After unfurling banners, standing sculptures and counting down legends to honor their 50th season, the Cincinnati Bengals will finally get to hit the field, and an opponent, at 7:30 p.m. Friday when they face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in both teams’ preseason opener.
Other than a couple of goal-line plays, the Bengals haven’t done any live tackling through the first 11 days of camp, which is a far cry from the spirited joint practices the team held with the Minnesota Vikings in 2016, New York Giants in 2015 and Atlanta Falcons in 2013.
How that lack of physicality will affect the team is worth keeping an eye on Friday night, as are these six other things:
As explosive as rookie running back Joe Mixon has looked in training camp, he hasn’t had anyone actually try to tackle him yet.
With Jeremy Hill and the starters likely to see limited action and Giovani Bernard a good bet to sit out, Mixon should get plenty of chances to demonstrate his ability to make defenders miss rather than simply running away from them.
Using recent history as a guideline, Mixon could record double-digit touches. Hill shared the team high with six carries in his first preseason game as a rookie in 2014, and Bernard had a team-high 10 rushes to go along with five targets and three receptions in the 2013 preseason opener.
Head coach Marvin Lewis was asked Wednesday what has impressed him the most about Mixon thus far.
“His personality, his work ethic, how he comes and approaches practice every day,” Lewis said. “From the very first rookie camp here in Cincinnati, you felt that, but you aren’t sure because it’s a very limited exposure.
“Now that’s a day-to-day thing with the ups and downs in camp — being tired, being asked to run and finish every play,” Lewis added. “He likes to do that. He likes to run down that field like he is scoring a touchdown, and we are going to give him a lot of opportunities to do that.”
Mixon may lead the team in oohs, aahs and cheers from the fans thus far in camp, but there’s another rookie giving him a run for the label of “most impressive.”
The biggest question surrounding fourth-round pick Carl Lawson is whether he’s actually that good or the offensive line is that bad. The fourth-round pick has been beating whichever tackle he goes against when he lines up at defensive end, and he’s coming along when it comes to playing as a stand-up linebacker, the position the Bengals are listing him at on their roster.
It will be interesting to see if the Bengals give Lawson some snaps while the Buccaneers have their first-string offensive line in the game. But the real show could come when Lawson takes aim at the Tampa Bay reserves. Backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, the former Bengal, may get to know Lawson better than he would like.
O-line or Oh, line
The biggest question coming into the offseason, and later training camp, was the offensive line, and so far it’s yet to be answered.
Young tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher have looked good at times, and they have struggled at times. But that kind of inconsistency cannot continue if the Bengals want to find their way back to the postseason in 2017.
In addition to the tackles, keep an eye on Trey Hopkins, who is pushing Andre Smith for the starting job at right guard. Smith has been slowed by an arm injury, so Hopkins, who has appeared in one game in three years with the team, could get some needed additional reps.
It’s going to be a limited sample size for the starters Friday night, but how Ogbuehi and Fisher – and the offensive line as a whole – perform against a solid Tampa Bay defense could be one of the biggest story lines to come out of the opener.
Whether it’s due to his disappointment of not being traded in the offseason to someplace where he can start or simple rust from not throwing a meaningful pass since the wild-card loss to Pittsburgh at the end of the 2015 season, backup quarterback AJ McCarron has struggled through the first part of camp.
“He’s had his ups and downs,” offensive coordinator Ken Zampese said. “He’s working through it. I’m sure he’ll come out the other side.”
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Asked if his inconsistency can be attributed to rust, Zampese scoffed at the notion.
“No. The expectations are way higher than where it’s been,” he said. “He’s got to catch up to the expectations set for him. And he will.
McCarron should get the majority of the snaps, with Dalton probably only slated to play one series, maybe two, and third-stringer Jeff Driskel likely to handle the final few drives.
Even though the Bengals have made it clear they value the insurance McCarron provides, if he can string together some solid outings in August, it could drive up his value and lead a team in need of a quarterback to sweeten its offer.
You have to believe rookie fifth-rounder Jake Elliott has the inside track after becoming the second kicker the Bengals have drafted in Lewis’ 15 years as coach, but Randy Bullock has had the more reliable leg thus far.
Elliott bounced back from missing a 52-yarder and an extra point in last week’s scrimmage to hit from 39 and 51. But now that the games are starting, he can’t afford to miss many more.
Lewis wouldn’t comment on how long the starters will play because he said the decision hasn’t been made.
He has an idea, but it could change if he doesn’t see the type of sharp, crisp play he expects.
“We better see it, or they might get a little winded,” he laughed. “It’s happened before.”
Lewis also said a few regulars will set out the opener while declining to name them. Running back Giovani Bernard, guard Andre Smith and wide receiver John Ross are likely to be among them.