Depending on a player’s spot on the depth chart, the last game of the preseason can either be a brief dress rehearsal to shore up situational playcalling as well as offensive and defensive schemes, or, for undrafted rookies and veteran journeymen, it can be the make-or-break week where they either show the coaching staff why they can’t go into the regular season without them, or they start cleaning out their lockers.
The cut from 70+ players to 53 is a brutal endeavor for most NFL players, and with the Cincinnati Bengals starting so many unproven prospects in lieu of their recent onslaught of injuries, tonight’s matchup against the Indianapolis Colts will serve as the end-all-be-all proving ground for a number of positional battles.
The closest, most compelling depth chart tango tonight will be between Roddrick Muckelroy and Vontaze Burfict, both fighting to become the primary backup behind projected starter, Rey Maualuga at middle linebacker. Both Muckelroy and Burfict – ranking in the team’s top five in total tackles – have demonstrated their ability to bring down the ballcarrier. However, Muckelroy has shown greater promise getting to the quarterback while Burfict has been the most effective dropping back into pass coverage. Tonight’s battle in the middle will most likely be determined by who puts together the most complete game and showcases the most versatile defensive skill set.
Conveniently, the next biggest defensive roster fight will take place 5 to 7 yards away from the linebacking corp. at strong safety. The once-promising, now-inconsistent Taylor Mays has the starting moniker for now, but his understudy, Jeromy Miles is hot on his heels. Even though Miles has recorded more total tackles and interceptions than Mays this August, the Bengals defensive staff is still infatuated with Mays’ upside, which is admittedly higher than Miles.
Miles is a technically sound tackler who can play the position well over the course of a season, but Mays really enjoys lowering the boom on backs and receivers. Those type of players can intimidate an offense and give a defense a bone-crushing identity. However, Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer has been very vocal about how Mays gets in his own head too much during games, hindering his production.
Recently, Zimmer said, “Taylor is a tremendous athlete, but sometimes he lets his mind get in the way of his ability. He should free-flow a little more. He’s always thinking about what he should be doing. I think that holds him back a little bit. Just listen to me and let it flow.”
No better time to let loose than in the final preseason game when your starting job hangs in the balance. However, I’m certain Miles is an avid reader of my posts and saw my high praise of him in my inaugural article, so he smells blood in the water and will bring it tonight.
Down in the defensive trenches, both the Colts and the Bengals have two edge-rushing terrors looking for the preseason sack title – the most prestigious of all professional football accolades. Bengals OLB Dontay Moch is currently tied with Philadelphia Eagles DE Phillip Hunt for the lead with 3.5 sacks, but Colts DE Jerry Hughes is close behind with 3. Prior to this preseason, both Moch and Hughes combined for 3 years of NFL experience and only 1 sack to show for it; now they’ve combined for 6.5 sacks in three games. These two are promising pass rushers that will look to make their mark against the opposing offensive line tonight.
Finally, let’s talk a little offense. It’s a natural progression considering the underwhelming play of the Bengal running backs and wide receivers. As of right now, WR Brandon Tate is the starter opposite the talented A.J. Green primarily because Tate has played more years in the league than Cincinnati’s remaining core of young receivers. One way that green receivers like Andrew Hawkins and Marvin Jones will look to solidify their roster spot is through their performance on special teams.
This is especially true when it comes to punt returns, where the Bengals have been abysmal. So far, after 8 combined punt returns from Tate, Hawkins, and Jones, Cincinnati has recorded a laughable 6.4 yards-per-return. Usually concentrating on the punting unit in the final preseason game will put you to sleep faster than a fistful of Ambien, but a stellar performance on special teams tonight could mean greater peace of mind when the final cuts come rolling in.
QUICK HITS: BENGALS @ COLTS
- Under head coach, Marvin Lewis, the Bengals are 31-2 when a rusher records 25 or more carries. The only two losses occurred once with Cedric Benson in the backfield and once during Rudi Johnson’s tenure as head back (2003-07). Currently, no running back on the Bengals’ roster has turned in a 25+ carry game for the orange and black.
- Tonight, the Bengals will get their first look at the Colts’ No. 1 overall pick and starting QB, Andrew Luck. In both preseason and regular season games, the Bengals have won their last five meetings against a rookie who was the No. 1 pick in the Draft [QB Cam Newton ('11), QB Matthew Stafford ('09), QB Eli Manning ('04), QB David Carr ('02), and DE Courtney Brown ('00)].
- Dating back to 2002, only one rookie quarterback who was the first overall selection in their draft class has thrown for a touchdown against the Bengals [Detroit Lions QB Stafford in Game 12 of the 2009 season: 11-for-26, 143 yards, and a TD].
- The Bengals and Colts have met in the preseason 20 of the last 21 seasons, earning their feud the nickname, The I-74 Rivalry. It’s the closest geographical rivalry among teams in the AFC with only 110 miles separating the two. The second-closest is the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns at 137 miles.
- Home field advantage is not a factor in this series. In games taking place in Indianapolis, the Bengals currently have a winning record of 10-9.