CINCINNATI — Jayson DiManche watched last week’s episode of Hard Knocks with empathy. Atlanta Falcons rookie linebacker Marquis Spruill suffered a knee injury in practice, an injury that ended up being a torn ACL. The Falcons had selected Spruill in the fifth round of this year’s draft, trading up to pick the kid out of Syracuse, and had high hopes for him.
DiManche empathized because he knows what it is Spruill has lost.
The Hard Knocks cameras were following DiManche at this time last year. He was an undrafted free agent linebacker out of Southern Illinois University looking for his shot with the Bengals. The cameras took a liking to him and his story early in camp.
"It’s real unfortunate what happened (to Spruill). You still feel that emotional aspect of it," said DiManche. "You know how hard it is. You know what’s going on behind the cameras and behind the scenes. You’re not only a fan of Hard Knocks watching it but really you feel like you’re part of their team, you’re rooting for those guys you’re watching. It’s like people watching us last year."
The cameras caught DiManche last year when he got the word that he had survived the final preseason cuts and would start the season on the 53-man roster. DiManche ended up playing in all 16 games for the Bengals, mostly on special teams.
None of that guarantees him a spot on this year’s roster.
Sunday’s third preseason game at Arizona will go a long way to securing a spot for DiManche and others. It’s typically viewed as a final test for starters, who won’t see as much — if any — playing time in the final preseason game against Indianapolis next Thursday. Guys like DiManche, who is second on the depth chart behind Emmanuel Lamur as the SAM linebacker, have to keep showing coaches what they can do.
"As coaches we like having the four games to evaluate the young guys," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "For 30-something of our players, we’re good. For that next 25-30 guys that are vying for jobs it’s important to have the four opportunities that we do, where we really have to block live, and tackle live and do those things."
Lewis said there is a possibility that defensive tackle Geno Atkins and offensive right tackle Andre Smith as well as other frontline players will play for the first time this preseason. Tight end Tyler Eifert didn’t play last Saturday against the New York Jets but has been practicing this week.
There is the fine line of making sure the coaches see the players on the field enough to fairly evaluate them, making sure those frontline players have enough time to work with each in game situations but not so much that they are overexposed to injury.
"My goal is to make sure we’re ready to play as an offensive unit," said offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. "There are still some things we’ve got to iron out and get better at and make sure that we’re on top of because this might be the last time they play a lot together before we play in the regular season. You have to make sure you’re on top of it. Our quarterback needs to get another week better. Our offensive line, the runners, the receivers — everybody."
One of the players the Bengals will be seeing Sunday is their former quarterback, Carson Palmer. Palmer threw for a career-high 4,274 yards last season with the Cardinals as they finished 10-6 and just missed the playoffs. He has led the Cardinals on a pair of long touchdown drives on the first possessions of their two preseason games.
"He’s impressive to watch. He’s still Carson," said Lewis. "That’s why it’s hard coming in here and every time we look at a quarterback and we bring these guys in from off the street, man, it’s hard to compare.
"I laugh and I think when I went out to USC and watched him throw, when I watched him in Mobile before I even had the job, just throwing in Mobile and watching him and then going out to USC and then we went out again and worked him out on our own and my gosh. You still see it every time he drops back. I mean, it’s just so impressive."
This will be the second time the Bengals have faced Palmer in a game since the Palmer was traded to Oakland in 2011 after refusing to return and play for the Bengals that season. The Bengals beat the Raiders 34-10 at Paul Brown Stadium in 2012.
"In my mind he’s still the same Carson Palmer with a strong arm, who’s smart and who’s probably seen every defense known to man in the National Football League," said Jackson, who was Oakland’s head coach in 2011 and helped orchestrate the trade. Jackson was also an assistant coach at USC when Palmer played there in college.
"The biggest thing about him, and I think everyone knows it, is he’s tough. He’s one of the toughest human beings I’ve known. I’ve seen him take some licks and get right back up. Bloodied hands, bloodied nose, bloodied jaw and just wipe it off and keep playing. It says something about the true grit of him as a man and about how much he loves the sport."