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Test flight

Jerome Simpson

Friday night's game is for The Birds.

As in Andy Reid's Eagles, a team that has been so well put together in his tenure that only New England's Bill Belichick has won more games in this young century.

The Bengals expect a good, tough test to see where they are 23 days before the regular-season starts because:

» Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has led Philadelphia to a franchise-record points total in the past two seasons with a scheme that challenges a Bengals defense currently not in the good graces of coordinator Mike Zimmer.

» Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who coached each the linebackers and the secondary groups under the architect of Philadelphia's notorious pass pressures in the late Jim Johnson, led the Philadelphia defense to No. 3 in NFL rankings for sacks and turnovers last season. The Bengals No. 1 pass protectors can get a lot of people off their backs if they stand up to the Eagles.    

» New Eagles special teams coach Bobby April is one of the more highly-regarded guys in the business and he comes to Philly after a six-year run in Buffalo during which he tortured the Bengals with Terrance McGee's kick return touchdown in 2005 and Jason Peters' blocked end-zone punt in 2004 that led to PBS wins for the Bills. Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons answered with Glenn Holt's kick return TD in Buffalo in 2007, so something always happens when these guys are going at it.

Now April has the defending NFL punt return champion in wide receiver DeSean Jackson. Simmons is going to know exactly where his gunners are after this one.

With Reid saying that new quarterback Kevin Kolb is going to get the first half and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis saying that some of his starters are going to play longer than they did Sunday against Denver, look for a lot of both teams' starters to be in there for the first half.

The Bengals, who got Tim Tebow on Sunday and bathed in SportsCenter on Monday, get Michael Vick in the third quarter Friday and on Saturday will no doubt be straight men again for the world-wide leader. 

Here's what to watch for the Bengals on Friday:

RT ANDRE SMITH: Smith may not be out there with the first group after just two days of practice, but it looks like he's going to have to play a bunch because the Bengals are running out of tackles. Andrew Mitchell (knee) has already been ruled out and by the looks of backup tackle Anthony Collins hobbling on crutches Wednesday, he won't be ready, either, because of a sprained ankle still getting evaluated. Behind the starters that leaves just Smith and Gabriel Manns.

Smith has been on the field barely four hours since the Wild Card game back in January and while he fretted about his technique Lewis said it looked pretty good and that he's improved over the three weeks he's been working on his own. All eyes are on that foot that has been broken, operated on, and rehabbed all in the last year.

PASS PRO: Denver's 3-4 played vanilla Sunday night, but the Eagles 4-3 almost always brings some sprinkles. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth gets right end Trent Cole and his 12.5 sacks from last season while right tackle Dennis Roland gets Juqua Parker's eight. Defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley is a load inside in the running game and there could be a battle of No. 1s if Smith gets backup left end Brandon Graham, the Eagles No. 1 pick.

It's not only a test for the offensive line but rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham and the Bengals backs trying to replace Brian Leonard as the third-down back while he's out with a mid-foot sprain. So far they've indicated that Cedric Benson is going to get a shot at playing all three downs and the others probably will, too.

KICKERS: Is Mike Nugent healthy enough to kick field goals? The man who appeared to have a leg up on the kicking competition in the spring has only been able to try two extra points this preseason. He was going to kick field goals against Denver but reaggravated the groin injury kicking off. The plan is to get him on the field Friday with time running out and Dave Rayner off a 4-for-5 effort in which he missed his longest try of 44 yards.

Nugent hasn't been injured very much since the Jets took him out of Oho State in the second round in 2005, but a ripped quadricep ended his stint in New York early into his fourth season and this has been his best chance to get back into the league.

"It's awful," Nugent says of the frustration. "I've been very lucky health-wise throughout my career besides tearing my quad. When your body is kind of telling you that you can't do something as well as you expect to, like my body's telling me I can't kick off and hit field goals like I should be, it's very frustrating. You're thinking, 'Why isn't this right?' Especially when you're not used to being hurt at all. It's really tough but you just have to take it slow."

That's where this is a Kick-22. If he takes it too slowly, this shot is gone.

"That's my ultimate thing on my mind," he said. "If someone's been on the team for 10 years and you know you're going to be the guy, you can say, 'OK I need to chill and be ready for the season.' But obviously being in a battle, whoever kicks better is going to be the guy. It's one of those things you try to weigh."

Plus, keep this in the back of the mind. Shayne Graham arrived here four days before the 2003 opener after he was a casualty of the final cutdown. Is his replacement coming the same way and will former Bengals kickers have the say on the next kicker? Does one of the losers of the Graham-Billy Cundiff battle in Baltimore or the Neil Rackers-Kris Brown derby in Houston end up here?

LONG SNAPPERS: To the naked eye, there doesn't seem to be much separating veteran Clark Harris and rookie Mike Windt. The concern about Windt is range at covering kicks, but Simmons was impressed with how he got downfield to recover a fumbled punt on the Denver 12 forced by tight end Chase Coffman.

"I thought both did OK," Simmons said of Sunday's outing. "Both of them have yet to make a tackle."

PASS COVERAGE: The Bengals young guns at backer  Rey Maualuga, Michael Johnson, Keith Rivers - get to tangle with one of the best tight ends in the league. Cincinnati's own Brent Celek (the Bengals season-ticket holder that went to UC) is coming off a 76-catch season he ended just 29 yards shy of 1,000 yards. Lewis said Maualuga played more snaps Sunday (about 28) than he had in practice and held up pretty well. Maualuga's backup, Johnson, continued to be active. He followed up his two sacks against Dallas with three tackles, a quarterback hurry and a tipped pass.

The starting secondary got chewed up Sunday against Denver with play-action passes and they have to be leery of the speed at wideout with Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. The Bengals had three pass-interference penalties and have incurred Zimmer's wrath. Yes, he said, play-action would be emphasized this week.

PUNT COVERAGE: The gunners work against Jackson could go a long way in deciding the last roster spot or two in the secondary. If wide receiver Maurice Purify (tendinitis) can't go for the second straight game, that hurts him because he had been all over the place against Dallas. Cornerback Brandon Ghee (hamstring) is another guy that has looked pretty good covering and might not go, but he's probably pretty safe as a third-round pick.

But guys like cornerbacks Rico Murray and David Jones and safety Kyries Hebert are grinding for a spot and they'll get their shot at Jackson. Running back Bernard Scott, another roster lock, is also going to cover some.

DEEP DROP: The Eagles gave up 27 touchdown passes last season and had big-play vulnerability while the Bengals are trying to jump-start their vertical passing game. Quarterback Carson Palmer's longest pass to a wide receiver this preseason is 17 yards and his longest pass is a 19-yarder to tight end Jermaine Gresham. He may get more than Terrell Owens, Chad Ochocinco and Jordan Shipley to throw to because the club has to make decisions on the last two receiver spots among the healthy Jerome Simpson, Matt Jones, Quan Cosby and Dez Briscoe. Purify's health is up in the air, as is that of Antonio Bryant (knee), but those other four look to be in a logjam behind The Ocho, Owens, Shipley and Andre Caldwell.

Simpson has flashed with 13.3 yards per his four catches, but coaches still talk about mental slips. Jones didn't make as much hay as he did the week before, Cosby won't go away with his solid punt returns, and Briscoe is alluring but for a guy that doesn't turn 21 for 12 more days but there are bumps in the road.

The Bengals won't have to deal with cornerback Asante Samuel, ruled out of the game by Reid.

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