The Bengals had their last full-scale practice of the preseason Thursday and it was quite fitting it ended on the last second of a two-minute drill. That's where cornerback Eli Apple tipped away Joe Burrow's pass for rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase in the end zone on a day Chase probably had his best practice as a pro.
That's about the way training camp went in the run-up to Sunday's preseason finale (4 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) at Paul Brown Stadium against the Dolphins. The revamped Bengals defense, led by their three brand new cornerbacks, were all over Burrow and his receivers early on.
They probably won the summer only by a tipped ball because in the guts of camp Burrow rapidly regained confidence in his surgically repaired left knee and led the offense to a series of crisp days capped by the last three practices.
The back-and-forth was capsulized in Thursday's last drill with 1:45 on the clock and the offense down, 24-20, and starting from their own 35. Head coach Zac Taylor was heartened how both sides of the ball landed heavy body blows. The drive started with free safety Jessie Bates III breaking up a pass to wide receiver Tyler Boyd and then cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, Velcroed to Chase over the middle, wrested it away to set up third-and-10. Burrow then led tight end C.J. Uzomah over the middle for 15-yard bullet to keep it going. Throw in blitzing strong safety Vonn Bell and it was quite a show.
"It was really competition on both sides. Guys made plays on both sides of the ball," Taylor said. "It's going through that stuff live. As we know, a lot of the games come down to similar moments like that. One of the three phases has to make a play in the fourth quarter. That was good to see."
Uzomah added another first down catch over the middle. Working on Awuzie, Chase ran a knee buckling out for a first down. But then here came Bell with the pressure to cause an overthrow to set up the last play on the goal line with the clock ticking down to zero and Burrow calling the fade to Chase.
Apple, playing for the injured Waynes, is a former first-round cornerback, too, and he's looking for a new lease in the NFL with his old Giants secondary coach, Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo.
So you had Apple, the 10th pick in the 2016 draft, going up against Chase, the fifth pick in this one. Apple didn't get his head around, but he was in good position to defend it. Chase didn't have time to fight through it, but he gave Burrow a shot to catch it.
Apple could be asked to do that Opening Day. Taylor had no update on Waynes, except that he didn't injure the same hamstring that kept him out of the early portion of training camp. But there is concern how quickly he can be ready given how heavily he limped off the field on Wednesday.
Also not available Thursday was the man believed to be competing with Apple to be the first cornerback off the bench, Darius Phillips. Phillips gets his knee regularly rested and it appeared to be a day off.
Burrow also didn't have wide receiver Tee Higgins for that last drive and Taylor said it was more preventive than anything in an effort to give some of the guys that had been piling up a lot of the snaps a break.
PLAYER OF THE DAY: WR Ja'Marr Chase
It could have been Burrow. He was 6-for-11 in the 1:45 drill and at one point sifted five straight. A day after he went 8-for-9 in the third-down period, he converted five of six on Thursday. But his LSU soul mate gets the nod here for quite a resilient day. Make that quite a resilient week. After dropping three straight third down passes Saturday in Washington and then coming back in the next practice and dropping a touchdown into the arms of Bell, Chase has buckled it up ever since.
In seven-on-seven Thursday, he appeared not to run a route Burrow thought he was going to take deeper. Then in third down team, Chase ran a different route, a go ball, and Chase beat slot cornerback Mike Hilton, adjusted into gear and grabbed for what just may be the two old mates' longest hook up in a pro team setting.
"It's kind of a new concept we put in today and it's good to see them on the same page," Taylor said. "It's more of an alert in that situation. He's not really the primary receiver. For Joe to see that and Ja'Marr to be aware the ball could come to him was good stuff by both of them."
The after Awuzie broke him up early in two-minute, Chase came back for that hellacious out route for a first down. Then, with the offense on the 10 and the clock at 13 seconds, Chase was called for a flinch false start. But he came back to take part in the Play of the Day on the next snap.
PLAY OF THE DAY: Burrow to Chase
Nick Cosgray, the Bengals rehab guru, had to love the way Burrow planted his feet and gunned this one with 13 seconds left from the ten needing a touchdown. Here's what quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher liked about this play as Burrow faced a free runner:
"Joe knew where the guy was coming from. He drifted to his right, got depth and got width away from where the free guy was coming from. He was falling away from the throw, but he was able to get a lot of velocity on the throw. He did a good job with his technique of being able to drive that ball and got it into Ja'Marr."
Not only did Burrow have to get rid of it quickly, Chase had to get his head around fast enough on the in-cut in a maze of bodies ranging from Apple to Bates to middle linebacker Logan Wilson, and he was able to concentrate, catch the rocket at the 2 and spin off bodies into the end zone But they marked it between the 1 and the 2.
"Great play by Ja'Marr," Pitcher said. "In a game, maybe he gets in, maybe he doesn't."
QUOTE OF THE DAY
Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons on if he'll give rookie kicker Evan McPherson the preseason finale off as the perceived favorite to be the Opening Day kicker:
"For a guy who I don't even know if he's 21 years old yet, he has hasn't really earned the opportunity to do much of anything yet. He's earned the opportunity to lace his shoes up and put his jersey on and tighten his chin strap. That's about all he's earned in my eye. We'll go through the same rotation. We'll rotate (McPherson and Austin Seibert) through and give them both opportunities to show."
Footnote: McPherson turned 22 last month:
BIG-TIME ADVICE: With head coach Zac Taylor confirming after practice that rookie edge Joseph Ossai is out for the year after knee surgery, former Bengals great Brian Simmons says he'll be back as good as new if it is anything like his knee injury. Although Taylor didn't delve into specifics, reports have indicated Ossai tore his meniscus. And while each knee injury and each player and every era is different, Simmons says he's never had a problem with his surgery for the same kind of injury.
"Young kid, right? He'll be fine," Simmons said Thursday night.
Young enough that Ossai is the youngest on the team, turning 21 two weeks before the Bengals took him in the third round. Young? He was born the same year Simmons injured his knee during the first regular-season game at Paul Brown Stadium in 2000.
Simmons, 25, when he had the surgery, missed the rest of the year and came back to play at a high level for the next six seasons in becoming the most versatile Bengals linebacker in history before ending his career in New Orleans the next year.
"The toughest part of it is the first six weeks. You have to be very disciplined and keep your weight off and that's the hardest thing to do," Simmons said. "Once you get to weight bearing, the rehab goes pretty quickly. Like a regular cartilage tear."
All injuries are different, of course. Simmons is simply a guy that had meniscus surgery and went on to have a fine career. Everyone is different, but it sounds like the Bengals are going to do what they did it with Simmons and make sure Ossai can play over the long haul rather than rushing him back.
"That's the best thing. Get it fixed. He's going to need all that cartilage," Simmons said. "I had one fixed in the other knee last year and I'm an old man and it feels great. He'll be fine."