Cincinnati clearly is a much different team without its $275 million quarterback. In his absence, Jake Browning would be looking at his NFL debut in a primetime game matching up the opponents from Super Bowl LVI for the first time since that three-point victory for the Rams.
That’s the big storyline going into Monday night, but here are five things to know.
1. Burrow pushing to play?
The Bengals are going to give Burrow as much time as possible to see how his calf is feeling before making a call on the starting quarterback, but it seems as though Burrow is pushing to play. Ultimately, it might not be his decision.
Burrow didn’t practice Thursday after saying his calf was feeling a little less sore than when he limped off the field following the final touchdown of the Sept. 17 game against the Ravens. However, he progressed to limited practices Friday and Saturday and was only listed as “questionable” on the injury report.
“We’ll see … we still got two days, 48 hours before the game,” Taylor said on Saturday, adding the Bengals are “taking everything into consideration.”
Browning says he is ready if needed. The Bengals lost third-string quarterback Will Grier to the Patriots this week but signed Reid Sinnett and former Bengal AJ McCarron to the practice squad. Sinnett was in camp this summer but cut with final roster decisions, and McCarron, who had a standout season in the XFL earlier this year, was signed after a workout Saturday.
2. Time for the O-line to do its part
After Aaron Donald almost sacked Burrow for the third time on the final play of Super Bowl LVI as the Bengals were driving for a comeback attempt, there was no doubt something needed to be done to improve his protection.
The Bengals specifically set out to upgrade the interior line, making center Ted Karras and right guard Alex Cappa their first free agent signings ahead of the 2022 season, then drafting Cordell Volson to eventually win the left guard job.
Now Donald will be testing to see how successful that overhaul was. San Francisco held him without a sack last week but he’s coming off his ninth straight Pro Bowl season in 2022 when he missed six games.
“The priority was improving the offensive line and felt like we did that,” Taylor said. “… We felt like those were really good fits for what we could add and fortunate it worked out to where they really wanted to come play for us.”
The offensive line as a whole is going to have to step up regardless of who is starting at quarterback. Burrow’s calf might limit his mobility and Browning will need every extra second he can buy.
3. Other injuries to note
Burrow’s injury is the big one, but Los Angeles has its concerns, as well, being without standout Cooper Kupp, who is on injured reserve, and now having rookie wideout Puka Nacua questionable with an oblique injury that had him limited in practice the past two days.
Nacua had stepped up in Kupp’s absence, quickly becoming a favorite target of Matthew Stafford, making a record 25 catches over the first two games of his NFL career. He is the only player in question for Monday, though defensive back Cobie Durant (groin) was limited Friday and offensive linemen Joe Noteboom (shoulder) and Brian Allen (illness) and defensive end Jonah Williams (back) had issues early in the week. Those four were full participants by Friday or Saturday.
Los Angeles’ offense takes a big hit if Nacua is not available, but the Bengals likely will be without another target for their quarterback with tight end Irv Smith Jr. doubtful because of a hamstring injury.
4. Scott facing his old team
Safety Nick Scott wouldn’t have wanted to miss this game, just given the importance of bouncing back from the 0-2 start in a primetime game, but that especially might be the case considering the opponent. Scott earned his starting job in the Rams’ Super Bowl run in 2021 and started every game last year before his contract expired and he landed in Cincinnati in free agency.
Now he’s an important piece in the Bengals’ defense as the leader of a new safety tandem alongside first-year starter Dax Hill. Scott was in concussion protocols early in the week but was cleared by Friday and was a full participant in the final two practices.
“A lot of the new guys have started to fit in really well,” Taylor said when asked about Scott’s transition with the team so far. “The chemistry with the team is good, they understand their role. Nick has done a great job just as a veteran presence over there. So, fortunate to have him.”
Scott knows well the Rams offense that he saw faced in practices the last four years, though there have been many changes since last season. Stafford is still running the show, though, and he’s the key to what Los Angeles does offensively.
5. Opening up the offense
Ja’Marr Chase said this week he wants more go balls, and after a conversation with offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, he’s hopeful the Bengals are getting back to the basics of what they have done best – getting their weapons into space.
Burrow’s availability will impact what that looks like, but regardless of who is starting at quarterback, the Bengals need to find a way to get off to a faster start Monday and just move the ball. A holding call negating a first down on the first drive last week against Baltimore impacted a three-and-out possession, and it took seven quarters into the season for Cincinnati to score an offensive touchdown.
Cornerback Mike Hilton said the defense needs to do its part to get off the field quickly and put the ball in the quarterback’s hands but so far the offense hasn’t been efficient sustaining drives, and that’s put more onus on the defensive side of the ball.
The Rams’ defense ranks 12 in points allowed and seventh in yards surrendered through two games. Their offense has proven capable as well, ranking ninth in points scored and second in total yards.
Rams at Bengals, 8:15 p.m., ESPN, ESPN2, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7