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Vikings at Bengals Week 1 preview: Making a mark

The Bengals host a team headed up by a familiar face from the previous decade, while hoping to see their franchise quarterback come back with a vengeance.

It seems like an eternity ago since the Cincinnati Bengals last took the field for a meaningful game. Let’s not even talk about the last time they experienced a postseason victory.

2020 was an extremely tough year for many folks and for a variety of reasons. Football woes pale in comparison to those experiences, but nevertheless, familiar gridiron heartbreak and struggles followed the Bengals to pile on Who Dey faithful last year.

While the wins weren’t piling up through the first half of the year, signs of progression and promise were there. Joe Burrow and the offense began to click as more winnable games came on the horizon.

Then, the injury.

Cincinnati’s worst nightmare came to fruition in Washington, as Burrow writhed on the ground with torn knee ligaments. Rookie season done. 2020 down the pipes. On to rehabilitation and 2021.

As many expected, Burrow hit his rehab with a fire that few could replicate with a similar injury (kudos to Carson Palmer in 2006, though). No. 9 is set to be back under center for Week 1, which normally would be a surprise for a lot of players, but not Joey B.

While there are celebrations to be had with his return, some hesitation remains. After not having any preseason games last year, Burrow took just a small handful of snaps and attempted one pass this preseason.

Things have looked good in practices between Burrow and his receivers, but early struggles still bring questions. Can he step up with two limited preseasons as a pro and so many attempted improvements around him?

While all of the questions, reasons and logic center around the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 1 for those of us wearing, a pretty significant storyline is readily available because of the leadership of this week’s opponent.

When he arrived in Cincinnati as the team’s defensive coordinator back in 2008, Mike Zimmer built one of the league’s best-performing annual units. Early incarnations of his side of the ball featured a number of cast-offs, potential has-beens and former high picks that never reached their potential.

He continued to combine those types of player profiles and combined them with more new faces to create an NFL force. Their performances and Zimmer’s own fiery personality earned him a job as a first-time head coach with the Minnesota Vikings.

In a lot of ways, Zimmer’s Vikings have a lot of the same blueprints that were used in Cincinnati when he worked under Marvin Lewis. High picks at cornerback, players who can rush the passer and surrounding a capable quarterback with a sound roster has been Minnesota’s M.O. under Zimmer.

However, patience is wearing thin among the Purple and Gold faithful. He’s led Minnesota to a few nice postseason runs, but the lack of championships and continuing questions on the viability of Kirk Cousins cast a pall over the Vikings.

As he heads back to his old stomping grounds, Zimmer wants to employ his old tricks and those from the Uber-successful Bengals teams from 2009-2015 to take it to his former employer. Being able to get pressure on Burrow without using extra blitzers, while using sound man coverage on talented wideouts is the name of the game on defense.

On offense, he wants to use the quarterback as a point guard, of sorts, allowing him to distribute the ball to a myriad of weapons and letting them do the bulk of the work. It’s a formula that bred both success and criticism with Andy Dalton while in the Queen City.

A potential revenge game went out the window this week with Trae Waynes sitting out against his former team. His loss will be felt, but the hope is that Eli Apple can carry the baton for a couple of weeks.

His test and that of the rest of the Bengals’ secondary is a tough one with Justin Jefferson and Adam Theilen manning the wide receiver positions. Throw in the multidimensional Dalvin Cook and Cincinnati defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has his hands full in the very first week of the season.

For Cincinnati, this game is a bit of a microcosm of the formula to a potentially successful Bengals season: How quickly can this young team show development and NFL maturity?

Cincinnati provides its own mismatches, but youth, inexperience and more than one important player returning from significant injury cloud immediate impact possibilities.

If we are to take preseason performances as an indicator for future performance (which, admittedly, can be a stretch), the Bengals’ defense appears to be an improved unit. The defensive line was getting after quarterbacks often in preseason games and the interior linemen look to be getting push.

Yes, Burrow, Apple and Cincinnati’s ability to contain Minnesota’s offensive weaponry are keys to the game. But, as it often goes in the NFL, this game will be decided in the trenches.

If you’ve listened to the interviews we’ve sported on the Cincy Jungle podcast channel with both Quinton Spain and Sam Hubbard, respectively, you’d hear about the quiet impact of Riley Reiff. The veteran last played with the Vikings, furthering the storyline of the connections between these two inter-conference teams.

If you’re in the Bengals’ camp, it’s hard to get overly-excited about perceived improvements, given the national media’s coverage of the team since...well, the Boomer Esiason era, maybe? Still, those who really see the moves the team has made of late, even if they don’t move the national needle, understand what Cincinnati is doing.

So, who is correct in their assessment with the Bengals? The national media’s narrative that the Bengals have not done enough to support a franchise quarterback in Burrow, or that they are a sneaky talented team, poised to make a postseason run?

Of course, as you read this article on a Bengals-centric website, you’re inclined to believe that we’re ready to proclaim Cincinnati as world-beaters. The truth is that the potential for that is there, but we don’t know what we don’t know about the 2021 Bengals.

Remember going into Week 1 last year? It seemed like the hosting of a solid Chargers team was winnable, but with so many moving parts, it was hard to readily proclaim the Bengals a lock bet for an outright win.

It’s a similar conundrum this year with the Bengals hosting a team in which there is a dichotomy of familiarity and so many unknowns. Which side of that pendulum do you support?

Call it homer-ism, the fact that this writer is in town for the game and/or the belief that the collective chips collecting on the shoulders of the players in this locker room could build a juggernaut, but we feel something special is brewing in the Queen City this year. And, oddly enough, through all of the familiarity and the seven accrued head coaching seasons with Minnesota, Zimmer has just one win against the Bengals (thanks, schedule-makers).

After we’ve all been through the past 18 months, let’s jump into the unknown. Who Dey.

Vikings 24, Bengals 27

AC — Thanks for your hospitality, Queen City.