CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals are officially one week away from their 2021 opener against Minnesota, and there are still several questions going into coach Zac Taylor’s third season.
Joe Burrow’s return from December knee surgery remains the biggest storyline to follow, but the attention isn’t just on him. There is much hype around his wide receiver corps, assuming first-round pick Ja’Marr Chase lives up to his potential to give the Bengals three 1,000-yard receiving candidates, and the offensive line still has much to prove after an abysmal 2020 campaign that saw constant change up front.
A defense that took steps last year needs to be much improved in the pass rush and stopping the powerful running games in the AFC North will always be a challenge.
Here are five things that must go right for the Bengals to be successful this season:
1. Staying healthy
Injuries are going to happen, but staying healthy is especially key for teams without a lot of depth, and the Bengals fit that description.
Last year, injuries were an issue on the offensive and defensive lines and the organization didn’t do a great job addressing the need for better backups this offseason. They added depth through the draft, but that’s gambling on quick development and Cincinnati goes into the season with a bunch of backups who looked OK or did well against the back end of other teams’ rosters.
Moving on from Billy Price and Michael Jordan right before the final roster deadline with no clear better replacements doesn’t bode well for the team if injuries occur. Meanwhile, the defensive line replaced two starters and don’t have many proven pass rush options behind the first teamers.
The offensive line in 2020 kept shuffling players around because of injuries, no one really settled in well, and the Bengals ended up allowing 48 sacks and seeing their No. 1 overall draft pick quarterback injured for the season in Week 11. Similarly, the defensive line was looking for players all year long and ranked last in sacks with 17.
2. Quick development
Bengals coach Zac Taylor ultimately felt most comfortable with the veterans on the offensive line, selecting Quinton Spain and Xavier Su’a-Filo for the guard spots ahead of rookies Jackson Carman and D’Ante Smith and Jordan, who was among the final cuts.
Both are fine guards, but it seems the organization is hoping Carman and Smith can continue to make adjustments and settle into bigger roles sooner than later. They will be needed at some point. Trading Price also indicates a lot of faith in rookie sixth-round pick Trey Hill, another big unknown if something happens to center Trey Hopkins, who is coming off ACL surgery in January.
“Those guys have to grow up fast, and they have,” Taylor said. “Each one of them have improved over the course of training camp, when you talk specifically about the three rookies that were drafted this year, and even Isaiah Prince, who’s not a rookie but he was off last year. He’s really developed over the course of this training camp and Fred (Johnson) has played a lot of football for us. So, you feel like there’s a lot of value there with those five guys there in that second wave. They all bring something different to the table. They’re all getting better. That’s the encouraging thing.”
The development of Carman, as a second-round pick, especially will be important.
“We certainly expect him to be an impact player for us,” Taylor said. “And sometimes that happens right away, sometimes that happens in the second month of the season and sometimes that happens in the second year. They determine when that happens. A guy like Jackson has made progress over the course of training camp. He’s made progress in the last week. We’re excited for his future.”
3. Meeting expectations
Rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase struggled in the preseason with drops but now has a chance to get into a rhythm – and hopefully out of his own head – with consistent playing time. It doesn’t have to happen right away for him, as he could be tucked behind Auden Tate for a while until he gets back to game speed, but expectations are high for the No. 5 overall draft pick and Burrow needs that third big weapon to go with Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins.
Chase hasn’t played since the 2019 college national championship game and said his drop issue has more to do with getting back his reaction time. More reps in practice started to show reward before the final preseason game but then he dropped an easy bubble screen pass against Miami when he could have calmed a lot of nerves by simply coming down with that catch.
4. Getting to the quarterback
The Bengals have to be better getting to the quarterback in 2021. A really good secondary can mask the weakness of a pass rush, but Cincinnati is going to need a stronger pass rush for the defense to be effective.
The addition of Larry Ogunjobi and Trey Hendrickson was meant to help with that, but Hendrickson needs to show his 13.5 sack 2020 season wasn’t a fluke and Ogunjobi needs a bounce-back year to help bolster the pass rush inside. D.J. Reader is more of a run stopper but could benefit from an effective three-technique guy next to him, so much is riding on Ogunjobi being what the Bengals remember from the 2018 and 2019 seasons when he totaled 11 sacks.
Sam Hubbard is looking to show he earned his big four-year contract extension, and behind him and Hendrickson will be a lot of inexperienced guys that need to step up.
5. Secondary needs to jell
Cincinnati has one of the best safety tandems in the league with Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell, but Bates doesn’t seem too happy with the way the organization handled negotiations for an extension that has yet to come, and the team has three new starting cornerbacks that need to get used to one another.
Trae Waynes was supposed to be back after missing all of 2020 because of a pectoral injury, but he’s likely out at least a couple weeks because of a hamstring issue, and now injury-prone Eli Apple will be stepping in along fellow newcomers Mike Hilton and Chidobe Awuzie.
Hilton and Awuzie appear to be solid pickups, as Hilton brings versatility to the defense with his blitzing ability and Awuzie had one of the best training camps of anyone on the team. The Bengals need them to help keep the energy of the defense up after a lively training camp from that side of the ball, especially early on when the offense couldn’t struggled.
Sunday, Sept. 12
Vikings at Bengals, 1 p.m., Fox, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7