The old preseason dress rehearsal used to be the third preseason game. But since there are only three of them now and the last one is Saturday (6 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paycor Stadium, then this week's two practices against the Rams are when Bengals head coach Zac Taylor is rolling out his first teams.
The heat is definitely on. The man who owns breezy southern California at the moment, Rams head coach Sean McVay, felt a little nostalgia from his days up the road at Miami University as the Paycor Stadium clock hovered near a sticky 90 degrees.
"Weather's a little different here, huh?" said McVay as he checked in on his defensive backs during individuals.
Wednesday's first of two joint practices looked to be a microcosm of training camp. The Bengals defense appeared to be ahead of their offense, coming up with two interceptions in the two-minute drills that included a practice-ending pick of Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford as he spent a good portion of his day bobbing around the Bengals rush.
Joe Burrow, the Bengals' No. 9, didn't get picked, but could have thrown two of them if the Rams held on. Still, when he had time he made some nifty throws in the middle of the field to a diverse array of receivers and like he did in the Super Bowl he hit wide receiver Tee Higgins deep for a touchdown.
Considering it was the first time the Bengals starters had gone against anybody since, well, the Rams in the last Super Bowl 193 days ago, it figured to be a little of this and a little of that.
Right tackle La'el Collins, making his Bengals debut in padded team drills, probably said it best after Cincinnati's re-built offensive line took its first snaps together 18 days before facing the Pittsburgh defensive brain trust of Mike Tomlin, Brian Flores and Teryl Austin. That included rookie left guard Cordell Volson.
"My first day this camp, I would expect tomorrow to be a stronger, better day," Collins said. "More crisp. Focus on the details. Get better every day."
But Collins had the smile of a savvy eight-year vet. He didn't get tired and sat out only a few snaps, such as the two-minute drill in the final period. His body, he said, felt good. He would have to dissect the tape, but he went against one of the NFL's best pass rushers in outside linebacker Leonard Floyd (21 sacks in the last two seasons) and kept things sane.
Still, any pass-protection assignment for an offensive line involving future Rams Hall of Fame defensive tackle Aaron Donald is maddening and Wednesday was no different. The room in the pocket was excellent on some plays and Burrow was under the gun on others when he had his pocket backed up and passes were rushed.
And, still, running back Joe Mixon found a few exciting gashes in the run game behind new center Ted Karras and right guard Alex Cappa.
"Without looking at the tape," said offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, "it felt solid. A good start against a good pass rush.
"There was some back and forth playing against some pretty good players," Callahan said. "There was a different style of front (3-4) for our guys. It was good. We'll look at it in more detail. They've got some good rushers and they had good wins in there. I thought the pocket looked good, too, on a handful of them."
On the other side of the ball one of the Bengals' Wednesday's stars, cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, said he's looking for a faster start Thursday. But, in the end, the Bengals defense did to the Rams what they did that night in SOFI when they yielded fewer than two yards per 23 carries.
Gave them nothing on the ground at Kettering Health Practice Fields.
"We started off very slow. One of our slowest days of camp," Awuzie said. "I loved our finish. We definitely have to be better at the beginning. Now we know what to expect. Our minds have to be right as soon as we're out here tomorrow."
They started to find their groove and got some good rush activity from their leading sacker Trey Hendrickson and backups Cam Sample and Joseph Ossai. But Stafford caught them, at times, too, and drew them offsides.
"We're OK if we stay on-sides," said Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, saying it loudly enough for Sample to hear. "Matthew Stafford is great on the hard counts."
PLAY OF THE DAY: S Vonn Bell
Just like the Super Bowl, one of the defenses saved its best for last. On Wednesday it was the Bengals and their relentless defensive backs. Stafford launched one deep to a solitary target and three Bengals converged on the ball. A fourth, Bell, came flying in and, in honor of the return of Jessie Bates III, caught the tip for an interception as he hopped over the carnage.
(It will be recalled that a big reason the Bengals got to the Super Bowl is one of those tips. In overtime of the AFC title game, it was Bates tip and Bell pick that set up the winning score.)
"Something always good happens when you run to the ball," said Bengals safety Michael Thomas.
Thomas was one of three safeties on the field with Bell and rookie Dax Hill as Anarumo flooded his dime package of six DBs with speed.
"Lou made a great call," Thomas said. "We had tight coverage on their best guys like (Cooper) Kupp and at the same time we were able to still play with vision. and everybody just broke on the throw. I don't know if we fooled the quarterback or if it was an errant throw, but everybody did their job and we had four guys at the point of attack."
Slot cornerback Mike Hilton was able to break on the ball because he knew he had help from Thomas behind him. Hilton and cornerback Tre Flowers banged knees ("We're all good"-Hilton) and the ball was there.
The play before, Awuzie flashed that tight coverage when he defended a deep ball headed for Kupp, the Super Bowl MVP who didn't get them late in the day this time.
PLAYER OF THE DAY: TE Hayden Hurst
With an honorable mention to slot receiver Tyler Boyd, who caught a couple of deep ones down the seam and made a sick ankle grab going out of bounds.
But Hurst was all over the yard. In the slot, in the flat, seemingly always being available for Burrow when the rush began to seep in. He made a one-hander over the middle that would be set to music if it happened in a game.
This is one guy they didn't have in SOFI 193 days ago, signing him to a one-year deal in March. He seemed to find holes that weren't found back in February. Hurst does make the offense look different and Burrow and Chase sense it.
"He's bringing more ball movement for the receivers, running back and tight end now," Chase said. "He's opened up more of the offense. He made a one-handed catch today across the middle. Stuff like that is going to get the defense to notice him and take the coverages away from my side, Tee's side. They might roll to his side sometimes. That will be a big help for this offense."
Before practice, Burrow observed: "He can be big for us. With the three guys we have on the outside, teams are going to be obviously focused on them, and I think Hayden's going to have to step up, and I think he really will. He's had a good camp. He wants to learn. He wants to get better and that's what you ask of those guys."
QUOTE OF THE DAY
FS Jessie Bates III on being back at Paycor Stadium:
"It's been great, just to see the looks on people's faces as you walk into the building, some people are surprised, even the cafeteria lady, Miss Marie, walks in and gives me a big hug. It's just stuff like that that you kind of appreciate when you walk into a building, the type of locker room we have here, so I never questioned being looked at differently. It's a blessing to be back. I'm just happy to be here."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: In his second day back Wednesday, Bates went through walkthrough and individual drills. Here's Reason 309 why Anarumo thinks he should be able to line up Sept. 11. Before practice Wednesday, he showed them a route concept from the Super Bowl.
"(Bates) and Chido pass off a route that is, as I tell them, a 400 level class. You don't get that without experience," Anarumo said.
"I would think he'd be fine," Anarumo said …
As for Bates, he sounds like he's in a much better place than last year when it comes to coming to terms about his contract situation.
"I had a lot of emotions involved. You don't know until you know. Until you experience it, everyone's situation is very different, so it's hard to speak to other people about the situation," Bates said. "Just being able to be true with yourself, get those emotions out, being able to do yoga, have some meditation a little bit. And just keeping a clear mind I think is something that I'll do throughout this year, compared to last year." ….
Bengals undrafted rookie cornerback Allan George keeps gunning for the 53 instead of the practice squad. He had an interception for the second defense …