It's here. After another long offseason with the Cincinnati Bengals mulling over another lost playoff opportunity from 2014, they take the field on the West Coast to go up against the Oakland Raiders. Though the Bay Area Pirates have been a league doormat for more than a decade, they have begun to sway the tide a bit with a few recent hits in the draft.
Football is a team sport, no doubt. However, wins are also often won via individual match-ups on the field. Though the Bengals are favorites on opening weekend, there are a number of scary faceoffs they'll need to win to get a team victory. Here are some of the more interesting ones we'll be watching:
Derek Carr versus Dre Kirkpatrick:
The second-year quarterback had a pretty solid rookie campaign in 2014, with 3,270 passing yards and 21 touchdowns against just 12 interceptions. The stats were especially impressive, given the lack of offensive talent around him last year. Some believe Carr will have a breakout year in 2015, especially with the addition of exciting rookie wide receiver Amari Cooper.
Kirkpatrick, while flashing big-play ability from time-to-time in his first three seasons, hasn't been a regular starter for the Bengals. This changed in 2015, as the team exuded faith in the fourth-year corner while allowing Terence Newman to walk in free agency. His time is now to prove he should last beyond just the fifth-year option the team exercised on his contract this year.
Will Carr show his youth and force throws to the athletic Kirkpatrick? Or will the Bengals' corner show his inexperience as an every down player for the first time in his career? Being able to cause turnovers from Carr will be a huge element to the game on Sunday.
Khalil Mack versus Andre Smith and Andrew Whitworth:
Last season, the Raiders' promising young defender was used as an outside linebacker, who also occasionally rushed the passer. In 2015, Oakland has made him a traditional defensive end, playing to his strengths he had in college at the University of Buffalo.
Cincinnati has had the benefit of having two outstanding bookend offensive tackles now, and really, throughout Marvin Lewis entire tenure as Bengals head coach. Andre Smith has had his share of injury issues and other frustrations, but has really turned the corner over the past couple of seasons. No introductions are necessary for Whitworth, who seems to be an almost-annual Pro Bowl snub at left tackle.
Still, if there is a type of rusher that gives them fits on those oh-so-rare occasions, it's the guys who utilize speed moves on them and can use their smaller frames to get around the two behemoths. Mack isn't little at 6'3" and 251 pounds, but utilizes similar finesse moves similar to the ones used by players like Elvis Dumervil which brought opposition success.
DJ Hayden versus A.J. Green:
What makes a person choose whether or not they use periods in their abbreviated name or not? I digress. Hayden flew up draft boards in 2013 after solid workouts and scouts reviewing more tape. Unfortunately, injuries and the supposed "Raiders bug" has derailed his young career a bit. Hayden has just one interception apiece in his two accrued seasons.
Green, fresh off of a new mega-extension, has a resume that betters most of the NFL's wide receivers. Will the Pro Bowl wideout start slacking with so much more money in his pockets? Unlikely, but couple the tiring contract negotiations of the past few days with the long travel and time change when going west could make No.18 a little sluggish.
Then again, this is Green we're talking about, so we expect him to get the better of this match-up.
Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree versus Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones:
Crabtree found a home close to his former one and is teaming up with Cooper at wide receiver. While Carr and Kirkpatrick provides an interesting match-up, the Bengals corners on the Raiders wideouts definitely must be highlighted in this week's game.
Crabtree has had his share of ups and downs in his career, but he could have a renaissance in Oakland as a supplemental piece on offense. Whether Kirkpatrick lines up against Crabtree or Cooper, he should have a height advantage on both at 6'2" over the 6'1" Raiders receivers.
Jones is scrappy and some feel he is currently the team's best corner, but has a size disadvantage over both. Will his athleticism, tenacity and savviness at the position win against the two high-ceiling Oakland playmakers? Will Kirkpatrick continue to bite on double-moves?
Marcel Reece versus Emmanuel Lamur:
The Bengals are a bit thin at linebacker with the placement of Vontaze Burfict on the PUP List, so the Raiders may try to take advantage of the position. One creative way to do so is to get their versatile fullback, Marcel Reece involved in the passing game.
Though he had just 21 catches last season, from 2012-2013, Reece logged 105 receptions and made himself a valuable target in a limited Oakland offense. The young Carr might look for security blankets if the Bengals did indeed bolster their pass rush this offseason, and Reece would be a nice one for him.
Cincinnati will employ a rotation at linebacker and Lamur is the team's best coverage linebacker. He'll likely be tasked with covering tight ends and a guy like Reece when he comes out of the flat on a route. It's a battle of Lamur's athleticism versus Reece's versatility.
Rodney Hudson versus Geno Atkins:
Bengals fans have heard all offseason about how Atkins "looks like the old Geno" from 2011-2013 and not he of 2014. Hudson had a solid four years in Kansas City, starting 31 games over the past two seasons and helping to pave great rushing seasons from Jamaal Charles.
As was noticed last year, Atkins is the key to what the Bengals want to achieve on defense. His ability to take on multiple blockers and still make plays is crucial--and, when he is stymied, others on the line are freed up to wreak havoc. Big Geno has been standoffish with the media this offseason, preferring to have his on-field play speak for him, and for the Bengals to emerge victorious on Sunday, it will need to speak volumes.