If I had two words to describe this year’s Bengals team, it would be “High Expectations.” Weaknesses were addressed during the offseason, as the organization kept the coaching staff intact. With the team’s core back, the sky is the limit for this Stripes team.
Now, they head to Cleveland to start the year with their nemesis, the Browns, who have given them more than enough trouble in the last few years. “The Battle of Ohio,” as it is referred to, will surely be a battle, and the winner will set the tone for the rest of the season.
The main focus for Bengal fans will be the return of quarterback Joe Burrow. Out five weeks due to a strained right calf injury, Burrow will again come into an opener with limited preseason reps. However, unlike in the past, Burrow was able to make the best of his situation by utilizing the last couple of weeks of practice to get ready for this game.
So, will Burrow’s setback cause him to have a slow start? I don’t think so. Unlike in previous years when this has happened, Burrow has not lost strength and has been able to keep throwing. He also has mastered the offense and has the experience with long-standing receivers to make adjustments when needed. There is not too much that you can throw at Burrow that he has not already seen by some of the best defensive coordinators in the league.
The Bengals go the extra mile to improve the offense line.
Make no mistakes: The Bengal’s offensive line will be tested right out of the gate. During this offseason, the Bengals organization surprised everyone when they signed 6’8′, 345 lbs Orlando Brown Jr. to play left tackle. The former Chief’s tackle will have his hands full as he goes up against the Brown’s best defense player, Myles Garrett.
When Brown took over the left tackle position, it forced long-time tackle Jonah Williams to move over to the right side. This has been an adjustment for Williams, but like a true pro, he has made the best of it. He, too, will be challenged as the Browns pick up three-time pro bowler Za’Darius Smith to play opposite Garrett.
This offensive line, by far, will be the best line that Burrow has ever played behind since joining the organization. If Brown and Williams can stop the pass rush of Garrett and Smith no matter where they line up, then it will be a long day for the Browns and prove that the Bengals have a legit line that can go the distance,
The Bengals add a new weapon to the offense, while the Browns add a new coordinator.
In the off-season, the Bengals signed former Vikings second-round pick tight end Irv Smith Jr. Smith can further the passing game with his versatility and potential after pass playmaking skills. He adds to an already explosive offense, which includes Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd.
For the first time, the Bengals will face Brown’s new defensive coordinator, Jim Schwartz. I am sure Schwartz hopes to eliminate breakdowns in the secondary while keeping the pressure on Burrow. However, this is easier said than done when you have the Bengals’ talented trio.
Bengal’s head coach, Zac Taylor, and fifth-year offensive coordinator, Brian Callahan, will keep Schwartz on his toes as they call up creative ways to get the ball out.
The Browns have a solid safety duo in Grant Delpit and former chief’s safety Juan Thornhill but, like the Bengals, will be learning to adjust to playing next to each other. The real problem for this defense is if top cornerback Denzel Ward cannot play due to receiving his fourth concussion.
Cleveland is not especially deep at corner, and Ward’s absence on the outside would likely have Mike Ford stepping into the starting lineup with Martin Emerson on the other side and Greg Newsome starting in the slot. Keeping Burrow and his receivers out of the endzone all day will be a tall order.
Joe Mixon reconstructions contract to lead the running backs
Joe Mixon is the first running back off the bench after taking a $4.39 million pay cut to stay with the team. It shows his loyalty and commitment to helping the team return to another Super Bowl. If the offensive line truly is improved, Mixon should have his best year yet.
The real question is, “Which running back will the coaches feel comfortable playing behind Mixon”? Most would say rookie Chase Brown. He is known for his hard running style and ability to avoid tackles. Trayveon Williams is listed as RB 2, but I would not be surprised to see Chris Evans in the game as well. All have their unique styles, and all are exciting to watch.
Browns hope Deshaun Watson returns to his old self but not without pressure.
The Brown’s head coach, Kevin Stefanski, has a lot riding on his quarterback Deshaun Watson this season and will need him to produce if he plans on being the coach much longer. From last year to this summer, Watson has had time to work out the issues and showed in his limited role in preseason that he can make plays.
Look for the mad scientist Bengal’s defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo to bring the house in this first meeting. Pressure, pressure, and more pressure will be the key. Anarumo has quite the cast to choose from to make that happen. DJ Reader is the Godfather in the middle who can bring a physical force; he’s often double-teamed and still finds ways to have an outcome on the play.
The Stripes also have two top defensive ends who play the run well and love to bring pressure. You can count on Cincinnati native Sam Hubbard and sack machine Trey Hendrickson to get after Watson while making him aware of their presence.
Bengal’s rookie defensive end and first-round draft pick Myles Murphy looks to have his much-anticipated debut against the Browns. Although he did not do much during the preseason, this could be the game where he shows his pick value as a rotational player and future starter.
Stopping Nick Chubb from having a big day will be necessary.
Cleveland possesses an excellent offensive line that opens up running lanes for one of the best running backs in the NFL. Nick Chubb has the speed, strength, and size to break open a game while adding points and controlling the clock.
The good news for the Bengals is that the club resigned their veteran linebackers this offseason. Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson have experience and history with Chubb. In fact, in the last meeting between these two teams, Wilson had one of his best games, with 14 tackles and three assists. This linebacker duo held Chubb to just 34 yards and will need to do it again.
Can the Bengal’s secondary recreate the success from last year?
Like the offensive line, this Bengal’s secondary will be tested early. Watson’s offense has proven weapons as well. Bengal’s slot corner, Mike Hilton, must use his experience to adjust for Elijah Moore’s speed and shiftiness, while second-year corner Cam Taylor-Britt should see a lot of Donovan People-Jones.
Taylor-Britt improved as the season went on last year and has been battling with Chase and Higgins in practice every day. Some fans even believe he will be the breakout player for the Stripes this year.
The real matchup I am looking forward to is Watson’s go-to receiver, Amari Cooper, versus Cincinnati’s top cornerback, Chidobe Awuzie. Both former Cowboys teammates are very close friends who compete in everything, including off-season chess games.
Awuzie went down with a torn ACL last Halloween against Cleveland and has been recovering ever since. The Bengals staff has worked him back slowly, and he looks as good as before he went down with the injury. Returning to the scene, Awuzie will be counted on to keep Cooper’s numbers low.
Bengal safeties bring new opportunities while a former coach looks to win.
It is no secret that the Bengals lost both veteran safeties in free agency. Now, with Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell both gone, the Stripes look for their first-round draft pick from 2022, Dax Hill, to lead the way with the help of newly acquired veteran Nick Scott. The two must create chemistry to keep the Browns from breaking off some big plays.
Alex Van Pelt is very familiar with the Bengals since he was their quarterback coach in (2018-2019) before taking the job with the Browns as offensive coordinator. You can bet he has some plays that include tight-end David Njoku. Coach Anarumo will undoubtedly need a plan to stop Njoku from getting started. That plan might involve bringing in second-round pick cornerback DJ Turner for more flexibility. Finding the best possible matchups is what Anarumo is known for, and Turner’s outstanding preseason affords him the luxury of playing more defensive backs when needed.
Evan “Money Mack” McPherson may be the ace in the hole.
These divisional games are always hard-fought and close. If it comes down to field goals, then the Bengal’s Evan McPherson is the weapon needed to get the job done. McPherson was perfect during the preseason, making field goals from 50, 51, and 58 yards. The Browns will have to make tough decisions on field position, knowing McPherson can hurt you if given a chance.
Playing in Cleveland is always challenging, especially being the season opener. Burrow and company will need to get out to a fast start to quiet the Browns fans and force Watson to make throws instead of relying on Chubb to help win the game. Now is the time to get ahead in the division while gaining momentum for the Ravens at home next week.
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