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NFL preseason Week 3 preview, Bengals at Bills: Where Buffalo roams

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For the second straight week, the Bengals have another trip away from home. The “dress rehearsal” should tell us a lot about the direction of the 2018 season.

Buffalo Bills v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images

If you could put a label on the Bengals for the last couple of years, “lackluster” or “bland” may readily come to mind. After losing the 2015 Wild Card game against the hated Steelers, the team subsequently suffered more losses in different forms.

Exciting and productive players like Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Kevin Zeitler, Reggie Nelson and Andrew Whitworth were allowed to leave, and their respective departures were felt in the form of a 13-18-1 combined record from 2016-2017.

The 2018 offseason was marked with savvy moves of all varieties. Of course, the team continued to rely on the April draft haul as its primary route of adding talent.

However, free agency and a big trade were also used to help shape the new-look roster. And, wouldn’t you know it? Two of the Bengals’ biggest offseason moves involved their “bromance” partner in the Buffalo Bills.

Neither Jake Fisher nor Cedric Ogbuehi have shown the ability to man the left side of the line after being the team’s top two picks of the 2015 class, so Cincinnati swung a trade for Cordy Glenn. The big left tackle and rookie center, Billy Price, are two huge moves in an attempt to re-tool a subpar offensive line from the past two years.

What has surprised some is that the once-vaunted Bengals’ defense became a shell of itself recently—particularly in 2017. Missed tackles, allowing of first down conversions on seemingly-impossible third-down situations and a porous run defense were major catalysts to a 7-9 season last year.

To help remedy those ills, Cincinnati added former Buffalo linebacker, Preston Brown. He led the league in total tackles last year, giving the Bengals hope that the allowances of game-changing plays from the defense will be quelled.

In the preseason opener against the Bears, the Bengals looked like a rejuvenated team. The once-lifeless offense had some pep, thanks to creative play-calling and a number of talented skill position players.

On defense, Cincinnati stifled Mitchell Trubisky, which was a stark contrast to the matchup of the teams in Week 14 of last year. The Bengals won the game, but it was the early units that brought hope back to The Queen City.

Yet, the two biggest areas of weakness last year, popped up once again in Big D just a week later. Marvin Lewis’ crew traveled to face a talented Cowboys team and a reality check ensued. Sure, the Bengals won the game, 21-13, but the residual feelings made it seem as if the Bengals got laughed out of Arlington.

The first unit offense took a major step backward, with Andy Dalton missing two golden opportunities for big plays to A.J. Green, while the run game was absolutely deplorable. Ogbuehi and other linemen had noticeable struggles in an evening filled with teeth-grinding moments.

As for the defense, the omnipresent problem of ably covering tight ends, coupled with the inability to bring down a ball-carrier on initial contact, as well as getting off of the field on third down were on back on display. The regression from week-to-week was nothing short of eye-opening.

On one hand, seeing many of the team’s starters play at a lower level just one week later is disheartening. Was the opener an aberration? Were the Bengals’ struggles indicative of going on the road and playing a team that has had 22 regular season wins the past two seasons?

On the other, it’s preseason. Working on specific nuances and vanilla game plans are part and parcel of the summer months.

Here we are in the third week of the preseason, which is lovingly known as “The Dress Rehearsal.” The tongue-in-cheek moniker is due to the fact that a team’s starters will be getting the most playing time they’ll see in the summertime.

Here’s the thing: just as quickly as the Bengals made a flip of fans’ internal optimism switch to the “off” position from the opener to Week 2, they can flip it back “on” in a flash with a strong performance in western New York on Sunday.

If Dalton can use his plethora of weapons to maximum effectiveness, the offensive line can show something resembling above-average play and the defense can make Josh Allen uncomfortable, the wackily-swinging emotional pendulum that is being a Bengals fan will again bring about balance.

If none of those are on display, well...

From a Buffalo perspective, the quarterback position is under the microscope. They drafted Allen and his cannon arm for a reason, but knew he needed further development before being thrown to the NFL’s wolves.

Enter former Bengals’ backup signal-caller, AJ McCarron.

Talk about a guy who’s had a rough offseason. After betting on himself and winning an arbitration to become an unrestricted free agent, McCarron saw the market for his services evaporate. Then, last week, as he was fighting for the starting quarterback job, McCarron was hit and hurt his shoulder/collarbone area.

Initially, it looked as if McCarron was going to miss a significant amount of time, but the reported crack in his clavicle was an erroneous rumor. He’s still in the mix with Allen and Nathan Peterman, but we’ll see how it plays out going forward.

And, like the Bengals, Buffalo has had major attrition and roster turnover over the past couple of offseasons. Sean McDermott put together an improbable playoff campaign with duct tape and glue last year, but he has a taller task in 2018.

Gone is Pro Bowl defensive back, Stephon Gilmore, who signed with New England last spring. We know that Glenn and Brown are now with Cincinnati, while Buffalo also traded Tyrod Taylor to the Browns. And, Pro Bowl bully/offensive guard, Richie Incognito, called it a career this offseason.

What the Bills hope for this season is that one of the triad of Peterman/McCarron/Allen can step up, while simultaneously relying on a stout defense. Tre’Davious White, Vontae Davis and Phillip Gaines comprise a scrappy cornerback group, while mainstays like Kyle Williams, Shaq Lawson, Jerry Hughes and Lorenzo Alexander continue to anchor the front seven.

Even though the end result of Sunday’s contest doesn’t mean much, the performance of the starters will be a compass to the direction of the 2018 season. And, if anything, the game will be entertaining from the aspect of there being so many familiar faces on each team for both fan bases to reminisce about this weekend.

Bengals 26, Bills 23

AC — #KellyTough