Posted: 6 a.m.
There are no tall tales from Texas this Bengals preseason, just two Longhorns trying to make it.
But it's been a lot easer for running back Cedric Benson to show what he can do than rookie wide receiver Quan Cosby. Benson is the established starter with 22 touches already in the bank at the halfway mark of the preseason.
Cosby, a free agent battling his size (5-9) as well as directional kicks, figures he's had one legitimate chance to return a punt in the two games. And he knows if he's not able to show them he can return punts…
"I think it would it definitely help," Cosby said of how a big return would help his chances. "At the end of the day, it's out of my control to an extent. In order to make this team, I know I have to do well on special teams and that's the way I approach it."
Of the three punts he's fielded, Cosby has called one fair catch, got a yard on another, and found 11 yards on that one chance during the opener in New Orleans.
"The gunner was on me and I was able to shake him," Cosby said. "I was one guy from breaking it, but I'm looking to do better."
It is pretty clear-cut at receiver, isn't it? The Bengals will keep six and dress five on Sundays. The first four are locks in Chad Ochocinco, Laveranues Coles, Chris Henry and Andre Caldwell. It's hard to see the team cutting a second-round pick, Jerome Simpson, in his second season. That would seem to leave a spot open, but it has to be a guy that can contribute on special teams.
Maurice Purify is making a run with big, physical play from scrimmage and on special teams. But who is going to return punts? Carson Palmer likes what wide receiver Antonio Chatman does from scrimmage and he is the club's most experienced returner. He's hurt again with an ankle problem, but he could be back for the opener and there are his 157 career NFL punt returns to consider.
Another rookie free agent, Tom Nelson, has shown some versatility as a defensive back but he's fighting numbers in the secondary. And it sure doesn't sound like it's going to be a big factor in cutting the roster. Head coach Marvin Lewis sounded absolutely offended this week when asked about the punt return job.
"I'm not concerned about a punt returner as everyone else seems to be," Lewis said. "Number one, they're giving us the ball. So if we catch the football, I feel good from there. And I think we have guys who can catch the football, so we'll have the ball where we need it, and we can go from there. To me, it's not as big of a priority as the other guys that man those teams."
But even if the Bengals are just looking for a guy to catch the ball, they still have to make a choice between Chatman, Purify, Cosby and Nelson. If Purify makes it instead of Chatman and Cosby, does that make Nelson the punt returner by default?
"If you talk about your four core (special) teams, and the other 43 players that play in those core areas, for me, that's about the 44th one on my list," Lewis said. "I'm looking for more guys who cover, and do the other things that we ask them to do."
All Cosby knows is that he'd like to pop one and it's been tough up here for a guy that averaged 11.3 yards on 33 returns in college.
"In the NFL it seems a lot of guys directionally punt it," Cosby said. "Sometimes that direction leads to out of bounds. In college they just try to kick it as far as they can so they leave a lot of room in the middle of the field and you get a lot more opportunities. That's been the frustrating part is the opportunities just haven't been there. I just have to continue to make good decisions because that's half the battle; making good decisions and keeping us in good field position."
The Bengals have made a decision to use Benson extensively in what he calls the busiest preseason of his five NFL seasons with 18 carries and four catches.
"It's good; shake off any rust I might have," said Benson, who didn't have a training camp last year when the Bears cut him in June. "I do all I can off the field to maintain myself to be as fresh as I can on a daily basis, definitely going into Sundays for a game. I don't think it will bother me in any way."
Lewis' No. 1 backs don't usually pound it in preseason. He did it last year in order to get the rust off of Chris Perry with 39 carries and 46 touches. But in 2007 Rudi Johnson had just 28 touches on 24 runs and in 2006 it was just 21 runs. Benson looks to be headed somewhere in between, like Johnson's 40 runs and one catch in '05.
Coming out of the first preseason game, Benson admitted he was sore but this week he said he felt fine after touching it 13 times during a brisk quarter's work in New England in Game 2.
"Pretty good. I'm recovering from camp. We're still getting lot of work in right now," he said. "Luckily we've got of lot backs that can spread out the reps. it's kind of difficult (to pace yourself). You don't want to take anything off or take any false steps. You always want to keep working on being precise with everything. That's a fine line to have to manage; I'm still working on figuring out that myself."
If you think Lewis gets testy talking about punt returners, ask him about playing time for the starters in preseason games. "I'll go with the flow of the game," he said, and he says he's not one of these guys that says his starters have to play into the third quarter in the third preseason game to get a feel for coming out at halftime.
"No big deal," he said, noting it will probably be a lot like the last game in New England in which most all of the starters played the first half.
Benson agrees with Lewis there in the sense he doesn't think the third game is a magical dress rehearsal.
"I kind of see it as part of all the other games; you don't want to change anything you do," Benson said. "You don't want to take the first four games of the preseason and say, 'Well, I'm only going to play so much, so I'm not going to prepare like I would for a normal game.' Then when the normal game comes, you're kind of off-balanced here. I take the opportunity to prepare for each game like a regular season game. I don't consider it the last dress rehearsal. I consider it just another game to win."
Benson is used to playing without Palmer. He's only played with him in two games, last year in Dallas and two weeks ago against New Orleans in the opener. He can tell the difference.
"They know when you don't have your starting quarterback in there," he said. "Last week they played one safety down and one safety high. No, I don't think they do that if Carson is in there."
If Palmer ends up playing just three series or so in the preseason finale after playing four in the opener, Benson doesn't think it's a problem.
"He's a veteran. He's a Pro Bowl quarterback," Benson said. "I don't think it will taint him."