Zac Taylor coached a game for the first time two weeks ago, earned his first preseason win last week and now is set to make his home debut as Cincinnati Bengals head coach.
The Bengals host the New York Giants in their third preseason game Thursday at Paul Brown Stadium, giving fans the best preview they will get of how the 2019 team might look. The third preseason game is traditionally the one where starters get their most playing time before backups take over for the finale.
Cincinnati is coming off a 23-13 win at Washington last week after opening the preseason with a loss at Kansas City. The Giants (2-0) beat the Chicago Bears 32-13 last week.
Here are five things to watch for Thursday night:
1. Lineup preview
The starters this week very well could be the ones lining up to open the season at Seattle on Sept. 8. There are still some positions that won’t be settled until after this game, but given this is the closest thing to a real dress rehearsal the Bengals will get, they’ll want to see the guys expected to start this season.
As for how long the starters will play, Taylor said their work likely won’t extend a full half.
“You won’t see them play that long,” he said. “I feel confident that we will get good work in, however long that is in the first half. Guys will be ready to play against Seattle. We will not play (starters) the first half and into the third quarter like it has been done in the past. … The guys will play a series-or-two shorter than what has happened in years past. Whether that’s good or bad, that’s what we believe in — keeping our guys fresh and healthy. They’re getting enough work. We feel good about our plan.”
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Left tackle Cordy Glenn is out with a concussion, and wide receiver John Ross isn’t expected to begin practicing until Sunday. Tight end Tyler Eifert will see more snaps (he played one snap last week), but not a whole lot, Taylor said.
2. Position battles of note
Starting positions still being determined include left guard, center (Trey Hopkins or Billy Price) and potentially the WILL linebacker spot, where Jordan Evans currently has the edge over Germaine Pratt on the depth chart.
Backup roles at defensive line, offensive line and what to do with some of the bubble wide receivers remain questions to answer. Hardy Nickerson, DeShaun Davis and Malik Jefferson are fighting for probably one or two undecided backup roles at linebacker. Jordan Willis, Renell Wren, Josh Tupou and Andrew Brown appear to be among the bubble guys at defensive line.
The offensive line battles seemed to be settled without cuts thanks to two more guys leaving last week (Christian Westerman and Kent Perkins), but Westerman returned to the team Wednesday and now it’s even more unclear who fits in where.
3. The opposition
Eli Manning is expected to start for the Giants, but rookie quarterback Daniel Jones also has been making a strong case to take over, and this could be the game that decides that. Some are speculating it could be Manning’s last start to a career likely coming to a close soon.
The Bengals defense stepped up last week to hold Washington to 13 points and 212 yards, and they got to the quarterbacks four times for sacks as the defensive line continues to stand out this preseason. Carl Lawson has yet to play this preseason but is expected to see some time Thursday, and that should only make the defense look better as he stood out during training camp.
New York has outscored opponents 63-35 this preseason.
4. Improvement on offense
Andy Dalton hasn’t done much yet this preseason through two games but even with rookie Ryan Finley impressing, Dalton is still the starter and the Bengals will be looking to get things going in his first half or less of playing time Thursday.
Dalton’s playing time was very limited in the preseason opener and penalties played a role last week before a potential touchdown pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage and picked off. Cutting back on holding penalties remains a point of emphasis for the offensive line, but Taylor has been pleased with the coverage.
The running game also will be under a microscope as the Bengals have been unable to do much in that regard since Trayveon Williams has gotten injured in both games and Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard have been limited along with other starters to this point. Rookie Rodney Anderson is expected to play, and this will be the first look the Bengals get of him. He missed the offseason workout program still coming back from a college injury but has been practicing about two weeks now.
5. Pay attention to special teams
The specialists on teams are basically set but the blockers and tacklers continue to be important in determining roster spots for those on the bubble in other positions on offense or defense. Cody Core, for example, has value there, but the Bengals could use some more impact players on special teams.
If others step up, that would go a long way in determining whether they make the team or not. Special teams contributions weigh heavily into those bubble decisions.
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