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3 big questions the Bengals need to answer in their dress rehearsal against the Bills

The Bengals play their third preseason game on Sunday against the Bills. What questions need to be answered during the most important game of the preseason? We take a look.

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Buffalo Bills v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Against the Washington Redskins last year, the Cincinnati Bengals took a 14-13 lead into halftime of the year’s third preseason game; Andy Dalton trotted out with a pedestrian performance but Vontaze Burfict’s 62-yard pick-six allowed Cincinnati to top Washington in the boxscore.

The Bengals jumped out to a 14-3 lead at the end of the second quarter against Jacksonville in the third preseason game in 2016; with one of the touchdowns coming after a Vincent Rey fumble recovery on the opponent’s 22-yard line, which led to a 19-yard touchdown pass to Giovani Bernard. Then against Chicago in the third preseason game of 2015, the Bengals pounded the Bears with 71 yards rushing to take a 21-3 lead by halftime with each touchdown coming due to sustained drives or Jeremy Hill sprints.

One thing you can’t anticipate is how much luck factors into an NFL game. A tipped pass leading to a pick-six or a fumble suddenly redirecting toward a defender can be the difference, as opposed to a diving offensive lineman, a sudden rainstorm, an arctic blast, or a tornadic windstorm... these are external, influential factors that you can’t anticipate. Remember “the tipped pass” against Denver in ‘09? Talent, skill and creative philosophies will take you a significant distance in the NFL. Luck can unravel success, break streaks, or punish misery. You can’t predict, anticipate, or practice luck. One could argue that good luck trumps quality talent.

If these games have another thing in common, it’s that they are defined as dress rehearsals. If you don’t know what that means, the “dress rehearsal” is the closest representation of how a team is looking as they reach the regular season — at least in factors they can control. The dress rehearsal is the third preseason game. You'll see personnel packages and probable . starting lineups; the Bengals’ starting offensive line against Buffalo will most likely be the starting offensive line when the regular season kicks off in Indianapolis. They’ll use a handful of plays that will be staples this year; however, their best plays will be shelved. Why expose a beautifully designed third down play during a preseason game?

Sunday’s game against Buffalo, specifically the first half, will be the final on-field act before the season kicks off on Sept. 9. They may even play first-team squads into the third quarter, largely to mimic how players reset after sitting during halftime. However, a Dalton-led offense hasn’t played in the third quarter of a preseason dress rehearsal since 2013 against Dallas. Don’t get me wrong, the Bengals do have a fourth preseason game on Aug. 30. That game just is not relevant to how the team will look in the regular season.

Here are the lingering questions about the Bengals that need to be answered in the next two weeks, starting with Sunday night’s game.

Who will start on the right side of the offensive line?

San Diego Chargers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

This has been a fundamental concern on offense, hasn’t it? Not wide receiver — the top four are determined, and the remaining spots are being fought between three players (one as a special teams player and the other as a game day inactive). Will Cincinnati take two or three quarterbacks? Probably two. Matt Barkley hasn’t made a reasonable argument to stick around, Jeff Driskel has, and Logan Woodside will likely find himself on the practice squad. As important as it is to determine wide receiver and quarterback questions, they pale in regular season comparison with the unknowns at right guard and right tackle.

This question, this offseason inquiry, began at the end of last year and lingered into training camp and the preseason. However, we’re at the point in the preseason where if Trey Hopkins and Bobby Hart start against Buffalo at right guard and right tackle, respectively, the safe bet is them.

Christian Westerman and Alex Redmond have offered unique challenges for the right guard vacancy since Kevin Zeitler left for Cleveland. Yet, Hopkins, when healthy, keeps winning the job. Until we see new information, we’re going to assume Hopkins is the starting right guard, with Redmond stationed behind him and Westerman backing up Clint Boling at left guard.

Right tackle is a bit murky. Bobby Hart struggled against Dallas (he allowed one pressure and one quarterback hit on eight pass blocks) and Fisher, who competed against backups and third-tier guys, thrived. Most of Fisher’s opponents failed to make an impact. Playing against second and third team defensive linemen shouldn’t be a strike against him; however, it still should be noted.

Is Fisher even a reasonable starter at right tackle? Fisher spent most of the preseason playing left tackle, whereas Cedric Ogbuehi has worked the right side behind Hart. I can’t see a reasonable scenario where Ogbuehi should have a roster spot this season, but he’ll probably stay. Why not let Fisher work as a utility tackle who shores up both tackle positions and is introduced as the sixth lineman during jumbo packages?

The spotlight is on Jessie Bates

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

No matter how you feel about the Bengals releasing George Iloka (was it premature; did they negatively impact their talent level on the depth chart; was the writing on the wall), Cincinnati is all-in with rookie Jessie Bates. It’s a bit rare for Marvin Lewis to start a rookie at safety, but not unheard of. Former players like Madieu Williams and Chinedum “The Duke” Ndukwe started as rookies, though neither started the first game of their respective rookie seasons.

The 2018 second-round pick will start this Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, and is projected as the team’s starting free safety against the Colts in September.

“We feel very comfortable and confident in Jessie,” Lewis said on Wednesday. “As we expected, he’s done a great job since he’s been here. Over the last 14 weeks, he’s done a nice job.”

Bates hasn’t started in the preseason yet, but he entered by the second drive of each game. He’s played 69 snaps this preseason, including a team-high 40 against the Dallas Cowboys.

“He’s going to grow and make some mistakes,” Bengals defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said via the Cincinnati Enquirer, also noting that he’s tackled well. “He’s going to have some questions and they are going to have some bad plays. It’s going to happen. When you look at his upside and ceiling, I really think he has a chance to be a really good player and help us in terms of turning the ball over and as a field general and getting us lined up. I think he is really bright.”

Even Bates’ teammates are looking forward to what he can do, including veteran Dre Kirkpatrick. “I truly believe in Jessie if that’s what we’re going with,” Kirkpatrick said via Bengals.com. “We don’t really know. They haven’t made it official to us yet. Common sense will tell you that’s where it’s going. I believe in Jessie. Just watching the film, he’s popping up. He’s all over the field, making great plays. Saturday night he was all over the field communicating. We were doing some great things and that’s where we’re at right now. That’s what we have to put our trust in and belief in.”

While releasing Iloka to start Bates could be the right long-term decision, it’s also risky. Prior to the release, Cincinnati’s depth chart featured Iloka and then Bates. With Iloka signing a one-year deal in Minnesota, the depth has Josh Shaw behind Bates. Right now the team’s safety depth seems less significant and the bold move to release Iloka poses a challenging hypothetical question... what happens if Bates gets hurt?

Who is Andy Dalton’s backup (and will the Bengals keep two or three quarterbacks)?

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Cincinnati has traditionally kept two quarterbacks during the Marvin Lewis 2.0 regime (aka, the Andy Dalton era). In 2016, they kept three with Andy Dalton, AJ McCarron, and Driskel. Last year, it was Dalton and McCarron, but only because Driskel suffered an injury. They kept two quarterbacks in 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012.

With McCarron — currently recovering from a not-broken collarbone injury — now in Buffalo, Cincinnati is auditioning for his replacement. Driskel has been with Cincinnati since 2016, even earning the unusual title of third-string quarterback in 2016. Free agent Matt Barkley, with 266 career passing attempts, signed a two-year deal worth $3.1 million with Cincinnati, his sixth team since 2013. Toledo quarterback Logan Woodside, who was born 80 miles south of Paul Brown Stadium, was selected in the seventh round of the 2018 NFL draft.

Commence, auditions.

Driskel has led 12 possessions this preseason, leading to two touchdowns, a field goal, seven punts, an interception, and a fumble (not his). Comparatively, Barkley has led seven drives, five of which led to scores (four field goals and a touchdown), and two punts (he also took a knee at the end of the game against Dallas, which we’ve excluded). However, individually, Driskel has made the better throws, completing 64.5 percent of his passes compared to Barkley’s 47.1 percent.

Woodside made his preseason debut with around six minutes remaining against Dallas. After falling down on his first snap, successfully exchanging the handoff to Jarveon Williams anyway, Woodside made a pair of throws that show his raw talent — his slant to Jared Murphy was accurate, though into significant coverage, and his sideline pass to Ka’Raun White was inches away from being an impressive 25-yard gain.

Woodside completed his first pass with 3:13 remaining, faking a handoff and rolling out on a naked bootleg, connecting with tight end Moritz Bohringer for a four-yard gain. However, Woodside, a non-factor in the competition for backup quarterback this year, is destined for the practice squad.

In the meantime, Sunday’s game should give us an indication of the direction in which Cincinnati is headed between Barkley and Driskel. It would seem that Driskel is their guy, but as we’ve seen this summer, the Bengals are willing to make unexpected moves.

NOTES:

  • Provided he doesn’t suffer an injury getting on and off the team plane, Tyler Eifert should play Sunday against Buffalo. We talked about Eifert during our last preview, projecting his preseason debut this Sunday.
  • If Cincinnati keeps four running backs — we assume that Mark Walton will join Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard as locks — Tra Carson, Brian Hill, and Jarveon Williams will be competing for the final spot. Traditionally they’ve kept five running backs when we include Ryan Hewitt in those discussions; we’re not sure if we need to keep him in this narrative anymore.
  • Despite scoring a touchdown against the Bears, we’d like to see more from the first-team offense. John Ross has been targeted nine times and made three completions this preseason (if you include his two-point conversion, which the typical stat sheet does not); Boyd has three receptions for five yards (and a touchdown). However, he’s also fumbled. Their talent level is high but have little momentum heading into the regular season.
  • Will Auden Tate show up this week? After securing a 33-yard touchdown against Chicago, his lone reception of the game, Tate was a no-show against the Cowboys with zero receptions on one target. Should we hold off on writing his name on the 53-man roster?
  • Cincinnati will probably keep six linebackers: Nick Vigil, Preston Brown, Jordan Evans, Vincent Rey, and Malik Jefferson are near-locks while Junior Joseph, Hardy Nickerson, Brandon Bell, and Chris Worley are viciously competing for that sixth spot. Vontaze Burfict, serving a four-game suspension to start the season, will not be on the team’s 53-man roster in September.