The Bengals will suit up tonight for their fourth preseason game from Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, NY versus the Bills. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:30 PM EST. Normally, the fourth game of the preseason is the final one, and is mainly used to determine the bottom end of the roster. With five games in 2010, the Bengals have an extra game with which to prepare for the season and evaluate all levels of the team.
With that said, how much the starters play is an open question.
One school of thought would be that they should treat the game as any other fourth preseason tilt, with the starters playing one or two series at most. The coaches can then substitute back-ups freely to get adequate tape on every player on the team for final evaluations. The team could do so again next week versus Indianapolis, allowing them twice as much evaluation tape than in other years. Essentially they’d get two “last” games.
The other school of thought would be to treat this game as a second “third” preseason game. Under this scenario, the team could get the starters, particularly on offense, more snaps to hone their skills in preparation for the games that count.
Keep in mind that this is Buffalo’s “third” preseason game, and therefore they’ll be playing their starters into the third quarter. So it will all come down to whether Marvin Lewis would like to see how his starters or his back-ups perform against Buffalo’s first teamers.
I look for Lewis to play the starters for the first quarter or so, then let the back-ups face Buffalo’s best for the second quarter to see how they match up.
As for the Bills, new Head Coach Chan Gailey has inherited a team with some talent but with a lot of holes. Former Bengal Ryan Fitzpatrick is currently backing up starter Trent Edwards who has been inconsistent so far in his career. The team has high hopes for rookie RB C.J. Spiller, and second-year WR James Hardy. Buffalo is unsettled at offensive line, so they’ll be interested to see how their starting five holds up against the Bengals’ aggressive front. On defense, the Bills are searching for consistency and hope to see some positives from the front seven and the secondary against Cincinnati’s starters.
It will be another homecoming for Terrell Owens, who gets to catch up with former teammates in Buffalo after doing so in previous weeks versus Dallas and Philadelphia.
From Cincinnati’s perspective, here are some things to look for in tonight’s game:
- Continued Improvement by the First Offense: After an abysmal showing in the Hall of Fame Game, the starting offense has steadily improved throughout the preseason, but they only have 2 touchdown drives in 10 attempts. Better execution is needed, particularly in the passing game. The offensive line has been guilty of some very costly penalties as well, and this will no doubt be an emphasis for improvement tonight.
- Some Domination by the First Defense: The Bengals starters on defense haven’t been as impressive as the back-ups, with both Dallas and Denver shredding them for touchdown drives. The D first-teamers did better against Philadelphia, but pass rush issues and penalties have plagued them so far. Against Buffalo, last year’s number 4 defense needs to show they still have what it takes to shut people down. The first team will be without some guys with Roy Williams and Robert Geathers likely out.
- Back-up Tailback Battle: Usually the Bengals carry 3 tailbacks and 1 fullback. In that scenario, the likely combination would be Cedric Benson, Bernard Scott, and Brain Leonard at tailback, and either Joe Tronzo or Fui Vakapuna at fullback. However, the team will sometimes carry 4 tailbacks, as they did last year when they brought in Larry Johnson. If they keep 4, then a battle is brewing between James Johnson and Cedric Peerman. Johnson, the former Kansas State star, has speed and elusiveness in the open field. Peerman is more of a workhorse back. The former Virginia Cavalier had two touchdowns last week against Philadelphia in his first extensive action. Right now this battle is a toss-up.
- Punt Return Battle Royale: This scrum seems to get tighter and tighter with each passing week. WR Jordan Shipley, DB Adam Jones, and WR Quan Cosby have all had impressive returns. Will someone separate tonight?
- Michael Johnson and Geno Atkins: These two young defenders appear to be ready to crack the starting line-up. Johnson has made a successful transition to linebacker so far and has added an extra dimension to the pass rush. Atkins, though small for a defensive tackle at only 6-0 and 290, has shown quickness and agility and has a very impressive 3.5 sacks in 3 preseason games. Keep an eye on these guys tonight.
- Jermaine Gresham: The team will be sure to work the first-round TE into the offense more this week. Offensive Coordinator Bob Bratkowski is counting on Gresham to give Carson Palmer an option in the middle of the field. Gresham looked good last week against the Eagles and will get more looks tonight.
- Wide Receiver Battle: Batman and Robin are the starters. Antonio Bryant’s status remains conspicuously in the air (that elephant in the room). Jordan Shipley looks like a lock. At most, that’s four receivers, and frankly maybe three. So who makes this team after that? Quan Cosby is making it almost impossible for the team to let him go. Andre Caldwell is nursing injuries but has been a contributor in the past. Matt Jones is a former number one pick who’s been productive in the league, and Jerome Simpson is working to fulfill the promise of being a 2008 second-round pick. It will be interesting to see how they do tonight.
- Who’s the back-up QB?: J.T. O’Sullivan has been hot and cold (mainly cold) in his preseason work so far. Carson’s baby brother Jordan looks the part but hasn’t put it all together yet. Neither inspire confidence. The team needs to see some productivity for these guys, and fast.
- Kicker Battle: Dave Rayner holds a clear lead in this contest, with Mike Nugent’s untimely injuries hurting his cause. Tonight we may see more from the former Ohio State Buckeye on both field goals and kick-offs.
Seeing the Bengal back-ups versus Buffalo’s starters will be a good litmus test for the depth of this team. If the Bengals are to be Super Bowl contenders, they’ll need to have the depth to make it happen.
Getting some questions answered in the kicking game and at wide receiver will also be a priority for the coaching staff, along with some better discipline and a reduction in penalties.
Enjoy the game everybody!
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