The Bengals strong safety job may be up in the air at the moment, but there's no question they are going to get tested over the next two weeks and through the season against six of the 10 NFL quarterbacks that pitched at least 4,000 yards last year in the league's biggest passing bonanza of all-time.
"I know I've got a lot of work to do, but I'm confident I can cover. That's one of the main things that I'm trying to emphasize," said Taylor Mays, the current starter, after Monday's practice on the Paul Brown Stadium practice fields. "Especially in the slot. That's something I take pride in. Me being a big safety, thinking I can cover in the slot is something you work hard on so you can improve."
The 6-3, 230-pound Mays made one improvement Monday when he returned to practice wearing the newest technological helmet after leaving Friday night's game following a hit to the head. An independent neurologist cleared him Sunday and when he came back Monday, he decided to go with the newest helmet, which has oversized shells so the increased padding on the inside acts as shock absorbers.
"You do what you have to do for your career," Mays said. "Today's the first day I wore it. It's better protected. It feels like it's about the same size, but it's higher technology."
Since he'd only had one concussion in the last five years or so dating back to USC, Mays felt comfortable in his older helmet that had been so good to him and approved by the NFL. But Friday's incident, where he believes he collided with cornerback Terence Newman instead of Jets wide receiver Stephen Hill, convinced him he needed more protection.
His new world view matches the way he's now looking at Thursday's matchup in Atlanta (8 p.m., Cincinnati's Channel 19) with future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. Their first meeting was two years ago when the rookie Mays made his first NFL start while playing for the 49ers—also in Atlanta—and he remembers Gonzalez beating him in a two-minute drill on a third-and-five in a game the Falcons pulled out, 16-14, after trailing 14-0 when Mays caught a blocked punt in the end zone.
A long time, two defensive coordinators, and a team ago, and Mays says he's a different player. Back then, he says, "It was kind of all over your head."
"I feel more confident," Mays said. "Two years later, you kind of see it from the outside looking in. More experience and with a lot more confidence, rather than just kind of running around relying on athletic ability."
The jury is still out on Mays and his fellow candidates. None of them looked out of place Friday night, but Mays only played a quarter and these are the Falcons of Gonzalez and the very large receiver duo of 211-pound Roddy White and 220-pound Julio Jones. It's a good week to strap it up with quarterback Matt Ryan doing the flinging.
But look at the club that's next on Aug. 23 at PBS. The Packers come in with a Super Bowl MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers, a Pro Bowl tight end in Jermichael Finley, and a Pro Bowl receiver in Greg Jennings.
The jury may have a verdict Aug. 24. It needs one before the regular-season coughs up Ben Roethlisberger twice, two Mannings, and a three-game stretch starting on Thanksgiving weekend of current or former Pro Bowl quarterbacks in Carson Palmer, Philip Rivers and Tony Romo. The Bengals better have more than one safety that can cover.
Of course, White and his NFC-leading 100 catches probably aren't going to be around very long Thursday. But Mays can't wait for what he does see.
"Coach has been emphasizing how big Atlanta's receivers are with an All-Pro quarterback," Mays said. "They've got a lot of talent at receiver and tight end. It will be a great challenge for us and we want to see how we match their size and speed."
But Mays keeps coming back to how comfortable he is in the mental game compared to that first game against Gonzalez.
"I feel a lot better physically, but more mentally, which is a lot more important to me," Mays said. "Because putting together the mental part means you can let the physical take over.
"With the calls and doing what (defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer) wants me to do, that's the biggest (thing). Playing the defense the way he wants me to play it. From spring to now I feel significantly better."
It's tough to gauge these preseason games. Jets tight end Dustin Keller is a guy that has pounded the Bengals the last two times Cincinnati and New York played when it mattered. Seven catches for 148 yards, one a 45-yard touchdown catch. Mays had him a couple of times Friday night in coverage and Keller didn't have a catch. What's it all mean? Other than that it's the most comfortable Mays has felt in three years as a pro?
"The big thing was the offseason and the OTAs, knowing how the coach wants to play certain defenses," said Mays, in the unique position last year of being locked out before being let out in a trade that exacerbated the impact of the lockout for him.
"Knowing what the coaches expect and what my own expectations are as a player. I feel good about where I am right now."
Even the knockout play shows how Mays is in tune with the coaches. Zimmer, apparently, has been on him about staying away from the head. His own and everybody else's.
"I was trying to hit (Hill) in the chest. He kind of went low and I actually hit Terence Newman. He's the one that really knocked me out. I had one four or five years ago. But I think I've been fortunate for some of the hits I've had in my career were nothing.
"Coach Zim has been in my head pretty tough about lowering my strike zone and not go in for a big hit. To do the right thing. That's something I need to work on. Don't hit him in the head and try to get my head of out of there as much as I can."
But the play shows why the rules make it so tough on the defense. While Mays was lining up his hit, Hill suddenly dropped his head into the target area at the last instant.
"Half a second," Mays said. "It's kind of hard to target that at full speed. It's kind of a bang-bang play. It's kind of a losing situation."
The last time Mays was in Atlanta to play, it was a losing situation. But when he scored he danced "The Dougie."
"The Macarena," said Mays, who can see the lines this time.* *