Best things for the Bengals in the victory in Atlanta:
» The solid mechanics of quarterback Andy Dalton, from taking the ball down to run with two hands, to orchestrating the offense, his pocket awareness and, yes, that deep ball accuracy. Say what you will about preseason, but in three drives against a Falcons defense that put the Ravens first team through three three-and-outs, the Bengals Ones put up 10 points.
» The relentless Bengals front four without left end Carlos Dunlap and Robert Geathers. Led by tackles Domata Peko and Geno Atkins, with a nice effort by rookie backup Devin Still, they stuffed up a good running back in Michael Turner and early in the game got good pressure on quarterback Matt Ryan. The front seven also showed up on short yardage and on the goal line.
» The pass protection, particularly from new starting guards Kevin Zeitler and Clint Boling.
» The progress of the young work-in-progress wide receivers.
» The physicality of the DBs, led by safeties Reggie Nelson, Taylor Mays and Jeromy Miles, and a very active game from backup middle linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy.
The concerning things:
» No movement in the running game from the first offensive line. The Falcons have an excellent run defense (sixth in the league last season), but 11 yards on 10 carries in the first half didn't make offensive coordinator Jay Gruden very happy.
» Fumbles by two of the more reliable guys on the team in backup running backs Brian Leonard and Cedric Peerman.
» The ease with which Ryan threw the ball in the second quarter against a mix of first- and second-teamers that had lackluster pressure up front and some coverage breakdowns in the back.
The Bengals return home Thursday for the Just Ced No reunion game against the Packers at Paul Brown Stadium (7 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) for the third preseason game that is traditionally the dress rehearsal. After opting to move on in the offseason, the Bengals host running back Cedric Benson in his Packers debut. The Bengals have 85 players, have to be at 75 on Aug. 27, and the exercise is the same as the numbers get smaller.
The debate isn't how many players to keep at a particular position. The discussion centers on which player is better and has a better shot at being active on Sunday.
So the Bengals are trying to decide if, say, a certain guard or wide receiver is better than a certain middle linebacker or a certain safety or a certain tight end. If he is, then keep nine offensive linemen. If not, then keep eight O-linemen and go with seven backers or four tight ends or five safeties or seven receivers, or wherever they want go heavy with the more helpful player.
A look at the roster after two preseason games with years of experience in parentheses:
QUARTERBACKS: Andy Dalton (2), Bruce Gradkowski (7), Zac Robinson (2), Tyler Hansen (R)
Hansen, the free agent from Colorado, didn't get to throw it in his brief debut Thursday. Very hard to get four QBs work, anyway, and his hamstring injury didn't help. The Bengals are always on the look for an upgrade here at backup but while Gruden admits Gradkowski can drive you crazy with his inconsistency, he'll win you back with his savvy ways to find production. He's produced a TD drive in each game. Robinson had some good moments in Atlanta, but it looks like the Bengals will stick with two on the roster.
WIDE RECEIVERS: A.J. Green (2), Brandon Tate (4), Andrew Hawkins (2), Armon Binns (1), Ryan Whalen (2), Mohamed Sanu (R), Vidal Hazelton (1), Kashif Moore (R), Marvin Jones (R), Justin Hilton (R)
Jordan Shipley is a tough cut, but it may hurt the Bengals more in the Pro Shop than on the field because his No. 11 was one of the more popular. The next question is what they do with Whalen, like Shipley, a reliable, bright and sure-handed guy. But a hamstring has iced him for two weeks and Hawkins and Sanu are emerging in the slot with Binns, Tate and Jones on the outside. Those five guys have all made plays when asked. Would the Bengals actually keep seven receivers? That's a big number. Whalen has practice-squad eligibility, but the last time they cut a sixth-round receiver and tried to get him to the PS, the Bucs picked up Dez Briscoe.
LEFT TACKLE: Andrew Whitworth (7) Anthony Collins (5)
Collins worked at both left guard and left tackle in Atlanta and remains the first lineman off the bench. Whitworth didn't block the run great Thursday, but John Abraham didn't get a sack against him working one-on-one, and that's always an accomplishment.
LEFT GUARD: Clint Boling (2), Trevor Robinson (R), Travelle Wharton (9)
Boling made his first start a good one and looked solid in pass pro. Robinson played a bunch of center Thursday and the coaches like him as a prospect, but he may need another year. Wharton (knee) headed to IR.
CENTER: Kyle Cook (5), Reggie Stephens (2)
Stephens didn't get the call until late Thursday and after Robinson, which makes one wonder. The Bengals need a guy that can come off the bench to play both guards and center and there's the sense that guy has yet to surface on the waiver wire.
RIGHT GUARD: Kevin Zeitler (R), Otis Hudson (2), Matt Murphy (1)
Zeitler looks like he's going to be fine. Hudson has played well in the two games, but the next two should decide his fate. It doesn't help him that he's pretty much just a right guard.
RIGHT TACKLE: Andre Smith (4), Dennis Roland (5), Matthew O'Donnell (1)
Smith is playing quite well. On Leonard's big run before his fumble, Smith drove his guy back to the state line. Roland also played some left guard Thursday. He and Collins are the sixth and seventh linemen. That leaves one or two. Hudson is in the mix, the Bengals like how the 6-9 O'Donnell is coming along, and there's always the waiver wire as they decide on keeping eight or nine.
TIGHT END: Jermaine Gresham (3), Donald Lee (10), Colin Cochart (2), Orson Charles (R)
Gresham (knee) probably isn't going to play against the Packers, but it looks like he'll be OK. Donald Lee continues to offer three things every time out that make the Bengals want to keep him. They could always keep all four guys, but that would be unlikely.
RUNNING BACK: BenJarvus Green-Ellis (5), Bernard Scott (4), Brian Leonard (6), Cedric Peerman (3), Aaron Brown (3), Daniel Herron (R), Jourdan Brooks (R)
Leonard and Peerman had the rare fumbles, but they still look hard to jettison out of there behind Green-Ellis and Scott. No one has bolted out of the blue beyond them and the big battle seems to be which rookie makes the practice squad. Or if both make it.
FULLBACK: Chris Pressley (4), James Develin (1)
Develin, looking to return to the practice squad, always seems to do something positive when he's out there.
LEFT END: Carlos Dunlap (3), Robert Geathers (9), Micah Johnson (1)
Johnson is getting a lot of good work with Dunlap and Geathers iced by their knee injuries, but both will be able to make the 53 it appears.
NOSE TACKLE: Domata Peko (7), Pat Sims (5), Brandon Thompson (R)
The time has come to make the call on Sims. Do the Bengals activate him or put him on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) that will put him out for the first six weeks of the season? Thompson is showing he's a nice third-round get.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE: Geno Atkins (3), Devon Still (R), Nick Hayden (3), Vaughn Meatoga (R)
All indications are the Bengals would like to keep nine D-linemen and Sims would appear to be the ninth guy. But Hayden has had a terrific camp. Still is showing he's a nice second-round get and looks to have a knack to pressure the pocket.
RIGHT END: Michael Johnson (4), Jamaal Anderson (6), DeQuin Evans (1), Luke Black (R)
The coaches like Anderson's ability to also play left end while backing up Johnson. Black, signed on Saturday, is a guy that can give the club some snaps in the last two preseason games.
SAM LINEBACKER: Manny Lawson (7), Dan Skuta (4), Dontay Moch (2)
All three guys look to be playing fine. Moch has really opened eyes and had another sack as a defensive end on Thursday. It looks like the Bengals are going to have to find a spot for him that fifth week when he comes off his four-game NFL suspension. Skuta has had a nice camp.
MIDDLE LINEBAKCER: Rey Maualuga (4), Roddrick Muckelroy (3), Vontaze Burfict (R)
Maualuga (knee) probably won't play Thursday as the club rests him for the opener. With the Bengals probably keeping six backers and just one backup in the middle, the Muckelroy-Burfict derby is quite a show. Burfict had a nice opener, but then didn't play much last Thursday when he appeared to suffer a concussion. Meanwhile, Muckelroy was all over the place making big stops from scrimmage and special teams, and led the club in tackles.
Here's the discussion: Are both Burfict and Muckelroy better than the last guy at another spot so that the Bengals can keep seven backers?
WILL LINEBACKER: Thomas Howard (6), Vincent Rey (2), Emmanuel Lamur (R), Grant Hunter (R)
Rey is the Donald Lee of linebackers. He shows up, just plays, and at the end you wonder how you can cut him.
LEFT CORNERBACK: Nate Clements (12), Terence Newman (10), Brandon Ghee (3), Dre Kirkpatrick (R), Shaun Prater (R), T.J. Heath (2)
Ghee (wrist) and Prater (knee) look like they are going to end up on season-ending injured reserve. Kirkpatrick (leg) looks close to getting back to practice and there is some buzz the Bengals would like him to play in the Aug. 30 preseason finale in Indy. The CW is keeping six corners and four safeties and it looks like Clements is the swingman. Newman picked up two penalties in coverage last Thursday, but head coach Marvin Lewis defended him on the "phantom calls."
RIGHT CORNERBACK: Leon Hall (6), Jason Allen (7), Adam Jones (6), Chris Lewis-Harris (R), Taveon Rogers (R)
The Bengals pulled Hall early in Atlanta to protect the Achilles. Jones and Allen have barely played with their muscle pulls, but they look like they'll be the fifth and sixth corners.
STRONG SAFETY: Taylor Mays (3), Jeromy Miles (3), Tony Dye (R)
Mays and Miles have separated themselves and while Mays has knocked out two of own teammates, he's playing with the physicality the Bengals can use in plenty of packages. Third down may not be one of them on a consistent basis. Miles not only had an end-zone pick last Thursday, but he had six tackles and a forced fumble. Dye (foot), gunning for the practice squad, didn't play Thursday.
FREE SAFETY: Reggie Nelson (6), Robert Sands (2), George Iloka (R)
Nelson is hitting like it is December. Iloka is making a real run at the final safety spot with alert play and his 6-4 presence. The guy that doesn't make it in the Sands-Iloka derby most likely goes to the practice squad.
PUNTER: Kevin Huber (4)
He likes working indoors.
KICKER: Mike Nugent (8)
His 54-yarder Thursday in the Georgia Dome shows the hamstring problem that iced him the first week of camp is nary an issue. Thomas Weber got cut after a tough preseason he missed from 37 and 47 yards and dribbled a kickoff out of bounds.
LONG SNAPPER: Clark Harris (4), Bryce Davis (R).
Davis looks to be an interesting developmental, down-the-road guy that maybe could give the Bengals some snaps at tight end in a pinch.
PUNT RETURN: Brandon Tate (4), Andrew Hawkins (2), Adam Jones (6), Marvin Jones (R)
There were no chances to do much of anything in the return game last Thursday. But by waving for three fair catches, Hawkins helped himself. Special teams coach Darrin Simmons isn't looking for a magic act back there and Hawkins said after the game he's not looking to gamble for a big play.
"We have specific rules that Coach Simmons gives us and one of the things he wants to see is he wants to see it executed," he said. "If it falls on one side of the rule then I'm not going to change it. The ball has a mind of its own. You don't want to leave it up to the ball."
But Hawkins and Tate are going to be taking a lot of snaps at receiver, so the Bengals are really hoping Adam Jones can get healthy enough to return.
KICK RETURN: Brandon Tate (4), Andrew Hawkins (2), Adam Jones (6), Marvin Jones (R)
Hawkins had a 32-yarder Thursday and Tate had a 23-yarder for Thursday's two returns. Look for Marvin Jones to get some guaranteed work.