? “Hey guys, here comes Eifert. Must be a pass.”

Maybe I’m overthinking it.

And it’s really not that important. The transcript during Tuesday’s press conference added “laughs” to Lewis’ comments, which likely means he hasn’t thought about an actual pitch count, possibly indicating that there really isn’t a systematic approach to Eifert’s regular season (other than being cautious, like not being in the game when there’s a significant lead by either team).

If you really think about it, a snap count for Eifert isn’t like a pitching count for Homer "one win" Bailey. Eifert’s injury probablity isn’t related to endurance or fatigue — it's usually a freak play, like an inward elbow or an awkward landing. These plays can happen at any time.

Yea, I’m overthinking it. Pitch count. Chuckles. We're one big happy family in that press room, aren't we? (laughs)

Regardless, Eifert needs to play at least once this preseason. Game speed isn’t the same as practice speed; he’s played 10 games in two years and hasn't suited up since Sept. 14, 2017. Yes, you risk injury anytime you’re on the field and that will always be the case for Eifert. Granted, we joke about Eifert’s fragility, but Cincinnati can’t be afraid to put him on the field because he might get hurt. There should be enough trust in Tyler Kroft, who scored seven touchdowns and posted 404 yards receiving on 42 receptions last season, to risk Eifert.

The third preseason game, against our newly minted brothers and sisters in Buffalo, seems the most logical. Once identified as the “dress rehearsal,” teams put forth their strongest effort to mimic a regular season game, with personnel packages and real-life plays during the first half. If Eifert plays this preseason, and he misses Saturday’s game against Dallas, the “dress rehearsal” against Buffalo seems the most likely scenario.

Will the linebackers please stand up?

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

With 10:42 remaining against Chicago, Bears quarterback Tyler Bray arced the football over linebackers Brandon Bell and Junior Joseph (playing in the secondary), splitting Josh Shaw and Brandon Wilson, hitting tight end Daniel Brown. The 56-yard gain put Chicago on Cincinnati’s seven-yard line. After Malik Jefferson was flagged for a defensive hold, the Bears called an end-around with Demarcus Ayers. Jefferson and Joseph were trapped inside, as Ayers scampered around the edge to give Chicago a 27-23 lead with over nine minutes remaining.

It’s hard to fault rookie linebackers for the touchdown — who calls an end-around during a short-yardage situation?

Earlier, around the 3:20 mark in the third quarter, running back Ryan Nall bent around the edge and gained 69 yards.

This was poor defense.

Jefferson, unblocked with an opportunity to drop Nall around the line of scrimmage, took a poor angle and began his pursuit. Joseph was unable to recover after shadowing Chicago's misdirection.

Let’s be fair. They’re rookies. They’re going to fumble, screw up, and learn on the job. They're going to develop.

Hopefully.

Cincinnati has struggled with developing linebackers for years, from Rey Maualuga, Roddrick Muckelroy, Emmanuel Lamur, Marquis Flowers, Sean Porter, to Brandon Johnson, among others, Is it coaching? Scouting?

There is one exception.

Vontaze Burfict is arguably one of the best linebackers in the world; if you exclude his extracurricular post-play activities and suspensions, he’s probably viewed as an NFL great by his contemporaries and league observers. There wouldn't even be a divide among Bengals fans between keeping him or cutting him loose. Vincent Rey, who personifies leadership, professionalism, consistency, and stability, has enjoyed relative success. However, as a former college free agent from the 2010 NFL draft, he’s entering his ninth season in the NFL. That’s like being 80 in dog years as a linebacker in the NFL.

We need the young guys to develop. And that's a scary propect because Cincinnati has struggled to find consistency here.

Nick Vigil — a linebacker I hoped would bring that consistency — is expected to retain his role as the team’s starting strongside linebacker (aka, SAM) — joining Preston Brown at MIKE (middle linebacker) and Burfict at WILL (weak-side linebacker) — Jordan Evans started last week against Chicago and is expected to start come Week 1.

Burfict, who recently came off Active/PUP, won’t play in September after receiving a four-game suspension for alleged PED use (additional reports suggest that the PEDs in question are prescribed medications for a concussion).

Our own John Sheeran previewed Vigil, arguing that “Vigil is set to start at (strongside) linebacker for the second year in a row, and represents the sole piece of continuity at the position to begin the season. But the Bengals need a different Vigil than they’ve seen in years past.”

Truth.

Cincinnati’s defense started 13 games last season in a base 4-3 configuration — they’ve used seven different linebacker combinations for a variety of reasons (injuries and suspensions being the most prominent).

Bengals Starting LB Breakdown for 2017

GAMES SAM MIKE WILL
GAMES SAM MIKE WILL
3 Nick Vigil Kevin Minter Vincent Rey
2 Nick Vigil Kevin Minter Vontaze Burfict
3 Nick Vigil Vontaze Burfict Vincent Rey
1 Nick Vigil Vincent Rey Vontaze Burfict
1 Jordan Evans Kevin Minter Vontaze Burfict
2 Jordan Evans Hardy Nickerson Vincent Rey
1 Jordan Evans Vincent Rey Vontaze Burfict

NOTE: The combinations for the other three games featured Cincinnati’s defense starting in nickel — Vigil/Burfict (with Darqueze Dennard at nickel) twice, and Rey/Minter (with Josh Shaw at nickel).

Sheeran argues that the Bengals need Vigil to step up, saying “we haven’t heard much regarding his progression as a player like we’ve heard from Boyd and Billings,” who joined Cincinnati in the same draft.

Vigil, a third-round pick during the 2016 NFL draft, has more snaps (759) than any first or second-year defensive player last season — CB William Jackson (679), LB Carl Lawson (477), DT Ryan Glasgow (412) and S Clayton Fejedelem (376) round out that group’s top-five. Despite missing the final five games in 2017 with an injury, Vigil ranked fourth on the team with 77 tackles, falling seven tackles shy of Vincent Rey’s team-leading 84 stops. Darqueze Dennard (83), George Iloka (79) and Vontaze Burfict (69) rounded out the top five.

So the experience is there. A breakout season is needed, or Vigil risks becoming a New Doug in a long line of New Dougs.

The third-year backer, who led all Bengals linebackers in snaps last season, also has room for improvement. Of the 56 times quarterbacks targeted players he covered, 43 led to completions. Granted, this seems high and there’s logic to it — linebackers tend to allow a higher completion percentage because their coverage area is huge and a preference to let passes play out in front of them.

Still, 77 percent?

Regardless, opposing quarterbacks posted a passer rating of 92.9 against him, which is sadly a team-best rating among linebackers with at least 100 snaps in coverage.

Vigil has also played 309 snaps against the run (highest among all linebackers on the team), but generated 25 tackles (third-most), and missed four tackles (highest).

While continuity isn’t a problem for Vigil, there’s obvious room for improvement.

Jordan Evans also figures to inject potential into the team’s core linebacker unit.

During his rookie season last year, Evans played 27 percent of the team’s defensive snaps and more than half of Cincinnati’s special teams snaps. The team’s weekly press release has Evans posting 33 tackles last year, while NFL.com says 38, Pro Football Reference says 24, and Pro Football Focus has him with 31 tackles (and a team-high six missed). Can we agree to a consistent tackle metric, stats people? Damn.

Evans started Thursday’s preseason opener in place of Burfict, posting four tackles on 20 snaps with no misses, and three defensive stops.

What’s the deal with the offensive line?

Cincinnati Bengals v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Don’t get me wrong.

These glorious bastards in the trenches have already sang an improved tune compared to their predecessors. Cordy Glenn and Billy Price are upgrades.

However, we continue to face an enduring question: Who starts on the right side?

Alex Redmond (37) and Trey Hopkins (23) took a majority of the snaps at right guard last week whereas Christian Westerman, who might be better among them, played all 44 of his snaps at left guard.

Westerman didn’t allow a pressure against Chicago, and his Pro Football Focus score (if you buy into that) was 90.5 — the only offensive player with a higher grade was A.J. Green. Redmond allowed a pressure, but was otherwise equally effective. Hopkins comparatively struggled. However, since he started Thursday’s game, he played against tougher competition.

It makes sense to give Westerman work as Clint Boling’s backup and, according to Frank Pollack, these guys should be able to play both sides anyway.

“Everyone has to be ready for both sides,” said Pollack via the mothership. “The only guy who is really locked on what sides are the centers. When we get short, I tell them to spin around. Just rotate, spin around and go back in. Nothing’s in stone. I know you would love it. I would love it, too. It is what it is. We’ve got to keep going. We’ve got time to develop.”

That being said, the question at right guard won't be answered for a while.

“We won’t have a set lineup until the night before we play the Colts,” Pollack said last weekend. “It’s only been one pre-season game. Still have three more to go. It’s way too early to anoint anybody. A lot of competition. Then get in the season and you have to hold your job.”

Will Westerman start at right guard this weekend or next? Will he take any snaps there as a backup? Or has the offense line already been set? We’ll know more Saturday.