In the Bengals' final scrimmage of the pandemic preseason Sunday night at Paul Brown Stadium, it turned out to be a practice not to take the officials for granted. Get about 70 mega-competitive guys, 35 to a side maybe, and no official officials and, well, at times the thing turned into a pick-up game at the Y.
There were so many disputed plays that the media's first question to head coach Zac Taylor was what the final score was.
The defense won, 19-13, but don't tell the offense. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo's men played with more aggression and more urgency than last week's 18-11 loss to the offense and looked more like the revamped unit they envisioned as they built it in the offseason.
They got a batch of tipped balls from their front four on a night rookie end Khalid Kareem had a nifty debut, contested passes from their back seven in a scrimmage back-up cornerback Tony Brown could have had two interceptions for a depleted secondary and it looked like multi but controversial sacks from right end Sam Hubbard. Sacks or no sacks, Hubbard is ready.
"There were guys getting after the quarterback some," Anarumo said. "We've been preaching getting our hands on balls and we got a bunch of footballs both batted at the line and we missed a couple opportunities in the secondary for some interceptions but we did end up knocking them down, so that was what most stood out to me and we did better with the 1s in the run game. We had one run get out, but was better overall."
The officials weren't here because only tiered-tested personnel were allowed on the field as the NFL deals with the Coronavirus. But the crowd noise was in the house with the league-wide three-hour murmuring audio loop eerily seeping through the speakers.
"We get a good feel of what that noise is going to be like. It is enough to where you can't communicate with someone 15 feet away from (you)," Taylor said. "You have to be up close. There is a lot of shouting and no one really understands what you're saying so you have to utilize the headsets so that part was interesting."
But the tape was more like elevated whispering for rookie quarterback Joe Burrow and his Heisman.
"I played in the SEC," Burrow reminded the uninitiated. "There are some loud crowds out there.
BIG NIGHT FOR BROWN: Between injuries and personal issues, the Bengals were down to the quick at cornerback without two of the guys (Darius Phillips and LeShaun Sims) who were getting the bulk of the snaps opposite the other starter, William Jackson III. So Tony Brown, a third-year veteran off a stint with the Packers who was signed just before last season ended, stepped up with two passes defensed in three snaps and really should have picked off either one as he worked against wide receiver Trenton Irwin.
His timing was good on that second one as he broke on the side-line route and impeccable when it came to the roster chase. It's the first time this camp someone has emerged from the group behind Jackson, Phillips, Sims and Mackensie Alexander. It looked like CFL product Winston Rose was also active.
"We're in a good situation. The more depth we have obviously, the better we'll be," Anarumo said. "We'll need that as the season goes on with injuries and things like that."
Taylor liked the look back there, although when one group is winning the majority of 50-50 balls, the other group gets the scrutiny.
"All those guys have had their moments and they have some tough tests in front of them. We've got a receiver corps that will really test you," Taylor said. "There are times they are going to give up plays, but you go back and watch the tape and see who was part of those contested incompletions. Overall I just thought the DBs were tight in coverage, they were making plays that came their way and each one of them has shown some nice flashes."
DEFENSE BATES BURROW: Free safety Jessie Bates had a good night. He got a disputed end zone interception because strong safety Vonn Bell appeared to run through the back of wide receiver Mike Thomas on the back line. But Bates made the catch and also came over the middle to jostle the ball away from Thomas to deny Burrow on third-and-short.
"He's approaching the game the way he needs to and those things are showing up," Anarumo said. "In terms of being a better open-field tackler and being in positions to make plays, not guessing and he's done well. He's done much, much better with all that stuff."
Bates is going into his third season after two years he's delivered on his second-round selection. The signing of the savvy Bell back in the spring is going to make him better.
"I think Vonn makes everybody better, makes me better," Anarumo said. "Vonn is a consummate pro, and you know immediately when you're around those type of guys, the guys that have been in the league and they know what it takes to do to win."
LBS LOOK: Yes, the rookie QBs showed up. Third-rounder Logan Wilson got his hand on a ball in coverage and Anarumo raved about a play fourth-rounder Akeem Davis-Gaither made in nine-on-seven.
"When they ran a power play and a guard came around to kick him out, and he knocked the crap out of the guy and he kind of set the tempo for that drill," Anarumo said. "And then those guys kind of picked it up from there."
ADG was supposed to be just a run-around guy, right? No, that's why the Bengals put him inside in the Senior Bowl and that play Sunday night just kept confirming the pick.
But the most eye-opening play from the group had to be second-year linebacker Germaine Pratt running step for step with tight end C.J. Uzomah down the sideline on a deep route. Pratt is supposed to be just a run-stuffer, right?
"He's not playing like a rookie this year. He's stepped up and made the strides he needed to make," Taylor said. "When you're calling plays on offense it's hard to get an assessment of the defense right now until we get a chance to (watch film), but I've been impressed with the way that those linebackers have made strides all camp."
The linebackers' second most eye-opening moment on Sunday? After the scrimmage when Anarumo walked through the weight room to get to his locker and glimpsed starting middle linebacker Josh Bynes on a night he didn't play much.
"He's on the treadmill running sprints," Anarumo said, "because he knows he has to get his work in and those are the type of guys that we brought in and we brought them in for a reason."
TOUGH EVALUATIONS: This entire year has been a puzzle for everyone and the Bengals' coaches are no different. The truncated training camp has forced them to change many things on the fly. They're really trying to make sure they have everyone healthy for the opener, now 13 days away, so they're going carefully with guys that have been nicked in the past, such as wide receivers A.J. Green and John Ross, pass rusher Carl Lawson and cornerback Darius Phillips. And on Sunday they kept out sack ace Carlos Dunlap (unknown) and running back Joe Mixon (headaches) after they didn't practice all week.
So a lot of times it was backups vs. backups, but that's the tape they have as they cut the roster without pre-season games. They do have a mock game on Thursday night and Taylor didn't know if Green would go.
There have been rumblings about Mixon and his contract negotiations, but he was the same old Joltin' Joe on Sunday as engaged, bouncy team leader. He didn't dress, but went through work on the side. Taylor calls him day-to-day.
"It's good to see him around," Taylor said. "He's always got great energy. It reminds me of last training camp during the pre-season games when he wasn't getting a lot of carries and he was right there next to me. But he's always upbeat and he's got great energy."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Back-up quarterback Ryan Finley had a good night despite missing the week with an illness and had to go into protocol. He got the offense back in the scrimmage with a 28-yard touchdown bomb to undrafted rookie wide receiver Scotty Washington. He's very solid in Taylor's eyes:"In his second year he's really become an NFL quarterback from the mental standpoint of things. I feel like we've got a great No. 2 there." …
He did get a pass tipped that was picked off by linebacker Brady Sheldon …
Tough to gauge the running game with no live tackling. But the offensive line felt like it popped more than a handful of good runs. As for that battle for the third running back spot, Samaje Perine got a lot of good productive work, rookie Jacques Patrick continues to run like a 240-poundish load and Trayveon Williams scooted a couple of times. Perine would have to be the leader in the clubhouse.