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Giants at Bengals: The good, bad and ugly

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Even though it was a Bengals loss, the team looked much-improved in the most important summer exhibition this past Thursday night.

NFL: Preseason-New York Giants at Cincinnati Bengals Bob Meyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals made great strides of improvement this Thursday against the Giants, prompting increased optimism from that of the results of the first two contests. It didn’t lead to a win, but there were positive takeaways. Unfortunately, there were some areas of concern that are stuck on repeat as well.

Here are the best and worst from the Bengals’ 23-25 loss to the Giants in Week 3 of the preseason.

The good

Competitions brewing and bringing positive results: If you had watched the Bengals’ telecast of the game against the Giants, you would have heard an interesting tidbit from Solomon Wilcots on the sideline (good to have him back on T.V., by the way). Wilcots talked about how competition brings out the best in a team and that may be the current situation occurring in Taylor’s locker room.

There are a few examples in which to look. Billy Price has seemed to up his play since his quasi-demotion, while the back end of the wide receiver depth chart is creating quite a stir because of big-time performances. When there is a leadership change in any business, both new and tenured employees look to put their best foot forward.

Taylor’s message of an open competition throughout much of the roster has seemingly resonated. Many players are either upping their game, or are making a final roster push, regardless of their draft designation and in which regime they were selected.

Zac Taylor, quarterback whisperer: The Bengals’ young head coach was brought to The Queen City for his offensive prowess and potential ability to raise the play of the quarterback position. We’ll talk more about the exact statistics of the three signal-callers in a minute, but it’s clear that his background and schemes are working for the position group.

Perhaps the most impressive of the group has been Ryan Finley, who is acting like an effective point guard. The rookie is distributing the ball to a number of targets and is proving this staff correct about their faith in their fourth-round investment.

Speaking of quarterbacks...: The trio of Andy Dalton, Ryan Finley and Jake Dolegala had incredibly productive nights. The three combined to go 31-of-42 (78 percent) for 353 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions.

There were dry spells from Dalton and Finley, in terms of netted points, but each passer showed the ability to be productive—even without important players in the lineup. Dalton will only grow more comfortable with the returns of Tyler Eifert, A.J. Green and John Ross, while Finley looks like the next incarnation of Chad Pennington.

There is receiving talent beyond A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd, folks: Unfortunately, Auden Tate’s night ended early on Thursday against the Giants, but he once again flashed his ability to make plays. Meanwhile, undrafted rookie Damion Willis is doing absolutely everything to create a final roster spot for himself.

Josh Malone and Cody Core have been duking it out for a spot, while Alex Erickson continues to prove he is a reliable and multi-dimensional player. Throw in the accrued talent at the tight end position and we can see why optimism about the team was starting to brew this spring.

Did we mention the running backs and their abilities to catch? Rodney Anderson had a handful of highlight reel plays as a receiver, while Jordan Ellis had two more receptions on Thursday night. If protection can hold up this year, Dalton should be able to distribute the ball with great productivity.

Improvement of the mental aspects: Penalties are usually an indicator of focus and preparation, to a certain extent. In the first two games, the Cincinnati Bengals had 11 penalties apiece called against them.

Though no officials with the last name of “Hochuli” were at Paul Brown Stadium Thursday night, Cincinnati only had five called against them versus the Giants. Taylor preached cleaner play this week and the team responded well. Most of those five fouls were committed by backup units, so it further breeds optimism for the beginning of the regular season.

Glorious on-field returns of injured players: Whether it was Anderson and his 58 multi-purpose yards on 12 touches, Carl Lawson’s explosive sack-fumble, or the first-team defense playing better with Geno Atkins (just was resting) simply taking snaps, the uptick in performance was notable.

The Bengals have subscribed to the theory that if they just remain healthy this year, they’ll be in the playoff picture. While it was frustrating during their inactivity in the free agent months, health and a coaching overhaul just might make them sneaky contenders after all.

The bad

The offensive line: The first unit did alright, primarily in pass protection, but issues still abound. One of which was in the overall lack of room in the run game, as evidenced by the 29 yards on the ground against the Giants.

The other bigger and more concerning facet from a macro perspective is in the team failing to find the right starting formula with the opener just a couple of weeks away. The good news is that they are getting a better handle on players like Price, Michael Jordan, John Miller and others, but the vacancies left by both Jonah Williams and Clint Boling continue to loom very large.

Even with improved play, a notch in the loss column: In a number of ways, this was the team’s best performance of the preseason. It’s what you want from “the dress rehearsal” game, as it is known as the biggest tune-up for the regular season.

Preseason wins and losses don’t mean very much, but it is a bit of a blow to confidence when you improve your level of play, yet it does not net the desired result. Unfortunately, this is sometimes a trademark of a team in transition—they need to “learn how to win”, as they say.

Similar Achilles heel on defense: To be fair, what was the semblance of the first unit of the defense only allowed three points through a quarter and a half. Even so, a facet of pass defense continued to fail the team.

New York’s backs and tight ends gashed the Bengals’ defense once again, moving the chains with frustrating frequency. The latter group had six catches for 76 yards, while the former had four more catches for 37 yards. It wasn’t so much that they were big plays directly responsible for points, but rather that they were drive-sustaining receptions.

The ugly

The running game: As mentioned above, the Bengals were unable to get anything substantial going on the ground. This is particularly concerning, given the fact that Taylor has made it known that he wants to establish that facet of the offense and use it to set up play-action. It’s also been a theme of the preseason, to a certain extent.

It’s entirely possible that this gets fixed with a concoction of an offensive line in which they have faith, as well as with increased carries by Joe Mixon and/or Giovani Bernard, but that remains to be seen. For now, it’s another area of concern heading into Week 1.

A late collapse in a certain fashion: Hearkening back to a previous point, a team trying to find its way under a new staff and with some new personnel can have trouble tying up a win. After Dolegala hit Willis for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, it seemed as if Cincinnati was beginning to take solid control of the contest.

Unfortunately, New York regained the stranglehold in the form of a punt return touchdown, forcing Cincinnati to play catch-up the rest of the way. The Bengals made a valiant effort late, but the fact that they came up short because of a major special teams gaffe brings exasperation. This may be a moot point because the coverage unit out there may not employ players we’ll see on Sundays, but it’s definitely something that needs to be remedied.