It is the dog days of August, that week after the first preseason game when football is no longer new but there are still enough days in training camp to check off. This is why middle linebacker Logan Wilson re-upped for four more years and why Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. is glad he's here. And all the elements of head coach Zac Taylor's philosophy of streamlined intensity and precautionary approach were on display during Monday's practice on the Kettering Health Practice Fields that saw the season's first rain.
The Bengals worked in controlled busts of long drives in the team drills. Sometimes they went off script to jam in more snaps. Rookie cornerback DJ Turner got nicked and most likely would have returned if it was a game. But it wasn't and he didn't. Two-time 1,000-yard receiver Tee Higgins, who didn't work in last week's joint practices with the Packers, was all over the place Sunday and Monday.
"The way they take care of us is special," said Brown Monday of yet another practice in pads. "It's a new school way and a new approach that has obviously been very successful for this organization and I'm very happy to be on this side of things. I've been a part of some great teams. It's a different type of workload. I'm all in on what the Cincinnati Bengals are doing."
What Taylor and strength and conditioning coach Joey Boese are doing is taking note of what the perennial playoff teams are doing and incorporating it into the daily schedule. (You can put the Bengals in that category.) They've noticed a trend of old-school ways translating to long injured reserve lists in December. It seems a week full of 60-play days or the seemingly endless sessions of two and a half hours or longer have gone the way of newspapers and record albums. Quaint memories of a different time.
Instead, it is now two intensely focused days in pads of no more than two hours, a day off, and then do it again. The Bengals have been in pads every day they've worked this month and while it's been a long grind, it's also not a killer in this era of 17 games, short weeks, and salary-cap-busting injuries.
And Taylor is keeping the pads on.
"It's going to get longer. We don't go three days in a row, we go two, and when we go, two we want it to be physical and to be taxing and then you get that day off and then we get back at it," Taylor outlined before a practice that began prepping for Friday's game (7:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) in Atlanta.
"We ask them to give us your all. It's going to be hot. It's going to be full pads. We're going to hit. Then we're going to take care of you on that third day. I think that's a trade-off those guys like."
A guy like captain Sam Hubbard, the defensive end who has spent five of his six NFL camps under Taylor, likes it. He said he was a good tired Monday. "A hard day for the starters." As Tuesday's off-day beckoned, he was asked how a team can get ready to play 60 minutes in the Sept. 10 opener in Cleveland without ever practicing 60 minutes.
"You're looking at it," Hubbard said. "Playing football. There's no way to replicate it. You play football. Long drives. Drag them out. Even if we get a first down, keep playing because that's where you start to feel it. Those long drives."
Taylor didn't tweak this year's schedule after the offense took 94 snaps in last year's Opening Day loss to the Steelers. The philosophy figures that in even though the starters didn't play last Friday night's preseason opener.
"The weeks fall a little bit differently than the preseason games last year. So there's a couple more days mixed in there, so I like where we're at, what we've got planned today, Wednesday and next week to get those guys ready. I feel like we're in a good spot," Taylor said.
"The guys that didn't play in the game the other day, Joey taxed them pretty good the day of the game, Friday in the weight room, whether it's bikes and ropes and sled pushes and all that stuff. That's part of what we have to incorporate into practice as well. Because whether the guys play in these games or not, it's very limited action. So you want them to be ready for a 95-play game on both sides of the ball like we had against Pittsburgh last year, it can happen. And so that's part of what we've got to factor into our practices, starting today, going to Wednesday, longer drives, making sure these guys feel that so that they are ready in mid-September."
Wilson, who didn't miss a snap with a labrum injury in the 2021 playoffs, knows better than most the long haul of it.
"There'll be practices where there's no huddle and it's not scripted and we'll just go until he decides to call it," Wilson said. "There are move-the-ball periods. There are all sorts of different ways he can insert that where you can play longer plays at a time rather than sets of four, whatever it is. I can't complain. It's why I wanted to be here. You just have to stay proactive to prevent some of those little minor things that become nagging things throughout the whole year. You just have to stay on top of that stuff."
The Bengals did a couple of eight-nine play drives Monday. Brown, drafted by Baltimore and a veteran of Kansas City's Super Bowl, loves it.
"It forces you to be a pro," Brown said. "You have to stay on top of your workouts and your playbook because you're not going to rep everything. In the past, I've done (more) reps, but this allows my body to stay fresh. It allows me to practice with a game mindset. 'Hey man, this is all I'm going to get.' It almost forces you to go harder."
Of course, there is no hard-and-fast answer. The Super Bowl champion Chiefs, like the Bengals, a team being studied, played quarterback Patrick Mahomes for six snaps in Sunday's preseason opener. Even the Bengals vets have varying opinions on the use of preseason snaps. The Bengals, who didn't play any starters last year on either side of the ball, didn't in their opener Friday. But then, their offense didn't have quarterback Joe Burrow, either. Taylor doesn't have him again this preseason, but he says he's mulling playing starters in the remaining two preseason games.
"I think we can go in and be ready (without playing in the preseason)," Wilson said. "But whatever Coach wants us to do is what he wants us to do and we'll do it."
Which seems to be the bigger point. Taylor has sold his regimen to his core vets and newcomers alike.
O-LINE REVIEW: It would seem the competition at the right tackle spot has been called. Jackson Carman started Friday in place of starter Jonah Williams and has worked at backup left tackle for the first time this camp in the last two practices. But Taylor says no.
"We will continue to work, continue to look at different things up front and really with all the positions, but it is still relatively early in the process," Taylor said. "We have only played one game and have two left. There will still be some things we can look at."
Williams hasn't played an NFL snap at right tackle in a game and while Taylor says he doesn't have to see Williams do it in a preseason game before Opening Day, he didn't rule it out, either.
Meanwhile, backup guard Max Scharping continues to get his first NFL snaps at center in his sixth training camp and first with the Bengals after they claimed him on waivers before last year's opener. He made his fourth straight start at guard Friday when he lined up at left guard after starting in the playoffs at right guard for the injured Alex Cappa. Then later in the game he moved to center, where starter Ted Karras has been helpful. It will be recalled Karras, a college guard, also learned to play center in the NFL.
"He's given me a lot (of help)," Scharping said after Monday's practice. "He's a guy that's played at a high level for years at both … The best has been his advice on run foot work. It's different coming from a non-staggered stance. How to move the feet and bring the hands. It's a little bit different. And then snapping the ball, you don't have the right hand right away. He's taught me a couple of things about that. I'm picking it up. It's slow, but that's natural trying to pick up something new."
In the It's-Not-As-Easy-As-It-Looks Dept., Scharping says the toughest adjustment has been snapping the ball and then blocking what he calls wide zone reaches: "I have to get the snap in the correct spot and then there's a guy right on top of you as you're almost going sideways and you don't want to give up too much penetration."
PLAYER OF THE DAY: DE Trey Hendrickson
Never mind the pick-six off a Jake Browning screen pass. What about the bull rush sack on a guy who never gets bulled? That matchup with Orlando Brown that started so intensely on day one of training camp has turned into a daily Pro Bowl clinic.
"We're making each other better. Look, the guy's a top-three player at his position," Brown said. "He's going to have a big year."
The feeling is mutual.
"Iron sharpens iron. He's going to have a big year, too," Hendrickson said. "Orlando is very gifted athletically and physically and he plays the game correctly. It's a challenge with him changing up his sets, changing up his reads. It makes you evaluate every rush and have a plan. You can't go through the motions. He requires the best. He's a heck of an athlete and player and he's a good dude, too."
The pick-six? Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, who is running around camp in the final stages of his rehab doing everything from keeping stats to running on the field congratulating fellow corners, observed, "That's three straight practices where there's been a pick-six off a screen pass. I've never seen that in the NFL."
Slot cornerback Mike Hilton got the first two, one off the Packers in the joint practice and one Sunday. On Monday, Hendrickson, who has the fourth most sacks in the 2020s but no career interceptions, showed off his massive athleticism. He saw Brown's set, saw the tight end release and …
"I smelled something," Hendrickson said. "So I baited and then jumped on it."
That smell was Hendrickson timing his jump. And it was in his arms almost as quickly as Browning got rid of it, a la the Watts.
PLAY OF THE DAY: Slot CB Jalen Davis.
This is why Davis quietly and anonymously keeps making the team as Hilton's backup. This is the play that got Awuzie running out on the field to congratulate him and locker room dean Michael Thomas nodding wisely.
The man was just doing his job when he jumped in front of rookie receiver Andrei Iosivas, leaped, and plucked an interception.
"Cover three. I've got the buzz flat. I buzzed to my flat," said Davis, heading into his sixth season and fourth with the Bengals. "Sometimes the ball finds you when you're doing your job. That's all that is. Stay low key. I embrace my role and try to help this team win as many games as it can."
QUOTE OF THE DAY: C Ted Karras On Helping G Max Scharping play center:
"I learned center in the NFL. I've got a little empathy but not much sympathy."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Running back Joe Mixon was out of practice on a personal matter Monday, but there was nothing new for rookie Chase Brown. He and Chris Evans have been working with the ones as well this camp, they just got a little more work with them. Brown showed what he can do with the ball in his hands against the Packers when he turned a check-down pass into a 21-yard gain. If he doesn't make a defender miss, he outruns them.
But it's the non-ball stuff they're working on these dog days. If Brown is going to play ahead of Evans and Trayveon Williams (we may see him in Atlanta after he rolled his ankle two weeks ago), he has to pick up the blitz and running backs coach Justin Hill loved what he saw Monday after what happened Friday night.
In the team drills, Brown got two good blocks in on nickel and safety blitzes and Hill called it a good day.
"He's willing in every aspect," Hill said. "The other night we had a couple of plays where there was a lack of communication and execution, not a lack of effort. There were a few times we weren't on the same page and it cost us in pass protection."
Brown knows the score: "I want to have an influence on this team and be a contributor. And I'm going to have to pick up blitzes."
He did on Monday.
"They were both double mug looks," Brown said. "They're trying to get the running back to bite inside and get mixed up inside so they come free on the edge. We were expecting that today. It's a matter of learning from the plays you don't make." …
Evans had a rare drop on his patented wheel route down the left sideline, but he ripped off a few decisive runs …
Higgins had an active day before getting spilled in a collision that sent shock waves through the crowd. He says he's fine and he certainly looked it Monday with some post-it-up catches. His best play, though, was a Mr. Tennessee Basketball blocked shot. As a tipped pass hung in the air and eyed by cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, Higgins batted away what would have been the defense's fourth interception of the day. Safety Nick Scott also had one …
Linebacker Joe Bachie (chest) returned Monday …