What We Learned from Cincinnati Bengals 'Hard Knocks' Episode 2
Position battles continued, players began to stand out and one even made his mark off the field as a talented crooner good enough to make linebacker James Harrison smile. Let's take a look at what we learned about the Bengals from this week's episode.
The Fullback Battle Is in Full Swing
While the fullback position is one many teams have chosen to phase out in recent years, the Cincinnati Bengals aren't one of them. Currently, one of their most heated training camp battles is for the job, pitting free-agent addition (and Hard Knocks alum) John Conner against converted tight end Orson Charles.
Charles began camp as the starter, based on his status as the team's 2012 fourth-round draft pick. However, as the episode wore on, it was clear that the hard-hitting Conner was overtaking Charles in the competition. Charles struggled to learn the nuances of the position, such as winning battles with your hands and the proper footwork required to effectively block for the run game.
The Bengals are looking for a "heat-seeking missile," and Conner, the Terminator, seems better suited to fit that bill. Once the preseason contest between the Atlanta Falcons and Bengals was underway, Charles was benched for Conner, and the latter led the way for a one-yard score by rookie running back Giovani Bernard right before halftime.
Though Charles' roster spot was threatened on the episode, it's possible he remains on the team as the third tight end behind Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert. However, his future as a fullback is very much in question. The job now looks like Conner's to lose.
Who Will Be Cincinnati's No. 2 Quarterback?
Another position that has yet to be settled for the Cincinnati Bengals is No. 2 quarterback. Vying for the job behind starter Andy Dalton is Josh Johnson, who worked with offensive coordinator Jay Gruden in his days with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and John Skelton, former sometimes-starter for the Arizona Cardinals.
The "calm, cool" Skelton was shown struggling with the complicated verbiage of Gruden's West Coast system, while Johnson looked more comfortable, but less accurate. As head coach Marvin Lewis said of Johnson in the episode, he's "never seen so many incompletions. His accuracy is just horrible."
The real test of the two passers came in the Week 1 preseason meeting with the Atlanta Falcons. Both improved, with Johnson completing nine of his 16 passes for 100 yards and a touchdown and Skelton completing four of his five pass attempts, for 72 yards and a touchdown to wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher that secured the Bengals the 34-10 win.
Though the Bengals may have one backup quarterback who struggles to call plays while the other struggles to make completions, both looked more confident on the football field than the practice field. The competition between Skelton and Johnson is nowhere near over yet.
Margus Hunt Makes an Impression
This episode was the first opportunity to meet rookie defensive end Margus Hunt, whom the Bengals selected in the second round of this year's draft. Hunt came to the United States from Estonia to attend college and play track and field—shot-put and discus specifically—but transitioned to football when Southern Methodist discontinued its program.
Considering he's from a foreign country—and a relatively little-known one at that—Hunt was shown fielding many questions from his teammates and coaches about his home country. But Hunt wasn't just presented as a novelty—no, he was also heavily featured because of his innate football skills, no matter how short a time he's played the game.
Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer described Hunt, physically, as a "prototype defensive left end" who "kind of looks like [Houston Texan] J.J. Watt," in size and athleticism. In the first preseason game, Hunt started slowly, like many of the other rookies. However, Hunt's confidence level grew as he spent more time on the field, culminating in a pressure of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Dominique Davis that resulted in an interception by Bengals cornerback Brandon Ghee.
Hunt may be relatively inexperienced at the game of football compared to the rest of the Bengals, even the rookies. However, he showed in this episode he belongs on the field and is a quick study who could be a major part of their defense for a number of years.
Terrence Stephens' Hidden Talent
Undrafted rookie free-agent defensive tackle Terrence Stephens was featured heavily in this episode of Hard Knocks, and not because he's fighting to make the team, as is the usual storyline for undrafted rookies. No, Stephens stood out because of his hidden talent—singing.
From a hotel hallway rendition of Boyz II Men's "End of the Road," to a soulful meeting room performance of the Carpenters' "Superstar" that moved immovable linebacker James Harrison nearly to tears, Stephens' talents literally took center stage in the episode.
Stephens distinguished himself as not just another anonymous undrafted rookie in the episode by showing the world his singing skills. On the football field, he was a bit less smooth, missing a tackle on Atlanta Falcons running back Jason Snelling that resulted in a touchdown in the first preseason game. After an angry Mike Zimmer harangued his defense and Stephens, however, Stephens improved.
Hard Knocks affords us the rare opportunity to see football players as the multidimensional, multi-talented people they truly are. For Stephens' sake, however, he must hope his football talent outweighs his ability to carry a tune.
Jay and Jon Gruden Reunite
The Cincinnati Bengals' preseason Week 1 contest against the Atlanta Falcons was nationally televised on ESPN, which meant a production meeting with the game's play-by-play crew, Mike Tirico and brother of Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, Jon Gruden.
Clearly this meant a few key anecdotes about the Grudens' childhood, and the show didn't disappoint.
The key takeaway about the two brothers' relationship is that it's all about competition. Jon recalled challenging the "lazy" Jay to a race—Jon would work out incessantly to improve his football skills, while Jay would lounge on the couch and lift nary a finger—and being beaten by "500 yards" leading to Jon's tears.
The other thing to note is that Jay's offensive system is nearly identical to his brother's, who ran it as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The terminology is the same, the way he enunciates the plays is the same and his frustration and joy when the calls don't or do lead to success is also the same.
Though it's hard to forget that Jon and Jay are brothers, we rarely get a look at their relationship. A Gruden brothers Hard Knocks spinoff wouldn't lack for entertainment.
Tyler Eifert Lives with Andrew Whitworth
Joining an NFL team, whether for the first time or the fifth, likely requires a relocation. Without a wife or a family, finding a place to live can be difficult. Often, NFL players will live with each other because it simply makes things easier—they share a workplace and have common interests, so it's a natural fit.
Such is the case with rookie Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert; however, his choice of teammate-roommate was a bit unusual. It was revealed on Hard Knocks that he's living with offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth—and his wife, and their three children.
This unorthodox setting gives Eifert the calm presence of a regular family along with the benefits of living with a veteran teammate. Perhaps in the future, we'll see how well this odd couple gets along in their shared home.
The Bengals Veterans Are Ready to Go
Understandably, the Cincinnati Bengals rookies and second- and third-strings were a bit shaky in their preseason debut against the Atlanta Falcons. However, the Bengals starters and veterans looked ready for the regular season in their limited time on the field.
From James Harrison's disruption of Atlanta's run game, to Jermaine Gresham running people over to BenJarvus Green-Ellis manhandling Falcons defensive end Osi Umenyiora, the Bengals starters laid an impressive foundation for the team's 34-10 win.
For the past two years, the Bengals have been a playoff team, and the talent that got them to that point was on display, however briefly, against the Falcons in their first preseason game. As the preseason continues and the starters get more playing time to tune up for the regular season, the Bengals should look even more ready—a scary thought considering how well they handled the Falcons' starters.
If you missed Episode 2, there is an encore play Wednesday (tonight) at 6:15 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.