CINCINNATI – The Bengals kick off their 54th season Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings and their old defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. The last time they played Zimmer’s team, it didn’t go well, to say the least as the Vikings – on their way to a 13-3 finish – ran the Bengals out of U.S. Bank Stadium, racing out to a 34-0 lead and cruising to a 34-7 win in Dec. 2017.
Zac Taylor could use some good mojo early, as he is 0-6-1 in seven September games since taking over in 2019. “There’s no fear of failure,” Taylor said Friday 48 hours before his third season opener. “You’ve got to go out and be aggressive. If fear is going to motivate you, you’re probably in the wrong profession. That’s not what motivates us. We want to win.”
Taylor also had a message for the fans.
“The players don’t need much, they’re professionals. But anything for them to feel the energy of the crowd, anything we do to elevate (the noise). I can’t overstate the significance of how different this last year was compared to now and what noise does. You cannot replicate 65,000 people screaming. You can’t do it. The advantage we have of not going to Minnesota in Week 1, it would be impossible to communicate and them having to come here. We have to capitalize on that advantage.”
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) September 7, 2021
Here’s some of the things to look for:
When the Bengals have the ball:
Will the quarterback, without having taken a hit throughout any portion of his nine-month rehab from his torn ACL last Nov. 22, feel comfortable stepping up, sliding around and keeping his ground in the pocket. It’s the number one hurdle quarterbacks coming back from serious knee injuries point to when talking about getting back to their normal form. Once Burrow takes a hit, gets back to his feet and feels part of the game, this should not be a big deal. But he needs to feel like the pocket is his. He can then begin doing what he does best, picking apart defenses with his advanced ability to read.
After Joe Burrow, there is no more important player on the offense and arguably the team than the fifth-year back out of Oklahoma. If he is running with authority, then the offense can – as they say – stay ahead of the chains. Second and manageable and third and short is vital to any team’s objective of playing complementary football. But in the Bengals case, it’s paramount. If Mixon is the player that the Bengals think he is (signing him to a 4-year, $48 millon extension in Sept. 2020), he needs to touch the ball at least 25 times a game and maybe a little north of 30. Do this and the defense won’t get exhausted on what is expected to be a 90-degree day on the Paul Brown Stadium turf. It is critical that the Bengals keep their offense and not the defense on the field for extended stretches.
Two or three catches, especially in traffic, and all those worries over ball size, stripes on the ball and his rookie yips will go the way of the leather helmet. Gone. Chase was a fifth-overall pick for a reason. He didn’t show these yips in college and all we’ve seen from him on the field with Joe Burrow is one drop on the second play of the Dolphins preseason finale. He did have three drops in the Washington game but that was with Brandon Allen and one of the drops was the result of a slip. Chase showed me all I needed to see this week in terms of his mental strength in discussing it at length, without any insecurity. Now, he just needs to show it on the field and this will become one of those long lost storylines early in the season.
With the Chase storyline dominating, there hasn’t been a lot of talk about how good Higgins has looked. Tyler Boyd remains one of the game’s most dependable receivers in the slot. This receiving group has the potential to be one of the best in the team’s history. Early on, there was talk about three 1,000-yard receivers. That might be a bit ambitious but this crew brings back memories of A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu in 2013, Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry in 2005, Carl Pickens, Darnay Scott and David Dunn in 1995 or Eddie Brown, Tim McGee and Cris Collinsworth in 1988. Throw Auden Tate and Chris Evans in this mix and you’ve given Burrow more options than he even had at LSU. The all-time Bengals mark for passing yardage in a season came in 2013 when Green, Jones and Sanu were part of a group that gained 4,318 yards with Gio Bernard totaling 514 yards on 56 catches.
No position group has come under more scrutiny than the group assigned with protecting Burrow. It failed at times last year and was responsible for the season-ending injury to the franchise quarterback. Left guard Michael Jordan, the player who gave up the pressure that got to Burrow in Washington, is now in Carolina and Riley Reiff (Mike Zimmer’s “all-time favorite”) is the new right tackle. Jonah Williams had a very good camp and preseason at left tackle. Left guard Quinton Spain was solid in the last half of 2020. Center Trey Hopkins is back from his ACL. This group, with Frank Pollack back running it, looks poised to prove a lot of people wrong and it could surprise as one of the team’s unheralded strengths. They, more than any other group, is determined to make a point Sunday against a Vikings defensive front that is healthy again. Michael Pierce and Dalvin Thompson against Hopkins, Spain and right guard Xavier Su’a-Filo bears close watching inside. Left DE Danielle Hunter against Reiff is a huge matchup. Run the ball effectively and with purpose (see above) and quick passes and the Vikings front can be neutralized some.
When the Vikings have the ball:
It’s not often that a defensive coordinator admits his game plan the way Lou Anarumo did this week. Stop Dalvin Cook. It’s starts and ends with that. Period. Yes, the Vikings have elite receivers in Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson but if you let Cook run free and catch the ball all over the field, you’re screwed. Minnesota will be able to dictate the tempo. You want to put the ball in the hands of Kirk Cousins and force him to make all the throws. Cook led the NFC in rushing (1,557 yards) and rushing attempts (312) and touchdowns (16) last season. He had another 44 receptions for 361 yards. The Bengals did well against Tennessee’s Derrick Henry last year, who is the only player who had a bigger year than Cook. Different runner but the approach will be similar.
The much-heralded corner out of Ohio State taken 10th overall by the Giants in 2016 is getting another shot with his fourth team. Apple moved onto New Orleans and Carolina but couldn’t stick in either place because of injuries. Now, because of a hamstring injury to Trae Waynes, Apple will be the opposite corner to Chidobe Awuzie and asked to defend either Jefferson or Thielen. Will Anarumo give bracket help to Apple from Vonn Bell or Jesse Bates? Given that Awuzie is clearly the most accomplished corner on the field for the Bengals, this is likely. If Apple holds his own, then he might make things interesting when Waynes gets healthier. That’s Apple’s job, hold your own. Give up passes in front but don’t get burned deep and keep coverage as responsible as possible. Don’t gamble.
If these two can stay on the field and not get too gassed from the heat, they have the potential to do exactly what the Bengals need in this game, disrupt the line so that Minnesota’s offensive line can’t give Cook clean looks. Asked Anarumo about this earlier in the week and he said the number one thing a front can do against the run is to be active in getting to gaps before the offensive linemen do. It’s a fundamental in offensive line play. Reader is back from injury that cut short his 2020 season after five games and Ogunjobi was signed as a free agent from Cleveland.
Captain Kevin Huber is back for his 13th season and he can still pin the ball inside the 10 with regularity and showed no signs of a weakening leg with a pair of 50+ yarders against the Dolphins in the preseason finale. He tied for the longest punt of 2020 with a 72-yarder. One of the most reliable players on the roster.
As we all remember, the 2020 season opened with Randy Bullock’s calf giving out on the final play of regulation. The Bengals seem to have found a true weapon in rookie Evan McPherson out of Florida, justifying the fifth-round capital spent on him. He was booming kicks in camp and the preseason. He drilled a 50-yarder against Washington that hit the back net. He connected from 57 yards at the halftime gun against Miami. If the Bengals are in a close game, they have a weapon they believe in. We already saw what it cost Dallas in the opener at Tampa Bay when Greg Zuerlein missed from 31 yards and blew a PAT as the Pokes lost, 31-29.
Jordan Berry is in his seventh season out of Eastern Kentucky, signed in the offseason from Pittsburgh. He was tied for 10th in the NFL last season with 23 punts inside the 10.
Another free agent signee, Greg Joseph returns to the NFL after sitting out 2020. He is a four-year veteran out of Florida Atlantic. He last kicked for Tennessee in 2019.