Coming off a win last week against the Chicago Bears, the Cincinnati Bengals will hit the road for the first time this preseason Saturday as they meet a Dallas Cowboys team that fell 24-21 at San Francisco in its opener.
The Bengals starters likely will see a lot more snaps, but head coach Marvin Lewis also indicated Tuesday there are some players he would like to run with the first group, so playing time could be a mixed bag depending on the position.
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Linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who left practice early Monday, did not participate in the team’s walk-thru Thursday at Paul Brown Stadium before the travel day and will almost certainly not play, but tight end Tyler Eifert could see his first snaps since last September.
Here are five things to watch for Saturday night:
Stopping the run
Bengals defensive coordinator Teryl Austin stressed at the start of training camp the need to improve against the run, and that will be put to the test in Dallas.
Led by Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys have one of the best running games in the league, as their 135.6 rushing yards per game ranked second behind Jacksonville last year.
With Burfict out and Vinny Rey also dealing with injury, Cincinnati most likely will be starting Jordan Evans, Preston Brown and Nick Vigil. The Bengals have a host of young players that will also get opportunity to put some highlights on film that could sway roster decisions.
“That’s a great running team, so it’s a good chance to show what we can do,” Evans said. “We’ve got to plug up those gaps and get to the ball.”
Some of the players that did well in the second half of the preseason opener could get playing time earlier in the game, despite the trend of playing starters longer in the second and third preseason games.
Lewis wouldn’t specify who, but in positions like the offensive line, where the right side still has a lot of uncertainty, it might benefit the team to see how the No. 2s do in a first-team situation. Bobby Hart is listed as the team’s No. 1 right tackle and Trey Hopkins the first-team right guard, but those positions are still up for grabs.
“I will extend the other guys (backups) more, so it will be hit-and-miss to see how it works,” Lewis said. “There are some guys that play earlier and other guys that get pushed back a notch because the guy in front of him plays a little longer this week.”
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Lewis was asked specifically about whether backup quarterback Jeff Driskell would get time with the first team offensive line, and he simply said, “Stay tuned.” Driskell was behind backup AJ McCarron on the depth chart last year, and the Bengals need to make sure they’ve got a viable option behind starter Andy Dalton.
First road experience
For the rookies on the team, this will mark the first NFL away game experience, and Dallas isn’t an easy place to play. “America’s favorite team” drew more than 88,000 fans in its preseason home opener last year, and the 100,000-seat AT&T Stadium can be an intimidating environment for young players.
It’s a good challenge especially for rookie center Billy Price. The former Ohio State University captain has played there before, but as he continues to transition to the NFL, this is another important test as he works to improve his chemistry with Dalton on the snaps.
Improving the run
With Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard likely getting more snaps this game, it’s a chance to see how they will evolve in offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s new offense.
Mixon became the go-to back last year when Jeremy Hill went down, and now that Hill has moved on, he is expected to carry the load, but it seems Lazor wants a nice one-two punch from him and Bernard. Expectations are high for both players, especially with Bernard being another full year removed from knee surgery, and the running game has become a bigger focus in this offense overall.
“We have to continue to work on running a little better,” Lewis said.
The Bengals have emphasized aggressiveness in trying to create turnovers in Austin’s defense, and they got two takeaways on interceptions by KeiVarae Russell and Brandon Bell in the opener.
However, Lewis would like to see more fumbles caused by sacks.
“The one area we have to get better in is sacks that cause fumbles around the quarterback,” Lewis said. “It’s a big area that we haven’t been as good in. As you go, you have to create more opportunity like that. We had an intern do a study on NFL turnovers, and we found that it’s still a significant stat, but how they come is interesting.”