As we ponder if special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons kind of feels like a TV anchor on election night with a race too-close-to-call, the Bengals brain trust took Sunday to keep scouring for trade opportunities and upgrades while looking in-house for medical updates and potential roster scenarios before Tuesday's 4 p.m. final cut to 53.
Nine or ten offensive linemen? Three or four running backs? Six or seven wide receivers? Four or five defensive tackles? Five safeties?
You need Two Men And a Truck for all these moving pieces in the wake of Saturday night's 16-7 victory over the Rams at Paycor Stadium. And this is for the defending AFC championship roster that's more set than most teams in the NFL and about as healthy as it gets.
How long is a certain injured player out? One, two, three weeks? Carry him on the 53 and lose a spot or put him on injured reserve and lose him for four games?
Need to protect a player without exposing him to waivers? Maybe release a vested veteran or two who don't go through the claiming process and then bring him back once other moves are made?
Some surplus at a position? Can you swing a trade?
And there's that massive 16-man practice squad with the post-pandemic flexibility of standard elevations that eases the numbers game. But you still have to gauge the risk of players getting poached.
It's pretty much who you keep and not how many when it comes to positions. We're talking about the final slot at each position, which isn't determined by the position but by the talent of the player.
So in the quest to keep balance with 25 offensive players, 25 defensive players and three specialists, if the last offensive lineman is more valuable than the last running back or wide receiver, well, this is what they've been trying to decide all.
Throw in the rest of the league and it's an interesting 48 hours.
Brandon Allen (6), Joe Burrow (3), Jake Browning (1)
Allen looked much better Saturday than he did last Sunday in New York and Browning, with a 110.6 passer rating on 24 throws, proved serviceable once again. It looks like another year of Burrow and Allen on the roster with Browning on the practice squad.
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)
Behind the Big Three you figure there is the Next Three in Thomas, Morgan and Taylor. With the practice squads at 16 players, is it necessary to keep more than six receivers?
Lassitter gave it a good bid Saturday night to make it seven with five catches for 42 yards. He never came close to Taylor on punt return and the fact he dropped one against the Rams couldn't have helped. Would they like to develop him and Pryor in some manner? Each had a 90-yard game this month.
So did Irwin and he's an interesting case. He also returns punts and whenever he plays, he does something. He's played nine games during the past three years and spent the rest on the practice squad. After making seven catches for 98 yards all last preseason, he busted out Saturday with nine catches for 93 yards.
But he's 26 and the two rookies are each two years younger. Would they actually keep three practice squad receivers? They do run about as many three-receiver sets as any team in the league. Which is an argument to keep seven.
"Today was really good for me. Great for me," Irwin said Saturday night. "I've done quite a bit in practice, but to be able to put it on tape for everyone to see is good."
For the next few days, he'll "leave it up to the top. I leave the playing to me … I just like having fun playing football and we'll see where it all pans out."
RUNNING BACKS (5)
Joe Mixon (6), Samaje Perine (6), Trayveon Williams (4), Chris Evans (2), Jacques Patrick (1)
Mixon and Perine didn't have a carry in the preseason and Evans had 18 and that's what they may take into the opener, although Williams is an easy fourth if they've got the room. He's a seasoned grinder who made a few plays Saturday in the pass game catching and blocking and had 62 total yards, 40 of them receiving. He can play some special teams, too. Last year he was on the practice squad all year until they went and got him late in the season and he may be on the same path this year, potentially joining Patrick on the practice squad. Or, they could decide like they did his first two seasons and put him on the roster.
"At the end of the day, I just want to be a guy that can contribute where ever the team needs me," Williams said Saturday after his four catches, seven carries and 12 snaps on special teams.
TIGHT ENDS (6)
Hayden Hurst (5), Drew Sample (4), Mitchell Wilcox (3), Thaddeus Moss (2), Nick Eubanks (1), Justin Rigg (R)
It looks like Sample (knee) can be back for the opener, but Wilcox (ankle) hasn't played since the first series of the first preseason game. Could the third Opening Day tight end be in another city as we speak? Or is it someone who's here?
Rigg, the undrafted rookie tight end from Kentucky via Springboro, Ohio, is the feel-good story. Pro Football Focus has graded him highly throughout the preseason as a blocker. The web site had him as the Bengals' third best blocker Saturday night and in the preseason opener and last week against the Giants he was rated their best blocker on 10 runs.
The 6-6, 260-pound Rigg isn't supposed to be much of a receiver, but he scored Saturday on Browning's three-yard pass.
"It's a pretty simple out route we run. I knew right away when I heard the play call I had a high probability," said Rigg, holding the ball already wrapped in tape with the written particulars of his first NFL touchdown. "I saw I had great outside leverage on the linebacker. I broke outside and the ball was perfectly placed from Jake into my hands.
"I was in shock. I didn't even celebrate I was just so excited. I always wanted to spike the ball like those big tight ends spiking the ball."
The smile told you the rest. Springboro is just a 45- minute drive from Paycor and he remembers sitting in the stands five years ago watching the Bengals play the Steelers on a Monday night. Now he was holding the ball that was the Bengals' only touchdown in a Saturday night game against the Super Bowl champions to end the preseason.
And his people were here. The ten he got tickets for as well as the friends from high school and college. He figures there was a row of them.
"Yeah, it means so much when you think about all the years I've played football since seventh grade," Rigg said. "It's just awesome to share it with my family and friends here and all of them watching."
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)
All eyes are on that left guard battle with Volson and Carman. After Volson got all 62 snaps last Sunday in New York when Carman had COVID, Carman got all of Saturday's 60 snaps against the Rams while Volson didn't play.
Although Carman gave up a sack and was called for a hold, he appeared to play pretty well other than that and had PFF's second-best run blocking grade on the team behind right tackle Hakeem Adeniji. There seems to be momentum indicating Volson is going to get the nod against the Steelers, but someone forgot to tell Carman. He appeared to step up, although it seems like considering Volson took all the first-team snaps against the Rams in the two joint practices, he's the guy.
With Collins getting back last week after dealing with a back issue, the Bengals have to make sure they're covered at tackle. Smith, Adeniji and Prince would certainly do that and give them ten, although it remains to be seen how they'll handle Prince (out for a few weeks with a bicep issue) at the final cut. And, in the end, do they keep nine if deemed they need more help at some other spot?
The newest Bengal, Gilliam, played all 60 snaps at right and impressed them. Since he came over from the Steelers last week, everyone is guessing they'll keep him around in some form for the week of the opener.
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), T Tariqous Tisdale (R)
They've got six talented edgers, which is usually one too many. But with Kareem dealing with a hamstring issue, that may open the door for the seventh-rounder Gunter, coming off a very impressive preseason. He came into Saturday with a sack and two batted passes and added another QB hit against the Rams. After the game he said he hoped he had shown enough. He probably has.
His buddy Carter, the third-rounder, certainly has. He got a sack-and-strip Saturday (grading out as PFF's top Bengals' D-lineman) after racking up five tackles, a tipped pass and two hurries in the previous two games. It looks like he's Hill's backup at the three technique.
The thing is, Carter is smart enough to know he doesn't have all the experience he's going to need.
"I feel like I was solid. I'm still learning and growing," Carter said after the game of his preseason "I could be much better, honestly. I feel like I made some plays out there. I have to clean up some things. The biggest thing for me is I have to play better with my hands, have a better base, play more stout in the run game. I have to finish more of my rushes out there."
But they like the guy.
In pursuit of finding a fifth tackle Saturday, they played the heck out of Shelvin (34) snaps and Davis (32). PFF graded Shelvin higher against the run and Davis higher against the pass. If they deem one of them is good enough, they figure to keep 10 linemen. If not, do they keep looking or stick with nine?
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)
With damn near 30 tackles in the three games, how is Johnston not the fifth backer behind Pratt, Wilson, Davis-Gaither and Bailey?
Jones certainly made a great run to overtake him Saturday with nine tackles of his own and had PFF's third highest grade on the Bengals defense against the Rams. But Johnston also has an impressive resume from late last season after the Bengals picked him up waivers and he became a special teams staple down the stretch. Jones certainly has made it interesting.
Colerain High School's Scales, named one of the Bengals' five Cincy-bred game captains, held the banner high on his 40 snaps while grading out as PFF's top Bengals player on defense.
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)
Injuries (Apple and Taylor-Britt) and roster exemptions (Bates) have muddied this spot a bit.
But there are some obvious things.
If they ever kept five safeties, isn't this the year? Thomas, the vet, has been terrific and Anderson, the kid who was the club's second-leading tackler in the preseason, is talented and they're looking to develop him. (How about Hill sitting it out Saturday after two impressive games?)
Also pretty clear is that George just kept making them notice. In 25 PFF coverage snaps against the Rams, he was targeted just five times and gave up three completions for just 16 yards and only four after the catch. His tackling certainly showed up. Coming out of Vanderbilt undrafted he had a physical rep and he had five more tackles Saturday, 12 in the three games.
LS Clark Harris (14), P Kevin Huber (14), K Evan McPherson (2), P Drue Chrisman (1), LS Cal Adomitis (R)
Huber or Chrisman?
As Chrisman said after Saturday's game, "I don't envy Darrin."
No doubt Chrisman has the leg. But can he drill one inside the 20 in the fourth quarter against Pittsburgh in a teetering game like Huber has?
Same thing with holding an overtime field goal attempt and the werewolves in Baltimore howling so madly you can't hear yourself think.
But in two years is Huber, 37, going to be able to drill the ball 65 yards like the 25-year-old Chrisman did against the Rams?
If it makes your head hurt, be thankful you're not Simmons.
Did he give us a clue on the long snapper when Harris didn't play and Adomitis took all the snaps against the Rams?
Think McPherson is ready to add to the legend off a 9-for-10 preseason after a 14-for-14 postseason?