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Wide-Eyed Evans Opens Up Bengals Running Back Competition

Rookie running back Chris Evans showed he can get the tough yards Saturday.
Rookie running back Chris Evans showed he can get the tough yards Saturday.

TAMPA, Fla. - Even behind Chris Evans' stylish glasses, his eyes were wider than the impact the rookie running back had on the Bengals roster during Saturday night's 19-14 win over the Buccaneers in the preseason opener.

"I don't remember," said Evans of the third-and-one he converted early on for six, slithery yards despite two Bucs penetrating into the backfield. "I played so many plays. Special teams. After one of those (carries) early on I said, 'Let's just relax and play football.' The first couple I was like, 'Oooh.'"

By the end of the night, "Oooh," is what could be said about the Bengals' competition at running back. Especially if there's just one spot behind Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine. It wasn't exactly Lou Gehrig and Wally Pipp, but it was definitely a tough night for third-year running back Trayveon Williams because most of Evans' 12 carries would have been his.

"It was tough. We were excited to see Trayveon in this game and (he) got his hamstring right at the end of Thursday practice," Taylor said. "So we left him home to rehab that. Hopefully it's not too severe. We'll evaluate where he is this week."

So Evans, the sixth-rounder from Michigan who has caught everything since he arrived, stopped gaping at the size of Bucs ace rusher Jason Pierre-Paul during the first series of the game he spent on the sidelines and then barely came off the field rushing for 25 yards, catching another 33 and scoring the Bengals' only touchdown.

One of those catches came on an untouched 22-yard release valve job down the left sideline in the last 3:25 to help kill the clock and set up Austin Seibert's second field goal of the game with 21 seconds left. The best part of that was he made sure he stayed in-bounds.

The other back vying for a spot, 230-pound Jacques Patrick ran exactly like that and got 24 of his 71 yards on one play that final drive, knifing through a pair of rookies in left tackle D'Ante Smith and left guard Trey Hill.

"I thought Chris Evans did some really good things in the pass game," Taylor said. "He had some good runs, too. Maybe his yardage didn't show up, but he had some good, tough runs that put us in good situations. The third-and-one really stands out to me."

Not to the 5-11, 211-pound Evans. What stood out to him was another third-and-one. The one-yard touchdown run with 13 seconds left in the first half when he bulled behind another rookie pair, right guard Jackson Carman and right tackle Gunnar Vogel.

"I was getting flashbacks from Michigan. We'd get down to the goal line and I would come out of the game," said Evans of the bigger back that would replace him. "In that situation, I just embraced it. This my job now and I have to handle it as such."

Evans came out of Ann Arbor billed as primarily a receiving back, but on Saturday night he got some heavy-duty yards in and outside on zone runs.

"I've been trying to add that to my game. Do the nitty-gritty work," Evans said. "I caught a couple of my outside zones where I was trying to look for a hole that wasn't there and I just have to get used to what (running backs coach Justin) Coach Hill coaches us up to put your foot in the ground and get vertical instead of trying to look for something because it's not always going to be perfect."

It started out far from perfect.

"I was looking at how big they were," Evans said. "After the first couple of hits, I got acquainted. I'm supposed to be here. I've been playing football my whole life.

"When the ones were out there, they were huge. Pierre-Paul was looking like a creation. But when the twos came in, I was like OK, OK, this looks a little more familiar."

But there was a slice of perfection. He needed a little bit of help after he scored his touchdown because he became a bit dazed with everyone rapping him on the helmet in celebration.

"One of my teammates kept yelling, 'Keep the ball, keep the ball, keep the ball,'" said Evans, who walked into halftime with it before the equipment guys grabbed it. "I told them, 'I'm going to need that back.' I don't know what they're going to do with it."

No worries. Adam Knollman, Sam Staley and Troy Runk will tape it up for him with all the specific information and put it in his locker.

Quarterback Brandon Allen gave him another accolade.

"He's great. He's been great all camp," said Allen of Evans in the pass game. "He even showed it tonight. He had a few really tough runs in there … He catches the ball like a receiver. His route running and his hands are very similar to that of an NFL receiver.

"I was a little surprised how tough he ran. It's obviously really, really nice to see."

Of course, that is Patrick's M.O. even though he didn't get to have a preseason as a rookie last season. But he did finish third in XFL rushing for the Tampa Bay Vipers in early 2020 and the pro experience was obvious with 71 between-the-tackle yards on 15 carries.

"That's the style of runner he is," Taylor said. "He really wears down a defense that way. Those two guys really showed up in the run game."

The running back competition has officially opened. When Evans left the podium Saturday, his eyes weren't as wide.