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5 key Bengals to watch for against the Dolphins

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A couple of vital players will be returning to the playing field against the leaders of AFC East.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Not only are the Bengals beginning a two-game home stretch when hosting the Dolphins on Sunday, they’ll be wearing their alternate orange jerseys with their black pants. The team is 6-0 in that combination since 2004. This game is over before it even began, right?

Oddsmakers currently share that sentiment. On Monday, the Bengals opened the week as 5.5 point favorites; as of now, the spread has widened to -6, favoring the good guys. This looks like a game the Bengals can and should win, but it will also be a good litmus test for some of the team’s best players, especially those who are projected to make their returns to the field.

Here are five Bengals you should focus on when the Bengals clash with the Dolphins on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.

Joe Mixon

The Bengals second-year stud running back looks to be on track to play this week after missing the last two games while recovering from a surgery that repaired a partially torn meniscus in his knee. As expected, Giovani Bernard has done an admirable job filling in for him as the lead back, but the rotation with Mixon will keep him fresh again, which provides the offense with a win-win. We may have to wait to see that rotation though as Bernard doesn’t look like he’s going to play this week.

As is the case with another impact player who we’ll get to further down in the article, Mixon’s usage in his first game back is a big question mark. How early and often will offensive coordinator Bill Lazor test Mixon’s knee? He’s healthy enough to be sprinting down the sidelines to tackle A.J. Green in the end zone in celebratory fashion, but how well will he be cutting? Plenty of eyes will be on the Bengals’ backfield to find out.

C.J. Uzomah

The team has been as cautious as they could’ve been to preserve Tyler Eifert from injury, yet nonetheless, they’ll once again be without him for the rest of the season. Going back to training camp, the Bengals were preparing to operate without Eifert. While Tyler Kroft was his de facto replacement mid-last year, Uzomah was taking Eifert’s reps as the team’s No. 1 tight end whenever Eifert wasn’t practicing since July.

When Eifert left last week’s game, Uzomah did in fact fill in for him, and played a lot of snaps in the slot. Kroft’s role isn’t expected to change, but Uzomah’s opportunities are going to increase starting in this game. In a contract year, he can start increasing his value against Miami’s defense.

Geno Atkins

Andy Dalton is arguably playing at the highest level of his career this year. Tyler Boyd has progressed magnificently in his third year. A.J. Green is still doing A.J. Green things.

And yet none of them are playing better than Geno Atkins is right now.

Atkins’ 2012 season was the defensive tackle equivalent to former Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis’ 2009 season. Atkins finished with 12.5 sacks that season to go along with many more pressures that resulted in a spot on the All-Pro team, and he’s on a scarily similar pace through four games this year. Six years have gone by and Atkins still gets the job done better than nearly everybody at his position.

Just two years ago, he was one of the stars in the Bengals’ Thursday night victory over the Dolphins, sacking quarterback Ryan Tannehill 1.5 times. One of them you may remember happening like this.

We’ve become so accustomed to watching Atkins dominate, we don’t realize when he’s truly on the verge of something special. He is in fact on a fantastic pace through just four games, and the Dolphins don’t pose any threat to slow him down.

Vontaze Burfict

Speaking of that game two years ago, it wasn’t during Week 5 of the regular season like the one happening on Sunday is, but it was still early in the season in Week 4. It was also the game Burfict returned from a three-week suspension. Everything was just increased by one week this year, as Burfict is set to play football for the first time coming off another suspension this week against Miami once again.

Burfict’s return will be one the top storylines of the game, if not the top story. How much he plays is up in the air, as it would surprise no one if head coach Marvin Lewis limited his exposure in his first week back. But if he’s good to go, it’d be foolish to sideline him any longer than necessary.

William Jackson

It figures after all the hype Jackson received this offseason from Pro Football Focus and other outlets that’s he had a slow start to the season. The Bengals pass defense as a whole has been shaky at best, and Jackson hasn’t looked like a lockdown cornerback by any means. He got exposed last Sunday against the Falcons’ dangerous group of wide receivers, and for all the flack that Dre Kirkpatrick has been getting, Jackson isn’t doing much better at the moment.

The Dolphins’ passing game has been surprisingly good with quarterback Ryan Tannehill coming back strong from a torn ACL. The Dolphins may not look like the most intimidating 3-1 team you’ve ever seen, but they’ve been able to put up points without what most would deem to be a No. 1 receiver. Fans wanted Jackson to follow around the opposition’s main target every week but Jackson has stayed almost exclusively on the right side of the defense. Whether it’s Kenny Stills or Albert Wilson who Jackson goes up against, he’s now under pressure to perform up to expectations.