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What to watch for in Bengals’ first preseason game vs. Cardinals

It’s the rookies’ time to shine.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals Training Camp The Enquirer-USA TODAY Sports

The fans and virtually every starter for the Cincinnati Bengals will be doing the same thing during tonight’s preseason opener against the Arizona Cardinals. With Zac Taylor declaring all “entrenched” starters out for the game, plenty of eyes will be locked in on the plethora of roster hopefuls.

Considering this is the first Bengals game in six months, you won’t need many more reasons to tune in. Ugly preseason football is still football. And while you’re trying to get through all four quarters, here are some things to keep an eye on.

Revamped pass rush depth

There’s always, and I mean always, one pass-rusher who makes a great impression a month before the season. This year, that appears to be Jeff Gunter. The sixth and final pick from the Bengals’ 2022 draft class has been dominating off the edge in recent practices, and such progress will warrant significant playing time in his first career NFL game.

Gunter’s emergence arrived at the right time. Cincinnati’s biggest deficiency on defense last season was generating additional pass rush outside Trey Hendrickson. Gunter working in tandem with second-year edge Joseph Ossai (who’s actually over a year younger than Gunter) can take notable pressure off of Hendrickson and fellow starter Sam Hubbard. For now, those two will watch Gunter and Ossai play in their spots.

Then there’s Zach Carter, who will take most of his snaps in-between the tackles. Along with Ossai, playing time will be the main factor for him. That he’s the main backup to B.J. Hill at defensive tackle makes his availability valuable, but they’ll have to balance that with giving him the required reps to develop.

Eager receivers

While there isn’t much competition for playing time at wide receiver, there is a roster spot or two up for grabs. Beyond Stanley Morgan Jr. and Mike Thomas is a wide open battle featuring the likes of Trent Taylor, Trenton Irwin, and several rookies.

The main rookies to keep an eye on are Kwamie Lassiter II and Kendric Pryor. Lassiter will get equal opportunities with Taylor at punt returner and slot receiver. Special teams is where he’ll have the best chance to crack the opening 53, but Pryor just has to outplay everyone as a receiver, and thus far, he’s made a great impression in practice. He may’ve done enough to earn the start tonight along with Thomas and Morgan. Even if he didn’t, we’ll see plenty of him throughout the game.

Ambiguous left guard situation

The only true competition on either offensive or defense will decide who plays between Jonah Williams and Ted Karras. So far, it’s really been all Jackson Carman. There hasn’t been much chatter regarding Cordell Volson taking reps with the 1s in place of Carman, which is either indicative of Carman’s progress, or Volson just being behind the curve. Nevertheless, if Carman had solidified his status as a starter, he wouldn’t be playing tonight.

Now that we have actual games to evaluate, we’ll get to see how both players look at the position on a rotational basis. Volson has a nasty demeanor attached to his resume entering the NFL, but can that translate to consistent pass protection against NFL rushers? His first test tonight is an important one.

Future of the secondary

The Bengals have to be pleased at how their defensive backfield looks right now. Despite Jessie Bates’ absence, the secondary has been one of the clear winners from training camp, thanks in part to Dax Hill adapting quickly to free safety, and Eli Apple keeping his distance in front Cam Taylor-Britt as a starter.

Hill is technically the guy at free safety with Bates unsigned and holding out, but as a rookie, he’ll start tonight in Bates place, meaning he’ll work with Taylor-Britt on the field throughout the early portion of the game. Seeing the first and second-round picks operate together for the first time should be informative, but we’ll also get to see their speed and ball skills in action.

Maybe Tycen Anderson will also be on the field with his fellow draft mates. The more speed, the better.

What are you looking forward to seeing from the Bengals tonight? Let us know in the comments!