In his last practice before Saturday's preseason opener in Tampa (7:30-Cincinnati's Channel 12), Bengals head coach Zac Taylor cut Thursday's workout by about an hour and let the backups tune up for the reigning Super Bowl champions for most of the hour-long slimmed down script that was basically a glorified walkthrough.
If there was no coveted Bengals.com Player of the Day and Play of the Day, there were plenty topics for Thursday as they prepped for their first preseason game since Aug. 29, 2019.
(Jake Dolegala threw for 253 yards but couldn't get the Bengals into the Paul Brown Stadium end zone in a 13-6 loss to the Colts.)
Since the Buccaneers' feared front is intact and returns the players that generated the NFL's fifth-most sacks last season with the third highest blitz percentage, how Taylor uses his much scrutinized offensive line that allowed the third most sacks is of much interest.
They won't be protecting Joe Burrow and while Taylor has said he has yet to decide if Burrow is going to play at all in the preseason, the coaches are still going to get a nice idea how far the line has advanced under new line coach Frank Pollack.
It sounds like backup quarterback Brandon Allen is going to work for much of the first half, but he probably won't have starting tackles Jonah Williams and Riley Reiff for long.
"You want to put together a good drive with the ones. If you can do that then get some other guys some work. Brandon will play a little bit longer than maybe some other guys that come out first just to get him some more game action," Taylor said. "You have a lot interior competition but not a lot of bodies on the outside. Some guys are going to get some really good work. (Tackles) Isaiah Prince and Gunnar Vogel, those guys will get their fair share of reps."
Third tackle Fred Johnson (quad) has been ruled out, which means fourth-rounder D'Ante Smith may end up playing some right tackle and left guard, where he backs up starter Quinton Spain. On Thursday, Taylor declared both guards open with right guard Michael Jordan starting ahead of eight-year vet Xavier Su'a-Filo and second-rounder Jackson Carman. Taylor says he'll rotate the guards, but try to keep guys in one spot.
"You'd like to see if they're going to play X amount of snaps is let them play continuously," Taylor said. "There are always things that come in these preseason games as we've all seen where that changes, but for the most part it's 'Here's the chunk you're going to play continuously and then you're out."'
According to the depth chart third-year man Michael Jordan starts at right guard and the seven-year vet Spain goes at left, but Taylor let it be known Thursday it is open season.
"I think there's a lot of guys who are capable of doing it. X (Su'a-Filo) brings a lot of things to the table, Mike Jordan, Jackson Carman. D'Ante Smith has been working more at left guard, and he's been showing some things over there. Some of those guys are getting better. Yeah, really with both of those guard spots, nothing is set in stone yet. These preseason games are going to really matter for a lot of guys."
RB FESTIVAL: With top running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine not expected to play much, if at all, Taylor is gunned up about seeing a guy like Jacques Patrick, a 230-pounder that didn't get to run in a preseason game last year and has looked good as a year-long member of the practice squad. Third-year man Trayveon Williams did have his first 26 NFL carries last season (six yards per pop), but he'll get a long look, as will sixth-rounder Chris Evans, who showed his excellent hands earlier this week with a full-out diving over-the-head catch in seven-on-seven.
"Trayveon didn't get a preseason last year and got limited reps during the season," Taylor said. "He got hurt in the first preseason (game) against Kansas City (in 2019) right out the gate. And then Patrick didn't get any chance last preseason. So really, for all of those guys, it's pass protection. We see it against our defense. They don't get a ton of opportunities all the time, but now you get a defense that's going to throw some different stuff at you and you get a chance to see how they handle that. So really all three of those guys fit in the same category for me."
TREY OF DROPS: Trey Hendrickson, the 13.5-sacker from the Saints, isn't going to play much Saturday, like the rest of the defensive starters. But in practice he's been getting a full dose of defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo's system that seems to have the edge players dropping more. Hendrickson, who dropped just seven times in New Orleans last season, according to Pro Football Focus, says his interception early in camp was his first since Apopka High School in Florida.
And this past week, slot cornerback Mike Hilton got loose on the blitz back-to-back days.
"That's the element of disguise that we're trying to get after. It's camp. They're looking at things, too," Hendrickson said of the offense. "As long as we disguise our alignments on defense and do our job, that's what we're here for.
"If I can drop and it's not just same dropping every time then an offense can pick up on those kind of tendencies. The more we can do, the more it will help us in the rush. They don't know – am I dropping, am I stunting inside, am I rushing outside? It's a tool in the tool box."
SAMPLE OF VERSATILITY: With the starters on Hendrickson's line leaving early, fourth-rounder Cam Sample is going to get a lot of snaps. And not just on the edge. They believe his quickness can cause problems inside at the three technique on passing downs. Sample has the words of defensive line coach Marion Hobby ringing in his ears.
"Our coach constantly tells us, we're not going to put D-Ends inside to not use their quickness," Sample said. "That's kind of one of the big things I bring to the table, something I definitely plan to use inside.
"I did a good bit of it at college, not as much my senior year but in a lot of our sub packages we moved up and down and on the line. I'll play anywhere from head up on the center, to the three tech off the guard. Whatever it is, I'm comfortable."
Sample is saying the same thing about the adjustment to an NFL interior that fellow fourth-rounder D'Ante Smith is saying on the other side of the ball.
"Just the speed of everything. You know, like in the pass rush game outside you are trying to have more steps, more room to work with," Sample said. "Inside everything's a little bit tighter. So just knowing everything happens quicker."
QUOTE OF THE DAY
Rookie DL Cam Sample on being in the NFL:
My dad's from Louisiana so growing up he was always a big Saints fan. So watching them, I used to always see Vonn Bell playing for them and then coming here and see Vonn here, it's like, 'Oh man, I used to watch you,' and seeing some of the other guys, it's a surreal experience going from watching the NFL on TV and actually playing in it."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: With Tropical Storm Fred predicted to pummel Tampa, there was talk the game could be moved from night to day, but the Bengals had heard nothing officially about it.
"If it did move up earlier on Saturday it would eliminate maybe some meetings we had planned on having that morning, but it wouldn't throw us off base," Taylor said. "We'd be able to adapt to that very quickly."
Rookie kicker Evan McPherson, who kicked at Florida, says he's kicked in windy rain but not a hurricane. No matter, his heart rate probably won't go up. He knows because his fiancée bought him a wrist watch that tracks it all the time.
"This Whoop band is something I've had on for a couple weeks now, and it tracks my heart rate during practice," McPherson explained to the media before Thursday's practice, "From the first practice of training camp until now, my average heart rate, my max heart rate has gone down. That's something I really look at. I've been able to control it and handle the pressure a lot better. This is one way that helps me see that in those situations."
"I think the first day of camp it maxed out at like 175. It was averaging around 150. Now my average is like 126, max is like 160."