PLAYER OF THE DAY: CB Chidobe Awuzie
There wasn't much offense and defense Sunday at Bengals training camp with head coach Zac Taylor bequeathing the majority of practice to special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons.
But there was enough for the defense to again flex its muscles, preventing the first and second offenses from mounting any kind of drives backed up on their goal line during two series each.
Which in this training camp means that No. 22 was all over the place. Two plays stood out Sunday. Awuzie wrapped up rookie running back Chris Evans on a screen when he diagnosed it almost as quickly as the stop. And he was in on a third-down coverage sack when quarterback Joe Burrow had to hold the ball.
Like Burrow said himself Saturday, Awuzie, the free-agent starter from Dallas, has been "awesome."
"Just trying to stay in the moment," Awuzie said after Sunday's practice. "I really don't get on my high horse or get low on myself. I'm trying to make every play that comes to me at least be competitive. Whether I make it or not, it's not really the point. The point is knowing I did my best. I didn't beat myself before I started."
If it sounds like Awuzie is a thinking man's cornerback, he is. A devout member of chess.com whose game has been noticed by a grand master (Hikaru Nakamura), he's quite comfortable with the Bengals and one of the reasons is the nearby chessboard in the locker room over which Burrow and tight end Thaddeus Moss wage daily battle.
"I came to a team that plays chess. And it's cool to play chess," Awuzie said. "A lot of places, you feel it's something you don't talk about or play. It's cool to sit and watch Joe and Thaddeus."
Awuzie says he'll give it another month or so before he gets in a game and joked "I don't want to get any spirits down. I don't want to come in and wreck what they've got going on." So he's been offering running commentary and a few tips, too.
"I look at the positions, see who's winning, talk a little bit of crap and keep it moving," Awuzie said.
It's not just the knights and rooks that make him feel comfortable. He's felt it's been a fit ever since the first day of free agency back in March, when the Bengals were the first team to reach out with money and even though other suitors soon came after, Awuzie rewarded the Bengals for their diligence.
"It's a combination," said Awuzie of the defense's fast start despite a batch of fellow newcomers, "of having such a good locker room, having such a good coach already in place to where we can come in and feel real comfortable to do our jobs. Credit to the guys and the coaches that have been here before. They make it real comfortable for guys to come in and be themselves."
He says his joust with receivers Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins and Ja'Marr Chase remind him of the daily battles in Dallas with top trios. Last year it was Amari Cooper (his chess partner), CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup. A few years before that it was Cooper, Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams.
"I've been blessed to have been around receivers like that and we're blessed to have those guys," Awuzie said. "When it comes to explosiveness, these guys are one of the best (NFL trios).
"There's been some real competition .... we're pushing each other to the limit. After every route, we talk to each other about technique and certain concepts. It's really been collaborative."
PLAY OF THE DAY: WR Tyler Boyd
With one-on-ones consisting of quarterbacks trying to jam the ball past the goal line from the 5, Boyd ran a fade into the corner and turned what looked to be an overthrow into a touchdown when he skied over cornerback Jalen Davis and extended his hands over his head and pulled it back down.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
Head coach Zac Taylor on if Burrow improved in the pocket with more bodies around in drills:
"I think he's probably most comfortable in a game situation where it's finally unscripted and we can react to the situation. Just go out there and play football as opposed to a whole period being "12" personnel or play-actions or runs. Let's set the whole thing up at our disposal and go play, and that's where Joe is best. You'll see a lot more of that going forward, so nothing unexpected on that end, because that's what we expected."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: It wasn't lost on Taylor that Friday's practice on offense was a jaw-dropping struggle. So much so that Taylor convened a Friday night offense-only meeting and he was rewarded with Saturday's 13-play touchdown drive.
"What we like is we had a nice little unit meeting two nights ago after that practice to make sure we were all on the same page with false starts and errors and all the small things that really hurt ourselves," Taylor said. "Because we had a third-down period that, quite frankly, should've been really explosive and we just weren't. We shot ourselves in the foot. And yesterday I thought the guys responded really well to what we asked them to do, and they had a nice day. It was good to see them take that teacher to the field." …
No doubt Taylor was displeased with Sunday's first play in team when someone on the left side false started. On the next snap, tight end C.J. Uzomah, who had been over there, atoned for the left side when he was one of the guys on the right that running back Joe Mixon followed for the ones' only first down in the brief period …
The twos got a first down when quarterback Brandon Allen play-actioned a first down pass to tight end Mitchell Wilcox …
Simmons ended his day with five different end-of-game (or half) situations in which the field goal unit has to run on the field instantly. He did a couple simulating a play's that's reviewed resulting in a field goal, and a couple with a timeout.
This stuff works. In 2015, Simmons ran kicker Mike Nugent's guys on the field just in time to send the Seattle game into overtime at deafening Paul Brown Stadium, where Nugent won it. In the 2016 opener in New York, Simmons got Nugent on the field at the end of the half for a field goal that was all the difference in a 23-22 win.
On Sunday, rookie Evan McPherson and vet Austin Seibert hit the five attempts from 35 and in.
"It was mostly the starters today, but we'll get the young guys used to it," Simmons said. "They did a good job. They were where they were supposed to be. It shows they're paying attention." …
Tough break for free-agent rookie punt return hopeful Pooka Williams, Jr. Of all days with Simmons strutting his stuff, Williams appeared to pull a muscle running routes as a wide receiver. While they caught punts, he was on the sidelines with ice bandaged to his leg …
The candidates to return Saturday night in Tampa, (pending his health, of course) are Williams, slot receiver Trent Taylor and cornerback Darius Phillips. Boyd caught them too, Sunday, but it's hard to see them putting him out there. Especially in the preseason …
Rookie tackle D'Ante Smith found out he was playing left guard Saturday only when offensive line coach Frank Pollack stopped him in the hallway in the morning. Smith, who played one game at guard as a sophomore at East Carolina and at the Senior Bowl but not since, got another shot at left guard Sunday from the encouraged coaching staff.
But don't ask Zac Taylor when he'll finalize that offensive line.
"I don't have a timeline for that. These games are going to show us a lot because we're not on the field coaching them," Taylor said. "They've got to get through the whole game. They've got to be able to make the adjustments. So really, I kind of reserve the right to not speak too much leading up to these games because they'll give us more information and then we can make better decisions going forward. Like anything, sooner rather than later obviously, but we're not going to put any timeline on any of that stuff with the starters."
View some of the best images from Day 11 of the Bengals Training Camp in Cincinnati.