The Cincinnati Bengals are ready to face an opponent for the first time under coach Zac Taylor, and they will soon find out how far along they are in the transition to the new system.
Taylor makes his head coaching debut in the preseason opener at Kansas City at 8 p.m. Saturday.
The former Los Angeles Rams quarterbacks coach replaced 16-year coach Marvin Lewis in February and brought in a West Coast offense resembling some of what he learned under Sean McVay during a run to the Super Bowl last year. This will be the first chance to see Taylor’s brand of football in a game situation.
Here are three things to watch for Saturday:
1. Some starters will sit
Taylor plans to play the first-team offense and defense for the first quarter only, but a handful of them will sit the entire game out.
The Bengals will rest defensive end Carl Lawson, defensive tackle Geno Atkins, running backs Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard, tight end Tyler Eifert and wide receiver John Ross.
Lawson is coming back from ACL surgery and has been the biggest standout in training camp, but Taylor said the plan for him to ease back into competition was developed months ago and there is no need to push it. Atkins is getting the extra day of rest, and Mixon and Bernard won’t play so the Bengals can get a better look at some of the other young backs. Rookie Rodney Anderson was cleared to practice Wednesday but also is not expected to play as he missed the entire offseason workout program and the first week-plus of training camp.
“Those other two guys (Mixon and Bernard) very well could play if we needed them to, but we don’t need them to, so they’re not going to,” Taylor said.
Ross is still day-to-day with hamstring tightness, and Taylor said the Bengals are continuing the plan to protect Eifert as he returns from ankle surgery last October.
“We want to make sure we get the most out of him,” Taylor said. “He’s been great, he’s been awesome. When you’ve seen him run around (at practice), he’s the real deal and he looks very healthy out there, but we’re going to hold him back for this game.”
2. Rotation on the O-line
The Bengals have been rotating players at left guard almost on a daily basis so different guys are getting opportunities to play with the first-team offense; however, they will stick with on guy with the first group Saturday.
Taylor said not to read too much into who lines up where this game. John Jerry and Christian Westerman have been getting the most consistent looks in camp, but Trey Hopkins and Michael Jordan also have gotten reps. Hopkins likely plays center behind Billy Price this game.
“We still have three and a half weeks to evaluate this offensive line, so don’t read too much into what you see in this first game,” Taylor said. “It’s just a chance to get guys some work and other guys will get their shot in Game 2. We’ll keep battling from there.”
Because there aren’t a lot of bodies available on the offensive line right now with Jonah Williams injured and Alex Redmond unavailable, there will be plenty of opportunities for those who can play. Taylor said it will be a “pretty fluid situation” in the second, third and fourth quarters, where one guy might come out for a series or two and then reappear.
3. Good test for the defense
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is expected to play the first quarter Saturday, so the Bengals defense will get a chance to face one of the top offenses in the league from last year.
Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo seems to have done well implementing his system, as the defense has been ahead of the offense in a lot of practices since the offseason workout program. Players like cornerback B.W. Webb, second-year safety Jessie Bates, and the linebackers have looked strong in camp so far.
“Offensively, they’ve presented challenges to everybody they’ve faced for the last couple years, so it’ll be a good test,” Taylor said. “They are one of the most creative offenses in the league. They’re a team that, often times, their stuff is stolen very quickly once it’s been put on tape. Usually when they run something, it’s going to reappear later in the season.”
4. Focus on the trenches
Taylor said he is most excited for the chance to see the guys up front on both sides of the ball really compete. He’s got a pretty good idea what to expect from the skill positions, but the battle in the trenches is what he will be looking at most closely.
“(This game is) really about the offensive linemen, tight ends, backs in protection, and the D-linemen and linebackers,” he said. “When you’re competing against someone else, how quickly do they see it, where are they ID’d, and are they ID’d correctly since we are going up against someone we haven’t faced before. Those are the guys you really get a chance to observe and talk about what you saw on tape, whereas you get a chance to see skill guys every day at practice. I’m excited to watch those big guys up front on both sides of the ball.”
5. Trial run for new staff
Taylor is ready for his coaching debut, and the game will serve as a good first trial for how the coaches will work together and how communication will go between them.
“We’ve talked a lot about how the communication is going to unfold,” Taylor said. “…It’ll be a good learning experience. It’s impossible to fully simulate what it will look like until we get into a game and see it. I’ve been really impressed with guys that I knew but hadn’t worked with before. I’m excited to see this chemistry evolve as these games take place. We have a great staff in place. We have great communicators. I’m very excited to see us all work together on game day.”
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