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Depth on display

Dan Skuta

After more than 24 hours of decaf, time to look at Sunday's preseason opener with a saner eye.

These things are usually a mish-mash and so was this. If this had been the intrasquad scrimmage and Mock Game, which it was, it would be seen in not that harsh of a light. Not much definitive comes out of preseason openers. There were a few things out of Sunday's 16-7 loss to the Cowboys. The backup quarterback play was subpar, running back depth is thin, and young defensive players like Michael Johnson and Geno Atkins are on the rise.

What did come through is that the deepest Bengals roster in Marvin Lewis' eight seasons was on display. The speed and versatility showed up and the last four or so cuts are going to be the hardest around here in years. The guy who holds a big key to it all is special teams coach Darrin Simmons and while he wasn't satisfied he did see a lot of good things emerge.

Just how deep and fast is reflected in the Cowboys punt returns. Dallas could muster just 19 yards on the nine punts that stayed out of the end zone and for the first time since Simmons can remember he had five combined tackles out of his gunners: Cornerback Rico Murray had two with one each by cornerback Brandon Ghee, safety Kyries Hebert, and wide receiver Maurice Purify.

Cornerback Adam Jones returned both a kick and a punt, rookie wide receiver Jordan Shipley had his team's biggest play of the night on a 63-yard punt return, and the biggest play the Bengals allowed came on the first play - a 38-yard kick return.

"This was our first time tackling. This is the weekend we would have usually had the scrimmage and I thought we settled down," Simmons said. "I didn't like that first return, of course, but once we got that hit in, we got better."

Ironically, it appeared the one guy that could have made that play on the opening kickoff, linebacker Dan Skuta, is one of Simmons' linchpins. The Bengals figure to go with eight defensive linemen, seven linebackers, and 10 defensive backs and Skuta looks to have one of those backer spots with Dhani Jones, Rey Maualuga, Keith Rivers, Michael Johnson and Brandon Johnson. That would appear to make the last spot come down to veteran Abdul Hodge and fourth-rounder Roddrick Muckelroy.

It is even tighter at defensive back, where traditionally the Bengals go with six corners and four safeties and everybody knows the four safeties are Roy Williams, Chris Crocker, Chinedum Ndukwe and Gibril Wilson. But what about the special teams captain, Hebert? Could they go five and five?

But then there is Murray, a second-year guy that can play both corner and safety. After Johnathan Joseph, Leon Hall, Adam Jones and Ghee, who are the last two corners in a very competitive derby of Murray, Morgan Trent, David Jones and Johnny Sears?

Doesn't it come down to special teams?

"I'm just trying to find out about these guys and we've got a long way to go with four preseason games left," Simmons said. "A guy like Rico, we're trying to see if he can do it. It was good to see him and the other guys make some plays. In that situation in that game where the gunners are getting single-blocked, you expect them to make the play."

With Kevin Huber's 10 punts, Simmons was also able to get an extensive look at his two long snappers, veteran Clark Harris and rookie Mike Windt. They each had one non-perfect snap barely visible to the naked eye (one low, one eye-high) and there is virtually no separation.

"This is Clark's first full training camp where he's only snapping and he's done a good job," said Simmons of the tight end the Bengals picked up early last season. "It's all new to Mike and I like the way he responded. It had to mean a lot to him playing in his home state and playing in front of his family and friends."

Simmons also liked how Adam Jones responded in his first game since late in the '08 season. Some of those little things he has to work on cropped up. He dropped the kickoff before racing 31 yards with it and he got nine yards on his punt return despite carrying the ball in the wrong arm.

"I was thinking about the kickoff and realized it was the first live ball he's caught in almost two years; that's tough," Simmons said. "The thing that really impressed me was his demeanor on the sidelines. That was as impressive as anything. He came back from the punt and he knew what I was going to say before I even said something. He understood. That's what you're looking for."

Shipley got high grades, of course, but if Simmons did have a criticism it wasn't that he didn't call a fair catch on his first one. "He went the wrong way. If he goes the right way he gets some yards," Simmons said.

Simmons began the game with his two incumbents, running back Bernard Scott at kickoff and wide receiver Quan Cosby returning punts. Scott has a spot but Cosby doesn't in the receiver scrum even more convoluted by Antonio Bryant's knee problem.

The Bengals figure to keep six and with Bryant, Shipley, The Ocho, Terrell Owens and Andre Caldwell currently in the fold, the sixth and last spot would go to a guy not even active on Sundays. So with Bryant, it would seem to be a tough nut for Cosby because Shipley would figure to be active on game day and both he and Jones can return punts.

But Simmons loves what Cosby brings to the table.

"I was disappointed that Quan didn't get a chance to return. It seemed like every time we were close to plus 50," said Simmons after Cosby's two fair catches. "Every one he got, he managed it exactly right. That's the thing about Quan. He's very reliable. He makes good decisions. You know when the play is over you're going to have the ball and that's the most important thing for a returner."

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