As preseason games go, we can always find something to construct a plotline. In fact, preseason coverage has an eerily similar feel as Olympic coverage – half of the coverage is spent explaining the background and storyline of an athlete that most have never followed.
A short-lived career for one moment of glory, such are the bottom-roster churning NFL preseason games and the Olympic Games.
For the sake of perspective, we will review the contest between the Bengals and Jets considering the upcoming season. After all, if the head coaches are not worried about winning, then we will not concern ourselves with wins or losses in evaluating the game.
Of course, the chatter in the New York tabloids will revolve around the first appearance of Tim Tebow in the green and white and his highs and lows. He showed some positives in the passing game, running a pro-style offense, but appeared truly comfortable only when running the ball.
The game was initially dominated by both defenses, with both offenses showing rust. The Bengals lost the luck of the draw on the injury bug, losing four key players within the first quarter: guard Travelle Wharton (knee) on his third play as a Bengal, linebacker Rey Maualuga (knee), Carlos Dunlap (knee), and Taylor Mays (head).
Neither knee injury for Dunlap or Maualuga is expected to be serious, but Wharton appeared to be in a great deal of pain. Mays launched himself at Jets’ wide receiver Stephen Hill’s head as Hill was reaching for an off-target Tebow throw. Mays, however, is the player who ended up with a concussion and, undoubtedly, a mandatory contribution to the league's charity of choice through an upcoming fine.
The Bengals’ 17-6 win is useful as a tool for an initial player evaluation in two categories: those with something to prove and breakout players who will not be ignored.
New York Jets
Something to Prove
Using high percentage passes, head coach Rex Ryan game-planned to put Tebow in a position to succeed running a strictly pro-style offense. With many snaps under center, Tebow initially showed off improved footwork on his drops and a more compact throwing motion.
Tebow’s first pass was a 12 yard slant to Hill, who used his 6-4 frame to snag an overthrown ball and opened himself up for a big hit. The next pass he threw to Hill was a comeback route Tebow again threw sailed. Perhaps recollecting the punishment that was doled out the last time Tebow hung Hill out to dry, Hill dropped the pass.
Tebow also completed a few check-down passes underneath, although he did manage to sail a deep ball so much that he hit a cheerleader.
Of course, Tebow broke off several big runs when his receivers could not gain enough separation to create a window that Tebow felt comfortable throwing through. He could not be brought down in the pocket and took advantage of the Bengals’ man coverage to find running room.
On the downside, Tebow’s one attempt to squeeze a ball through a tight window caused a regression to his old, catapult-style wind-up. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict saw Tebow’s decision, and because of his looping delivery, Burfict was able to jump the out route for an interception. Tebow finished with 4 rushes for 34 yards and only 27 yards on 4/8 passing.
Another Jets quarterback, another up and down performance. Sanchez squeezed a few passes through tight windows and showed chemistry with wide receiver Patrick Turner. At the same time, he did not show any big-play potential, finishing 4/6 with 21 yards passing. Although his Keyshawn-channeling demands for the ball might not be missed, Sanchez would have probably welcomed him with open arms tonight.
While he showed flashes of improvement in reading the defense, Sanchez did not play nearly well enough to quell the quarterback controversy, especially since Tebow at least made splash plays with his legs.
Maybin proved to become a pleasant surprise last season, ending with 6 sacks after two seasons without any in Buffalo. After spending last season as pure pass rusher, Ryan wants to expand Maybin’s duties this season to keep him on the field.
When the offense runs the ball, Maybin’s play is a reminder why he earned the bust label in the first place. He can not shed a block and is completely controlled by his blocker. He simply does not have the strength to be an every down player and needs to stick to situations that take advantage of his speed off the edge.
Can’t Be Ignored
As the focus for the Jets returns to the rushing offense under coordinator Tony Sparano, one running back will be in position to split carries with Shonn Greene. After three solid-but-nothing-more seasons from Greene, a big preseason from Bilal Powell or McKnight could create a true time-share.
Although the coach-speak and practice-rep-distribution seemed to favor Powell, the eye in the sky does not lie, and McKnight clearly outplayed Powell. While McKnight was drafted out of USC with the potential to be an outstanding change-of-pace back, conditioning issues have sent him to the doghouse in previous camps.
Based on his performance against the Bengals, this looks to be the year that McKnight figures it out. He showed an explosiveness and big-play potential that the other backs did not display. He slid through tackles while Powell went down at first contact.
McKnight’s pass catching abilities also set him apart from his internal competition. So will his stat line: he rushed 7 times for 32 yards and a 4.6 average per carry and caught 3 passes on 3 targets for 34 yards.
If tonight was any indication, GM Mike Tennenbaum and Ryan will have the last laugh over criticism for picking Coples over South Carolina’s Mark Ingram in this year’s draft. Coples showed a versatility and tenacity that caused havoc at any of the positions on the line.
With the speed to rush off the edge and the strength to beat interior lineman, Coples finished with 5 tackles (2 for a loss), 1 sack and 2 passes knocked down at the line of scrimmage. He is the sort of every-down player that the defensive line needs.
Something to Prove
While Dalton far exceeded expectations last season, for every question he answered one more popped up. Does he have the arm strength for long-term NFL success and can he be productive with receivers that do not possess the elite ability of A.J. Green?
After spending the offseason strengthening his upper body and refining his footwork, Dalton found his first test with Green being marooned on Revis Island. Targeting Green twice, Dalton could have had two completions if not for a drop in the end zone and an instance of Green not looking for the pass.
Dalton found success with other receivers, hitting Jermaine Gresham, Andrew Hawkins and the two receivers in the flanker rotation, Brandon Tate and Armon Binns. He finished 4/9 for 54 yards, shaking off the rust to lead a scoring drive on the third possession. More importantly, he seemed to show higher velocity on the tight-window throws.
Last season’s third round draft pick has ended up buried on the depth chart after injuries, suspensions and a failure to grasp the playbook derailed him from cashing in on his enormous athletic potential. With a crowded linebacker roster, Moch is fighting for one of the last spots with Emmanuel Lamur and Vontaze Burfict.
Moch’s best chance to contribute is to excel as a situational pass-rusher, especially after Dunlap’s knee injury. Moch responded with 1.5 sacks. After a night with scores of strong linebacking performances, it remains to be seen if Moch will squeak in as a pass-rusher or if DeQuinn Evans’ strong performance will block him. Defensive coordinator
Although Cedric Benson did not have the biggest shoes to fill, the Law Firm looks more than capable to improve upon Benson’s running style – taking exactly the yards that the offensive line creates. No more, no less.
BJGE showed better vision and more explosiveness than Benson. And, with an 18-yard reception out of the slot, a pass-catching ability that Benson never posessed. He seems to have responded very well to a more run-centered offense and made the Bengals appear wise to let the malcontented Benson walk at his contract’s expiration.
Can’t Be Ignored
An unheralded special teams contributor, Peerman has run solidly on the few chances that he has had, mainly in last year’s game against Arizona. With the Bengals bringing in Aaron Brown and drafting Dan Herron to compete for the last running back spot, Peerman (an ordained minister, but without a pop-culture prayer-stance) rose to the challenge.
Peerman ran for 30 yards on 7 attempts with 1 TD and recovered a blocked punt (Tebow was not lined up as the personal protector on this one) for a TD. Brown failed to capitalize on the momentum he gained at the Bengals’ scrimmage, rushing for 1.8 YPC, and Herron looked lost on the field.
Even though the middle linebacker was plagued by red flags for on-field conduct and conditioning issues during the draft process, Burfict showed up at Bengals camp sleek and svelte, doing nothing but impressing so far.
Of course, Burfict’s heads-up Tebow interception was his biggest play of the night, but it was a microcosm of the disciplined playing style he has developed under coordinator Mike Zimmer. Burfict was instinctive playing the run and pass, and showed sideline-to-sideline playmaking ability. By shedding the extra weight and spending time in the film room, Burfict has begun to tap the talent
that made him such an intriguing prospect.
Most importantly, Burfict’s penchant for being baited into personal fouls has either disappeared or was suppressed for a night, at least. While he was the recipient of several subtle nudges, pushes, pokes and prods after plays or at the bottom of piles, Burfict never took the bait. More so than any skill or scheme, this is the key to Burfict earning a roster spot this season.
Whether that is enough for him to work his way up the depth chart remains to be seen, especially if super-sub Dan Skuta continues to perform like he did against the Jets, with 5 tackes, 1 sack and 1 pass defended.