Jessie Bates said his heart was racing as he stepped onto the field at Paul Brown Stadium last week for the Cincinnati Bengals’ preseason opener and his first introduction to playing in the NFL.
The rookie safety is hoping the butterflies are gone but walking into the 100,000-seat AT&T Stadium in Dallas will feel a lot different than playing in Cincinnati’s partially empty facility.
When the Bengals travel to play the Cowboys on Saturday, the first-year players will be getting their first taste of an NFL road game in a big environment, one that will feel more like a regular-season game. Dallas drew 88,851 fans to its first home preseason game last year.
“I wouldn’t say I’m nervous, but maybe anxious,” said Bates, who is from Fort Wayne, Indiana, but comes from a family full of Cowboys fans. “I just want to go out and contribute and help the team. I think the away games will be exactly like home games, it’s just you have to go play some place else and you’ve got to take care of the little things, making sure your mindset stays right in the hotel room as you prepare for the game.”
The Bengals’ preseason schedule works out well in easing the newcomers into a semblance of a regular-season slate. They played their first preseason game on a Thursday last week, and after traveling to Dallas, they head to Buffalo for their first Sunday game next week.
“It will fit pretty well together,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said earlier this week. “We are going to get there, and (the field) is still going to be 100 yards. It is travel this week, so it’s a little different for them. But they’ll be handling a little bit of that — the lights and so forth— particularly for the guys we’re counting on to make a significant contribution.”
Veteran defensive lineman Carlos Dunlap still remembers his first road game in the NFL. He recalls having some nerves, despite playing in big environments while at the University of Florida and despite the fact it was the Bengals’ third preseason game.
Dunlap’s first road game was at Buffalo, but going to Dallas will be an even better first away experience for the rookies.
“What better ‘welcome to the NFL’ than seeing Dallas’ humongous big screen and playing in America’s favorite team’s stadium?” Dunlap said.
Playing on the big stage is one thing, but the crowd noise specifically is a concern for players that need to be able to hear calls and be able to make adjustments on the fly.
That makes this first road trip especially meaningful for former Ohio State University center Billy Price, but this won’t be his first time playing at AT&T Stadium.
“I’ve played in some big stadiums – Ohio Stadium, the Big House up north. I’ve played in some NFL stadiums – Dallas, I’ve played in the SuperDome, out in Phoenix, Arizona,” Price said. “The crowd noise can get to you but if you’re confident in what you’re doing, you know your offense, the crowd noise is just something in the background.”
By now the rookies have had plenty of time to learn the playbook, and Bates said that is the biggest thing that has enabled him to play faster and gain the confidence of his teammates, as well as his coaches.
Now, it’s just a matter of putting it all into practice in real game situations.
“It’s just football, and I’ve been playing since I was 7 years old, just the game is a lot faster and people are a lot smarter,” Bates said. “It felt good being out there my first time, and it was a dream come true playing in my first NFL game and having my family in the stands watching me play an NFL game. I’m looking forward to this next one too.”
These next two preseason games are just as important for the veterans, though, Dunlap said, as these are the ones the team treats most like a regular-season game.
The Bengals are working in a new offense and new defense with different coordinators than a year ago. Bill Lazor replaced Ken Zampese as offensive coordinator after two games last season, and Teryl Austin replaced Paul Guenther as defensive coordinator during the offseason.
“This game and the next game are where we answer how much we’ve evolved,” Dunlap said. “The first game is kind of like, ‘let’s just get going’ and see how quick the game is, hit someone other than your teammates, but these next games you get a challenge against another team more as a first group. It’s important for all of us, not just the rookies.”