Cincinnati Bengals: Brandon Tate
Of the 15, 13 are unrestricted free agents and two are restricted free agents. To help you understand what decisions the Bengals must make, we're taking a daily look at the respective free agents and the reasons why they will or won't be re-signed.
We started with quarterback Jason Campbell. Then looked at running back Cedric Peerman and receiver Dane Sanzenbacher.
Now, we continue with receiver Brandon Tate:
Year signed: 2014 (signed low-round tender as restricted free agent)
Length of previous deal: One year
2014 Cap Value: $1,024,000
2014 Role: Backup receiver, and punt-return specialist.
Why he won't be re-signed: Part of the decision to bring players back goes beyond the football field. In Tate's case, there has to be a decision made about how long of a deal the team would want to offer him. He was extended a one-year deal last offseason and jumped on it, but given his contributions this past season, he might have earned more years onto a possible extension. Will that be two years? Three years? It might make the most sense to expect only a two-year deal for the 27-year-old. It's doubtful the Bengals would re-sign Tate, though, if he only wanted a one-year deal. After all, they already have four other receivers who are eligible to enter free agency next offseason. It wouldn't make much sense to set themselves up to have to sign a fifth. Other than the length of his contract, the only other reason the Bengals would turn from Tate is if they believe they have a chance to draft an immediate contributor, one who they feel could be a better option than him.
As always, take the grades with a certain grain of salt because they can end up being later amended. They can also sometimes be the byproduct of particular schemes or coverages or setups a team happens to play that week.
Here are a few Bengals grades and notes following the 42-21 loss:
- With Boling blocking on the edge, Mike Pollak came off the bench and started at left guard. He was part of 54 snaps, and didn't allow a single pressure. At plus-2.7 and plus-2.2, respectively, Boling and Pollak had some of the highest overall grades for Bengals linemen.
- Veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth also has been strong much of the season in pass protection. PFF's Nate Jahnke tweeted Tuesday Whitworth hasn't allowed a sack or a quarterback hit in his past 11 games. The lineman also has yielded just four quarterback hurries in that stretch. Per Jahnke, in Week 14 alone, 17 tackles across the league allowed four or more pressures.
- Reserve receiver Brandon Tate's play-making opportunities grew exponentially Sunday with rookie James Wright out nursing a knee injury. Tate played 32 snaps after participating in just 29 on offense over the previous four weeks.
- Quarterback Andy Dalton saw pressure on seven of his 32 dropbacks (21.9 percent), a figure that closely resembles what he has faced all season. PFF said he has a pressure percentage this season of 23.2 percent. By comparison, Atlanta's Matt Ryan has been pressured on 35.6 percent of his dropbacks, and Russell Wilson on 44.8 percent of his this season. He went 5-for-7 for 117 yards and two touchdowns on those plays.
- Dalton's 75.9 percent accuracy percentage was eighth best among quarterbacks Sunday. Of his 29 passing attempts, 22 were on target. He had 21 completions and a dropped ball to Mohamed Sanu.
- Per PFF, running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill did not force a missed tackle, and combined for only 15 yards after contact.
- In the last four games, A.J. Green's receiving grade has been a plus-10.2. On Sunday, he received a plus-3.5 receiving grade for catching 11 of 15 targets for a career-high 224 yards and a touchdown, earning him a spot on PFF's Week 14 team of the week.
- No Bengals lineman had a positive pass-rush grade.
- Veteran cornerback Leon Hall also gave up two catches on four targets in coverage, including the 94-yard touchdown late to Martavis Bryant. Hall had a minus-1.1 coverage grade.
Several Cincinnati Bengals are up for consideration, but few defensive players on their roster have probably earned as legitimate a shot at a Pro Bowl berth as safety George Iloka. Enjoying the finest of his three seasons, Iloka has been a central piece to the Bengals' success against the pass.
If that's the case, why isn't he getting more love? That's the question we start with Part 1 of this week's Bengals mailbag:
@ColeyHarvey: Yeah, you know, I kind of blame myself on that one, Rob. George Iloka absolutely deserves more attention for his play this season. Sure, he hasn't been as tested overall as some safeties, but that's truly a testament to how good he has been. Teams have begun realizing that in order to pass on this defense, they have to avoid throwing where No. 43 is on the field. Not only has he done a good job getting his hands on passes this season, intercepting three after having just one through his first two seasons, Iloka also has been a bit of an enforcer. Three weeks ago at New Orleans, he was flagged for what replays revealed was a clean hit when he gave a hard forearm to Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. Graham wasn't the same after the first-quarter hit, one that even left him favoring his shoulder moments after the blow. Hits like that have been a consistent part of Iloka's game this season. Good defense in coverage has been, too. According to Pro Football Focus, Iloka leads all safeties in coverage snaps per reception. Receivers going deep have a catch every 60 times a pass enters Iloka's coverage area. That's about 15 more than the next defensive back on the list.
@ColeyHarvey: Speaking of another secondary player who has had a strong year, the Bengals could ill-afford being without Adam Jones for any extended period of time. He gave them a scare earlier this week when he went on concussion protocol after taking a couple hard shots last Sunday on punt return attempts he should have fair-caught. Before he finally did wave his hand above his head in the fourth quarter of the 14-13 win over the Buccaneers, the Bengals turned to Brandon Tate for one return. As for changing up the returners to keep Jones healthy, that's not an option on the table. Neither is playing Dane Sanzenbacher there. The plan is to keep the same Tate/Jones rotation that mostly depends upon where on the field the return is slated to take place. Jones often returns when it appears he'll have space to roam free. But if teams start following Tampa Bay punter Michael Koenen's lead and kicking high and short to neutralize Jones' explosiveness, it might not matter who is back to return.
@ColeyHarvey Will Tate be handling punts this week to avoid Jones getting another concussion? Any thoughts about using Sanzenbacher instead?— Shray Ambe (@TerrncePeterson) December 5, 2014
@ColeyHarvey: Nick, does quarterback Andy Dalton have that kind of game in him? Yes. But he also has a 90-yard, three-interception day in him, too. That's part of his charm of inconsistency. The game plan doesn't really affect how often Dalton can get in the end zone and how prolific he is each week. It's more that he has better weeks than others because he plays better in some weeks than others. That said, Sunday's game against the Steelers definitely is a big one, and it's a game in which they need him to play his best football regardless of his statistics. Does Cincinnati need him to put up those numbers? Probably not, as long as the defense keeps playing well, and if the Bengals can get strong performances from their running backs. Besides, it will be tough to have such a day when you're facing a team that has Troy Polamalu and now a healthy Ike Taylor roving the secondary.
@ColeyHarvey Does Dalton have a 300 yds/3 TD's game in him or does the week to week game plan harness that chance? Do they need him to?— Nick Terry (@nklpkl) December 5, 2014
Opportunity and fearlessness are why Cincinnati Bengals defensive back Adam Jones is leading the NFL in both punt and kick return average.
For the first time since an impromptu appearance in the 2012 playoffs, Jones finally has been given consistent chances to return kickoffs, and he's taking full advantage. With those chances he's doing exactly what he does when returning punts: desperately trying to pick up yards regardless of where he catches the ball on the field.
Among qualifying players, Jones tops the punt-returning list with a 15.8-yards-per-return average. He ranks first in kickoff returns, taking the ball out an average of 32.8 yards. He very nearly had a return for touchdown on his first kick return of the season when he was pulled down from behind just three yards from the end zone on a 97-yard return that gave the Bengals a necessary spark in their 37-37 overtime tie with the Panthers.
Special-teams coordinator Darrin Simmons this week admitted to being stingy with giving Jones kick-return chances earlier this season.
"He's earned more shots," Simmons said. "Situations dictate sometimes we put him in there. I probably should have put him in there earlier on kickoff returns. I needed to feel confident how he was going to react to what he was going to do when he was in there."
Simmons' early-season hesitance stemmed from belief in his other kick returner, Brandon Tate. With the thought that receiver Marvin Jones would return from a preseason foot injury by Week 5 or 6, the Bengals felt OK with giving Tate as many return chances as they could. They thought they could get by all season without having to keep him too fresh for his own receiving duties.
But when Marvin Jones was formally placed on season-ending injured reserve Oct. 14, two days after the tie with the Panthers, it became evident that Tate's offensive responsibilities were about to grow. With Pro Bowler A.J. Green also nursing a toe injury, Tate's plate needed to be cleared. That was especially the case considering the relative health the Bengals' cornerbacks had. So opportunities presented themselves for Jones to play more on special teams.
Since his kick-return debut five weeks ago, Jones has returned 10 kicks. He's now one of 22 players in the NFL with double-digit returns, including Tate, who has 12. But only three of Tate's have come since the Week 6 game against Carolina.
In addition to his league-leading kick-return average, Jones' also is better at producing strong starting field position for his offense than any player with 10 or more returns. The Bengals have an average of 66.1 yards to go -- meaning they start around their own 34 -- when beginning a drive after a Jones kick return or touchback. That's about nine yards closer than the league average of 75.4 yards. It's also better than Tate's average starting field position of 78.4 yards to go after a return or touchback.
"He runs with a purpose. He's fearless," Huber said. "He's just got a good knack for finding the hole, hitting the hole hard, avoiding tacklers. He's a shifty guy. He's always been like that. He can make guys miss.
For evidence of Jones' fearlessness, consider this: He still hasn't fair caught a punt since Nov. 16, 2006, when he played for Tennessee. That's a stretch of 89 returns without a fair catch.
If Jones leads in both punt and kick return average all season, he'll accomplish a feat the NFL hasn't seen since 1991, when Detroit's Mel Gray led the league in both categories.
Sorry to disappoint.
You also won't regularly see Brandon Tate waiting for kicks to fall into his hands, either.
"I don't really see anybody's role changing," Simmons said. "We're just going to be using both. They both have proven that they can do it."
When the year began, Jones was relegated to occasional punt-return duties, alternating with Tate, who was the lead kick returner when he wasn't catching passes. Until last week, he had not been relieved on a single kick return.
Since the Bengals are now down two of their key contributors at receiver and are considerably healthier at Jones' primary position, cornerback, it would make sense for them to want to slow down Tate's kick-return chances. With Marvin Jones done for the year, tight end Tyler Eifert still a few weeks away from playing and A.J. Green likely out again this weekend, Tate will once again be a key option in the Bengals' passing game.
In the two games Green has missed, (he was out all of last week with an injury to his right big toe and missed all but six plays in Week 2 because of the same injury), Tate averaged 57 snaps. In the other three, Tate was only part of 27 plays.
But the only reasons you'll see Adam Jones step onto the field for a kickoff will be because the Bengals feel that certain circumstances -- from the kicker's leg power to the wind's direction to others -- warrant it.
Another reason you might see him get back for kickoffs? Because Bengals coaches believe he can give the team a timely spark.
"You can feel it when he walks in the huddle," Simmons said. "Everybody feels it."
Simmons was quick to point out that Tate has a dynamism to his kick returns, as well, but Jones' natural ability makes him all the more dangerous on punts and kickoffs.
"You can tell something is about to happen," Simmons said.
Last Sunday, with the Bengals down seven and needing a jolt, Jones made something happen.
Inserted at kick returner late in the fourth quarter, he fielded a Graham Gano kickoff near his own goal line before sprinting through a pair of holes and then putting a move on Gano as another alley got sealed. He tried to break the return for a touchdown but was caught by Colin Jones at the Panthers 3-yard line, where he was tripped up just shy of the score.
"I always tell them my 60-yard [sprint] is pretty fast," Adam Jones said. "But after that? They might come get me."
One play after the 97-yard return, Bengals rookie Jeremy Hill dove forward for a game-tying 3-yard touchdown run.
"He has a natural feel for eluding players," Simmons said about Jones. "I've never been around somebody who can set somebody down in a hole like he can and then get them to move. It's all natural to him. He doesn't think about doing that. It's just something that happens for him and he does it a lot. He can make cuts still that I don't know how he makes them."
So give the Cincinnati Bengals kick returner credit. When asked to comment about his role in the Bengals' 43-17 loss at Gillette Stadium, he accepted some blame.
"It's just one of those things, it just came out," Tate said of the fumble. "I just have to hold onto the ball."
Tate's fumble came with 6:00 remaining in the third quarter. Just like he had been doing all night, Tate brought the kick return out from deep in his own end zone. As he approached the 10-yard line, he was hit and lost his grip on the ball. It squirted free and in a spot where Kyle Arrington could pick it up for the Patriots and return it. Jumping and leaping awkwardly into the side of the end zone, he had traveled nine yards for the score.
"Man, my eyes got huge," Arrington said. "As soon as that ball came out, I put it in second gear. I saw a couple guys try to dive on it and it squirted even further, I guess closer to me. We do turnover tackle drills at the beginning of practice every day as far as scooping and scoring and things of that nature, so it just came second [nature]. I tried to put some style points toward the end of it."
On five of Tate's seven kick returns, he came out of the end zone. According to him, special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons gave him the OK to continue bringing the ball out of the end zone.
"If I can catch the ball in the front without backing up, Coach said I can take it," Tate said. "I just have to hold onto the ball if I am going to take that chance."
Tate had seven returns for 141 yards, giving him an average of 20.1 yards per return. His longest return was 31 yards.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A few thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 43-17 loss to the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium:
What it means: Sunday's loss means we still don't really know who this Bengals team is. We certainly do know the Bengals still can't play well on the big, bright stage. Cincinnati is now 2-5 in prime-time games since 2011, and it has lost nine of its past 10 games on Sunday night. In the past it has been easy to pin the Bengals' nighttime woes on quarterback Andy Dalton, who has been a turnover machine in those games. But it was hard to say the same about him this time. The entire team played poorly, headed by a suddenly soft defense. The play from the Bengals' pass-catchers wasn't very good either, with Mohamed Sanu and Jermaine Gresham dropping multiple passes. Receivers A.J. Green, Brandon Tate and Dane Sanzenbacher also lost fumbles. Dalton didn't have a turnover. While the Bengals do clearly have a good team -- as evidenced by their first three victories -- this loss shows how much work they still have left in order to prove that they could be elite.
Stock watch: You could pretty much take your pick of any area where the Bengals have suddenly watched their stock plummet after this game. The defense certainly was one of those areas, allowing the most points it has surrendered since the 2012 season opener against Baltimore. Cincinnati gave up 43 points in that prime-time loss. Instead of focusing solely on the defense, though, we'll stick with special teams, and namely kick returner Brandon Tate. The former Patriot was aggressive all night in the kick-returning game, routinely taking kicks out of the end zone even though he caught them deep in it. On seven returns, he averaged just 20.1 yards per kick. His longest was a 31-yard return. One of Tate's third-quarter returns resulted in an immediate Patriots touchdown, though, when he fumbled after a hard hit following one of his unexpected take-outs. New England's Kyle Arrington recovered the fumble and returned it 9 yards for the touchdown, giving the Patriots a 34-10 lead, and all but effectively sealing the win.
Lamur looked lost: Bengals linebacker Emmanuel Lamur looked completely out of his element Sunday night, missing tackles and getting beaten in coverage. He had a chance to turn the game's momentum in the first quarter when he bobbled and dropped an interception opportunity. Had he caught the pass, he likely would have taken it in for a game-tying touchdown that would have made it 7-7. Instead, the bobble led to a third down, and on the very next play, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski converted a first down. One play later, Tom Brady completed a 17-yard pass to put the Patriots up 14-0, beginning the rout.
Game ball: It's tough to give out a game ball to anyone in a loss of this magnitude, but quarterback Andy Dalton gets this one for going 15-for-24 with 204 yards passing. He completed passes to six receivers. He also passed for two touchdowns, didn't have an interception and was sacked once. Dalton also ran twice for 16 yards.
What's next? It's on to Carolina for the Bengals, who take their 3-1 record back home for a Sunday afternoon nonconference contest next week. They'll face a 3-2 Panthers team that is coming off a 31-24 win over Chicago. Cincinnati lost back-to-back games only once last season and will try hard not to make it a habit in this game.
10: Number of consecutive regular season home games the Bengals have won dating to December 2012. They do have one postseason home loss during that stretch which came last January.
3: Number of field goals missed by kicker Mike Nugent, from 38 (wide right), 49 (wide left) and 55 (short left) yards. He did bury a 31-yard field goal in the first quarter.
50: Number of yards on Sanu's deep pass to fellow receiver Brandon Tate, who caught it in stride and in bounds just before being tackled.
97: Number of yards or rushing offense the Bengals' defense allowed. It's the second straight game the unit has held an opposing offense under 100 yards.
5.1: Number of yards the Falcons' offense averaged on the ground. That includes quarterback Matt Ryan's 9.3 that came off a trio of scrambles into the middle of the field for big gains.
48.6: Ryan's passer rating versus the Bengals. The week before, he had a passer rating of 128.8 in a win over the Saints.
26.9: Ryan's QBR versus the Bengals. The week before, he had a QBR of 91.9 in the win over New Orleans.
6: Number of times Bengals running back Giovani Bernard was targeted in the passing game. It was the second straight week he led the team in targets. He had 10 against the Ravens last week.
3: Number of interceptions by Bengals defenders. They had three interceptions in three games last year, all at home -- against the Browns, Vikings and Ravens. On Sunday, George Iloka and Leon Hall intercepted Ryan. Iloka did it twice.
25: Percentage of third downs the Bengals allowed Atlanta to convert. The Falcons were 3-of-12.
23: Atlanta's average start of field position; the Falcons' own 23. Their last two drives began at their own 1- and 4-yard lines after successfully downed punts.
9: Number of tackles cornerback Terence Newman had, pacing all Bengals defenders.
2: Number of wins the Bengals have this season. This is their first 2-0 start since 2006.
169: Number of total yards for Bernard; a career high. He rushed for 90 yards and had 79 receiving.
1: Sanu became the first player in the NFL since Rod Smith in 2003 to pass for 50-plus yards and catch for 50-plus yards in the same game.
Data from ESPN Stats & Information was used in this report.
So let's take a look back to earlier this summer when we ran a series of "Bubble Watch" projections that attempted to pinpoint which fringe players would and wouldn't make the Bengals' 53-man roster (or in one case, the practice squad).
As you can see in this "Bubble Watch" from July 17, our last post in the 11-player series, we placed odds on whether the player would make the team. We have included those odds below in parenthesis:
WR James Wright (odds were high)
Wright made the team as the last receiver on the roster. He's likely to be part of the 46-man game-day roster because of his ability to play on coverage units on special teams. He had two penalties in the preseason on special teams that drew concern. He'll have to make sure he avoids them now that the season is beginning.
RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis (low)
The veteran rusher was cut Friday as the Bengals officially signaled they were ready for the Jeremy Hill era to begin. Hill was a rookie who was faster, more physical and more athletic than Green-Ellis. He also has much fresher legs, and ought to be better able to withstand the pounding the Bengals will put their backs through this year.
RB Rex Burkhead (50/50)
Burkhead made the team, beating out Green-Ellis despite picking up a knee injury in Week 2 of the preseason. The Bengals are hopeful he'll be able to play again soon.
LB Jayson DiManche (high)
DiManche was on the bubble, but it almost seems strange suggesting he belonged there. He's a difference-maker on special teams, he plays well enough when he's in on defense. There's a reason his odds were high.
DE Sam Montgomery (low)
In a certain sense, we were right about this one. Montgomery didn't make the 53-man roster, but he did get added to the practice squad over the weekend. So he is among the 63 players still in the locker room.
DE Dontay Moch (50/50)
The "50/50" odds were probably accurate on Moch entering camp. He didn't show much that made it clear he deserved to stick, particularly when Montgomery did some of what Moch could do, as a player with hybrid defensive end, rush outside linebacker experience. Montgomery's ability to play on the line's interior also helped set him apart from Moch, who was just an edge rusher.
LB J.K. Schaffer (low)
Schaffer's odds weren't great to begin with because he was at a stacked position, but when he had two concussions in training camp, you knew his spot on the 53-man roster would be filled. He's still around the team, though. He's on the injured reserve.
WR Cobi Hamilton (high)
This might be the worst miss of the projections. There was reason to believe in Hamilton, but once he struggled with consistency and kept dropping passes, you knew he wouldn't make the team. He also didn't originally make the practice squad.
RB James Wilder Jr. (high)
In Wilder's case, we looked specifically at odds to make the practice squad. The running back position was just too loaded for the rookie who left college a year early. Still, his raw ability did in fact make him a practice-squad body.
WR Brandon Tate (high)
We didn't really believe Tate was in jeopardy of losing his job, but you never know. The Bengals were loaded at receiver in camp, and he was a bit of a one-trick pony as primarily a returner.
S Taylor Mays (50/50)
Mays was mainly "50/50" because of numbers. It seemed over the summer that veteran safety Danieal Manning would eventually pick up the defense and stick, possibly taking Mays' spot. When Manning struggled getting the system as quickly as he needed to, though, he got cut. Mays had already been in the scheme.
How much greater of a role will rookie running back Jeremy Hill take on? How will he split carries with Giovani Bernard? Does Green-Ellis' departure change anything?
Those are some of the questions I've fielded in the last several hours, and they are questions that I'm sure will persist long after the regular season begins for the Bengals at Baltimore next Sunday. As we get into this week's mailbag, we try to dig a little deeper into an answer to at least one of those questions.
Also, as you can see, there are a couple questions about the Bengals' 53-man roster, which will be finalized by 4 p.m. Saturday.
Let's get to the mailbag:
@ColeyHarvey. An easy and quick answer to your question, Notorious: yes. Hill and Bernard will split carries this season. Exactly how will that split be determined? Well, that's a mystery for now. Of course, the Bengals coaches have an idea of what the breakdown will be, but they won't be telling you or I anytime soon. Head coach Marvin Lewis even said as much Thursday night when he interrupted a reporter's question to emphasize that he wasn't going to put a number on how many carries any of his backs might average a game. Having said that, if I were to guess, I'd imagine that there will be some semblance of a 65-35 split on touches between Hill and Bernard. The speedy second-year standout Bernard would get the majority of those, particularly because the Bengals are making an emphasis on getting him involved in space this season. Hill will get his opportunities, too, though, and you're right. He showed Thursday that he could play significant minutes. The playing-time breakdown will be primarily determined by the defense the Bengals are playing, and at which moments in the game it'll be best to utilize Hill's power over Bernard's elusiveness, and vice versa.
@ColeyHarvey are Jeremy hill and gio Bernard going to split carries? Hill proved that he can handle playing an entire game— NotoriousGIB (@Notorious_GIB_1) August 29, 2014
@ColeyHarvey. In a weird and convoluted way, Caleb, it could. Do I believe Marvin Jones' foot injury will affect the 53-man breakdown, though? No. Here's why. While the Bengals are cutting to 53 players right now, they also are trying to choose the 46 players who will be a consistent part of the active game-day roster. If they thought Cobi Hamilton would be a regular 46-man roster contributor, then yes, they'd bring him in to help while Jones is gone. But when it comes to the other seven remaining spots, the Bengals hope to give those to players who will be around on the fringe of the depth chart all season. Hamilton's raw tools make him perfect for that, but his inconsistency in the preseason doesn't. At least not to me. I still think he gets cut in favor of rookie James Wright, whose special teams penalties this preseason might have been worse than advertised. Two of the three were borderline and might not have been called in the regular season. Also, since Jones should return by Game 5, his injury won't be enough for a fringe 53-man player to take his spot, even if there is a size and style-of-play resemblance.
@ColeyHarvey does Marvin J's injury affect which other WRs make 53? Eg: Cobi makes it because he's similarly tall, speedy & stretches field— Caleb Profitt (@calebprofitt) August 29, 2014
@ColeyHarvey. I wouldn't say "very unimpressive." Could Brandon Tate have been better? Sure. Was he probably passed in some respects on special teams by Dane Sanzenbacher? Yes, I believe so. Should the Bengals keep Hamilton and Wright instead of Tate? I'm not so sure. The main reason why, again, is because Hamilton just hasn't been consistent. He had a nice 50-yard touchdown catch Thursday, but he also had a drop in that game. In one other preseason game, he caught two only passes after being targeted 13 times. I'd rather go with the solid vet who can play special teams over the young, inconsistent player who isn't quite as versatile. Maybe your other scenario takes place. Perhaps the Bengals do decide to cut Tate and/or Hamilton. If that happens, Jacoby Ford could be a possibility. From what I can tell, though, it seems doubtful the Bengals add a free-agent receiver this season. We'll soon find whether all these potential 53-man roster moves pan out.
@ColeyHarvey Tate very unimpressive in preseason. Why not keep either both Hamilton & the rookie or pick up Ford or someone similar?— Harold Moskowitz (@chgolaw) August 29, 2014
@ColeyHarvey. As you can see, I kind of hinted at that in my answer above. Assuming both make the team, I'm not sure the Bengals end up replacing Tate with Sanzenbacher. What I will say, however, is this: Sanzenbacher earned himself a bigger role this preseason. He was strong as a returner all throughout the preseason. His 77-yard punt return for a touchdown helped set the tempo for a second half that the Bengals completely dominated Thursday night. If given the chance against starting punt-coverage units, it will be interesting to see if Sanzenbacher can replicate the returns he has had. If he does, I believe we can crown him the better returner of the two you mentioned.
1. Preseason payback? Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson told his team's website last weekend that he and his teammates "owe" the Bengals for the 49-9 loss they were handed in Cincinnati last October. Richardson felt that no other offense dominated the Jets' defense quite like the Bengals did last season. So even though he'll only be on the field for a few first-half plays, Richardson still wants the Bengals to know that his team is better than it showed last regular season. The Bengals are embracing Richardson's challenge, saying they are glad to face an opponent who will play with a little passion and energy in the preseason. It's very rare teams for teams to display that passion, as players, for the most part, try to tiptoe through the preseason without getting injured.
2. Life without Marvin. The Bengals will play Saturday for the first time since news came this week that receiver Marvin Jones needed surgery to help heal a bone broken during last Saturday's in-stadium practice. This actually will be the second preseason game the Bengals will have had without him after he took last week's game off while making his slow return from an ankle injury that caused him to miss part of training camp. A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu already were expected to fill Jones' shoes, but who else will? Keep an eye out for Brandon Tate, Dane Sanzenbacher, Ryan Whalen, James Wright, Cobi Hamilton and Colin Lockett. All will try to showcase their playmaking ability, even though Tate, Sanzenbacher, Wright and Hamilton stand the best odds of filling Jones' shoes until he returns Oct. 5 against the Patriots.
3. Better tackling. Cincinnati's tackling efforts left a lot to be desired last week at Kansas City. Among the topics coach Marvin Lewis was quickest to highlight following the preseason opener was his team's lack of good, fundamental tackling. It cost the Bengals at times on defense, and really hurt them on special teams. Last week's game was the first time any of the players had tackled live since last season. Lewis and special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons are hoping those tackling concerns clear up this week.
They're actually quite calm about the whole situation.
With Jones out, Mohamed Sanu, the player poised to be the No. 3 receiver this season, will be forced to step up and execute alongside No. 1 receiver, A.J. Green. The plan had already been to make Sanu a more effective weapon in areas other than pass-catching. He, too, can run off reverses and double reverses. He also can run from the backfield off a direct snap, or pass as a quarterback out of a Wildcat formation. To this point in camp, he's already done some of all of that.
Behind Sanu and Green, the Bengals are looking for some combination of Brandon Tate, Dane Sanzenbacher, Ryan Whalen, Cobi Hamilton, James Wright and Colin Lockett to catch passes in relief of Jones. Tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert will carry their share of the receiving load, as will running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill. Eifert and Bernard could even line up in the slots or flanked off the line as outside receivers.
All of that is to suggest this: the Bengals believe they'll be just fine during the three games they'll miss Jones.
"It's 'next man up' mentality," receivers coach James Urban said Tuesday. "That's what we've always had."
We'll have more on the blog later Wednesday and Thursday about a few of the candidates most expected to fill Jones' shoes. Specifically, we'll look a little closer at Wright and Hamilton; two players who seem to be battling the hardest for the final spot in the receiver's portion of the roster. Tate and Sanzenbacher appear to have another battle brewing that in part hinges on the perceived value they have as return specialists. Here's more on Tate's fight for a roster spot from earlier this week, just before news of Jones' foot injury.
Along with his offensive play, Sanzenbacher also returned three kicks, averaging 29.3 yards on them. His longest was a 34-yard kickoff return, and he had a 52-yard punt return negated because of a blocking penalty on Wright. It's safe to say very few around the Bengals agreed with the referee's opinion of Wright's block. Sanzenbacher's return was good, in their eyes.
Just like for everyone else, Jones' injury opens up an "opportunity" for Sanzenbacher to show he can serve as an adequate replacement.
"We talked about it in our room the other day when Marv got hurt," Urban said. "I said, 'Look, Marv, we're supporting you, we love you, we want you to get healthy, but for the next guy up, this is a great opportunity.'
"They're going to get more reps, more reps with the 1s and more opportunity to show what they can do."
Saturday's Week 2 preseason game against the Jets will be the first time we get an idea of just how the Bengals might replace Jones.
While Manning's addition ought to aid the Bengals' establishment of secondary depth, he was brought on board for at least one more reason. A noted kick returner from his time in Chicago and Houston, his special teams versatility was a plus, too. He's quick to point out that he's not out to take any other player's job, but he's hopeful he can help this area of the Bengals' game.
"The guys we've got back there working are a set of explosive players that are definitely returners already or some that are hidden talents," Manning said. "You've got a lot of options on this team to put guys in who are comfortable enough to make the play. What I bring is just more experience."
Brandon Tate is another veteran with kick-return experience. He came into camp as Cincinnati's primary returner following his impressive season in 2013. Unlike what Manning is trying to do as a defensive back/returner, Tate wasn't used as regularly at his offensive position in 2013. Special teams was his forte. On offense, he caught just one pass. If the Bengals elect to use him more offensively this season, Tate says he'll be happy. But he'll also be just fine if his primary job is to return kicks again. He just wants to make the team.
Tate's comparable lack of versatility has made him a potential roster bubble candidate.
Manning, who has practiced as a returner, along with Tate, Cedric Peerman, and others, approaches kick-returning as a science. He broke down for me last week ways he focused on bursting past wedges and through seams in the past, and compared them with tweaks he might make if he has difficulty enacting those old ways. Like many things in football can be, kick-returning is about adjustments and improvisation, he said. It's also about figuring out whether you're a returner who uses his speed to set up the play, or one who shows off some physicality.
"That's the thing about it, you have to know your skill," Manning said. "I'm a fast guy, and I'm a physical runner. Some guys are fast and very elusive."
The nine-year veteran was one of the NFL's best physical returners before injuries started creeping in the past two years. He contends that injuries aside, his ability is still there. It's sometimes easy to forget how solid a returner Manning was when he played for the Bears between 2006-10, simply because of the punt returner who stole all the special teams headlines, Devin Hester.
Manning had 28 or more kick returns for the Bears each season between 2008-10, as the Bears paired him with Hester and Johnny Knox. Manning's best kick-returning season came in 2008 when he returned 36 kicks for an average 29.7 yards. Granted, that was seven seasons ago.
When it comes to setting up strong field position as a kick returner, Manning has given his teams slightly better starting field position than Hester and Tate. Offenses have an average 68.8 yards to travel following one of Manning's returns since he's been in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Hester's career returns on average set up field position that started drives 72.1 yards away from the end zone. Tate's returns have set up an average 75.0 yards for his offenses to travel. With respect to Hester, it's also worth mentioning that he has five career kick-return touchdowns while Tate and Manning only have one each.
As much as his defensive talents are currently a reason he's on the Bengals' roster, Manning's special teams background gives the Bengals a noted measure of experience that could at the very least make him a valuable meeting-room resource, if not a regular returning talent himself.
Defensive line a focus. Admittedly, it's been a challenge keeping tabs on the defensive line through the first four practices. Until the Bengals are permitted to do a bit more hitting, it's hard sometimes to gauge how well the line is playing compared to other positions in which it's a little more apparent how well they're executing. The defensive line's rotation also hasn't changed much since the spring. If there's one area that is set on the team, it's this one. Still, it's worth taking a peek at the line, specifically 360-pound LaKendrick Ross, a possible practice squad addition who is eager to learn NFL defensive tackle techniques.
Can Hill sustain his play? I'm also interested in watching rookie running back Jeremy Hill and seeing if he can sustain some of the solid play he showcased in Sunday's workout. He was good in blitz pickup and even better in some of the half-line drills the Bengals ran as they split up their weakside and strongside groups. Expectations are high for the second-rounder in this camp, and it's important to coaches to see steady growth. I'll be interested to see if he's able to keep it going Monday.
Tate more than a returner? Receiver and return specialist Brandon Tate is trying to prove to coaches that he's more than a pure return man. He wants them to value him as an offensive weapon, too. Versatility could be the difference getting one of the last roster spots. I'll be keeping tabs on how Tate is doing Monday.
Marvin Lewis addresses media. At noon ET, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis sits down for his first news conference of training camp. He'll be asked about his impressions of Day 1 and likely will share his thoughts on where his offense and defense need to progress for the next five or so weeks. One thing he won't address? Quarterback Andy Dalton's contract. He said as much Tuesday at the team's preseason kickoff luncheon. He's done discussing that matter until the extension gets done. It's worth adding that just before Lewis' news conference, players will speak with media in the locker room beginning at 11:15 a.m. ET.
Cornerbacks and coverage. It was clear Thursday was all about the receivers and tight ends. Dalton's throwing mechanics and his well-placed passes both deep and short were a hot topic of conversation during the practice. I'll be paying a lot of attention to the defense on Day 2. It will be interesting to see how the cornerbacks respond to the strong showing A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and Mohamed Sanu, among others, had Thursday.
Return watch. One player who may very well be battling for a roster spot these next few weeks is return man Brandon Tate. The receiver who has just 14 catches in the 48 games he's played the past three seasons has primarily been used in return situations. The big question is, are there enough spots on a very deep team for a player who will be used almost exclusively as a kick returner? He spent the 2013 season working as the lead punt returner also, but only after cornerback Adam Jones was kept off special teams because of a bevy of injuries to the secondary. This year, with a deep -- and for now, healthier -- defensive backfield, Jones will be back in his old No. 1 punt returner role. Where will that leave Tate? For now, he'll have to impress on both special teams and offense.