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Cutting edge

Posted Aug 27, 2014

Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons is in the middle of the moves coming out of Thursday's 7 p.m. preseason finale at Paul Brown Stadium (11:35 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12).

Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick makes the team, but he'll still get plenty of snaps Thursday night.

To borrow a phrase from the great novelist Charles Dickens, who was a reporter before he bolted off the practice squad, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”

Bengals cornerbacks coach Vance Joseph loves this time of year because he’s watching kids pursue their dreams. Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons hates this time of year because the dreams come to an end for so many of them who have put so much into it.

You get all kinds of emotions at the final curtain call 7 p.m. Thursday in the preseason finale (11:35 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Channel 12) at Paul Brown Stadium against the Colts. Some cuts could come as soon as Friday. All 22 moves have to be made by 6 p.m. Saturday

Some will go on season-ending injured reserve such as linebacker JK Schaffer (concussion). Others may go injured reserve-call (rookie guard Trey Hopkins?) and be eligible to return after the eighth game of the regular season. Others may go on the physically unable to perform list (rookie quarterback A.J. McCarron?) and not be eligible to practice for the first six weeks of the season. Ten will most likely be called back for the practice squad by noon Sunday.

But most of the 22 will be cut.

“I get it,” Simmons said this week. “This is part of the business. If you want to call it the hardened part of what we have to deal with but it’s a reality, it’s a fact. This is the worst week of the year for me. I hate this week but its part of the process.”

What Thursday won’t be is heavy lifting for the starters, if any. Last year against the Colts in the preseason finale the starters played the first series and that was that. On offense they ran it five times and threw it twice in a touchdown drive aided by wide receiver Brandon Tate’s 51-yard kick return.

The only question is how long they let right tackle Andre Smith play since he’s missed every game with a concussion.

But you could see a scenario where head coach Marvin Lewis ices everyone and lets the backups have the whole night to figure out the jumbled positions at offensive line, linebacker, and both secondary spots. There doesn’t seem to be much separation and the last game is the last shot to get it. There are some name guys nicked and they’re probably not going to play as Lewis and his staff spent this week focused on the Sept. 7 regular-season opener in Baltimore.

For instance, it’s doubtful we’ll see Pro Bowl WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict (hamstring), tight end Tyler Eifert (shoulder), cornerback Darqueze Dennard (hip) and running back Cedric Peerman (hip).

With running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (hip) only healthy enough to play in one game so far, you’d figure he’ll go if he can as he tries to win a spot. Whatever happens, rookie free agent James Wilder is going to get plenty of carries to show if he belongs on the practice squad.

“I’m looking for guys who have poise. I have a pretty good feeling for what it’s going to take for us to beat Baltimore and the atmosphere we are going to play in in Baltimore and Pittsburgh and Cleveland,” Simmons said. “Having been through this I know what those guys look like. That will figure into it, too. There are going to be a tough couple of decisions. Some of the decisions are going to be pretty easy to make, but there’s still a couple spots where it is not settled. “

What we are talking about, pretty much, is the last one or two spots at each position. So they’re not really playing to make the 53-man roster. They’re trying to show they’re good enough to be one of the 46 players on the active game day list. And that’s why Simmons is such a key figure because those guys have to play special teams.

For instance, Joseph is trying to find out if he’s got a sixth cornerback and that’s why he’s intently studying Chris Lewis-Harris, a vet of eight games over the last two years. With Dennard out, Lewis-Harris has had to work the slot and will get plenty of action Thursday in there.

“At this stage going into the fourth game, you want to see the young kids play, hopefully versus some veteran competition,” Joseph said. “You want to see what your quality of depth looks like. Obviously the veterans have already proven themselves in the preseason over the years.  I want to see how young kids play against good people. Hopefully they’ll have a success and we’ll know when guys get hurt we have quality backups.

“That (slot) position takes a lot of reps. It’s not an all ability driven spot,” Joseph said. “It’s a technique, pass-run read spot. It’s a quickness cover spot. It’s a tough to play. Hopefully he can get some major reps against good people.”

Simmons is impressed with the play of cornerback Onterio McCalebb in his second year converting from college running back. One of the speediest men at the 2013 NFL scouting combine, McCalebb has yet to return a kick this preseason, but he’ll get oodles of chances Thursday.

“Onterio McCalebb made plays,” Simmons said of Sunday night in Arizona. “Every opportunity he’s had so far he’s made plays. There are some guys who have stepped up and you have a clearer picture of who can do some things and clearer picture of who is not ready yet.”

It is truly a numbers game. Six cornerbacks? What if the 10th offensive lineman is better than the sixth corner?  Seven linebackers? But isn’t that a luxury with a wide receiver (Marvin Jones) and a running back (Rex Burkhead) already out the first month of the season? What do you call Taylor Mays? A safety or linebacker, because he’s working at both?

Simmons says the last game doesn’t hold the most weight, but he is looking at a guy like Sean Porter intently. Porter, a fourth-round pick who missed his rookie year last season with a shoulder injury, made his first appearance of the year in Arizona coming off a knee issue and ended the game intercepting a tipped ball.

“I think he did good things. He didn’t have any production. He showed it wasn’t too big for him and was poised,” Simmons said. “Really only the second NFL game he’s even played in. That was good to see.” 

But have they seen enough to make a call in that scrum with veteran Jayson DiManche and sixth-rounder Marquis Flowers? Those are the guys that going to be getting the reps Thursday.

“Believe me,” Simmons said. “As much as they want.”

There is a similar tractor pull at safety, so starters Reggie Nelson and George Iloka may not even play as veteran Daniel Manning tries to fend off Mays and special teams ace Shawn Williams.

“We’ve been rotating all three guys all preseason,’ said safeties coach Mark Carrier. “They’ve been getting snaps in the 20s and 30s and this time it’s going to be in the 30s and maybe more.”

And there are guys who are going to get plenty of snaps even though they’re going to make it. Like cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who missed virtually all of his rookie year in 2012 and has been banged up this season with a variety of ailments. After missing the Jets game with a hip injury, he played the most snaps of any Bengal in Arizona with 38 from scrimmage and 12 on teams. He may get even more than 50 plays Thursday.

“He needs to play more. He’s missed time in his career,” Joseph said. “For him to be the player we want him to be, he’s got to play live reps.”

Simmons is looking for reliability and after 11 penalties in the kicking game this season, he has been hammering the point home.

“Guys who don’t have penalties. Don’t have penalties,” Simmons said when asked what kind of guys he seeks. “Did I mention guys that don’t have penalties?”

Simmons has jumped all over rookie wide receiver James Wright, the one player who has committed multiple penalties on teams. He benched Wright Sunday night in Arizona after Wright was called offsides on a kickoff. But Simmons absolved him after watching the tape.

“He knows he’s under the gun with me. Trust me, you don’t think I don’t spend every waking minute last week that’s all we talk about is penalties?” Simmons said. “Our Saturday night meeting last week I put up what are our musts to win. I spend five minutes talking about being penalty free and winning field position. If it’s not in the back of their mind then I have the wrong players because that’s all I talk about on Saturday. And it’s all I’m going to talk about…before the game Thursday.”

Let the curtain rise.

 

 

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