How the Bengals defensive line impacts the overall pass rush
Domata Peko and Geno Atkins will have their hands full with starting rookie right Kyle Long, who generated the team's best run blocking and pass protection score for the Chicago Bears during the preseason. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, Long generated the best preseason score among all offensive linemen in the league.
However, Peko's role has never been as a pass rusher; he's an anchor in the middle with the job description of clogging the middle and disrupting pulling lanes during traps, counters, and power rushes. This bodes well for the team's linebackers who need the freedom to contain running back Matt Forte. And despite Long's projected successes in the NFL, Atkins has made a lot of good veteran guards look like novices.
The projected starting offensive line for the Bears didn't allow a quarterback sack during the preseason, though most only played anywhere from 50-100 snaps; so it's not necessarily a great baseline but impressive nonetheless.
But if we go back to last year when games mattered, the Bears allowed 44 quarterback sacks -- 25th best in the NFL, and two less than what the Bengals offensive line allowed the same year. Cincinnati's defense ranked third with a franchise-best 51 sacks and 46 of those came from the defensive line. The winner of this battle could have the biggest impact on the game's outcome.
Andy Dalton's third year
Despite posting tremendous numbers over his first two seasons, Andy Dalton will have the world's attention placed directly on his shoulders. Fair or not, when people discuss the Bengals as a threat in the AFC, there's always one caveat that's asked about Dalton and how his third season will progress. Even if you're deflecting the issue away as nothing more than media fodder, you'll still be paying attention. You can't turn away. His continued growth is that important.
It's not just a matter of stats: it's rising to the occasion in big games and succeeding against the league's better defenses.
This is Dalton's biggest year to prove doubters wrong and a lot will be thrust upon him to lead Cincinnati to something greater than they've already achieved. It's alright to discount that and believe that Cincinnati's successes will still come if Dalton doesn't come through. But it doesn't make it any less realistic.
How will the new additions impact the team
How the Bengals will utilize rookie running back Giovani Bernard and tight end Tyler Eifert will be of significant interest when the offense takes the field in Chicago. Based on what we saw during the preseason, we know that they're good. Eifert didn't have the impact in the passing game, but he didn't get many targets nor snaps (he missed two games with a wrist). However, Eifert had some good blocks during running downs, reasonably concluding that the team will utilize a heavy dose of duel-tight formations.
Giovani Bernard could be anything from a backup scat back that gives BenJarvus Green-Ellis a breather, to having more balanced snap distribution than the team has divided in the past. Bernard will clearly be the team's third-down back with soft hands out of the backfield as a fifth option.
It's also hard not to focus on how James Harrison impacts the team's defense, playing strong-side linebacker in a base 4-3 defense for the first time in his career (at least with regularity). Harrison's participation figures to be around 20-25 snaps and he'll have trouble staying in the game if Chicago shows three-wide formations.
Despite missing time during the preseason with a broken hand, George Iloka practiced all week and never showed on the team's injury report. He's still listed as the team's starting strong safety, opposite Reggie Nelson.
Concern about the return game... from both sides
Both teams are keeping that focused eye on the other squad's special teams unit. Bears returner Devin Hester is one of the best returners in the history of the game, scoring 18 touchdowns (12 punts, five kickoffs, one missed field goal). In fact, the Bears have significantly reduced Hester's work load so that he focuses primarily on special teams.
The Bengals are no slouches themselves.
Adam Jones earned AFC Special Teams player of the Week after returning a punt 81 yards for a touchdown against the Cleveland Browns last season. He finished the year ranked seventh in the NFL (11.6 yards/return). Tate will rotate with Jones on punt returns, along with his usual duties as the kickoff return specialist. Tate, who earned AFC Special Teams player of Week in '11, is currently the team's record holder with a career 10.1 yard/return average on punt returns.
Can the Bengals finally get off to a strong start?
Cincinnati has traditionally never been strong in the regular season opener. In fact, they've lost regular season openers being straight up out-matched, out-muscled, and out-lucked.
They were blown out by the Baltimore Ravens last year, horribly struggled against the Cleveland Browns (the Bengals quick-snapped an unprepared Browns defense to score the eventual game-winning touchdown) until the win was secured late. In 2010 against the New England Patriots, Cincinnati was losing 31-3 early in the third quarter (when Brandon Tate returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown) and the memorable Brandon Stokely tipped touchdown reception beat Cincinnati in 2009.
The Bengals are 4-6 during kickoff weekend in the past ten years when Marvin Lewis when became the team's head coach.
It would be nice if the team got out of the gate with a little more authority.