CINCINNATI — The third preseason game in the National Football League is thought to be a “dress rehearsal” for the regular season, the final opportunity for the first-teamers on offense and defense to shake off the rust.
If that’s the case, Andy Dalton and the Bengals’ offense will bring some momentum into the opener at Seattle. They lost 25-23 to the New York Giants on Thursday, but they gained strength and built steam throughout the matchup. After a sluggish start, the offense found its rhythm on their third possession.
“If this is going to be the dress rehearsal, you want to end your last play on a touchdown,” Dalton said. “We showed some of the things that we can do offensively. The next time we’ll be out there is when it counts.”
With good protection up front, Dalton completed passes of 4, 10, 12, and 18 yards before tossing a 26-yard TD to C.J. Uzomah, who finished with two catches for 54 yards.
“We felt like we were heading in the right direction on those (first) two drives, just third downs killed us,” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said. “It was great to see C.J. rewarded on that last play. Great throw and catch by those two.”
Dalton was 5-for-5 on the drive. He finished the preseason 19 of 28 for 220 yards with a touchdown and an interception and averaged 7.9 yards per attempt.
Those first two possessions on Thursday didn’t do much to instill confidence for the season ahead.
On the Bengals’ first play from scrimmage, Dalton completed a short pass to Uzomah, who gained 28 yards. Dalton’s second pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage. His third attempt was broken up with the Bengals QB under pressure up the middle. After recording one first down, the Bengals punted. Dalton was 1-for-2 on the second drive. His third-down pass over the middle was dropped by Tyler Boyd.
“I thought we moved the ball well and did some good things, but there are some things we definitely have to correct,” Dalton said. “We responded on the third drive.”
You can take all of this with a grain of salt, of course. It's preseason. Both the Bengals and Giants held several players out. Joe Mixon, who only has one carry this preseason, didn’t leave the sideline on Thursday and isn’t expected to play next week against the Colts.
There were a few changes on the offensive line with Andre Smith starting in place of Cordy Glenn at left tackle and Michael Jordan starting at left guard over John Jerry. It was the third straight new starting line for the Bengals in the preseason.
To begin the second half on Thursday, the Bengals’ line consisted of Jerry at left tackle, Jordan at left guard, Trey Hopkins at center, Billy Price at right guard, and Justin Evans at right tackle.
“We working through it,” Taylor said of the various combinations up front. “We need some guys to step up. The communication can be better at the tackle spot, but we’ll correct that.”
The receiving corps, which already are thin with A.J. Green out, took another hit when Auden Tate exited in the second quarter with a left knee injury and did not return. John Ross was also out with a hamstring injury. There was no report on Tate following the game.
There were no physical concerns for Mixon.
“We didn’t feel the need to get him any touches,” Taylor said. “What’s one or two touches going to help him two weeks from now? He’s fully healthy, went through warmups, no issues.”
After Dalton played just three series, Ryan Finley, who has all but solidified his spot as No. 2 quarterback, took over.
Finley went 14 of 20 for 155 yards on Thursday. The rookie from NC State has completed 73% of his passes for 414 yards, three TDs and an interception in three preseason games.
“Ryan has gotten better every day,” Dalton said. “He’s been very accurate and put balls in the right spot. To move the offense they way he has as a rookie, he’s done a nice job.”
Another likely backup who shone on Thursday was running back Rodney Anderson, who had eight carries for just seven yards but also had four receptions for 51 yards.
“He’s a tough runner,” Taylor said. “He’s tough to take down on first contact.”
Bengals defensive end Carl Lawson forced a sack fumble and was active throughout Thursday’s game. It was his first action since tearing his ACL last season.
"That was a secret we’ve been waiting to unleash,” said Taylor. “He says it’s the best he’s felt in a long time.”
A sparse crowd of 35,887 saw a good finish at Paul Brown Stadium on Thursday.
Bengals third QB Jake Dolegala went 4-for-4 on his first fourth-quarter drive including a 3-yard TD pass for Damion Willis to put the Bengals ahead 17-10. Willis had three catches for 55 yards.
After a 68-yard punt return for a touchdown by the Giants’ Brittan Golden appeared to have sealed the victory for New York, Dolegala threw a 2-yard TD pass to Josh Malone, making the score 25-23 with 2:43 left. But the two-point conversion pass failed.
“I was proud of the energy the guys played with,” Taylor said. “I wanted them to show we are a connected team and play for each other in this game. The players showed that in the game, picking up their teammates. We fought back.”
Taylor’s new-look offense has been difficult to discern during the preseason with Green out, a revolving door at offensive line, and Mixon playing sparingly.
The coach indicated he’s waiting for games that count to unleash the attack.
“You look around the league in the preseason and at the offenses, everybody’s following the same plan right now,” Taylor said. “It’ll be exciting when we can really show what we’re capable of.”