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Bengals at Colts: 5 young Cincinnati players who need to start the season strong

The Bengals have a favorable matchup to begin the regular season, but they’ll be reliant on a few young starters to play up to their talent level.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

More than we’ve seen in any recent season, the Bengals will be relying on the team’s youngest players to play significant snaps this year. Only in a few positions is there true veteran depth, and a good number of seasoned players were shown the door in the last few weeks.

The youth movement in Cincinnati has begun, and that means the teams need some of its most inexperienced players to play at a high level starting in Week 1. Here are just a few of the young players who need to start the season on the right foot and make an impact for the Bengals against the Colts in Indianapolis on Sunday.

Joe Mixon

Accountability seems to be a trait that has grown on Mixon since he was drafted last year. The issues on the offensive line this preseason have not become excuses for Mixon.

“I have to pay more attention to the little things. Whether it’s my track or my eyes and read,” Mixon said per Geoff Hobson. “When they showed the cutups, man, there’s a lot of yards out there.”

In Mixon’s time in Cincinnati, there admittedly hasn’t been much room for him to operate with the ball in his hands. We’re going to get our first real glimpse of how much push this offensive line can get against a young defensive front who let go of their best player in Jonathan Hankins this offseason. All Mixon needs is the slightest of creases and he can make something out of it; he has a great opportunity to do just that on Sunday.

John Ross

Lucas Oil Stadium was an unlucky venue for Ross in 2017. In March, he broke the scouting combine 40-yard dash record, but injured his shoulder in the process. The injury sidelined him for most of his offseason with the Bengals and it was finally healed when he returned to Indianapolis for Week 4 of the preseason several months later. In that game, he suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for the season opener.

The Bengals later played the Colts in Week 8 of last season, and it ended up being the second of three games in which we saw Ross play.

Ross and the Bengals return to Indianapolis and Ross will have a chance to officially turn the page on the rough start to his professional career where it all took off with his 4.22 40-yard dash. The secondary for the Colts is one of their weakest units as well, and Ross’ deep speed is a worthy asset to exploit them.

Bobby Hart

Right guard Alex Redmond has gotten most of the buzz since he was announced as the opening day starter at that spot. Hart has been starting at right tackle since the beginning of the preseason, but the offense shouldn’t be comfortable with him until he proves his worth.

The Colts pass-rushing unit is not one of their strengths, but they do still have an unheralded edge rusher in Jabaal Sheard who does most of his damage against right tackles. A solid opening-day showing from Hart would instill confidence for the rest of the offense going forward.

Nick Vigil

In last year’s game against Indianapolis, quarterback Jacoby Brissett achieved more of his production from targeting his running backs than his wide receivers. Obviously a better quarterback in Andrew Luck will be under center in this game, but the Bengals defense has been notoriously inept defending against running backs and tight ends in the passing game in comparison to receivers aligned out wide.

Coverage against the Colts’ running backs and tight ends will be one of Vigil’s responsibilities as the starting SAM linebacker, and the linebacker with the most starting experience with the Bengals. The Colts’ running game has just as many question marks as the Bengals’, so Luck will be relied on to carry the offense, and short passes to players out of the backfield and the slot will be used as extensions of the running game.

Vigil needs to make a statement in this area to kick-off his third year. New addition Preston Brown should help, too.

Jessie Bates

Speaking of Luck, he’s one of the best deep-ball passers in the league when he’s healthy. If he gets time to unload some long targets to wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, Bates could be tested quite a bit when patrolling his deep half of the field or when he’s tasked with single-high coverage.

Along with Vigil, Bates also has a responsibility to come downhill and make crucial stops on passes over the middle and minimize yards after the catch. Open-field tackling was arguably his biggest weakness as a prospect, and while he showed promise early this preseason, a few miscues stood out as well in the Bills and Colts games. The rookie starter will have his hands full all game long.