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Bengals preseason Week 2 rookie report: Early draft picks lead the victory charge

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Cincinnati’s 17-0 second half run was due in large part to the performances of the rookies they’ll be relying on in the regular season.

Cincinnati Bengals v Washington Redskins Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

If you stopped watching the Bengals’ Week 2 preseason game against the Redskins midway through the first quarter, you probably thought penalties were the main storyline of the game.

You would be wrong, of course, because the draft class of 2019 stole the show for Cincinnati and led the squad to their first exhibition victory of the year. And this was against a club that many (including myself) believed killed the NFL Draft this year.

Four of the Bengals’ first five draft picks (after Jonah Williams, of course) all looked improved from their debuts vs. the Chiefs a week ago. The other one made his preseason debut and ended up playing the most snaps on the defense!

To say we’ve got plenty to cover in this week’s rookie report is an understatement. Let’s begin with the man of the hour.

Ryan Finley asserts his status as QB2

OTAs and mini-camp seem like ages ago for the 24-year old Finley. Then again, overreacting to spring football is something most of us all of us have been guilty of at some point.

Finley appears to have “it”. What that is, none of us weaklings who don’t strap on shoulder pads will ever know. Age and a lack of an elite trait where the two components that factored in Finley falling out of the top-100 picks in April, and they were fair criticisms. Nothing Finley has done this month has been relatively special.

But the job just gets done, and in ways we’re not used to seeing when watching Cincinnati quarterbacks in recent years.

In comparison to Jeff Driskel, the guy Finley’s actually competing with, Finley’s been head and shoulders the better passer. His full-body pocket maneuverability—meaning the synchronization between his head, frame and legs whilst adjusting to his protection—is a breathe of fresh air from Driskel...and even Andy Dalton.

After running with the third-team last week, Finley was promoted to Dalton’s backup and more than justified that decision. To read more on his day, check out one of Matt Minich’s film pieces from this week.

As with most rookies, Finley has favored the middle of the field and his yards per attempt greatly favors that area compared to outside the numbers.

Nevertheless, the end result was impressive. Finley’s 20 for 26 day featured 150 yards and two touchdowns. One of those touchdown throws ended up in the arms of second-round pick Drew Sample, who looked much more poised as a receiver this time around. Sample finished with two receptions off of two targets for 15 yards and the aforementioned score.

Back to Finley, his lack of velocity to push the ball down the field and outside the numbers is what will keep him on the bench when it counts. Those throwing windows he’s barely pushing the ball through will be smaller in the fall, and that’s okay.

Finley has time to develop that aspect of his game, because pretty much everything else about his game is in pretty good shape.

No one should be in Michael Jordan’s way anymore

For clarity, Jordan played far from a perfect game. The fourth-round pick looked predictably shaky in his first career NFL start, but the assets were as much on display as the liabilities.

Jordan at left guard and Trey Hopkins were the two best lineman working with the first unit. The duo communicated well in pass protection and worked off each other in the running game, and the second part of that is key.

In order for a zone running game to be successful, you need space blockers to reach defenders working their way from the backside of the play or to turn frontside players away from the point of attack. Jordan’s explosion and length makes him a promising second-level blocker and someone who can be tasked on reaching that backside A-gap defender while the center takes care of the frontside A-gap.

Jordan played the first three series of the game at left guard and then replaced Hopkins at the position starting on the second drive of the third quarter. 38 snaps in total at the position and he looks like the best option as long as Hopkins stays at center. If Billy Price retakes his spot in the middle, things could get interesting at left guard, but it shouldn’t be a decision worth considering.

Removing Hopkins makes the line worse, and Jordan’s quick ascension helps make that possible.

Germaine Pratt isn’t long for the second-string

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the Bengals’ linebackers have been pedestrian.

This is not running with a lazy narrative. The starting trio of Preston Brown, Nick Vigil and Jordan Evans have been the epitome of mediocre through two preseason contests, and that might be giving them too much credit.

There’s no point in thinking the first two aren’t going to be starting Week 1 and playing the majority of snaps; no one plays three linebackers for most of the game anymore. The least they can do is challenge Evans. They need a spark, something different.

They need a Germaine Pratt.

As the second-team SAM backer and MIKE in nickel personnel, Pratt looked much more comfortable reading his keys and playing faster downhill. In coverage, the lowlight was allowing a Vernon Davis 26-yard reception after getting sunk in off of play action. The highlight was nearly snagging an interception off a batted pass just two plays later.

Pratt finished with three tackles and a quarterback hit on Dwayne Haskins, who managed to throw a dime down the field that resulted in a 55-yard touchdown. 99 other times, Pratt negatively affects the throw and it’s a win for the defense. For now, we’ll still count it as a win for Pratt, who should see time with the starters sooner rather than later.

Pratt seemed carried the back seven at times, but the front four were the stars of this game, including fourth-round pick Renell Wren. The 6-5 Wren made his debut and partook in 81% of the defense’s snaps playing at 3-technique. His impact was sparse, but he managed to push the pocket a few times and showed effort in the run game. For a freak athlete who’s still finding his plan, this is fine for his first career game.

Round 2 belongs to Damion Willis

There was too much training camp hype for Willis to be completely silent this preseason. Thursday night was Willis’ time to shine.

Leading all players in receiving yards with 59, Willis was a menace over the middle. The undrafted rookie and Finley connected between the numbers four times, with three of them resulting in first downs. But Willis didn’t stop when Finley’s night ended.

With seconds remaining in the third quarter, Driskel launched his third pass of the night 42 yards in the air down the left sideline. Hand-fighting down the sideline, Willis broke free at the last second and snagged Driskel’s bomb while sliding into the end zone.

Anyone see blatant offensive pass interference? No? You must not’ve been the referees from this game.

Willis’ first career touchdown was revoked for OPI, but that’s not important. This was a fantastic rep from the rookie that invokes the ability to separate via hands at the right time while adjusting for the ball while running full speed. It all clicks and results in a touchdown, at least in our game book anyways. As a consolation, Willis made up for his 10-yard infraction with an 11-yard reception two plays later.

Willis has out-snapped Stanley Morgan 71 to 37, but it was Morgan who stood out in Week 1. If Willis didn’t take the outright lead for what may be the final roster spot over Morgan, he at the very least tied it entering Week 3.