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Bengals at Seahawks game preview: The wild, wild nest

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Zac Taylor’s new-look Bengals fly out west in a huge, immediate test for the club.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Cincinnati Bengals Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like it was eons ago when the Bengals last took the field for a regular season game. Some would say it feels like an absolute eternity since one of those games actually had any kind of playoff implications.

After three straight losing seasons filled with injuries, roster attrition and blase play-calling, the trigger-hesitant Bengals made a major organizational change this winter. After 16 years, Marvin Lewis was relieved of his duties as head coach.

In comes Zac Taylor with his reputation for implementing innovative offensive systems and a fresh way of communicating with players. In so many ways, Taylor is the opposite of the rigid, defensive-minded Lewis, but his arrival is something that mirrors that of Lewis’ back in 2003.

To say that the Bengals’ new head man has had an uphill battle to start his NFL head coaching career would be a massive understatement. Let’s see:

  1. Start the offseason process weeks later than 29 other NFL teams? Check.
  2. Struggle to find assistant coaches? Check.
  3. Lose your inaugural and massively important first-round pick to a long-term injury? Yep.
  4. Lose your star receiver to an injury for two months because of an injury in the first practice of training camp? Way to hit for the cycle, there.

If Taylor can somehow get the Bengals to even sniff the postseason this year, the NFL powers-that-be should serve him Coach of the Year honors on a silver platter. Because of these aforementioned issues and inexperience on the staff, the media’s talking heads have a near-consensus opinion that this Bengals team is set to kick off a 3-13 campaign.

Well, next on the list of 2019 challenges Taylor is facing is his very first regular-season game. The schedule-makers decided to deal Cincinnati a difficult opening hand in the form of a long jaunt out west to one of the most intimidating venues in the league.

For the Bengals and Seahawks being two of the younger NFL franchises and in their currently being inter-conference rivals, so to speak, there have been a couple of iconic clashes over the years.

Back in the ethereal Bengals campaign of 1988, the two teams squared off at Riverfront Stadium in the divisional round of the postseason. The then-AFC West champs were felled by Cincinnati, due to a swarming defense and the three-headed rushing attack comprised of Ickey Woods, James Brooks and Stanley Wilson. Those three combined for 243 yards and three scores on the evening.

Fast-forward 27 years later when these two teams faced off once again in the fall of 2015. The respective franchises were in very different places than they are now, to say the least. Seattle was coming off of two straight Super Bowl appearances (with a win in Super Bowl XLVIII), while the Bengals were stomping through the league en route to what would become their fifth-straight postseason berth.

Guys like Andrew Whitworth, Marvin Jones and Kevin Zeitler were still on the Bengals, while the main cast members of “The Legion of Boom” patrolled the Seahawks’ defensive unit. What transpired on October 11th, 2015 at Paul Brown Stadium was magic, depending on who you ask. Cincinnati captured one of the biggest wins in the Marvin Lewis era, by scoring 20 unanswered points, including three game-winning ones in overtime.

But, my have things changed.

The conclusion of that 2015 season ended in a way which only Bengals fans have become accustomed. And, truth be told, the club hasn’t recovered since that Wild Card loss to the Steelers.

But, Taylor and his fresh approach took to constructing a new-look roster to try and shake this team out of its comatose state. Novel concepts like players earning a roster spot based on talent, rather than tenure have taken stage, as have rewarding and promoting valued locker room figureheads.

Cincinnati has used the “if theory” this offseason, in that if they stay healthy, they believe this is a playoff-bound team. They’re definitely in the minority with that opinion, but nevertheless, the plan has already been hit hard with tough realities.

Two of Cincinnati’s most important players, 2019 first-round pick Jonah Williams and Pro Bowler A.J. Green, are out with injuries. To boot, left tackle Cordy Glenn, who is stepping in for Williams at the spot, may not suit up because of a concussion.

The Seahawks are an interesting team right now as well. While Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas aren’t patrolling the field for them anymore, star linebacker Bobby Wagner is still the linchpin of the defense. He also has a new, explosive teammate in Jadeveon Clowney, who just came over from Houston in a steal of a trade.

Russell Wilson is a great quarterback who has been incredibly productive without overly-heavy investments in pass-catching weapons. However, Seattle lost Doug Baldwin this offseason, prompting a promotion of Tyler Lockett and the drafting of the enigmatic rookie, DK Metcalf.

Wilson will undoubtedly look to exploit the weaknesses at the mid-levels of the Bengals’ defense on Sunday. With their annual inability to guard backs and tight ends and their carrying of only four linebackers on their current roster, using the intermediate passing game is a sound way for Wilson to put a chokehold on the contest.

Through it all, the one football constant in the Pacific Northwest is Pete Carroll. After dominating the college ranks, Carroll received a third chance as an NFL head coach and has struck the right chord with the Seahawks. In nine seasons under his watch, Seattle has been to the postseason seven times and the Super Bowl twice, with one championship.

A fun tidbit of information as the Bengals head west this weekend: Seattle has won their past 10 home openers. One more: nine of those 10 victories have come under Carroll’s watch.

As for the Bengals? They’re 5-5 on their last 10 opening weekends, with just two of those Week 1 games being played at home. Boy, that .500 mark and Lewis are synonymous, aren’t they?

Everything seems to point to Seattle winning this game handily on Sunday afternoon. Even so, the Bengals are coming in with a chip on their shoulder and a quiet confidence.

“A lot of people are ruling us out,” cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick recently told Elise Jesse of WLWT. “I feel like this city, the guys with the jerseys on, and this organization are the only ones who believe.”

In truth, that’s really all a team needs as part of the formula to success. If the 53 guys in that locker room are buying into what Taylor is selling, that alone will go a long way to rebuilding this squad into an AFC threat once again.

Cincinnati will make plays on Sunday and I think we’ll be pleasantly surprised at the contributions of Joe Mixon behind a patchwork offensive line and maybe even John Ross, who didn’t play at all in the preseason. I also believe the Bengals will keep it interesting late, showing long-term promise for the Taylor era.

However, while the Bengals may be headed in the right direction, this probably isn’t the week we readily see those holistic results in the form of a win. Their groove will be found later in the year and among friendlier venues.

Bengals 20, Seahawks 30

AC — Baby steps.