The NFL's third preseason game is supposed to be the dress rehearsal for the starters. But for those living on the bubble in Bengaldom, Sunday's game in Arizona (8 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) is the play itself.
If you're rookie fullback Nikita Whitlock, that still might not even be enough if the game doesn't go the way you hope. With the Bengals trailing in the second half of last week's 23-17 loss to the Jets, they opted to try to catch up throwing the ball and that meant just five snaps from scrimmage, half his special teams snaps.
Plus, it's just the second game he's ever played those positions on teams. And don't forget, it's just his third game ever on offense since high school. A dress rehearsal? It's more like a Night at the Improv.
And the first cut, from 86 players to 75, probably happens Monday because it has to be done Tuesday by 4 p.m.
"It's terrible," Whitlock says of the frustration of knowing he can do it but not until he learns it. "It's absolutely terrible. When you get in and Coach says do something and it's something you haven't done before and you try your best and the best isn't good enough yet…You need the extra reps. It's very frustrating."
The good news is they love Whitlock's strength, toughness, and willingness to do the job. The bad news is that between fullbacks and tight ends they're probably going to keep four players at the final cut down a week from Saturday and fellow free-agent Ryan Hewitt appears to have one of those spots locked up next to Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert. Veteran tight ends Alex Smith, Orson Charles, and Kevin Brock have tons more experience as NFL blockers, so he looks to be staring at a practice squad apprenticeship.
But the 5-10, 250-pound Whitlock brings a never-say-die defensive mentality to offense. A former first-team ACC nose tackle at Wake Forest, Whitlock sees the upside as long as the clock is still ticking.
"The bad thing is there's a lot I need to learn," he says. "But the good thing is there's a lot I need to learn. That means I can progress through a full season, the second season or third season. It will be very hard for me to hit a plateau because there's so much more for me to learn."
Even though he was a speck compared to the large offensive linemen he worked against in college, Whitlock is used to blowing up plays with sheer will, strength, and leverage against jerseys right smack in front of him.
Now in an NFL offense, he has to find them.
"I have to learn how to navigate through the offensive line to get to our responsibility. Even figure out how the (line) backer scrapes from the offensive point of view and find him on an edge while blocking the play," Whitlock says. "It's hard to pick the hardest thing. The whole position is different. The one thing that's the same is you get to be physical. I can do that."
Which is why they like working with him. When he arrived back in May, the little big man hushed the weight room benching 495 pounds. But he still has to impress special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons in the wide expanses of NFL space and while Simmons is a big advocate of a one-time defender playing special teams, Whitlock still needs the reps.
He didn't get any special teams in the opener in Kansas City because of a foot injury, which made the Jets game his teams debut.
Whitlock says he blocked two punts and two field goals up front in college, but now he's learning other spots on teams. Field goal block is a defensive position now, so now he's learning to play in space covering punts and kicks.
"Darrin is real particular. There's a lot of information thrown at you," Whitlock says. "It's a totally different game."
He's had 11 snaps in two games at fullback. Not much tape there.
"I'm hoping this week we get up early and stay up," Whitlock says. "I'd like to get 10-12 snaps to show my worth."
A dress rehearsal for some. Everything for everybody else.
OLD HOME WEEK:Roberts Geathers, the only Bengal left who was there when Carson Palmer got carted off the field on his second playoff snap in that Wild Card Game against the Steelers at the end of the 2005 season, swears there are kids on this team now that don't know Palmer ever was a Bengal.
Why would they? There are only 16 players left from that 2010 season that was Palmer's last in Cincinnati and only three on offense with left tackle Andrew Whitworth, right tackle Andre Smith, and tight end Jermaine Gresham still snapping.
Geathers says if they had the locker room they have now back in 2005, the Bengals would have won that Wild Card Game.
"It would have been totally different if the locker room was different," Geathers said. "We should have come in and rallied together at halftime. We kind of fell apart…I was shocked. It seemed like we would have been able to stick together and pull it off.
"I was taken aback," Geathers said. "This locker room has come a long way. This team would be able to handle something like that. We were winning. We would have found a way."
Palmer made the Pro Bowl that year and Geathers remembers it was something to watch.
"It was impressive to sit there on the sidelines and watch him go to work," Geathers said. "They would go down and score at will."
As impressive as Palmer was Dalton quietly broke the club touchdown record he set that year (32) with 33 while throwing for more yards (4,293-3,36) and matched him with an 11-5 record, division title, and contract extension.
Here are some numbers for the heck of it comparing Dalton and Palmer after their first 48 starts:
Dalton, 27, has a 30-18 run as the starter, has 80 touchdowns and 49 interceptions. Palmer, also 27, was 26-22 with 87 TDs and 47 interceptions. Dalton had three playoff berths in that stretch and Palmer one. Dalton's passer rating is 85.6 and Palmer was 93.5.
Palmer has come out hot in his 12th season and second in Arizona, but still not as hot as Dalton. In leading the Bengals to scores in all four of his drives this preseason, he's got a 144.4 passer rating completing every one of 13 passes but two for 215 yards.
Palmer has hit nine of his 13 passes for 175-yards and a 137.5 passer rating. In three possessions, he's got two touchdowns and the other one stalled after two first downs. He was 5-for-5 in the first drive of the season against Houston and last week against Mike Zimmer's Vikings opened the game with a 93-yard touchdown drive while Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians called him the MVP of Cards camp.
It's the first time cornerback Leon Hal, one of the 16, has gone against Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald since his rookie year in 2007.
"Palmer's been playing well. That running back (Andre Ellington) seems like he's something special. They're going to be fun to play against. It will be a good test. Whether its preseason or not it's always fun to go up against a guy like (Fitzgerald). He's been in the league something like 18 years and he's still one of the best to do it."
Hall says Palmer doesn't look all that different.
"He obviously has the arm strength. Can still make every throw. He looks very comfortable back there," Hall said. "I don't see any huge differences. You just have to realize you have to cover the whole field. Certain quarterbacks maybe you can make the field a little smaller sometimes, but with him you have to play the whole thing."