Bengals at Buccaneers: 5 storylines to watch in preseason opener

The Cincinnati Bengals play their first preseason game since 2019 on Saturday at Tampa Bay, and for the rookies, it’s the first big opportunity to show how well they’ve transitioned to the NFL.

Bengals coach Zac Taylor said Thursday that a handful of starters won’t be playing, including quarterback Joe Burrow, center Trey Hopkins and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, as well as some others who are nursing slight injuries.

The majority of the first team offensive and defensive units likely won’t be playing more than two or three series anyway, but with some guys already being held out, there will be plenty of opportunity for backups to get snaps.

As with most preseason games, the focus is on answering questions within the Cincinnati Bengals system, rather than the opponent, but the defending Super Bowl champions will be a good first test. Here are five storylines to watch in the first preseason game:

1. The development of Brandon Allen

Backup quarterback Brandon Allen is expected to play all or most of the first half, and it’s a good chance to see where he is in Year 2 with the team.

He went from third-string and not even getting any reps in practices last year to suddenly needing to start games after Burrow tore his ACL and now departed backup Ryan Finley struggled, so this is his first year actually having time to prepare in the system.

“He didn’t take any reps until the bye week of last year, and so now he gets a chance to jump back into a system he’s comfortable in,” Taylor said. “He gets a ton of reps. When he gets into a rhythm he’s really good. I think he’s really comfortable with what we ask him to do and those guys have a lot of confidence in him when he’s at the helm as well. That’s really want you want from your backup is a guy who gets all these reps he’s getting and in a lot of ways this has been good for us.”

2. Chase has something to prove

As the team’s first-round pick, No. 5 overall, wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase knows eyes are on him to see what he can do – even when the games don’t count. Chase opted out of the 2020 season, his junior year at LSU, before declaring for the draft, and he’s struggled with consistency in training camp. He and the offense have taken steps this week after the defense dominated the early part of camp, but drops have been an issue and he attributes that to a slower reaction time following the year off from games.

Chase is working to get his “mental quickness,” as he calls it, sharp again. His first taste of NFL action he wants to prove he will be back to 2019 national championship form.

3. Who will step up on the offensive line?

The Bengals still have to sort out the starting guard spots and as always, jobs are on the line in the preseason for backup roles so there will be plenty of chances for players to step up Saturday.

Though Quinton Spain seems to be separating himself from the rest at left guard, the right guard position remains up for grabs, and the Bengals need to make sure they have serviceable options to back up tackles Jonah Williams and Riley Reiff.

Cincinnati is thin at tackle with backup Fred Johnson out with an undisclosed injury and Hakeem Adeniji on the Active/Non-Football Injury list (torn pec), so Isaiah Prince and rookie undrafted free agent signee Gunnar Vogel will see a lot of action Saturday, and D’Ante Smith, who is listed as the backup left guard, also could see time on the exterior.

4. Defensive line rotational roles

Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson are the only two proven defensive ends on the roster, so Saturday is a good chance for rookies Cam Sample and Joseph Ossai to show what they can do as the Bengals are looking at who can step into rotational roles.

Ossai, the team’s third-round pick, and Sample, a fourth-round pick, have shown flashes in training camp but haven’t consistently wowed anyone yet. Sample especially has opportunity as someone who could play inside and has gotten some snaps in a three-technique role in camp.

“This is a great opportunity,” Sample said. “You know, honestly this is the moment you kind of dream as a kid, wanting to get to the NFL. To have your chance of playing the first game, even though it’s preseason, I’m taking it very seriously just to show the rest of teammates and coaches what I can do on the field.”

5. Kicking through a storm

Rookie fifth-round pick Evan McPherson has kicked in some windy and rainy conditions being from Florida, but Saturday could be challenging with tropical depression Fred possibly bringing some bad weather.

McPherson might be more prepared for that than others but regardless of the conditions, he could be battling his own storm within as he tries to stay calm in his first NFL action. The former UF kicker got a Whoop band to monitor his heart rate and track changes in different situations. The first day of training camp he had a max heart rate of 175 and was averaging around 150, but he said he’s been able to control his nerves and stay calmer as he settled into camp and now he maxes at around 160 with an average of 126.

“I’ve played in a lot of football games and the uprights are the same width as they were in college, the scenarios are kind of the same,” McPherson said. “You gotta go out there and compete and show what you got. I would say a lot of it’s the same. You could say maybe the pressure is a little higher, but I think with the preparation that we’ve had, I think I’ll be able to stay level-headed.”

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