Rookie QB Ryan Finley rides growing confidence up Bengals' depth chart

CINCINNATI -- The way Cincinnati’s Ryan Finley felt before he entered the huddle last week helped explain his success.

After a strong preseason debut, the Bengals rookie quarterback went out for his first series against Washington last Thursday with a budding sense of comfort and confidence. Then he completed his first nine passes and led the Bengals on a 12-play scoring drive.

With Finley’s improvement becoming more noticeable, his role on this year’s team has been clarified as well. After two preseason games, he might have cemented his spot as Cincinnati’s No. 2 quarterback.

If Finley secures that place on the depth chart, he also positions himself to potentially become the successor to Bengals' franchise quarterback Andy Dalton, who enters his ninth season. Finley, taken No. 104 overall, is the first quarterback drafted by the Bengals in the fourth round or higher since Dalton was picked in the second round in 2011.

Finley's recent performances can be attributed to an increased familiarity with the offense and a rising confidence in recent weeks.

"It’s just a constant reminder that it’s all just kind of a process mentally," Finley said. "At the end of the day, just do your best and know you’re going to have a lot of opportunities, so don’t try to stress."

That approach has him excel in his first two exhibition games. At the halfway point of the preseason, Finley is 33-of-44 passing for 259 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. He has started both games with lengthy completion streaks, including the one last week that stabilized the Bengals in a 23-13 win against Washington.

Some of the throws Finley made, like in the second quarter when he sidestepped a blitzer to throw a 16-yard completion, are signs of Finley’s growth. Others are more subtle.

He said he’s worked to simplify things, identify the top read and let receivers make plays. Rookie running back Trayveon Williams said Finley has also done a good job of making pre-snap adjustments to pass protection.

When Finley first arrived in Cincinnati for offseason workouts, he reportedly struggled early and threw some errant balls. Williams, who played against Finley in last year’s Gator Bowl, said Finley has made strides since then.

"Guys might struggle in practice and different type of things, but when you get into a game setting, your instincts just take over," Williams said. "It’s a completely different situation than OTAs or practice. You can showcase different things."

Finley’s increased confidence has also led to a difference in his demeanor in the pre-snap huddle, running back Giovani Bernard said.

"Obviously, I’m not a quarterback, so it’s tough for me to say how difficult it is to call a play in front of guys," Bernard said. "But it is difficult, and he has that confidence in a huddle, which is always good to see."

Finley’s play through training camp and the preseason could lead to some interesting decisions for first-year coach Zac Taylor. Veteran Jeff Driskel, Cincinnati’s backup behind Dalton last season, has mixed in special teams work since Finley started working with the second-string offense.

This week, Taylor said he’s still unsure of how many quarterbacks will be on the 53-man roster when Cincinnati opens the season on Sept. 8 at Seattle. Taylor said he plans on making that decision toward the end of next week when the preseason wraps up.

"It can be two, three or practice squad," Taylor said. "Those are things we have not had to iron out yet."

Even though he feels more comfortable in Taylor’s offense, Finley knows better than letting that affect how he approaches the rest of the offseason.

"Obviously, it’s still a work in progress every day for me," Finley said. "I’ve gotta always be focused and 100% locked in because this game’s not easy, and it will humble you pretty quick."