The final moments of Sunday's preseason finale at Paul Brown Stadium is just what you thought it would be. Not the result. Just the lineup. The Bengals lost a 12-point lead to the Dolphins in the final 5:57 with a batch of players who may or may not here after Tuesday's final cut to 53.
Well, it's never the final, final cut because the bottom of the roster is always churning. But with the teams having a mini bye (they get a long weekend starting this Friday), team architects get a mini offseason when they attack the waiver wire or peruse trades.
(The problem is, they need the extra time because new players have to test for COVID for five straight days before getting into the building.)
There's plenty for the Bengals coaches to evaluate from a torrid 29-26 loss to the Dolphins. Particularly on offense, where they rolled up 413 yards while converting more than half of their 15 third downs and averaging 4.1 yards per 29 running plays behind a heavily scrutinized offensive line rotation. Then, in the last six minutes, the Dolphins offense singed the Bengals backups for 155 yards.
As Bengals head coach Zac Taylor flopped sides with backup tackles Isaiah Prince and Fred Johnson and going with a rookie interior line for most of the first half (center Trey Hill, right guard Jackson Carman, left guard D'Ante Smith), running backs Jacques Patrick and Trayveon Williams combined to rush for 87 yards on 19 carries and for the second preseason game they didn't allow a sack.
(Do you think new offensive line coach Frank Pollack has had an impact? He inherited a group that was along the league leaders in sacks allowed last year and they gave up just one this preseason.)
Third-year guard Michael Jordan didn't make an appearance until he opened the second half at left guard, after Smith had his shot, and along with Carman staying at right guard the three rotated the rest of the way
"There was some good stuff in the run game. When you're playing a solid front, it's going to be ugly at times and you've just got to stick with it and make some good plays," Taylor said. "I thought there was likely improvement there that we'll see...they had great energy there, (they) were feeling good about moving the ball, they wanted runs called, which is good—that's usually when you know a line is getting into a rhythm, is when they're feeling it a little bit. So that was good to see, our backs kind of getting in flow there. I thought it was really good work for our tight ends, our linemen, our backs with all the runs we were able to get off today. We did some good work there and got to evaluate those guys."
It played out that the three got almost equal snaps with Carman 48, Smith 45 and Jordan 43, although the perception that was left is that Jordan doesn't have the standing he did when he began training camp as a starter.
"Consistency. I think that's the key term with all of the interior players," said Taylor when asked about Jordan. "That's why you see the veterans get the latest stab at it, because they've been more consistent. We've got guys with a lot of talent and a lot of potential, but it's the consistency that we're really looking for."
Meanwhile, Carman, the second-rounder who had a slow start, seems to be gaining in the confidence of his consistency.
"I think there is not a single area where I have not been working diligently to get better at in my game. Everything from the run game to the pass game, from the technique to my vision," said Carman, who seems to be getting more of a handle on the transition from Clemson left tackle. "Definitely starting to feel comfortable (at guard). I'm noticing I'm better in both practices and games. My peripheral perception is what Coach (Pollack) calls it. Being able to feel my body in space, and being in the right position and adjusting to the next level."
They also get plenty of chances to scout their defensive depth on the edge in their bid to find a replacement for third-round pick Joseph Ossai, possibly done for the year with a knee injury, and came out of it with mixed results.
Undrafted free agent Darius Hodge looked to grab a roster spot with another sack and sophomore Khalid Kareem, the fifth-rounder from last year, gave them exactly what they needed in his first series of the year with a tipped pass and a sack. But his shoulder problems continued and he left later in the game. Noah Spence, a veteran signed last week in the wake of Ossai's diagnosis, took 23 snaps and didn't appear on the stat sheet.
"Some guys had some good performances," Taylor said of the efforts on the bubble. "I don't want to get too specific with it, but you are trying to pay attention to certain position groups and certain guys. There were plays that were made and some plays that guys would want back as well."
After tight end Mitchell Wilcox exited with a concussion on a big, helmet-losing 21-yard catch over the middle for a first down early in the game in his bid for that third tight end spot, Thaddeus Moss stepped in for his look with a team-high five catches for 44 yards and some big first-down catches of his own.
This is what Moss did at LSU with Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow. Against the Dolphins Moss showed a great feel for the pass game and had some yards after catch. Now they have to value Wilcox's special teams' value against Moss' hands and Mason Schreck's experience for what looks to be one spot.
"We were talking about it on the sideline. There are certain plays where we asked Kyle (Shurmur), 'Hey, why'd you go here?' And he's like, you know, 'I just know where Thaddeus is going to be,'" Burrow said of the Bengals third quarterback that took most of Sunday's snaps.
"I know exactly what Thaddeus is going to do and I know he's going to be open, so Thaddeus is a guy that works really, really hard, gets better every single day, is always asking questions about the offense. He's studying the script, and then he sits next to Brandon (Allen) in the locker room, and he'll either ask me or Brandon, 'Hey, on this route or in this coverage, what do you want me to do?' And you tell him and he does it."
After rookie Chris Evans secured the third running back spot with a 29-yard touchdown catch, Patrick and Trayveon Williams were apparently left to convince them to keep four backs. Williams, sidelined the first two games with a hamstring issue, responded with 4.9 yards per his nine carries and the 230-pound Patrick keeps banging for 4.3 per with his 10 carries.
Patrick couldn't get a third-and-two trying to run behind D'Ante Smith at right guard when they were protecting a 26-21 lead with just under five minutes left, but he did punch it in from the 1 for a touchdown earlier in the second half for a 20-14 lead when he tucked it behind Carman on the right side.
The wide receiver scramble literally got tipped into the air. Veteran Trent Taylor hasn't had many chances this preseason, but when Stanley Morgan, Jr., had a fourth-and-three slant glance off his hands, Taylor turned the tip ball into a 45-yard gain.
Still, it's hard to knock out Morgan. They like him on special teams and he showed some of his physicality on a 13-yard catch he got some YAC. And Trenton Irwin made another roster stand with two catches for 39 yards and held on to another one despite getting drilled when he caught it. Taylor, clearly trying to make a play, tried to make something out of nothing on a punt return, but lost a yard. He also had a fair catch but cornerback Darius Phillips seems to have won that job. He had the only other punt return shot, also a fair catch.
If that last cornerback job is down to Tony Brown and Jalen Davis, they both got plenty of looks. Brown led the defense with 56 snaps, Davis had 48 (two tackles) and each played seven snaps on special teams.
Both appeared to steer clear of the damage the Dolphins brought in the final moments, but the defense just couldn't come up with a stop on the final two drives in obvious passing downs when Miami converted second-and-22, third-and-10 and fourth-and-15.