Bengals Notebook: Preseason Finale Vs. Rams A Roster Super Bowl; Punters, LG, Backup DTs Get Long Looks

Kevin Huber (10) and Drue Chrisman have one final duel.
Kevin Huber (10) and Drue Chrisman have one final duel.

When the Bengals host the Rams in Super Bowl 56.1 Saturday (6 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paycor Stadium, one of their biggest roster questions looks to be hanging over their longest-tenured player.

After Kevin Huber rotates punts with first-year challenger Drue Chrisman, is his hometown team going to ask him to punt in the next game at Paycor?

That's not only the Bengals' first opener ever against the Steelers, but Sept. 11 would also be Huber's 208th game and give him the franchise service record he currently shares with inaugural Ring of Honor member Ken Riley.

"That's for me to know and for you to find out," said Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, who knows a little about service time himself in his 20th season running the Cincy kicking game as the NFL's longest-tenured special teams coach.

That's probably because Simmons and head coach Zac Taylor aren't quite sure how this thing is going to play out. You might say the competition is up in the air, which is where Chrisman has to get the ball Friday night to complete his quest to unseat the Bengals all-time punter.

The lines have been drawn. Huber, 37, in his 14th season, knows how to bend the ball to the sidelines with helpful hang time. But his leg doesn't have the juice it once had. Chrisman, 25, one of the top punters in Ohio State history, has plenty of leg but he hasn't been able to harness the power for hang time and accuracy.

"It's rounding into shape," said Simmons of his call. "I just have to decide what exactly we're willing to stomach vs. what we know."

What we know is Chrisman has the power and Huber has everything else, including all the Bengals punting records that matter. We also know that Simmons punted for two seasons in the mid-1990s at Kansas University, where he's tied for the sixth best average of all-time at 41.7 yards per punt.

"Neither," said Simmons, when asked if he was a power or finesse punter.  "That's why I'm a coach."

Simmons is known for being hard on his players (just ask Bengals kick returner Chris Evans after his 41-yard return in this year's preseason opener) and it turns out he's just as hard on himself.

"Punting is a tough skill. Trust me speaking from experience. I stunk," Simmons said. "It's a tough skill to learn and master at this level."

The eye test also suggests there's not much to choose between the two. They both seemed to have good but not decisive days against the Rams earlier this week. Same thing in the two preseason games, where neither has forced the opponent to fair catch, and that galls Simmons.

His idea of a perfect punt is scraping the white of the sideline with six inches to spare "with maximum length," and the returner never touching the ball. For a guide Friday night, look at the yard-line numbers on the field.

The most effective is outside the numbers," Simmons said. "The closer to the sideline, the better."

But there's more to the decision than numbers, whether they're on the field or on paper. Simmons says he has to project what Chrisman can be in a year or two and how it stacks up to what is going on now.

One thing that does seem off the table in the decision-making process is holding for kicker Evan McPherson.

With McPherson emerging as one of the NFL's most dominant kickers after last year's historic rookie season and this year's long-distant preseason, the importance of holding has grown like his leg strength. Last year, Chrisman's struggles with holding helped lead to his demise but he has closed the gap so considerably that Simmons says he and Huber are in a virtual statistical dead heat on the holds.

O-LINE LINEUP: The other big question for Friday is left guard and look for Jackson Carman to get plenty of work there Friday night against the Rams. He may get what rookie Cordell Volson got in New York Sunday night. Every snap. That's the game Carman couldn't play because of COVID and now he needs the snaps so the coaches can make the final call for Opening Day left guard.

Since no starters are playing, some may suggest that means they've already decided on Volson as the starter. But it's a fact they want to get a longer look at Carman since he's got just 33 preseason snaps and Volson has 96.

Head coach Zac Taylor has been talking about flipping sides for the backup tackles, so after Hakeem Adeniji started on the left and D'Ante Smith on the right in New York, they could switch it up to start against the Rams.

Trey Hill, his second preseason considered to be a rousing success, figures to get another start at center and maybe some work at right guard as he's emerged as the first interior player off the bench. If the Rams scrimmages are any indication, the newest Bengal, Nate Gillam, is in there at right guard.

DEFENSIVE LOOK: Carman. Huber vs. Chrisman. The next big battle may be for the defensive tackle spot behind D.J. Reader, B.J. Hill, Josh Tupou and Zach Carter. First, the Bengals would have to decide to keep five of them, so either Tyler Shelvin or Domenique Davis have to play well enough to convince them to.

So they'll play a bunch with Tupou and Carter probably playing sparingly. Rookie Tariqious Tisdale (hamstring) probably won't play.

Edge Khalid Kareem (hamstring) won't play and two other backup edges, Cam Sample and Joseph Ossai, probably won't either because they're going to be playing a lot in the season. That leaves a ton of snaps on the edge Friday for seventh-rounder Jeffrey Gunter and vets Raymond Johnson II and Noah Spence.

How many safeties can sit? Vonn Bell won't play. Jessie Bates III figures to start practicing Wednesday. Rookie Dax Hill has been starting all camp so he probably won't play. Michal Thomas figures to play some, but it looks like he's got a job after he played just 14 snaps against the Giants.

They'll have to use fifth-rounder Tycen Anderson and veteran Trayvon Henderson a bunch. Same thing at cornerback with the top three sitting, Tre Flowers playing sparingly and Cam Taylor-Britt out. Back-up slot Jalen Davis gets to show why he's won another roster spot and undrafted rookie cornerbacks Allan George and Delonte Hood play a million more snaps. George, off his Wednesday pick against the Rams, keeps opening up more and more eyes.

RECEIVER ROOM: The Big Three won't play again and Michael Thomas and Stanley Morgan, Jr., won't play much, either. A lot of snaps for rookies Kwamie Lassiter II and Kendric Pryor, as well as vets Trent Taylor and Trenton Irwin, with Lassiter maybe taking all the punt returns in his longshot bid for the roster.

SNAP DECISION: Huber-Chrisman. Carman. Shelvin vs. Davis. Then there's vet long snapper Clark Harris, who has been here almost as long as Huber, vs. undrafted rookie Clark Adomitis. If Adomitis has to knock out the 14-year Harris to win the job, he'll have to do it Friday. Harris, 38, seems to be keeping up the pace.

Adomitis' snap on McPherson's missed 58-yard field goal in New York, was a tad too high, but Simmons saw other factors involved: "We iced our own kicker because we only had ten men on the field and had to call a timeout. It does distract from the flow of the game, but we still expect him to make it."

TACKLING ADVICE: Aaron Donald ended the last two Bengals-Rams encounters, preventing McPherson from getting a shot to tie the Super Bowl. The Bengals know what they have in him.

McPherson is in his second year in the league. So is Chrisman, although he's counted as a first-year player. But as Simmons reminded them during Sunday night's game, there are differences.

Like when McPherson got close to a returner in the open field after a kickoff and Chrisman's low punt forced him to make a play.

"I don't want Evan anywhere near that play. Drue needs to make that play. They're in different points in their careers," said Simmons, who isn't even sure he wants McPherson to try and make that tackle in the regular season after he saw Giants kicker Graham Gano basically give himself a concussion trying to prevent Evans' 73-yard return.

"I don't want Evan sticking his face in there. Look at what happened to their guy," Simmons said. "I don't want that to happen to him."

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