Week 1 of the NFL season is when offseason narratives meet on-field results. Priors will be faced with reality, and reality, as Thanos once said, is often disappointing.
When the Cincinnati Bengals face off against the Minnesota Vikings, we’ll get our first taste of how promising or inferior this roster truly is. Hope springs eternal in the NFL, but nothing is as sobering as an ugly start out of the gate. Conversely, 1-0 also feels pretty damn good.
No matter where you stand on optimism scale, Bengals fans of all kinds can agree this team features a plethora of intriguing players and storylines. Here are the five Bengals we’ll be focusing on and matchups they’ll run into throughout Sunday’s contest.
The game won’t be nationally televised, but many eyes will be on Burrow in his first real game since last November. It’s not just about how Burrow will look throwing down the field or moving in the pocket, we’re also going to see just how open the offense will be in his first game back. Will they structure the game plan around getting him comfortable, or will they throw him into the proverbial fire? Maybe it’ll depend on how the game progresses.
Matchup to watch: Vikings front four
Handling pressure will be the biggest factor to Burrow having a successful opener. There’s been all this buzz about how his throwing velocity has increased, but he can’t sling it if he’s too preoccupied with opposing pass-rushers. Look for a bunch of quick passes and play action concepts at the start to stall the Vikings’ impressive defensive line.
Ja’Marr Chase has caught the headlines of late (unlike those preseason targets *ba-dum-tiss*). Meanwhile, it’s been Higgins who’s elevated his role in the passing game. By all accounts, he’s progressed marvelously this offseason and is primed to perform like a more dynamic receiver this year. He barely played in last year’s opener. One year later, he’ll likely be the offense’s primary catalyst on passing downs.
Matchup to watch: Patrick Peterson
In his first game with the Vikings, Peterson will face off with Higgins throughout the game as the left cornerback in Mike Zimmer’s scheme. The former first-round pick and three-time All-Pro cornerback remains a physical imposer at the position. Higgins’ game is built on winning in contested situations, so Peterson represents a great adversary.
Trae Waynes won’t get his opportunity for revenge against his former team, but Reiff sure will. The Bengals’ new right tackle spent the last four years with the Vikings on the opposite side of their o-line. The transition back to right tackle has been a clean one for the 32-year old Reiff. He’s established himself as a leader on the practice field, and by season’s end, he has a great chance of being the team’s most impactful free agent signing from this year.
Matchup to watch: Danielle Hunter
Because he was the Vikings’ left tackle, Reiff rarely faced off against Hunter during practice. Hunter has done most of his damage at left defensive end for Minnesota and is set to play in his first game in 20 months. Reiff will have his hands full against one of the NFL’s freakiest edge rushers, but this is why Cincinnati brought him in.
In terms of looking the part, Wilson has everything the Bengals want in a starting linebacker. Now it’s time for him validate the eye test. His second offseason in Cincinnati has revolved around him taking on a starting role, and the coaching staff slapped the green communication dot on his helmet to signify his spot at MIKE linebacker. The size, speed, and play strength are all there. How soon can he put it all together this season?
Matchup to watch: Dalvin Cook
First test: Help stop one of the best running backs in the game. Cook nearly racked up 2,000 yards from scrimmage last year and is hilariously hard to stop when he gets to the outside. Wilson can’t lose a step or he’ll be put on a highlight reel Sunday night on ESPN.
The lone backup set to start Sunday is Apple, who will be back-pedaling in Trae Waynes’ shoes at left cornerback. We’ve known for two weeks that Apple would play in this game, and pending on Waynes’ hamstring, he may have to suit up for a couple more games. This will either act as the start of a redemption tour, or the continuation of an underwhelming career.
Matchup to watch: Adam Thielen
It’s a clear mismatch on paper. Thielen is one of the smoothest route-runners in the game and has fantastic chemistry with his quarterback Kirk Cousins. Apple will likely be tasked with zone coverage for most of the game, so playing bump-and-run against Thielen won’t be on the menu that often. That said, when Thielen enters his zone, he needs to stay disciplined and keep him in front of him.