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Bengals takeaways: O-line struggles, Dax Hill shines, Jessie Bates shows up

CINCINNATI — We’ve yet to see Cordell Volson take first-team reps at left guard for the Bengals in practice, but that might change this week after watching the rookie make his NFL debut Friday night in the second half of the preseason opener against the Cardinals.

And you can probably bank on seeing him in the first half next week against the Giants.

Jackson Carman was the only projected offensive starter to appear in the 36-23 loss, playing the entire first half before turning things over to Volson after halftime. And most of that opening half was a struggle for Carman and the rest of the offensive line.

“We all have a lot to learn from it, the first experience,” Carman said. “It’s the first preseason game, so there’s always going to be stuff you’ve got to work out. That’s why we’re out there doing it, getting better and learning.”

The coaches view Carman to be several steps ahead of Volson given the experience he gained last season, but Carman failed to pick up a stunt on a third down on the opening series and had a holding penalty in the red zone later in the first quarter. He also got shoved back into the lap of quarterback Jake Browning on another play, forcing Browning to spike the ball into the ground.

But Carman wasn’t alone in his struggles, with fellow offensive linemen Isaiah Prince, Trey Hill, Lamont Gaillard and Hakeem Adeniji all taking their turns getting whipped. And quarterback Brandon Allen leaving with a concussion after one series.

In a theme reminiscent of last season, the line allowed three sacks — two of which resulted in fumbles — and six quarterback hits. They also were flagged for three holding penalties and a false start.

“We have to be more disciplined — have to be much more disciplined,” coach Zac Taylor said. “Those are momentum changers early in a game. You lose a touchdown there and kick a field goal and that maybe is where the game starts to change. Those little moments we’ve got to be on top of.”

Bengals fans weren’t the only ones who took note of the struggling offensive line. At halftime, former guard Quinton Spain, who started 20 of 21 regular and postseason games last season and remains a free agent, tweeted a picture of the Cincinnati skyline.

Volson got his chance in the second half and fired off the line and got to the second level on his first snap. On his third snap, he successfully picked up a stunt similar to the one the Cardinals ran in the first half.

“I was just itching to get in,” Volson said. “I was fortunate I was on PAT/field goal, so I got a few reps in before I went out there on offense, but the whole first half I was just waiting and was really excited when the opportunity came.”

The offensive line issues continued in the second half, particularly at left tackle with Adeniji, who gave up a sack, got called for a hold and allowed a quarterback hit on three successive plays.

Among that second group, which also included Gaillard and undrafted rookies Ben Brown and Devin Cochran, Volson was the lone bright spot, especially as a run blocker. The Bengals ran behind Volson for their first touchdown, a 1-yarder by running back Jacques Patrick. By the time Patrick landed in the end zone, Volson was 12 yards away having finished his block through the whistle.

“I thought I played pretty well in the run game,” Volson said. “Obviously there’s some things that are going to need to be cleaned up as far as footwork and hand placement, and there’s definitely some things I need to clean up in pass protection, just playing with more length. The film will critique all that. It just felt great to play football again.”

One of the biggest stories of the night actually happened in the suites. Just before halftime, Bengals safety Jessie Bates III posted a video to his Instagram story of his feet on the rail of a suite on the 20-yard line of Paycor Stadium.

Bates was franchise tagged in March and is the lone player given the tag to not sign it yet and has not reported to camp.

It indeed was Bates in the suite and not just a random pair of Nikes on his account. Bates was wearing a Cincinnati Reds hat and accompanied by a small group with him.

This could signal a return is coming soon for the 25-year-old. Players and coaches have all suggested they expect Bates back with the team at some point before the season started but nobody committed to an expected timeline. The team has left it up to Bates to decide when he’s ready to show up.

It’s understandable why Bates wouldn’t want to take any chances of getting injured in camp and isn’t subject to any fines since he has not signed a contract with the team at this point.

Meanwhile, the man taking all of Bates’ snaps with the first team, first-round pick Dax Hill, showed that the Bengals insurance policy isn’t too shabby, either.

Hill made a bevy of plays as one of the highest-profile players on the field for a defense otherwise filled with backups.

It was an inauspicious start as Hill found himself on the wrong side of Arizona wide receiver Andre Baccellia on a red-zone play action for a touchdown.

From that point forward, though, all the notable plays were highlights. Hill showed off the athleticism that made the Bengals feel they had a steal with the No. 31 pick when he went airborne and nearly picked off a pass in the end zone by Trace McSorley. The third-down corner route popped out of Hill’s hands when he landed on the ground.

“I just kind of fumbled it back on the first one,” Hill said. “I could have had that one.”

Dax Hill breaks up a pass intended for Cardinals tight end Chris Pierce Jr. (Sam Greene / USA Today)

Hill got his hands on the football again in the second quarter. McSorley eyed an open route up the seam, but Hill read the throw and beat the receiver to the spot. He broke up the pass with the contact keeping him from an interception on the play.

Hill played the entire first half then took a seat. It was an encouraging start and one that builds on a camp drawing rave reviews across the staff.

“He jumped out at you,” Taylor said. “He made two real good plays. Those are big-time plays, so that’s what stands out and then you’ll evaluate the rest of it and see how he was. But that was exciting to see from Dax.”

Hill also dropped down into the slot at times when the Bengals went to a three-safety look. That versatility was one of the primary selling points for the Michigan product and they put it on display Friday.

Nobody can say for certain how much longer Bates will stay in the suite and off the field, but for now, Hill looks more than capable to hold down the fort or carve up a sub-package role of his own next to Bates and Vonn Bell.

Another translation of strong training camp practices to the game came on the defensive line. Rookies Zach Carter (third round, Florida) and Jeff Gunter (seventh round, Coastal Carolina) took turns making impressive plays.

They certainly had plenty of opportunities. Taylor opted to allow the rookies to play the entire game.

Carter made a nice play on an attempt by McSorley to sneak out on a quarterback draw, exploding off his block to drop the quarterback for no gain. He also knocked down a pass with his left hand while in a bull rush from the three-technique spot.

He finished with four tackles.

Meanwhile, Gunter, one of the most pleasant surprises of camp, enjoyed a few notable moments of his own. He gathered two quarterback hits and a sack of McSorley.

On the sack, he was able to chase the quarterback down before he took off for no gain.

Both should make coaches feel better about what looked to potentially be a concern coming out of camp with the depth behind the starting four up front. If the next two games look like this one, the team can feel comfortable about rotating the young guys into the game.

On a side note, Taylor was not joking when he said they really had to manage Joseph Ossai. He dressed and started the game, but only took part in two plays before being pulled and heading to the sideline. It will be interesting to see how much more his playing time expands next week in New York.

In an encouraging sign, Joe Burrow went through a pregame workout Friday. (Sam Greene / USA Today)

One of the most positive developments of the night occurred before the game even began. With so many starters not playing, they were going through a workout before the game. Out there with them was Joe Burrow.

This was the first time he was seen running since his appendectomy. Burrow was running a good clip. This wasn’t some painful jog. He was also twisting during another portion of his workout, one of the best signs as he looks to get over the pain in his abdomen.

Considering what we have seen and the general feeling throughout the team, it would not be surprising to see him involved in some way in practice next week and potentially all the way back into practice prior to the Rams preseason game. If that ends up being the case, that leaves plenty of time for him to feel closer to full power by the time the Steelers come to Paycor Stadium in 29 days.

Evan McPherson is a robot. Some sort of football-destroying, crowd-igniting cyborg.

He picked up where he left off last season when he hit 12 of 14 50-plus-yard field goal attempts by opening the preseason with bombs from 56 and 58 yards.

It’s not just that he made the two deep field goals. They would have been good from almost 70. Both went to the net.

“I’m just in a groove right now,” McPherson said.

He’s just a weapon. McPherson hit from 65 yards out at the Back Together Saturday practice at the beginning of camp. It’s hard to put a cap on his range at this point.

McPherson even followed up the 56-yarder by booting the next kickoff through the uprights.

Everyone knew McPherson was a big part of this team, but in a camp where he has hit 40 of 42 in practices and pummeled the ball through the uprights in games, the Bengals have to feel great about avoiding any second-season regression from the kicker.

Kendric Pryor had four catches for 89 yards and a touchdown on Friday. (Katie Stratman / USA Today)

As Kendric Pryor sat at his locker following a night in which he caught four passes for 89 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown pass on the final drive of the game, his phone put on a light show behind him.

Texts, Instagram, Twitter, no matter the app, it was spiking and red dots were covering the screen.

When you are an undrafted rookie out of Wisconsin and make a highlight one-handed catch as part of the top receiving performance, friends and family fill the screen.

He was up to 329 texts just 25 minutes after the conclusion of the game.

“I got a bunch of group chats,” Pryor said. “They are texting about other stuff. I opened a couple of them, I just haven’t got a chance to tell everybody thank you. Talking to my friends, they are keeping my mental right and not making things bigger than what it is. Just having those positive thoughts just going out there and playing the same game I’ve been playing my whole life. It’s been good to have friends that help me out with stuff like that.”

Two more nights like this and his friends could be watching him play on Sundays. At the very least, Friday was a big step toward Pryor landing on the Bengals’ practice squad and waiting in the wings should injury occur at the position.

He’s not reading his press clippings — or hundreds of messages — just yet.

“I’m going to soak it all in tonight,” he said. “Yeah, it’s a good game this week but we got another week to prepare. Got to do the same thing next week. Don’t want to be that guy that does it one game and doesn’t continue to build off that.”

No one won the punt returner job Friday night, but it’s safe to assume Pooka Williams Jr. lost it. The only time he was sent back to field a punt was late in the fourth quarter, and he muffed it. Fortunately for Williams, it was near the sideline and the Cardinals were unable to recover the ball cleanly before it went out of bounds, but it seems clear the job is down to a two-man competition between incumbent Trent Taylor and rookie Kwamie Lassiter II.

Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said earlier this week he knows what he has in Taylor, so most of the looks against the Cardinals went to Lassiter. One went into the end zone for a touchback, one he had to fair catch and one he returned for 4 yards.

While a 4-yard return doesn’t look impressive on the surface, it was an extremely short punt that Lassiter had no chance of fielding. After it took one bounce, he charged it and fielded it to get what he could rather than letting it continue to bounce and have the field position deteriorate.

Look for Lassiter to get more opportunities next week against the Giants.

As far as the kick returner job, Chris Evans, who took over the spot at the start of the playoff run, looks like he’ll hold on to it after taking one back 41 yards against Arizona. Lassiter had two attempts for a solid 22.0-yard average.

Cincinnati native Drew Plitt, who just signed with the team two weeks ago as a camp arm after Burrow had to have the appendectomy, wasn’t expecting to play Friday night. But when Allen was limited to one series due to the concussion and with backup Jake Browning running for his life, Taylor put Plitt in for the final series.

The result? A 94-yard touchdown drive capped by his 25-yard scoring strike to Pryor. Plitt went 6 of 6 for 76 yards and a perfect passer rating of 158.3.

Plitt said it wouldn’t be hyperbole to call it a dream come true.

“I would absolutely say that, growing up in the Cincinnati area and coming to games all the time, being able to throw a touchdown in (Paycor) Stadium was unbelievable.”

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