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The third pre-season game is usually seen as the dress rehearsal for a team, but even then there is no set formula on who plays as the coaches are most interested in preparing for the season whilst minimising the risk to their starters. You can also see rookies and other players stepping up so they can get reps with the starters against other quality players to get a better evaluation. This complicates what we can interpret from the outside, which is why it is important not to put too much stock in what you see in pre-season, but for those involved the football is important despite what some might tell you.

With all of the fourth pre-season games taking place on Thursday night, a logistical challenge is facing the teams as for the first time they are cutting from ninety without a cut down to seventy-five before tonight’s games, although many teams have already started to make some cuts. There is also a challenge for the Hard Knocks crew as they prepare everything for next Tuesday’s episode with a more compressed time frame. Sadly being in the UK I won’t get to see episode four of Hard Knocks before the week four games start tonight, so I’ll have to run through the week three games without the extra insight of the behind the scenes footage of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who played the Cleveland Browns in their third pre-season game.

A number of players were held out or played limited snaps, so Jameis Winston was working without his full complement of options in the offence, and this did show. He floated a pass at a tight end that was intercepted, although he also escaped pressure and made a good pass to Freddie Martino later in the game, but it was rookie receiver Chris Goodwin who finished with most yards of any receiver. I think with a full complement of starters the Buccaneers will have an offence going in the right direction so we shouldn’t take too much from this game, but Winston will need to limit his interceptions. No one wants to lose their starting quarterback, and there are not enough quality starters floating around for teams to have a really good backup, but the Bucs might be concerned with the way Ryan Fitzpatrick has turned the ball over so far and they will be hoping that if he does get called upon in meaningful games that he reproduces some of his form from his 2015 season with the New York Jets and not what he has displayed so far.

As for the defence, they gave up some worrying plays to a Browns team that I think are going to cause some trouble for teams this season. You are always going to miss a player of Gerald McCoy’s ability, but he should be back for the regular season after being held out of this game with an injury, still there were not a lot of players that stood out to me. Part of that is due to not having coaching tape yet. This always makes it hard to truly see what is going on, you just can’t evaluate a secondary without the all twenty-two view, and the end zone view is brilliant for seeing how the front seven line up and play. Still, I did notice that Riley Bullough, a player I have mentioned multiple times this pre-season having been a player highlighted on Hard Knocks, did not get into the game on defence until the last drive on defence, and so whilst I did see him on special teams, he will be desperate to put up good tape tonight to try to catch on to a team, be it the Buccaneers or somebody else who has liked what they have seen.

For the Cincinnati Bengals, who took on Washington in their third warm up game, it has been a pre-season of questions rather than answers. Still, it was good to see John Ross get on the field, even if he didn’t make a catch, he demonstrated his speed on an end around run, and it will take a couple of weeks to shake of the rust as he makes his way back from a shoulder injury. I was also not expecting to see Andy Dalton over throwing the fastest man in combine history on a deep ball! It was much better to see the first team score a touchdown, and whilst the Bengals’ young tackles still had their problems, the offence functioned and has the potential to come alive if things break right for them during the season and the young players bed in.

The defence will be looking to make do round Shawn Williams injury, and he will be missed at safety, but the pass rush still looks good with defensive end Chris Smith catching the eye in every game and looks to be a potential bargain given the conditional pick the Bengals gave up to the Jacksonville Jaguars to get him. The young linebacker group got even younger with the trade of special teams stalwart Marquis Flowers to the New England Patriots and they will be without Vontaze Burfict for three games after his appeal against suspension was not successful. I can see why Marvin Lewis and the Bengals will be upset given their reasoning about the Kansas City Chiefs player being hit with a shoulder within five yards of the line of scrimmage, the player being in line with the target of a pump fake, and the ball being in Alex Smith’s hands, but Burfict has a history that precedes him and clearly is not being given the benefit of the doubt.

There’s a lot of questions about the Bengals, but at least they look to have made it to the start of the season relatively healthy and I still think they will do better than many have predicted, even if I’m not going to guarantee a playoff berth. I will say, I’m still deeply uncomfortable every time Mixon takes the field and I find it hard to see how I will ever resolve that pick.

Finally, having spoken about the hope I saw for the LA Rams offence on our last podcast, Jared Goff did not play well against the LA Chargers. More worrying for him will be the fact that the offence is designed well and seemed to run better with Sean Mannion as their quarterback. Whether Goff’s struggles can be partly put down to rookie receiver Cooper Kupp being withheld from the game due to a minor groin pull I don’t know, but the Rams third game did not go as well as their second, and it would surprise no one if the Rams had another rocky season. Still, I do see some signs of hope, I’m just unsure whether Goff can, or will be given the time to, become a franchise quarterback. It is also too early to tell how Sean McVay will do as a head coach, but I have a feeling he will turn out well given time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean things will work out for him in LA.

One last thing before the final pre-season games start last night. I stated on our last podcast that if you were going to watch pre-season games, that week three were the ones to watch as that was when the starters would play most. And I stand by that. But for those of us who have the disease as Ross Tucker puts it, these final games will be fascinating as the players we have never heard off, are playing for a chance to catch onto a roster, or practise squad. They just want to make the team and no one should question their efforts, and I intend to honour it by watching all three teams I have been following.

Still, next week the season starts.