Bengals vs. Buccaneers Game Notes
The Bengals kick off preseason play with a Friday night home game against the Buccaneers at 7:30 p.m.
Television: Live coverage on the Bengals Preseason Network with Brad Johansen (play-by-play), Anthony Munoz (analyst) and Mike Valpredo (sideline reporter). The network is led by flagship WKRC-TV (CBS Channel 12) in Cincinnati. Also on the network are WKEF-TV (ABC Ch. 22) in Dayton, WSYX-TV (ABC Ch. 6) in Columbus, WLIO-TV (FOX Ch. 8.2) in Lima, WDKY-TV FOX Ch. 56) in Lexington, Ky. and WDRB-TV (FOX Ch. 41) in Louisville, Ky.
Radio: Coverage on the Bengals Radio Network, led by Cincinnati flagship stations WCKY-AM (ESPN 1530; all sports) and WEBN-FM (102.7). Broadcasters are Dan Hoard (play-by-play) and Dave Lapham (analyst).
Setting the scene: The 2017 season marks the golden anniversary of the Cincinnati Bengals, and while the team enters its 50th campaign with plans to honor its past throughout the year, it does so with a keen eye on its immediate future.
After five straight seasons in the playoffs from 2011-15, something only four NFL teams accomplished during that span, the Bengals seek to bounce back from their 6-9-1 setback in '16 and finish their 50th season in gilded fashion. That undertaking begins with Friday's preseason opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Bengals fans longing for a return to the playoffs have many reasons to be optimistic this preseason as the team primes for its regular-season opener vs. Baltimore on Sept. 10. Here are a few:
Injured veterans returning to action: Cincinnati enters the preseason having been upgraded simply by welcoming back a significant list of difference-making veterans who ended last season on Reserve/Injured. That list includes WR A.J. Green, TE Tyler Eifert, HB Giovani Bernard and G Clint Boling. Green and Eifert, the Bengals' top two receiving threats, were fully ready and in the lineup together for only two games in 2016. Green was on pace for the best season of an already remarkable career before playing only two snaps in the last seven games, due to a hamstring injury. And Eifert, a Pro Bowler with 13 TDs in 2015, played in only eight games in '16 due to ankle and back injuries early and late in the year. Bernard played just 10 games last season before suffering a torn ACL, and Boling battled with an injured shoulder most of the year before the cumulative effects of the injury sidelined the starting LG for the final two contests. Also limited physically in 2016 were veteran stalwarts HB Jeremy Hill and LB Vontaze Burfict.
And those solid veterans aren't the only players whose returns to action bode well for team's 2017 prospects. CB William Jackson and DT Andrew Billings both were notable draft picks last year who missed their entire rookie seasons due to injuries suffered early in training camp. Jackson was the team's first-round pick and had suffered a pectoral muscle tear, and Billings was its fourth-round selection and had suffered a meniscus tear in his knee. Both certainly will be competing for significant playing time, and possibly even roles as starters.
An intriguing draft class: In addition to all of the existing veteran talent returning to the active roster, the Bengals significantly upgraded themselves in April's NFL Draft with notable speed and athleticism on both sides of the ball, particularly in the first four rounds.
On offense, WR John Ross, the team's first-round pick out of Washington (ninth overall), brings record-setting speed to the team. He clocked an exceptional 4.22-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine — considered to be an all-time combine record — and he posted career totals of 114 catches, 1729 receiving yards and 22 receiving TDs over three seasons at Washington. Second-round pick Joe Mixon, a 6-foot-1, 228-pound HB considered to have excellent speed for his size, posted lofty career totals of 300 carries for 2027 yards (6.8 average) and 17 TDs, as well as 65 receptions for 894 yards (13.8) and nine TDs at Oklahoma, despite splitting time in the Sooners' backfield. And WR Josh Malone, a fourth-round selection, not only was a deep-ball-specialist at Tennessee with 104 career receptions for 1608 yards (15.5 average) and 14 TDs, he also posted a 4.40-second 40-yard dash at the combine, third best among wide receivers and eighth overall.
On defense, Cincinnati added DE Jordan Willis of Kansas State in the third round, LB Carl Lawson of Auburn in the fourth round and DT Ryan Glasgow of Michigan in the fourth round. Willis was widely considered to be one of the best defenders in Kansas State history, recording 114 career tackles, including 40.5 for losses, and his 26 career sacks are third most in school history. Willis' 4.53 40-yard dash at the combine led all defensive linemen, and his 39-inch vertical leap ranked second. Lawson played mostly on the defensive line at Auburn, but is expected to be a LB with the Bengals. He totaled 24 tackles for losses in three seasons with the Tigers, including 14 sacks. At the combine, Lawson's 35 bench press reps of 225 pounds led all defensive linemen and linebackers, and tied for the top mark overall. Glasgow was considered a strong run defender after a standout career at Michigan. The former walk-on had 91 career tackles, including 18.5 for losses, with five sacks.
And one shouldn't forget special teams, as the Bengals made the rare move of selecting a kicker in the draft when they took Jake Elliott of Memphis in the fifth round. Elliott ranks in the top-10 in FBS scoring by a kicker with 445 career points, and he holds Memphis career records for points, PATs (202), FGs (81), FG percentage (77.9) and longest FG (56 yards). If he makes the team, Elliott surely will factor largely into the Bengals' fortunes.
The return of core veteran players in their prime: In looking at the Bengals' depth chart, the projected starting lineup is filled with returning seasoned veterans who are considered to be in the primes of their careers. On offense, the list includes QB Andy Dalton, WRs Green and Brandon LaFell, TE Eifert, H-B Ryan Hewitt, HBs Hill and Bernard, G Boling and C Russell Bodine. And on defense, it includes DEs Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson, DT Geno Atkins, LB Burfict, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, S George Iloka and S Shawn Williams. Also added to this lengthy list of solid starters this offseason was fifth-year free agent LB Kevin Minter, who played his first four seasons with Arizona.
The Bengals did lose two veteran offensive linemen in free agency this offseason — 12th-year OT Andrew Whitworth (signed with Los Angeles Rams) and sixth-year G Kevin Zeitler (signed with Cleveland Browns). Both were longtime starters, and there's no doubt their absence will be felt, but the Bengals had prepared for O-line departures by drafting OTs Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher in the first and second rounds of the 2015 draft respectively. Ogbuehi looks to start at LOT, while Fisher's ascension at ROT allows the team to move Andre Smith inside to G.
Overall, the team has been successful in keeping the core of its primary players over the years while developing its young talent and adding a few veterans here and there along the way. Head coach Marvin Lewis often cites that approach as playing an important role in the team's positive outlook.
And it's not just players that figure into the team's stability and continuity. The Bengals' coaching staff also returns completely intact in 2017.
The continual improvement of Andy Dalton: The Bengals may have finished with a disappointing 6-9-1 record in 2016, but it came with plenty of reason to think what else might have been. Sure, the team didn't produce as expected in the fourth quarters of several games, and it suffered from crucial missed place kicks and multiple season-ending injuries at key positions as no Bengals team has suffered in recent years. Despite that, however, things were not far off the mark overall. The team's last five losses came by a total of just 16 points (an average of 3.2 per game), and a primary reason those games remained so close was the steady play and leadership of Dalton.
The season also ended with reassurance that the Bengals can count on continued top-level play where it counts most — at quarterback. Though Dalton didn't match his overall statistics from 2015 — which included a Bengals-record 106.3 passer rating — his stats were still very good, and he displayed great leadership. Dalton played under some adverse conditions, including being sacked as many times (41) as he was during the 2014 and '15 seasons combined. The injuries to Green, Eifert, Bernard and Boling also played a part.
"To me, Andy had his best season so far, though as a team we did not," Lewis said. "He continued to grow into the quarterback we expect him to be. Last year he didn't have as many experienced players as he had in the past, both in years in the league and years in our system, because we had some turnover going in. He had to mentor and bring guys along. That is great experience you gain as a quarterback, and it will help us moving forward."
The series: The Bengals and Bucs last met in preseason in 2015, a 25-11 Tampa Bay home victory. The Bucs lead 9-4 in preseason games, having won five straight. The Bengals' last preseason victory in the series came in 1987, a narrow 31-30 decision at Riverfront Stadium. The Bengals have played host to the Bucs only three times in preseason, with the Bucs emerging victorious in two of those matchups.
In regular-season play, the Bucs lead 7-4, but the Bengals won the last meeting, 14-13 at Tampa in 2014. The Bengals and Bucs will not meet in the 2017 regular season.
Bengals-Buccaneers connections: Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter played together at Idaho State University from 1978-80, and during the '81 season, Koetter's final season as a player and Lewis' first as a coach, ISU won an NCAA Division I-AA championship ... Bengals tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes and Bucs defensive line coach Jay Hayes are brothers. Jay Hayes was Bengals defensive line coach from 2003-15 ... Bucs linebackers coach Mark Duffner was on the Bengals coaching staff from 1997-2002. Duffner also coached at Ohio State University from 1975-76 and the University of Cincinnati from '77-80 ... Bengals DE Michael Johnson played for the Bucs in 2014 ... Bucs DT Clinton McDonald entered the NFL as a seventh-round draft choice of the Bengals in 2009, and was with Cincinnati through the '11 preseason ... Bucs QB Ryan Fitzpatrick played for the Bengals from 2007-08 ... Bengals DE Wallace Gilberry was with Tampa Bay in 2012 ... Bengals LB Hardy Nickerson Jr. is the son of Hardy Nickerson Sr., who played for the Bucs from 1993-99 ... Bengals WR Karel Hamilton is from Valrico, Fla. (outside of Tampa), and attended Strawberry Crest High School in Dover, Fla. ... Bengals DE Carlos Dunlap played at the University of Florida ... Bengals QB Jeff Driskel is from Oviedo, Fla., and played for four years at the University of Florida, before transferring to Louisiana Tech ... Bengals CB Josh Shaw played two seasons at the University of Florida, before transferring to Southern California ... Bengals WR Kermit Whitfield is from Orlando, Fla., and played at Florida State University ... Bucs WR Donteea Dye Jr. is from Fairfield, Ohio (outside of Cincinnati), attended Fairfield High School, and played collegiately at Heidelberg University ... Bucs DE Noah Spence played at both Ohio State University and Eastern Kentucky University ... Bucs CB Jude Adjei-Barimah is from Columbus, Ohio, (Northland High School) and played at Bowling Green State University ... Bucs WR Bernard Reedy played at the University of Toledo ... Bucs TE Luke Stocker is from Berea, Ky. ... Bucs quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian coached at the University of Cincinnati from 2010-12 ... Bucs secondary coach Jon Hoke is from Kettering, Ohio, and coached at Bowling Green State University from 1983-86 ... Bucs running backs coach Tim Spencer is from Martins Ferry, Ohio, played collegiately at Ohio State University from 1979-82 and coached at OSU from '94-03 ... Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith coached at Morehead State University in 1986 ... Bucs run game coordinator/offensive line coach George Warhop played (1981-82) and coached ('83) at the University of Cincinnati ... Bucs head strength and conditioning coach Dave Kennedy coached at Ohio State University from 1989-01.