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The Bengals’ preseason finale is filled with roster building, and not much else

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The Bengals take on the Colts tonight in the preseason finale. This is perhaps the most meaningless and boring game of the year. Yet, interest exists.

Cincinnati Bengals v Buffalo Bills Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

First, let’s acknowledge an amazing aspect regarding the extensions Geno Atkins (four-year, $65.3 million) and Carlos Dunlap (three-year, $45 million) signed on Tuesday. Neither elected to sit out, like some of their contemporaries around the league. There was no public negotiations and no one played the martyr (uh hum, Pittsburgh). Everyone kept quiet. Atkins. Dunlap. The family. Not a single word. Not only were you unsure that negotiations were taking place, but if they were, you had no clue how far along they were. Perhaps, Cincinnati’s media isn’t nearly as plugged in anymore. But then the national media was similarly blacked out until agreements were made and handshakes shook. Maybe the team kept the circle of trust small. The front office surely spent the offseason working on these deals.

“The husband and wife front office team of executive vice president and salary cap maven Katie Blackburn (Atkins) and vice president Troy Blackburn (Dunlap) quietly spent the summer putting together a blockbuster brick-by-brick,writes Geoff Hobson with the mothership. “Nary a word uttered publicly as the Bengals made sure they kept together the tag-team destined to be their top 1-2 all-time sackers in six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins and play-making left end Carlos Dunlap.”

(NOTE: Nary has officially entered into my lexicon)

“We’ve been talking to these guys all offseason,” Katie Blackburn said via Jay Morrison with The Athletic (more comments from Katie and Troy so read it). “A lot of stuff depends on what else happens as you go along. It depends on what happens in free agency. It can depend on whether there are some other people you might want to add into the mix. We’re hopeful we were going to get something done. We would’ve liked for it to have been done back in March. But we just have been working on both all along, having good conversations and then obviously as we got to the preseason you finally get to that point where you say, ‘Guys, we’ve got to get this done.’”

Both players knew the Bengals wanted to take care of them.

“(The Bengals) take care of their own,” Atkins said on Wednesday. “You do it the right way — show up, go to OTAs and training camp and don’t make it a big deal of it and talk to the media. Honestly, they take care of their own.”

“If you keep it out of the media and don’t go back and forth with the team and media, you won’t burn any bridges and you keep it in a positive light,” added Dunlap. “We were both able to do that.

Money is nice. It’s great. Lots of it is fantastic. That’s not the only reason they’re sticking around.

“They were the team that drafted me. I love it here. I love the city. I love the organization,” Atkins said on Wednesday. “It’s something to cement my legacy here, and I think that’s important to finish where I started. We’ve got unfinished business, this whole team, and me and ‘Los are trying to bring a Super Bowl to Cincinnati.”

Feel that?

It’s a chill. A super chill, dare I say.

It’s hard not to appreciate how this played out. While Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, and Earl Thomas are hoping for better contracts, possibly impacting their teams’ season, the Bengals successfully pulled the trigger and retained two pieces of their foundation, one of whom could be the first to follow in Anthony Munoz’s steps to Canton.

Kudos to the players for not turning negotiations into a circus (a la, Pittsburgh). Kudos for the front office for making this happen. At the end of the day, everyone won on Tuesday.

Onto more pressing matters. A rag-tag group of starters took the field in the final preseason game last year, led by quarterback AJ McCarron. John Ross and Cody Core played receiver. Jarveon Williams and Darrin Laufasa teamed up in the backfield. Darqueze Dennard and William Jackson started at corner — neither were projected starters yet (except in Week 1 during Adam Jones’ suspension) — with a range of backups like Jordan Willis, Hardy Nickerson, Derron Smith, and Clayton Fejedelem playing with the first-team defense.

This was Cincinnati’s starting lineup during last year’s preseason finale.

The fourth preseason game serves one purpose — to finalize competitive roster battles. Since the Bengals and Colts open the season on Sept. 9, you shouldn’t expect any complicated play designs or plans to address the other’s vulnerabilities when they meet Thursday for their finale.

Moreso, Marvin Lewis and company have kept their starters benched for this game every year dating back to 2014. AJ McCarron started each of the last three finales at quarterback, with Jason Campbell starting in 2014. The last time Andy Dalton sniffed the field was 2013, but that was for only one possession — a 49-yard touchdown drive.

All preseason games are meaningless contests for the players who we already know are locked in. Granted, there is a purpose served by shaking off the offseason rust, building chemistry on the field, and getting accustomed to live games. However, the risk of injury is too great compared to the value of these games. If you’re taking the family to Paul Brown Stadium on Thursday, paying between $78-$334 for premium seats, you won’t see Dalton or A.J. Green. It would be shocking to see big money Geno, too.

This isn’t a game for the casual fan. It’s not a litmus test for the regular season — you shouldn’t even do that during the so-called “dress rehearsal” (though we like to place value on such things). Anyone looking to win Thursday shouldn’t watch. That’s not the objective. Never has been. Cincinnati has played 26 preseason finales against the Colts, meeting every year since 1992, with the exception of 2000. Look at their recent scores: 7-6 (2017), 13-10 (2016), 9-6 (2015). Does it matter who won those games? Do you remember? Further, did you know that the Bengals are 16-10 against the Colts in the preseason finale? Why would you? I created Cincy Jungle in 2006 and have been writing about the team since 2003. I didn’t know that. It’s featured in the team’s weekly press release. And by this time next year, we won’t remember this conversation even happened.

Yet, there are levels of interest... from those of us that chronically obsess about this team. Specially you.

One area of interest is at wide receiver. There are four projected as roster locks — A.J. Green, John Ross, Tyler Boyd, Josh Malone. Assuming the Bengals keep six, Alex Erickson, Auden Tate or Cody Core are your principle competitors for two vacancies; since injuries usually factor roster battles, we’re going to assume Core, out all preseason, is on the outside looking in. Lewis told the media on Tuesday that Core isn’t expected to play — at this stage, if Core still makes the roster, it’ll be a commentary on Auden Tate. However, it doesn’t really matter who takes the final spot (assuming Erickson is No. 5). The sixth receiver is likely inactive on Sundays. And if the Bengals actually activate six for a game, the fifth and sixth receivers are special teams contributors with nary a snap between them on offense.

A backup quarterback battle has been brewing between Matt Barkley and fan-favorite Jeff Driskel. There shouldn’t be. Yet, there is. How have they fared this preseason?

  • Driskel has led 14 possessions, leading to two touchdowns, two field goals, eight punts, and two turnovers (an interception and a fumble that wasn’t his).
  • Barkley has led 11 drives, six of which led to scores (five field goals and a touchdown), an interception and four punts (he also took a knee at the end of the game against Dallas, which we’ve excluded).

Preseason: Jeff Driskel vs Matt Barkley

Category Jeff Driskel Matt Barkley
Category Jeff Driskel Matt Barkley
DRIVES 14 11
SCORES (TD-FG) 4 (2-2) 6 (1-5)
PUNTS 8 4
TURNOVERS 2 1
ATT 38 33
CMP 24 17
YDS 332 230
CMP% 63.2 51.5
TD 1 1
INT 1 1
RATING 88.9 71.5

A packed house of wild dogs is vying for limited resources on special teams as the last running back. Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard are locked into the 2018 roster. Mark Walton is probably making it; he was a fourth-round pick that’s rushed for two yards on 12 carrie in three preseason games — including an epic 11 yards combined against Dallas and Buffalo. In his defense, he’s been an excellent blocker with nary a pressure allowed. Assuming the Bengals take four running backs (sans an H-back), that leaves Tra Carson, Brian Hill, and Jarveon Williams battling for one spot. If they take five, then the fifth will be an H-back — the position typically occupied by Ryan Hewitt.

The narrative about Cincinnati’s running game isn’t really centered around roster building.

“There’s no mystery as to why the first-team hasn’t found success on the ground yet,” writes our own John Sheeran. “The offensive line has shown to lack the explosiveness to effectively run outside zone, and they’ve been beaten too early on the front side of power runs for cutbacks to lead to positive yardage.” Perhaps they’re screwing up. They seem talented enough. Is it Cincinnati’s passing offense not being view as a significant enough threat to keep defenses honest? We’re not going to solve that crisis during Thursday’s preseason finale... but it is a concern.

But not to Mixon.

“We’re so close,” Mixon said this week via the mothership. “Whether it’s a back-side block or a front-side block. Whether it’s the running back’s tracks … Just one guy away. Whether it’s me or the linemen or a tight end or receiver. Offense is 11 guys. You have to execute. We’re really close.”

Since I’m a premium member of the “preseason doesn’t predict the regular season” club, I’ll defer to Mixon for now. “I’m not worried about the preseason at all. I know what we can do, what we’re capable of and I know what we’re going to do,” Mixon said.

Cool.

The offensive line roster is probably settled by now.

LT: Cordy Glenn, Jake Fisher
LG: Clint Boling, Christian Westerman
C: Billy Price
RG*: Trey Hopkins, Alex Redmond
RT: Bobby Hart, Cedric Ogbuehi

Specific backups aren’t important. My belief is that Fisher should be the primary backup at left and right tackle. Hopkins is projected as the backup center; if Price is hurt, Hopkins slides from right guard to center while Redmond replaces Hopkins at right guard. Or Redmond starts and Hopkins is the primary backup at right guard and center. Either way, if Cincinnati keeps nine offensive linemen, which they’ve done every year since 2011, with the exception of 2015 (they kept eight), I believe this is it.

Cincinnati typically holds onto four defensive tackles — Geno Atkins might make the roster, alongside Andrew Billings and Ryan Glasgow. Most defensive ends on the current roster are making the team, such as Dunlap, Carl Lawson, Sam Hubbard, and Jordan Willis. Michael Johnson is probably making the roster — though if there’s a cap casualty, it should be him — as an interior third down rusher and at defensive end on run-obvious situations.

If they go with a ninth player on the defensive line, figure defensive tackle Andrew Brown, one of their fifth-round picks this year, making it.

Or they keep eight and go heavy with linebackers or defensive backs.

Darius Phillips has been intriguing, notably as a returner. However, on defense he’s allowed five receptions (on eight targets), for 40 yards, and an opposing quarterback rating of 75.0. Despite facing inferior competition, it’s a respectable effort. We know that Jackson, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Darqueze Dennard (nickel) are your first-team corners. They could keep six, like in 2016 and 2015, or five, like last year. Phillips will wage battle against guys like KeiVarae Russell, C.J. Goodwin and Tony McRae.

As a side note, Lewis wasn’t very forthcoming when asked about McRae’s chances.

Press: “CB Tony McRae is a guy that’s been around here for a while now. Injuries have clouded his camp this year. Do you feel like you’ve seen enough from him? What do you like in him at this point?
Lewis: “He has done a nice job with always being game ready when he’s had the opportunity. He soaks up everything that is given to him.”

Press: Is he a guy you would like to see more of?
Lewis: “I want to see all of these guys. That’s what this is about — the opportunity for all of these guys to go out and play. Not only do they show this, but they also give you the confidence that down the line, they could step in if an injury happens.”

It’s a professional response that’s clearly filed under: Coach-speak. However, it doesn’t give McRae the greatest endorsement when Lewis instinctively goes into generics about the preseason.

Tonight will be an interesting battle to see how the secondary shakes out.

We’ll be watching the preseason finale — even bad football is still football. For those of us that are big-picture minded, it’ll be boring. For those of us that enjoy the details, there will be interest. Those of us who are fascinated with roster building, it’s can’t-miss TV.

I’m just ready for the season to start.