Sean McVay's Rams continue to surface at key junctures in the life of these Bengals.
They raised Zac Taylor, their current head coach, in their first Super Bowl run when he walked out of the Rams' locker room after the loss to the Patriots and took over the Bengals. When Taylor took them on a Super Bowl run of their own, the Rams, of course, were their opponents in Los Angeles.
Now this week the scene switches to Cincinnati when they face each other three times in four days to put their finishing touches on their next rosters. McVay's cast is going to negotiate the Rams defense of the Super Bowl LVI title while Taylor's list is looking to repeat what the Rams did and go back to the big game to avenge a loss.
They'll work against each other Wednesday and Thursday in a pair of workouts at the Kettering Health Practice Fields that Taylor seems to be viewing as the dress rehearsals for his No. 1 units. It's the irony of all ironies. The last time Joe Burrow and company were on the field against another team, it was against Aaron Donald and Co.
Then on Saturday (6 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paycor Stadium, they'll play the preseason finale in what is truly a Super Bowl for the guys on the back of the roster. At the moment, the Bengals probably have about 57-59 names on their big board as they look to make the cut to 53 in the wake of the Rams game.
Here's a guess on what they could be looking at after Sunday night's last-minute 25-22 loss to the Giants at Met Life Stadium. (NFL years of service are in parenthesis.):
Joe Burrow (3), Jake Browning (1)
It looks like maybe Burrow and Giants defensive coordinator Don "Wink," Martindale let bygones be bygones for at least a day as they spent several moments at midfield during Sunday night's warmups.
Martindale has had a bit of feud simmering with the Burrow Bengals from his days as the Ravens defensive coordinator. The Bengals didn't like it last year when Martindale said it wasn't time to fit Burrow with a gold jacket, symbolic of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Even Burrow said at the time, "I didn't think it was a necessary comment," and admitted that 'maybe," he was thinking about it when he torched the Ravens with a 525-yard effort worthy of Canton. The Ravens weren't happy that several of those yards came late in the Bengals' blowout.
But time marches on. Burrow is coming off his first week back from an appendectomy and doesn't look a whole heck of a lot different from the day he made Wink blink. He clearly knows this offense as well as Taylor, McVay and anyone alive. And while he's looking to put on more weight and get more zip on the ball, it doesn't look like he's that far off.
Certainly the Rams' No. 1s are going to give Burrow and everyone else a true sense of where it stands heading into the season.
Allen, his backup, had his first extended action Sunday since getting a concussion on the first series of the Aug. 12 preseason opener. He looked a little rusty in his red-zone timing with receivers, although clearly four holding calls the first14 times he broke the huddle didn't help anyone.
After watching his offense net just a combined two yards on back-to-back series that started at the Giants 24 and Giants 15, Taylor decided to put the same group out there to start the second half and that seemed to work well for everyone. They got a touchdown on a crisp 11-play drive as Allen warmed up with a brisk three-for-three passing for 32 yards.
"It was talked about beforehand. I think a lot of us were a little bit frustrated at half with the field position we had and the lack of points we put up," Allen said. "It was right decision for us to come back and hoped for that drive to go the way it did. You come out, get one drive and go down to score a touchdown so it worked out perfectly for us and that was a good plan."
It is Burrow, Allen and Browning to the practice squad, right? With Tuesday morning's release, Drew Plitt, the Greater Cincy product from Loveland, Ohio, left as the preseason passing leader for the AFC champs. Called during Burrow's appendectomy, Plitt missed just one of his eight passes, threw a touchdown and had a passer rating of 154.7.
WIDE RECEIVERS (9)
Tyler Boyd (7), Mike Thomas (7), Trent Taylor (5), Stanley Morgan (4), Tee Higgins (3), Trenton Irwin (3), Ja'Marr Chase (2), Kwamie Lassiter II (R), Kendric Pryor (R).
This is one of those spots where they may be looking to get an upgrade behind The Big Three, but how much better is it going to be claiming next-to-last in the waiver system and how much is it worth in a trade?
Morgan (who got some good separation on the Giants starting cornerbacks) had two more teams tackles Sunday, if we didn't know how much the coaching staff thinks of Thomas we were reminded when they made him a game captain in New York and the speedy little Taylor continues to catch everything in the slot and out.
After he made an outstanding diving catch on fourth-and-one, Pro Football Focus rated him their best receiver of the night and his 17.7 yards per leads the club in the preseason.**
"He gets himself open. So anytime you have a guy that can get himself open you look to throwing him the ball," Allen said of Taylor after the game. "He's a savvy guy there in the slot and he knows how to overwork zones and work himself open in man coverage as well. He's been around, he's been doing it for years and he's definitely a guy I look to in the slot when we need a play. He's had a really good camp and preseason so far."
Now the lone question seems to be if Lassiter is deemed good enough to keep as the seventh receiver even if he's not returning punts. That means he's in competition with the fourth running back and 10**th** offensive linemen, be it the fifth guard-center or fifth tackle.
Lassiter had a good day Sunday despite dropping a two-point conversion and was ranked just behind Taylor in the PFF grades with a team-high 91 yards on seven catches. That out did Pryor, the star of the preseason opener, although Pryor also had two big-time catches on third down. The thing is, Lassiter has returned just one punt for four yards. It wouldn't be a surprise if he took all the returns against the Rams.
RUNNING BACKS (5)
Joe Mixon (6), Samaje Perine (6), Trayveon Williams (4), Chris Evans (2), Jacques Patrick (1).
The preseason began with them wanting to see Evans get a ton of carries after running the ball just 17 times as a rookie. But every time he touches it there seems to be a penalty, so he's run it as many times as Patrick (13) and two fewer than Williams. For no yards, which reflects the inconsistencies of the backup line because he has been lights out on kick return, where he had a 73-yarder in New York complete with a stiff-arm that knocked kicker Graham Gano out of the game.
Williams has been as solid as they come and when they needed some juice at the beginning of Sunday night's second half, he gave it to them on that first drive of the second half. He's playing well enough that no doubt they're comparing him to bubble players at other positions. For instance, who is having a better camp? Williams or Lassitter?
TIGHT ENDS (6)
Hayden Hurst (5), Drew Sample (4), Mitchell Wilcox (3), Thaddeus Moss (2), Nick Eubanks (1), Justin Rigg (R)
Sample (knee) looks like he'll be back for the opener. It's unclear when Wilcox (foot) is back and this may be a spot they go looking. Rigg had some nice blocking in the second half (like Patrick's 17-yard run), but as an undrafted rookie he's a 53-man longshot.
OFFENSIVE LINE (14)
T La'el Collins (8), C-G Ted Karras (7), G Alex Cappa (5), T Isaiah Prince (4), T Jonah Williams (4), G Hakeem Adeniji (3), C Lamont Gailard (3), G Jackson Carman (2), C Trey Hill (2), T D'Ante Smith (2), Nate Gilliam (1) T Devin Cochran (R), G Desmond Noel (R), G-T Cordell Volson (R).
Volson, the fourth-rounder in the tractor pull with Carman for the left guard job, came out of it pretty solid playing all 67 snaps. PFF had him as the highest rated run blocker among the starters and the Bengals felt like he got good movement and finish.
The web site didn't rate him as highly in pass protection, where it had him allowing a sack and two other pressures, but the sense from his team is they feel like he played with a good anchor.
And here's what we like. On a screen pass to Evans, Volson got out there, ran from the other side and made sure he put a hit on the 5-11,185-pound cornerback Adoree Jackson.
Against that good, athletic front from New York, the only sack they gave up was on a corner blitz, which PFF gave to Volson. Adeniji, at left tackle, played better than he did in the opener. PFF had him allowing three pressures and he spent the first part of the night holding up against the fifth pick in Kayvon Thibodeaux on a ton of third-and-longs on his way to playing all 67 snaps.
They have to be hoping Smith just needs a good week of practice. He had missed about two weeks before he came back from a back injury just before this game and he racked up three holding penalties at right tackle in the first 14 plays. But, really after that, the guy held up and kept people from the quarterback.
Hill also played all 67 snaps and his good reviews kept going. PFF had him allowing just two hurries on 44 passes. He started at center, but just when he got a few snaps at right guard, they had to move him back to center when Galliard left with a calf injury. They'd like to see him get some more work at guard, so if Galliard can't go against the Rams they may turn to Gilliam to play some center in the preseason finale.
DEFENSIVE LINE (15)
T D.J. Reader (7), E Trey Hendrickson (6), E Sam Hubbard (5), T B.J. Hill (5), DE Noah Spence (5), T Josh Tupou (5), E Khalid Kareem (3), E Raymond Johnson III, E Joseph Ossai (2), E Cam Sample (2), T Tyler Shelvin (2), T Domenique Davis (1), T Zach Carter (R), E Jeffrey Gunter (R), E-T Tariqous Tisdale (R).
Gunter and Carter weren't as active as they were in the opener, but they're still flashing.
By the way, there's no Burrow AND Tee in the 2022 class, but it could end up being 2006 solid. You've got Hill, Volson and then Gunter and Carter bust it and are athletic up front. And there's Cam Taylor-Britt in the wings.
For the second straight game, Gunter batted down a pass and added two pressures. Carter had only one tackle, but he made the key block on Evans' 73-yard return when he wiped out a tight end just as Evans was turning up field.
Ossai played 14 snaps, ten more than last week, and while he didn't have any pressures, he had a nice fourth-and-one stop when he knifed inside tight end Daniel Bellinger. They're still trying to ease him back. Same thing with Kareem, who left, came back and again aggravated his hamstring on just his ninth snap of the preseason. They have to be hoping he'll be healthy enough to get work against the Rams because his shoulder injury had prevented him from practicing early in camp.
They were really hoping to get a lot out of the big man Shelvin and that's why they played him 30 snaps. But he didn't seem to move the needle. When the Giants scored their first touchdown, they pretty much ran it up the middle.
But here, too, in Shelvin they've got a guy just coming back from a wrist injury that held him to one snap last week. Maybe he needs to knock off rust. Whatever, they'll be finding out this week.
Meanwhile, Davis has quietly been more productive in a good camp. Johnson III (he had three hurries) has also had a good camp on the edge. A big week for them as they try to decide keeping how many linemen and DBs sandwiched around five backers.
And, by the way, Sample is a heck of a player. He can rush, he can defend the run, he can drop and cover. In his 17 Sunday snaps, PFF rated him its second-best Bengals defender.
Germaine Pratt (4), Joe Bachie (3), Markus Bailey (3), Akeem Davis-Gaither (3), Clay Johnston (3), Logan Wilson (3), Keandre Jones (2), Tegray Scales (1), Clarence Hicks (R).
That's because they made Davis-Gaither its top player despite just 13 snaps. Which is about right because he's had such a terrific camp. You can make an argument he's the most improved Bengal.
With the starters out, ADG protected, Bailey (ankle) out and Scales going down on his first series, it was left to bubble guys like Johnston to play 66 snaps from scrimmage and 12 more on teams. Here's how well he played. NFL stats had him for 20 tackles and PFF had him for no missed tackles, five stops and their only sack.
If that didn't win Johnston the fifth backer spot, what would? They're anxiously awaiting to see how Bachie comes back from his ACL rehab because of how well he did down the stretch last year.
But there is Johnston. He's a little small (6-1, 232) and a little slow. But so what? He makes plays and impacts special teams. To say he's always around the ball is redundant.
S Michael Thomas (9), CB Eli Apple (7), S Vonn Bell (7), CB Chidobe Awuzie (6), CB Mike Hilton (6), S Jessie Bates III (5), CB Tre Flowers (5), CB Jalen Davis (3), S Trayvon Henderson (3), CB Javaris Davis (1), S Tycen Anderson (R), CB Allan George (R) S Dax Hill (R), CB Delonte Hood (R), CB Cam Taylor-Britt (R).
PFF had ADG as its best Bengals defender on Sunday, but talk to some people in the building and they'll tell you Hill. It's time to start wondering how good he can be. His speed at closing things down is numbing. How good are those five safeties with Bates back?
With Michael Thomas so solid on teams (two tackles last week, a stripped forced fumble on a kickoff Sunday), they may have a luxury developing Anderson. And Anderson has everything you want with speed and length, he's just learning.
You've got to love Jalen Davis as the backup slot cornerback. For the second straight preseason he's played so well in the games they can't touch him in the cut down. Against the Giants, PFF gave him the best coverage grade of any Bengal with more than eight coverage snaps. He had 41. Hill had the next best grade on 31 covers. Davis was also huge blitzing out of the slot with two tipped balls and another pressure.
The Giants' Davis Webb sifted some great numbers against the backup cornerbacks (22 of 27 for 204 yards), but they couldn't have played that badly. Here's Sunday's great mystery. Giants wide receiver Kenny Golladay, the guy that was going to take the Bengals to the Super Bowl, took 21 snaps and didn't appear on the stat sheet. Not even a target.
LS Clark Harris (14), P Kevin Huber (14), K Evan McPherson (2), P Drue Chrisman (1), LS Cal Adomitis (R).
Man, McPherson is so good you'd think Newman and Kramer could be his holder and snapper. But it shows no matter who is in there, the operation is holding up. It faltered a bit Sunday when McPherson barely missed a 58-yarder left off Adomitis' ever so slightly off snap, but the man has three 50s and is 6-for-7 this summer. That's some snapping and some holding.
But Sunday belonged to the punting challenger, Chrisman. Taylor wanted to give him a whole game for flow purposes and while he showed a terrific leg, the competition seems still up in the air with Huber because Chrisman didn't get the ball in the air. He had three punts, no fair catches and while he rocketed a 56 and 52, he had to make the tackle on the long one and ended the night with a tough 38-yard net.
"Long isn't what we're looking for. We're looking for hangtime and the distance," Chrisman said. "It was 56, but it was too low. That's why they were able to return it and that's why I had to make a tackle. I don't want to be making tackles all day. That is not my job responsibility. Any time I have to make a tackle, usually it means either I kicked it too far or there wasn't enough hangtime."