CINCINNATI -- In no particular order, here are five Cincinnati Bengals you'll want to pay attention to on the defensive side of the ball during Saturday night's preseason home opener against the New York Jets:
1. DE Margus Hunt. Can Hunt take another step in his growth as a lineman in the Bengals' scheme? That's one of the biggest questions surrounding the defense this season, and it's one that follows Hunt into this second preseason game. While coach Marvin Lewis was quick to praise Hunt earlier this week for the steps he has taken since April 2013 when he was drafted, Hunt was a little harder on himself. He said he thinks he still needs to work on finishing his rushes. At times last week at Kansas City that was an issue, he said. He overran one sack opportunity and missed one other, he said. Part of the problem had to do with how he and other linemen have to pull up when they approach quarterbacks in practice so as not to hurt them. Last week was the first time he had been able to tackle since January.
2. DT Domata Peko. It's worth keeping an eye on Peko after he missed time this week because of a concussion. He participated in Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday's practices, but was limited for part of them. The veteran isn't expected to see much action, but it will be worth looking to see what opportunities he gets in the rotation following the head injury. In addition to Peko's reps, keep a close eye on interior linemen Devon Still and Brandon Thompson. Both will be looking for snaps to they can add to their resume entering the season. The better that tandem is, the better the Bengals feel their defensive tackle rotation will be. Geno Atkins still won't be playing. He has yet to participate in full team drills at practices.
3. CB Darqueze Dennard. With Dre Kirkpatrick expected to miss Saturday's game after missing nearly all of the week's practices, this could be a pivotal night for Dennard. It could be pivotal in the sense that it would be the first time Dennard gets extended action on the big stage both on defense and special teams. While he played a lot last week -- 35 defensive snaps and 10 special-teams plays -- Dennard could expect a little more action this week due to Kirkpatrick's hip injury. It also would be a good week for the Bengals to play around with where they line Dennard up, giving him reps at both the slot corner position, as well as one of the boundary spots. Definitely be on the lookout for the first-round pick as he gets second-team reps at corner, likely alongside Adam Jones.
4. S Danieal Manning. Another defensive back to watch will be Manning, the nine-year veteran who was signed by the Bengals in the offseason. It's been easy to forget about Manning because Reggie Nelson and George Iloka have impressed with the ones at both safety positions, but he has been quietly turning heads throughout this preseason. Coaches are beginning to see where he's finally understanding Cincinnati's system. Lewis said earlier this week that he plays smooth and fast and that it's easy to see why he's been a valued defender elsewhere for so long. Manning also gives the Bengals added versatility as a kick returner. He ought to have a few opportunities to prove himself on special teams Saturday.
5. S Taylor Mays. It might come as a surprise to some to read this but Mays has been one of the more impressive back-of-the-rotation defensive backs in Cincinnati's training camp. It seems like he's gotten praised for making a good play in practice more often than he has been criticized, and he routinely seems to be in the right spots helping plug up holes on downfield runs and preventing passes to his side of the field. It'll be intriguing to see how the Bengals work out the position battle between he and Shawn Williams. Keep an eye on Mays and Williams against the Jets and judge for yourself.