After two years of disappointment and an offseason full of adjustments, the Cincinnati Bengals are take the field for real on Sunday, after what seems like an eternity. And, in a twist only Who Dey Nation can relate to, the team is playing the Indianapolis Colts for the second time in as many weeks.
With such a quick rematch comes many questions.
For the Bengals, it’s about just how much they’ve improved this offseason. They have made major strides to bolster both their roster and their coaching staff. The turnover in both departments may have not moved the needle very much from a national perspective, but they have a very different look as they look to take the field on Sunday.
Quarterback Andy Dalton has to be one of the happiest players on the Bengals’ roster at the moment. The team has re-committed to surrounding him with talent on the unit in which he is in charge.
Cincinnati made two major moves to bolster their offensive line, with four new starters up front than that of just a year ago. Dalton is also getting a healthy Tyler Eifert and John Ross back to throw to, and we know what kind of quarterback No. 14 can be with a loaded arsenal.
Still, both the Bengals and the Colts have quite a few similarities, especially in those aforementioned questions, as they clash once again in Week 1. Both offensive lines have been in a state of upheaval, new coaches litter both staffs and questions about the veterans they have kept are plentiful.
The main players under the microscope this week are definitely the quarterbacks. Dalton continues to have his share of critics and disbelievers, while Andrew Luck is attempting to resurrect his career after more than a year on the sidelines with a shoulder injury.
However, a number of other “ancillary players” are also sharing center stage. Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson are all still allowing the ink to dry for their respective recent deals, with Johnson’s situation being truly an interesting one.
Carl Lawson, Sam Hubbard and Jordan Willis will help to round out the pass-rushing crew for the Bengals as the unit’s young guns of the gruop. Cincinnati’s defense was ninth in the NFL preseason in quarterback sacks, which was one of the major reasons for a near-perfect record this August. It’s a trend they hope to continue with Luck, who may be skittish—both because of his injury and a patchwork offensive line.
However, one of the other similarities we mentioned before is in defending the pass. Yes, we can’t take preseason statistics as scripture, but a No. 28 ranking in that category this summer has to be worrisome to the Bengals.
And, while the team has seemingly cleaned up many issues that plagued them last year, the covering of tight ends by the back seven defenders seems to be a prevailing ailment. Indianapolis employs two capable players at the position in Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron. Oh, and Doyle had quite the stat line against the Bengals last year with 12 catches for 121 yards and a touchdown reception.
Should we let bygones be bygones, though?
I’ve wavered back-and-forth on the outcome of this game. When it comes to the Cincinnati Bengals, it’s easy to be a stone-cold cynic and those old feelings from following this franchise for 30 years are easy to come by.
In that vein, it’s becomes second-nature to concoct a visualization of Luck coming back from injury and torturing the Bengals as he did a few years earlier in the 2014 Wild Card round. The NFL loves a good story line, and few Week 1 narratives would have the gravitas of Luck coming back to an NFL game after being away for over a year and mopping the floor with an AFC contemporary.
Season-openers haven’t really been kind to Lewis and the Bengals over the past 15 years. The embattled head coach has a 7-8 record on opening weekend, with five of those eight losses being either complete blowouts (2017 and 2012 against the Ravens, for instance), and others being complete Bengals-like heart-breakers (2009 at home against Denver).
One thing the Bengals fan base doesn’t employ is short-term memory. These losses and the recent playoff failures continue to stick in the team’s faithful like a bunch of irritated splinters.
However, it’s finally time to start fresh for all of us in Bengaldom. Long gone is the 2015 Wild Card disaster, and though some of the major figureheads from that debacle remain, things have a different feel this season.
After an offseason filled with lowered expectations for the club, the tide has begun to change a bit. Sure, fan optimism is high after a nearly-undefeated preseason, but we also have CBS Sports’ John Breech proclaiming the Bengals a playoff winner, as well as Bleacher Report calling them a “sleeper team” recently (the Colts are on the list as well), so maybe we aren’t having as much tunnel vision as originally thought.
Look, Luck is a former No. 1 overall pick and he’s still a massively-skilled player. There’s a debate as to if and how his style of play will change because of the shoulder injury from the end of 2016. Take these diametrically-opposing anonymous opinions from a recent column regarding Luck via Matt Miller of B/R:
“Have you watched the guy play?” an offensive assistant coach for an AFC team said. “Go back and watch him pre-injury...like 2015. Now watch him today. His throwing motion is completely changed, and he has no deep velocity. His entire game has changed. I bet he’ll be Checkdown Charlie. Like Alex Smith but afraid to get hit.”
As for what the Colts believe at the moment with their prized signal-caller?
“The last time y’all saw Andrew, he threw for 4,200 yards with a f--ked up shoulder and a bad offensive line,” a high-level Colts exec said. “Just wait.”
In Week 1, for reasons ranging from rust to a seemingly-furious Bengals pass-rush, Luck will probably look like a guy in between these two reports. For these reasons, I think the Bengals squeak past the Colts, as they begin a potential trek towards redemption.
Did we mention that 2018 is the 30-year anniversary of their last Super Bowl appearance?
Nah—let’s not get crazy, yet.
Bengals 27, Colts 23
AC — My shoulder feels fine, FYI.