Cincinnati Bengals: 5 storylines to watch in today’s game at Chicago

The Cincinnati Bengals look to build off the momentum of an overtime win in their opener when they travel to play the Chicago Bears on Sunday at Soldier Field.

After playing in mostly empty stadiums last season, Bengals second-year quarterback Joe Burrow will face a hostile environment for the first time in the NFL as he tries to lead the offense to another strong performance.

Cincinnati leaned on the defense early in Week 1 against Minnesota, but the Bengals found a rhythm with the running game and once Burrow connected with Ja’Marr Chase on a pair of third downs. The offense hummed for the middle half of the game and rallied at a critical time in overtime to set up Evan McPherson’s game-winning field goal.

Overall, it was an important win for a team that hasn’t done a lot of winning in September, and a chance to take a 2-0 record into AFC North play at Pittsburgh next week would be significant. Here are five storylines to watch Sunday at Chicago:

1. Burrow vs. Dalton

The Bengals’ franchise quarterback matches up Sunday against the guy he replaced.

Andy Dalton spent his ninth season in Cincinnati trying to prove himself to then-new coach Zac Taylor in 2019, but ultimately the organization was ready to move on and allow Taylor to groom his own quarterback. The team drafted Burrow No. 1 overall in 2020 and then granted Dalton’s release so he could find a better opportunity for playing time elsewhere. After a one-year stint with the Dallas Cowboys, Dalton signed with the Bears in March and now finds himself getting pushed by a rookie quarterback in Justin Fields.

Dalton beat the Bengals, 30-7, at Paul Brown Stadium last year, but Burrow had suffered his season-ending knee injury three weeks prior so this will be their first head-to-head battle.

“He’s done a great job,” Dalton said of Burrow. “Obviously, unfortunately he had the injury last year, but he was doing some really good things. He made a big play at the end of last week to help the Bengals get a win. I thought he was efficient. He’s done a lot of good things. He’s going to have a bright future.”

2. Protecting the “franchise”

Burrow was sacked five times in the opener, and although only two of those were charged to the offensive line, the entire offense has to do better protecting the quarterback that C.J. Uzomah simply refers to as “the franchise.” The Bengals allowed 48 sacks last year, 30 of them on Burrow in 10 games before he was hurt.

“Sometimes eyes were poor by position,” Taylor said. “Sometimes it was just a one-on-one matchup. And there was an instance or two where we just could have done a better job providing some help, just with the way we structured everything coaching wise, starting with me. So I think that was a part of it. Again, it’s something we can continue to improve on. But I thought there was a lot of really good stuff in protection from our guys to give Joe a chance.”

Center Trey Hopkins described seeing Burrow hobble off after his last sack Sunday as “terrifying” and said that can’t happen again.

The Bears will be bringing a pass rush that includes outside linebacker Khalil Mack (9.0 sacks in 2020), defensive end Bilal Nichols (5.0 sacks), inside linebacker Roquan Smith (4.0 sacks) and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks (3.5 sacks). Linebackers Robert Quinn (back) and Joel Iyiegbuniwe (shoulder) are questionable.

3. Stopping the run

Last week, the focus was on stopping Dalvin Cook, and the defense stepped up to limit one of 2020′s top running backs to 61 yards rushing. This week, Mount Healthy High School product David Montgomery is on the menu, coming off a 108-yard rushing performance in the opener last week.

“Montgomery is one of the best young backs in this league, right from here in our backyard is where he is from,” Taylor said. “Damien Williams as well, I have been on teams with Damien Williams. He’s a great receiver out of the backfield and can run the football when he’s asked to. Certainly, we got our work cut out for us, but there are a couple good backs playing this game.”

Cincinnati’s defense wants to “bring violence,” as safeties Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell described it. The defense set the tone last week with its aggressiveness and Minnesota had a hard time getting anything going in the running game. The Bengals will be looking for more of that Sunday.

The Bengals will be missing safety Ricardo Allen, who is on injured reserve, and cornerback Trae Waynes (hamstring), and linebacker Markus Bailey (knee) and cornerback Darius Phillips (thigh) are questionable.

4. Different QBs, different looks

The Bears could be looking to get more snaps for rookie quarterback Justin Fields, who seems to be the team’s near future if Dalton doesn’t get things going quickly. Fields, the former Ohio State quarterback, came in for five snaps last week and had a 3-yard touchdown run, and the Bengals are preparing for him as well.

Fields is more of an athletic type but can throw the ball, too.

Regardless of who is playing quarterback, the Bengals want to keep bringing pressure from the defensive line and on blitzes, which they did more of last week. They recorded three sacks and 21 pressure with defensive tackle B.J. Hill recording two sacks and Larry Ogunjobi having two as well, before the second was negated by an Eli Apple hold.

“That’s a big deal,” Bates said. “There were not a lot of times that Kirk (Cousins) had an open pocket to throw the ball. He threw the ball off balance a lot, so credit to the D-line. They’re doing a (heck) of a job with the physical, setting the front.”

The Bears will be without offensive lineman Larry Borom (ankle) and possibly Jason Peters (quad). Wide receivers Marquise Goodwin (quad), Darnell Mooney (back) and Nsimba Webster (hamstring) are questionable.

5. Road warriors

For the Bengals to be a playoff or division contender, the team must learn to win on the road. They are 1-14-1 on the road under Taylor, including 1-6-1 last year.

Burrow hasn’t played a road game in front of a big crowd because of COVID limitations last year prior to his injury, so this will be his first time trying a silent cadence in the NFL.

“Just the preparation and being confident in what you’re trying to do helps you speed up the communication process, because every second matters when you’re in a noisy environment, you’re on a silent cadence, you’ve got to communicate at the line of scrimmage,” Taylor said. “Every second matters. So the quarterback being prepared and understanding the calls and being able to quickly identify the looks that you want to get to, that’s what helps great quarterbacks in this league. And we expect Joe to be able to do that.”

SUNDAY’S GAME

Bengals at Bears, 1 p.m., Fox, 1530, 102.7, 104.7