BUFORD, Ga. — Thunderstorms and driving rain forced the Bengals Wednesday walkthrough indoors after two combined practices, and head coach Marvin Lewis's starters may even get less work in Thursday's preseason opener (8 p.m.-ESPN and Cincinnati's Channel 5) against the suddenly familiar Falcons in the Georgia Dome.
If they play well. The better they play, the less they'll play.
"That's the carrot you have," Lewis said. "We'll get the first guys crisp snaps and we'll see how many snaps they earn based on how they go out there and do things. Coming here is a great opportunity for them to get more exposure than they'll get Thursday night."
The Bengals not only came out of the practices with the Falcons with just the tweaked knee of special teams maven Vincent Rey, but they're encouraged about their overall defense, the depth of the receivers, and the progress of quarterback Andy Dalton.
After Monday's practice Lewis said he was pleased with how the defense prevented the big play and on Tuesday against the Falcons no-huddle offense in the final team period the Bengals rushed Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan well enough that they could have had three sacks if it had been live. Cornerback Leon Hall added a pass defensed on Ryan's long ball down the side to wide receiver Harry Douglas.
"Overall I was pleased with both sides. Got great work in coverage and I thought the ball got checked down where you want it to go," Lewis said. "Don't allow the vertical or horizontal seams to occur."
No doubt you won't see any of those guys very long Thursday night. With Rey out but expected to be back as soon as the Aug. 17 Paul Brown Stadium opener against Tennessee, the Falcons will see a bunch of guys trying to push Rey for what could be the sixth and final linebacker spot. Guys like second-year man J.K. Schaffer and recycled first-rounder Aaron Maybin are going to be on display with fourth-rounder Sean Porter expected to solidify his roster spot with plenty of snaps.
There's also heat for what could be the final spot in the secondary. Dre Kirkpatrick has been all over the place and looks to be fending off Brandon Ghee as the fourth cornerback. But with Ghee the fifth corner, do the Bengals keep five corners and five safeties or six corners and four safeties? What we do know is after Kirkpatrick played fewer than 50 snaps last season and Ghee never played after the first week last season with a broken wrist, they'll play plenty.
With George Iloka named the starter in a spirited three-way battle for the safety spot opposite Reggie Nelson, Iloka, Nelson, Taylor Mays and rookie Shawn Williams look to be the four safeties. That would indicate it comes down to how guys like cornerbacks Chris Lewis-Harris and Shaun Prater and safeties Jeromy Miles and Tony Dye play not only from scrimmage, but also on special teams. The leading candidate for the 10th and final DB spot? Miles and his special teams résumé. Plus, if he is needed in order to get through a game, he can play some corner.
And while the defensive line's nine look to be signed, sealed and delivered, Lewis is anxious to get a lot of snaps for Dontay Moch, the 2011 third-rounder whose career was derailed for the first two years with migraine headaches. He's practiced this camp and now that he's in his second year of going back to his college position at end he's looking to repeat last year's preseason, when he had a team-leading 3.5 sacks.
"Defensively to me the guys that I think (are) important, what do we have at linebacker with some of the young kids and secondary?" Lewis asked. "The safety as far as starting. The corners as far as who are the next guys. I'm excited about that. If you look at Moch and (end) DeQuin Evans, they are kids that have been around here a while. It's time to show out. (For Devon) Still (to) keep progressing."
Brandon Thompson (knee), Still's fellow defensive tackle drafted a round behind him the third round in 2012, won't play this week but Lewis said he'll likely be ready when the Bengals go to Dallas for an Aug. 24 game that is the third of the preseason and should be the dress rehearsal for the Sept. 8 regular-season opener in Chicago.
When it comes to offense, it's going to be a surprise if Dalton and the first unit work more than two series; if that. Josh Johnson has a big lead at backup quarterback, but Lewis wants to see him and John Skelton play in a game. Johnson gets to perform in front of the ex-Tampa Bay head coach that drafted him, ESPN analyst Jon Gruden.
Also on Lewis's docket is getting work for rookie offensive linemen Tanner Hawkinson, a fifth-rounder, and T.J. Johnson, a seventh-rounder. They both could play multiple spots with Hawkinson maybe getting a shot at both tackles and Johnson maybe playing a little guard and center. The fullback spot with Orson Charles and John Conner looks to have the H-back Charles in the lead, and the tight end spot seems to be spoken for.
But with Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert figuring to exit early and Alex Smith (knee) back in Cincinnati, at the very least Bryce Davis and Richard Quinn are going to put a lot of plays on tape.
And with two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green (knee) and slot receiver Andrew Hawkins (ankle) back in Cincy, and wide receiver Marvin Jones hamstring (doubtful), keep an eye on your roster because the receivers will be rolling through fast and furious Thursday.
"We have to get the QBs some time, the two and three guys right now," Lewis said. "The areas important to me are the development of the young linemen on offense. Orson, John Conner at fullback. Those are important battles to win. We've got the wideouts that continue to develop. Then you've got to see what happens with the other two tight ends playing behind the first two."
Lewis is counting out no one and points to Lewis-Harris. Lewis-Harris went undrafted out of Tennessee-Chattanooga a year ago and didn't get signed by anyone until spring drills, and the early days of training camp wiped the Bengals out at corner. Despite a shaky start, he played well enough in the preseason (13 tackles and a sack) to earn a spot on the practice squad and he was active for three games, including the Wild Card game when injuries caught up with the secondary again.
"He comes in as our last guy last year and plays in (three) ballgames; he's done a great job," Lewis said. "It's like the Washington Generals. Him and A.J. every day in practice and now look at him. He can be a sixth corner on an NFL team."
Lewis is stressing getting to the gate now more than ever. That is Sept. 8. Not Aug. 8. Trying to keep guys healthy is now a priority because of the 90-player limit in camp.
"To me the real issues are the expansion of the rosters, the salary cap. You get guys injured; who are you going to play? So you're really trying to minimize your exposure to injury," Lewis said. "What I've noticed is we practice hard. You try to gauge getting yourself battle-ready for football without taking too much injury risk. (A total of) 90 guys with 32 rosters, shoot, guys on the street ... it's tough. The quality of player you get on the street is probably better when teams get hurt in an area and they have to get a guy to gain depth in another area.
"You have to have guys physically up to it. We're better off without anybody because you don't want to take on an injury risk for a guy that's not ready for the rigors of practice. You're signing him to practice and if he can't practice and stand by me, then it does no good."
Lewis is talking about the obstacles in front of doing another combined practice like he did with the Falcons, but he could also have been talking about getting his team ready. He thrives on players coming from other teams and hearing that the Bengals work harder than any of them. But he also loves getting his players healthy to the gate.
That's why he's kept Marvin Jones out of action for the past week and why he calls Jones 20 percent to play Thursday.
"We've learned that's not going to help us. That's why Marvin Jones hasn't practiced for a week. That's why Brandon Tate missed the first week," Lewis said of another wide receiver that figures to play plenty Thursday. "You can't play through those. We have to be smarter than that because we lose the guy for an extended period of time. It should be pretty minor and (we'll) end up losing guys for too long."
Lewis is going easy on the injured knees of Green and left tackle Andrew Whitworth for even more pragmatic reasons. The team needs them. But he says Green—and probably Whitworth as well—won't be shelved until Chicago. But as for playing in a preseason game, he left that to the imagination.
"You'll see A.J. before you know you've seen A.J. Whether he plays or not … ," Lewis said. "The thing is to get to Sept. 8. He needs time on task with some things, but it's no different than what (the Falcons) do with Julio (Jones). Julio didn't do anything (this week) because he's gone hard and you've got to rest these guys. Either one of those kids has no body fat whatsoever."
Look for special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons to make sure kicker Mike Nugent stays healthy and gives rookie Quinn Sharp the kickoff duties while alternating them on field goals and extra points.