The Bengals came into Friday night's preseason opener against the Packers thinking they've got about 60 players legit enough to make the 53-man roster and nothing has changed after the 36-19 loss to the Packers at Paycor Stadium. With the two-time AFC finalists already wielding their two-deep, they're trying to balance snap counts among their regulars while settling the last couple of slots at the back of the roster and firming up a practice squad.
Accordingly, the offensive and defensive play calls were vanilla and narrow as their twos and threes went against Green Bay's ones and twos for extended stretches. But the Bengals were rewarded by a vibrant night from their draft class. It remains one of the toughest rosters to make that they've ever had. The shingle may be out soon with trade inquiries because they've got a surplus.
A roster look. (Years of NFL service in parenthesis.)
Trevor Siemian (9), Joe Burrow (4), Reid Sinnett (2), Jake Browning (1).
The most quarterback buzz of the night came during the day when Burrow threw for the first time in public since the calf injury two weeks ago. In about a 30-minute workout before the game that wasn't full-speed but ever encouraging, his rehab looked sleeveless and seamless.
Browning, who started, and Siemian, who went in the second half, had no starters at their disposal and each had the same 49.9 passer rating and didn't produce a touchdown.
"Ultimately, that's what we're judged on. Protecting the football and getting the team in the end zone. Not enough of that tonight," said head coach Zac Taylor.
Browning had a shot to score with 1:04 left in the half and threw a pair of high balls with the last one intercepted. Yet his excellent mobility was on display, he had several nice escapes when he got flushed from the pocket, and he threw some nice balls off play-action. Siemian worked with several practice squad candidates, so he could get the first half this Friday in Atlanta. His interception came on a tip at the line of scrimmage. He gave his receivers down-field shots, but couldn't come up with a long one, although he was nearly rewarded by rookie wide receiver Andrei Iosivas' hellacious contested catch in the end zone that was negated when half a foot was on the line.
WIDE RECEIVERS (12)
Tyler Boyd (8), Trent Taylor (6), Stanley Morgan (5), Tee Higgins (4), Trenton Irwin (4), Ja'Marr Chase (3), Kwamie Lassitter II (1), Charlie Jones (R), Andrei Iosivas (R), Malachi Carter (R), Marc Hippenhammer (R), Shedrick Jackson (R).
Speaking of Iosivas, what didn't the sixth-round Princeton Prodigy do Friday night? The size-speed ratio computed. The 6-3 4.4 guy bodied up a back-shoulder third-down throw from Browning before logging Siemian's longest throw when he turned a five-yard slant into a 24-yard YAC as he slipped two tacklers. His block sprung Lassiter on a screen, he played the first nine special teams plays of his life, and he ended up as their leading receiver with 50 yards.
The CW is they keep seven receivers. The scrum behind the big three has begun.
You know what they think of Irwin. Zac Taylor named him one of the two captains (linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither was the other) for his work in camp and he ripped off their longest pass play of the game on a 33-yard catch-and-run from Browning in earning the Bengals' highest offensive Pro Football Focus grade of the night. Lassiter, who looked good last preseason before going to the practice squad, was at it again, catching all but one of the seven balls thrown his way.
Jones, the fourth-rounder still working his way back from a back shoulder with two catches on six targets, caught two punts in his return derby with incumbent Trent Taylor. Taylor's 23-yard return was called back by penalty. Morgan is the only receiver who had a special teams tackle, which is his niche and is being contested by the young defensive backs. It would seem the second tier is chasing Irwin and Jones and Iosivas staked his claim among the vet mix of Morgan and Lassiter.
RUNNING BACKS (6)
Joe Mixon (7), Trayveon Williams (5), Chris Evans (3), Chase Brown (R), Jacob Saylers (R), Calvin Tyler Jr. (R).
CW is four spots here. It seems to be a tough position to go light at the cutdown. Williams is out with an ankle sprain as Evans and Brown did their things. Evans had half of their 66 yards rushing on one bolt up the middle. Brown, the fifth-rounder, came as advertised. Explosive and elusive. He made people miss and then jetted away from the pack on a 21-yard check-down. When he smashed inside to convert two third-and-ones, he also reminded everyone he was durable enough to carry 676 times in college and nearly half of those carries came last season at Illinois.
TIGHT ENDS (7)
Drew Sample (5), Irv Smith Jr. (5), Devin Asiasi (4), Tanner Hudson (4), Mitchell Wilcox (4), Nick Bowers (2), Christian Trahan (R).
With Wilcox not yet back from injury, Hudson may have a leg up on the third spot behind Smith and Sample with his four catches Friday. Hudson, who already comes in with 33 games for three other teams, has shown a knack to do damage with a pair of veteran hands. His last catch was a nice grab-and-run 16-yarder over the middle complete with a Hayden Hurstian hurdle, but he left with a concussion after the play.
OFFENSIVE LINE (15)
RT La'el Collins (9), C Ted Karras (8), LG Alex Cappa (6), LT Orlando Brown (6), G-T Cody Ford (5); G Max Scharping (5), T Jonah Williams (5), G-T Hakeem Adeniji (4), G-T Jackson Carman (3), C-G Trey Hill (3), T D'Ante Smith (3), LG Cordell Volson (2), C Ben Brown (2), G Nate Gilliam (1), G Jaxson Kirkland (R).
The Bengals shuffled things to find backup centers and guards and tested them with 45 passes. They used four centers, including guard Max Scharping's debut, and last year's backup, Trey Hill, also played some left guard and made a nice pulling block on Evans' 33-yarder. They would probably love to keep ten here, but it is usually nine.
What seemed to emerge Friday is two more intriguing backup tackle candidates with Carman and Adeniji. Smith played the most of any Bengal with 52 snaps at both tackles. PFF gave him the team's best pass-blocking grade and he looked improved over last season when he didn't suit up until the end of the year because of the line's injuries. The Bengals signed Ford as a backup tackle, but have liked the way he moved into guard when Cappa went down. It's interesting to see if they give Ford some right tackle snaps in the two remaining games.
DEFENSIVE LINE (16)
NT DJ Reader (8), E Tarell Basham (7), E Trey Hendrickson (7), T B.J. Hill (6), E Sam Hubbard (6), NT Josh Tupou (6), E-T Cam Sample (3), E-T Joseph Ossai (3), T Jay Tufele (3), T Zach Carter (2), E Jeff Gunter (2), E Raymond Johnson III (2), E Owen Carney (1), T Domenique Davis (1), E Myles Murphy (R), T Tautala Pesefea Jr. (R).
Deepest and best position on the team. They have to keep ten and would probably love to keep 11. Once you get past Reader, Hill, Tupou and Carter at tackle, and Hendrickson, Hubbard, Murphy, Ossai, and Sample on the edge, you still have oodles of good players.
PFF rated Johnson and Davis their two best pass rushers of the night and they combined to force a fumble and recover it late in the game. Tufele, who wears Geno Atkins' No. 97 and channels his fellow Samoan Domata Peko, was so key last year when Reader and Tupou went down. He was immense again Friday with five tackles, one for a loss, and a quarterback hit while playing a unit-high 50 snaps. It shows you how much they think of Sample. He's so consistent at either edge or tackle, so he played only five snaps. Per PFF, Murphy had a hit and hurry on his first 15 NFL rushes, but he also flashed his first-round traits in space.
Germaine Pratt (5), Joe Bachie (4), Markus Bailey (4), Akeem Davis-Gaither (4), Logan Wilson (4), Keandre Jones (2), Shaka Heyward (R), Jaylen Moody (R), Tyler Murray (R).
Pratt and Wilson watched and Davis-Gaither, having a terrific camp, played only five snaps as a captain. Maybe the toughest room to crack because they usually keep just five and you get there quickly with special teams vets Bailey and Bachie. It's believed not to be a major injury, but Bachie left with a chest issue.
It just seems like there is so much talent on the line and secondary that it would be hard to see them going short at one of those spots to add a sixth backer for special teams. Bachie had the lone teams tackle by a backer Friday, but veteran practice squadder Jones' speed always shows up. He had four tackles and one for a loss playing nearly half the snaps.
S Michael Thomas (10), CB Chidobe Awuzie (7), CB Mike Hilton (7), CB Sidney Jones IV (6), S Nick Scott (5), CB Jalen Davis (4), S Tycen Anderson (2), S Dax Hill (2), CB Cam Taylor-Britt (2), S Yusuf Corker (1), CB Allan George (1), S Jordan Battle (R), CB D.J. Turner II (R), CB D.J. Ivey (R), S Larry Brooks (R), CB Marvell Tell III (R).
The kids came out Friday. Anderson is the feel-good story of camp after last season's empty rookie year. He flashed his speed with two picks (one he took to the house) and he was active in the run game. PFF rated him Cincy's best defensive player, tops in coverage and fourth on the run. Usually they keep four safeties, so if Anderson keeps stacking games, then he has turned that into a battle behind the starters Scott and Hill.
The third-rounder Battle did what you'd thought he'd do. The Alabama vet, plagued by a hamstring problem early in camp as he takes off a few pounds, showed up when the lights came on. He was conditioned enough to play a unit-high 50 plays and batted down a goal-line pass while he chased down a tackle for loss when he kept running on his back-side blitz.
The drafted cornerbacks also delivered after such a strong early training camp. The second-rounder Turner continued to cover everything on his 42 snaps. PFF had him allowing just six yards on three catches and five targets. He had a particularly strong snap against Packers wide receiver Christian Watson, a 2022 second-rounder. He chased him down in the flat for a yard loss and added a pass defensed on a Sean Clifford bomb where he had his head turned in plenty of time.
The seventh-rounder Ivey had a rookie moment when he appeared to undercut a route instead of settling for a tackle and helped give up the longest play of the night, a 47-yard pass. But he played physical and long on his 23 run plays, where PFF rated him the Bengals' best run defender on 3-for-3 tackling.
Awuzie, Taylor-Britt, and Hilton sat as the rest of the cornerbacks battled to see which three (four?) get the nod behind them. George had an up-and-down night, getting flagged for a 23-yard pass interference in the end zone, but he was also the game's leading tackler with five. In his Bengals debut, the free agent Jones had good coverage on wide receiver Romeo Doubs, but quarterback Jordan Love threw it only where Doubs could get it on the nine-yard touchdown. Davis has been nicked and played just seven snaps, but that grit is why the coaches love him as Hilton's backup in the slot.
K Evan McPherson (3), LS Cal Adomitis (2), P Drue Chrisman (2), P Brad Robbins (R).
Robbins had a touchback, something he never did at Michigan last year, but never mind that. He drilled it 65 yards for a 45-yard net. He also put one inside the 20 among his first five NFL punts. Maybe even more impressive was his participation in a buttery smooth field-goal operation when he held for McPherson's 4-for-4 night that included a 51-yard field goal. Zac Taylor indicated Robbins would have competition starting this week when Chrisman, sidelined by a medical issue, returns to practice.