Week 3 of the preseason is when the starters are supposed to be making headlines. It’s the game where they usually play about one half of football and we start seeing what each side of the ball is capable of. And to a degree, we did see this with the Bengals on Thursday night. Andy Dalton’s 26-yard touchdown lob to C.J. Uzomah and Carl Lawson’s strip sack represent the promise of each starting unit.
But as it’s been for this preseason, the rookies have been making too much noise for us to ignore. Week 3 against the Giants was no different.
Second-round pick Drew Sample was sidelined with a hamstring and third-round pick Germaine Pratt was much more quiet in this game, so our attention turned to the day three picks and undrafted free agents. Most of them played well, but a handful really stood out.
Rodney Anderson is more than just healthy
On the first snap Anderson took last night, he made an impact. After running a simple flat route, Anderson caught the ball two yards behind the line of scrimmage, stuck his foot in the ground and scampered 14 yards for a first down for a net 12-yard gain.
39 more receiving yards would follow for Anderson. 47 of his 51 yards would come after the catch, as he was responsible for some of the most impressive plays of the game.
If you knew who Anderson was before Thursday night, what he did on the field shouldn’t have surprised you. The former Oklahoma Sooner was the next man up behind Joe Mixon and asserted himself in the and crimson and cream the year Mixon left for the Bengals and the NFL. His 2017 tape screamed high-round NFL Draft pick and another season just like it would’ve solidified that draft status. You all know what happened next.
The plan all along, per head coach Zac Taylor, was to rest Anderson for the first two preseason games and unleash him in Week 3. Anderson could’ve played the previous two weeks, but the wait was definitely worth it. He looks more than healthy, he looks absolutely dangerous.
As for actually running the ball, don’t take too much stock into his seven yards on eight carries. He had just over three times as many yards after contact due to how frequently he was running into tacklers behind the line of scrimmage. This isn’t an indictment on his vision, but on the blocking in front of him.
Anderson showed not only why he’s special, but most importantly, 100% ready to dominate whenever called upon.
There isn’t a test Damion Willis hasn’t passed yet
In a preseason without A.J. Green and John Ross, Willis has been a blessing of a find. Whatever has been thrown at the former Last Chance U star, figuratively and literally, he’s been able to manage.
Figuratively, Willis has gone from a third-stringer in the spring to starting with the first-team offense in the most important preseason contest.
Literally, well, this happened:
This also happened:
And then, this happened:
The only thing more important that Willis’ stat-line of three catches, 51 yards and his first career touchdown was what happened before all of that.
On the first drive of the game, quarterback Andy Dalton targeted Willis on the game’s first third down. Dalton was pressured as he threw and the pass ended up a tad behind Willis, making it easy for cornerback Corey Ballentine to breakup the pass. But for Willis to be out there with the first team and be the primary read of a crucial play on the first series is huge.
It’s not a matter of whether or not Willis makes the team at this point, it’s a matter of if he’ll be among the active 46 while Green recovers from ankle surgery. If this game was any indication, it seems like he will, especially if Auden Tate’s knee injury takes him out of commission for Week 1.
Stick around for a while longer, Jake Dolegala
With no Jeff Driskel (hamstring) available, the Bengals turned to their fourth-string quarterback in Dolegala to finish the second half. Much like Ryan Finley did two weeks ago, Dolegala dropped some jaws as well as some dimes in his preseason debut.
His second pass of the game was perhaps the best throw any quarterback made all night.
Lost in the hype Willis and, to an extent, Stanley Morgan have been receiving, undrafted receiver Ventell Bryant had a solid third preseason game while Morgan missed the game due to injury. He was the recipient of this beautiful lob from Dolegala that helped set up the three-yard touchdown to Willis.
Later in the fourth quarter, Dolegala hit Bryant on a third-and-long with pressure in his face.
And to close out the drive, Dolegala notched his second touchdown of the quarter on another fade route, this time, to Josh Malone.
Dolegala finished the game with 94 yards on 10-12 passing and his two scores. His 11.17 adjusted yards per attempt only trailed Dalton (12.4) and Daniel Jones (12.8) and had Finley (7.75) beat considerably.
Speaking of Finley, he turned in yet another solid performance. The long bomb to Willis is a blemish on his part for under-throwing the receiver so egregiously, but you could Finley was putting some extra mustard on some throws outside the hash marks later on in the game.
That seems to be the difference between Dolegala and Finley. The undrafted guy in Dolegala has a tight, quick release and can flick the ball with easy velocity. The 104th overall pick in Finley needs to forcibly throw the ball with the necessary velocity and sometimes compromises his accuracy to do so. That arm talent should keep Dolegala on the practice squad at the very least, if he clears waivers that is.
We saw another busy day for defensive tackle Renell Wren (team-leading 33 defensive snaps) but saw fellow fourth-round pick Michael Jordan (17 snaps) leave the game after the first team finished the game early in the second quarter.
Jordan got the start at left guard for the second straight week and by most accounts, is the favorite to pull away with the job. But with Trey Hopkins continuing to see time there and now Billy Price as well, it’s really anyone’s guess who starts where when Week 1 rolls around.
Next to all of that at left tackle, O’Shea Dugas may’ve played himself out of a practice squad spot. The rookie was faulted for two sacks and a few more pressures as well. After a more promising performance last week against the Redskins, Dugas quite honestly looked lost for most of this contest.
The rookie linebackers, outside of Pratt, continue to be non-factors, but at least Deshaun Davis is playing a lot (31 snaps). If anyone can push Hardy Nickerson out of job, it’s him right now. Odds are, both of them will make the team, leaving Malik Jefferson out of the equation.