EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. _ What to make of it all Sunday night at Met Life Stadium?
The Bengals, who sat all their starters but long snapper Clark Harris, lost in the last 35 seconds to a Giants team that went with their starting quarterback Daniel Jones for three series and hung with many other starters on each side of the ball for much of the first half.
One thing that is quite encouraging is that the guys who lost, 25-22, and who are also definitely going to play against the Steelers Sept. 11 at Paycor Stadium are the special teamers and that's where the Bengals have some treats.
Guys who do the grimy jobs like cover kicks. Like safety Michael Thomas and wide receiver Stanley Morgan, Jr. Thomas forced a fumble on a kickoff and has three teams tackles in the last two games while Morgan had two alone Sunday night.
Like kick returner Chris Evans, who stacked a 73-yarder Sunday on top of his 41-yarder against the Cardinals. Like kicker Evan McPherson, whose preseason-long streak of six straight field goals ended on Sunday but who had three more field goals and his third 50-yarder of the summer. Like vet punt returner Trent Taylor, who had no returns, but made a huge fourth-and-one conversion on a diving grab as a wide receiver.
And how about rookie safety Dax Hill? The first-rounder who has been as advertised will be playing special teams when Jessie Bates III returns, but on Sunday he reminded everyone he's fit as seamlessly as any Bengals rookie has in recent memory.
He flashed his terrific speed and range with six tackles in just a half of 43 plays and his first NFL interception, a diving scoop off the turf via a tipped ball from Jones on the second series. On the first series, on third-and-five, the Giants tried to outflank him on an outside flare to running back Antonio Williams, but Hill and his 4.38 40-yard speed swallowed Williams a yard shy of the first and when edge Joseph Ossai stuffed the run on the next play, a fourth-and-one, the Bengals had the ball.
The AFC champions have yet to roll out the Burrows and Chases and Hendricksons and they'll do that this week in two scrimmages against their old friends from Los Angeles. But except for the punter, the complementary pieces seem to be in place. On Sunday, they racked up more than as 100-yard advantage in returns with an average drive start of their own 36 to the Giants own 28.
"We took a huge step this week with the young guys and (Hill) keeps taking steps," said Thomas, at 32, the oldest player on offense and defense. "He's been taking steps with his tackles and he made that game-changing play when he put that ball away by diving for it. He's been showing his speed and athleticism in practice and I told him before the game he was going to put that on tape out there tonight and he did."
As Thomas talked, Morgan came by and bumped fists. "We can't be stopped," Thomas told him of the special teams. "We've got guys that want to set the tone. Stanley is always going to make a play, whether it's as a gunner, on a kick return or making a big block. When you've got guys who understand the impact they can make on special teams, you've got a nice thing going.
"That's going to be the theme this year. We have to make impact plays and take the ball away."
BIG FEAT OF CLAY: Thomas was also talking about two guys vying for the fifth and last linebacker spot. Keandre Jones recovered Thomas' forced fumble and Clay Johnston was all over the field with 20 tackles and the Bengals' only sack on a night he played 88 snaps, a dozen of them on special teams.
But Johnston, a third-year pro who is one of head coach Zac Taylor's seemingly bottomless well of guys that get it, looked positively miserable after his career night.
"That hurt my heart," Johnston said of New York's winning drive. "We could have finished it. I wanted the offense's back. We just came up short. We have to learn from it."
Johnston, who had 11 double-digit tackle games while racking up 238 career tackles at Baylor, said it was the most tired he's been in his life after a game. But …
"I'm going to have trouble sleeping tonight because of my special teams performance," Johnston said. "I take pride in that. That's my bread and butter and that wasn't good today by me."
He was also thinking about one of the 20 tackles he could have made earlier. A pass in the flat to the running back.
"I just have to continue to keep learning," Johnston said.
That's the kind of stuff Thomas is talking about. And what Taylor is talking about. This is what the head coach was watching during Evans' return:
"Once he got by me, I was watching Mike Thomas' block," Taylor said. "You know, that really helps you spring that thing. So, I was more into hyping up Mike Thomas, than seeing how the run finished up."
DRUE DRILLS: Taylor gave punting challenger Dru Chrisman the entire night. They know what 14-year veteran Kevin Huber can do. He's got a Bengals-record 207 games on tape.
"I think it was just good to get him an entire game," Taylor said. "To be able to get into a rhythm and see what he can do there, being able to see Kevin do that for a long time. That doesn't mean that next week is going to be the same. We'll evaluate that this week."
Chrisman got off three punts, two of them a 56-yarder and 52-yarder. But he wasn't happy with the 38-yard net, indicating he thought that was a result of not enough hangtime. Like on the 56-yarder that he boomed. He ad to make a nice tackle to hold the return to 17 yards.
"Long isn't what we're looking for. We're looking for hangtime and the distance. It was 56, but it was too low," Chrisman said. "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. I think that was the case on that one.
"I think I had three tonight and I think on all three, I could have definitely did something better. There were no fair catches. That's the name of the game. It's getting those guys to raise that hand because the ball is up there so high and that's something I've got to keep striving for."
OFFENSIVE WOES: The Bengals went 0-for-6 on third down in the first half, had two first downs and 66 yards. Somehow they still led, 9-7, but Taylor rolled that first offense back out there for the start of the second half and quarterback Brandon Allen was glad they did. They put together a 75-yard drive that took 11 plays and featured seven runs by Trayveon Williams at four yards per pop.
"I think we just killed ourselves going backwards the whole time," Allen said. "Penalty after penalty we had four drives in a row with a holding or some kind that set us back. It's tough to sustain drives when you're in a second and 15 or third and 15 situation. Early on we just really hurt ourselves and then coming out of the second half was good to see us play cleaner and go down the field and score."
Playing in his first game of the season, right tackle D'Ante Smith was rusty. On the first 14 plays in the first two series, he was called for holding three times. The first two on runs and the last one was declined. Also getting a hold in that stretch was right guard Lamont Galliard.
Then when the Bengals did get in the red zone, thanks to Thomas' strip, they could only gain two yards from the 15.
"We threw a check down and then we threw a go ball that I thought was a good route, but we got hemmed up a little bit there in the red zone," Allen said after he hit Evans for a yard and trying a fade to wide receiver Trenton Irwin that just missed. "I thought we had a chance at it, but the defender made a good play on that one. I don't think it was too glaring on that one you're talking about, but we definitely could have capitalized a lot better."
TIE GOES TO… : No problem with Taylor playing for a tie at the end since there is no longer no overtime in the preseason. No question he was trying to get McPherson on the field to try a bomb where we could have seen that 65-yarder, With nine seconds left at the Giants 43 they needed to run one more play and rookie left guard Cordell Volson was called for a false start, but there seemed to be confusion on the line and just not with him.
"You could go for the Hail Mary and try and win the game," Taylor said. "(But) I think it'd be good to work that pressure kick there. Too bad we just didn't have the opportunity."