CINCINNATI -- After losing close games in their season opener the past two years, the Cincinnati Bengals understand the importance of getting off to a good start.
The Bengals lost Week 1 games at Seattle in 2019 and at home against the Chargers last year, by a combined four points, and went on to win a total of just six games over the course of those first two seasons under Zac Taylor.
Cincinnati will look to build some confidence and momentum Sunday when it hosts the Minnesota Vikings in the 2021 season opener at Paul Brown Stadium. Here are five storylines to watch as former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer returns to Cincinnati for the first time in a regular season game since he left to become the Vikings’ head coach in 2014:
1. Joe Burrow’s return
All eyes remain on second-year quarterback Joe Burrow as he makes his return to the field for his first official game since tearing his ACL and MCL in a Week 11 game at Washington last year. The Bengals have plenty of weapons around him, but the offense clearly isn’t the same when he’s not running the show.
Burrow says he’s not worried about his knee or how that first hit will feel, but recovering from that kind of surgery and playing at a high level just nine months later is no small feat. There’s still a lot of curiosity to how he will look that first game back.
“I just know what I see, and I’ve got all the faith in the world in Joe, what he’s shown so far in practice,” Taylor said when asked how he knows Burrow is ready. “He’s going to prepare himself over the course of this week to be the best Joe Burrow he can be on Sunday, and that’s all we can ask. We’ll let the game play out itself and see where it’s at. But I’m really excited to watch him work on Sunday.”
Burrow’s success also will depend on the offensive line making improvements from last year – with just one new addition in right tackle Riley Reiff and center Trey Hopkins also coming off ACL surgery.
2. ‘Complementary football’
Taylor said he believes the big difference for the Bengals this year will be playing more “complementary football.”
The defense again was a big focus in free agency, adding depth in the secondary and trying to beef up the pass rush. If Cincinnati plays better defensively and the offense plays more efficiently early in games, that will open things up for Taylor’s desire for more explosive plays.
“That’s just part of playing better complementary football is now you put yourself in position where you can play with a lead early in the game and you can be a little more aggressive down the field and they’ve got to play the run and the pass and all that good stuff that comes with it, not just sit on a lead and know that we’ve got start pushing the ball down the field and it doesn’t fit together,” Taylor said. “And so those are a lot of things -- obviously, we strive to be a much better football team all the way around this year, and those are the things that come with it.”
Ja’Marr Chase is expected to be a big part of that, but he also has much to prove after struggling with drops throughout training camp and the preseason.
3. Stopping the run
Minnesota’s offense features one of Burrow’s favorite weapons from LSU with Justin Jefferson proving himself an NFL threat as a rookie last year. He and Adam Thielen make up a dynamic wide receiver tandem, but the Vikings’ offense starts with the run game, powered by one of the league’s top running backs in Dalvin Cook.
It’s a good test for the Bengals’ defense, especially with the young linebackers returning as leaders with something to prove in 2021 and a rebuilt cornerback unit bringing some energy to the back end of the defense.
Cook rushed for 1,557 yards and 16 touchdowns last year, his second of two straight Pro Bowl seasons.
“He’s one of the best backs in this league,” Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson said. “There’s a reason he had like 1,500 yards rushing last year. It doesn’t usually take one guy to tackle him so we’ve got to be sure we’re gang tackling to stop him. He’s a problem, but we’re looking forward to it.”
The Bengals defense has been emphasizing swarming to the ball and trying to create turnovers by stripping the ball out and that could be a big factor Sunday if they can’t achieve that.
4. Closing out the game
The Bengals struggled to close games early last season, and the last two openers went down to the wire only to see the opponent come out victorious. A few players this week talked about how much wins in those situations might have changed the course of the season.
Now, in Taylor’s third year, it will be important to see some of the things he’s been preaching – like changing the culture of the team – yield results. The players need to have some confidence what they’ve been working on can actually bring the team success.
Taylor, meanwhile, downplays his sense of urgency in Year 3, but he needs some significant steps forward to avoid the hot seat. He is 6-25-1 over his first two years.
“It’s no different than any year,” Taylor said. “There’s an urgency to win the first game and every game after that. That should remain unchanged no matter what franchise you are, no matter what point in the year you’re at. Each week we go to work and try to put the best plan possible, get our guys ready to play and get out there ready to win the game. That’s all we’re focused on.”
5. Impactful injuries
The injury lists are always pretty light in Week 1, but the few absences for Sunday could be impactful.
Bengals cornerback Trae Waynes remained out of practice all week because of a hamstring injury that popped up in practice leading up to the preseason finale, and Eli Apple will start in his place. Waynes missed all of 2020 with a pectoral injury and was gearing up for a big season before the setback. The secondary will have its hands full with the Vikings offense, as quarterback Kirk Cousins could be looking to test a completely new group of cornerbacks.
Waynes is the only rostered player ruled out for Sunday, while the Vikings will be without linebacker Anthony Barr (knee) and rookie left tackle Christian Darrisaw (groin). Barr, a key piece in the middle of the Minnesota defense, worked his way back from a pectoral tear suffered in Week 2 last year, but a knee injury has hampered him for more than a month. Darrisaw is facing complications from a groin injury he suffered last year at Virginia Tech.
Vikings at Bengals, 1 p.m., Fox, 1530, 102.7, 104.7
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