The more things change, the more they stay the same.
That certainly seemed to hold true for the Cincinnati Bengals’ defense Saturday night against the Kansas City Chiefs. Last season. Cincinnati’s defense finished dead last in the NFL in yards per games (413.6) and 30th in points per game (28.4).
To kickoff the preseason, the Bengals surrendered 400 yards and 38 points, including a seven-play 83-yard touchdown drive to the Chiefs’ first-team offense. So when you start looking at the biggest storylines going into Thursday night’s game at the Washington Redskins, you have to begin with the defense. And while the linebacker position continues to earn the most scrutiny, another area on the defense is where we focus our attention first.
Shawn Williams has always been something of a liability in coverage. In the past, he had made up for that with his ability to stop the run. Today’s game is changing, and both safeties need to be equally adept against both the run and the pass.
On Saturday night, Williams looked completely lost. Nowhere was that more apparent than on the deep pass to Travis Kelce that resulted in a 36-yard gain as the Chiefs drove to a score on their opening possession. Williams was in position to make a play on the ball, but had no idea where it was. Our own Matt Minich broke down the play in his weekly film review.
Normally, Clayton Fejedelem would be subbing in for Williams as the backup strong safety, but the fourth-year special teams ace won’t play this week due to an ankle injury he suffered in Kansas City. This may force the defense to rely more on Brandon Wilson in this game. Wilson has mainly played free safety behind Jessie Bates III during training camp and played most of his snaps there against the Chiefs.
Fejedelem and Wilson share similarities as athletes, and Wilson can increase his hold on a roster spot by showing versatility by playing more in the box along with patrolling deep zones.
Enough has been said about the presumed starters among this group – Nick Vigil, Preston Brown and Jordan Evans. But at least two other players from the rest of this group are going to have to step up if the Bengals hope for a reversal of last season’s dismal performance.
Germaine Pratt, Malik Jefferson, Hardy Nickerson and Deshaun Davis remain the quartet with the best chance of finding their names on the final roster, but someone needs to step up in a hurry.
Of those four, Pratt has the best chance to overtake Evans when the defense goes to a heavy base featuring three linebackers. His game against Kansas City featured its ups and downs, but hopefully the game starts slowing down for the rookie.
Unfortunately for Jefferson, the game never slowed down for him in his first year last season. This year has started much the same way and Jefferson is rapidly running out of chances.
Nickerson improved his case by causing the defense’s only turnover last week with his first career interception, preseason or regular season. It’s clear that this new coaching staff appreciates Nickerson’s mental aptitude at the position, but bad athletes don’t just become good ones. This is where Davis can showcase he’s an upgrade, but he’s playing from behind.
These four will continue having plenty of eyes on them until one really starts to stand out.
What the final permutation of this group is going to look like on opening day is anyone’s guess. John Jerry played the lion’s share of snaps at left guard, but his lackluster performance lead to Michael Jordan earning a chance to run with the 1s this week at practice. The 21-year old rookie may very well be given the chance to run away with the competition this week.
Even the center position is up in the air. Billy Price, last year’s first-round selection, was the presumptive starter coming in to the season. The new regime under Zac Taylor has its own ideas. Trey Hopkins, who looked good filling in when Price was injured last year, got plenty of work there Saturday night, and continued to look like he belongs. Will Hopkins be the first center we see on the field after practicing next to Jordan with the 1s earlier this week?
With no Joe Mixon, Giovani Bernard or Rodney Anderson, the trio of Trayveon Williams, Jordan Ellis and Quinton Flowers rushed for a combined 11 carries against the Chiefs. A safe bet would be that the Bengals exceed that many rushes against Washington. Fortunately, they’ll have more bodies to do so.
Mixon and Bernard are both expected to play after being sidelined due to leg injuries for most of last week. Williams was the next man up and got the start but unfortunately left the game due to bruised ribs, but that won’t keep him out of this contest.
The only back not expected to play is Anderson, whom Taylor expects to play next week against the New York Giants. While he remains out, Ellis and Flowers have the most to gain against Washington, as they’re likely competing for a practice squad spot assuming no further injuries arise at the position. Expect Ellis to see the field before Flowers, like he did last week.
It’s all about the reserves. Jeff Driskel was given the first chance to roll with the second string in Week 1 and turned in a subpar performance, albeit behind a disastrous offensive line. Ryan Finley followed him and has now taken the lead in the seemingly annual race to become Andy Dalton’s backup.
Driskel’s best chance of making the team involved Finley struggling to the point where keeping three quarterbacks would be necessary. If the rookie finishes the preseason strong, Driskel’s value diminishes almost entirely, which is why the team started experimenting him at wide receiver once more recently.
Expect Finley to get the first reps after Dalton leaves the field, and expect Driskel to play with a little more urgency after him.