Being an NFL rookie is difficult, especially on a team that doesn’t experience a lot of winning. The Cincinnati Bengals’ draft classes of 2019 and 2020 know this all too well. Neither class experienced a regular season win in the month of September during those respective years.
The class of 2021 knows no such hardship.
Cincinnati sits at 1-0 for the first time in three years after squeaking out an overtime victory over the Minnesota Vikings. Joe Burrow, Joe Mixon, and the entire defensive line played fantastic, but two vital rookies were crucial to their success as well. Before their two-week road trip begins, let’s run through where the first-year players stand after their first win.
Let’s get right to it. Not only did Ja’Marr Chase not drop a pass, he put on a clinic on how to play the position. In a game that featured Adam Thielen, his former teammate Justin Jefferson, and his current teammate Tee Higgins, it was Chase that led all receivers in yards with 101. The way he accumulated that production is nothing short of poetic.
After a month of chatter regarding his ability to catch a football, Chase looked exactly like the kid who lit up the SEC at LSU two years ago. The 50-yard touchdown was a thing of beauty as he glided under a perfect deep ball from Burrow. It has since dominated the highlight reel from the game, but it was three of Chase’s other receptions that truly showcased his progress.
His first, second, and fourth receptions featured an important common denominator: Catching with his hands. On each play, he had to make adjustments at the catch point and then fight for as many yards after the catch as he could. One step at a time, but in a fast and smooth pace.
You’d have never known he was dealing with drop issues just a couple weeks prior when watching this tape.
.@Bengals @Real10jayy__ had his #NFL debut Sunday. @JoeyB and Chase picked up right where they left off when @LSUfootball won a #CFB championship. These ain’t the same ole Cats. #BaldysBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/VvmGIbLf5L— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) September 13, 2021
It’s no surprise that Chase broke the Bengals’ record for most receiving yards in a debut performance. What is surprising is that the previous record holder was Jordan Shipley, who reeled in 82 yards exactly 11 years prior to Sunday’s game.
But not even Shipley ended up with such a prolific first game. In the Super Bowl era, only four other players had five receptions, 100 yards, a touchdown, and caught at least 66% of their targets in their first-career games. This is the list:
First-career games with >= 5 REC, >= 100 YDS, >= 1 TD, and >= 66% REC%
On the subject of unprecedented debuts, the legend of Evan McPherson is growing at a rapid pace. The 22-year old’s perfect preseason was a nice story, but the Bengals made him the only drafted kicker this year to win meaningful games.
So far, so good.
McPherson’s first opportunity came at a modest 53 yards away from the north goal posts. To add some perspective, from 1994 to 2020, the Bengals attempted 32 field goals from 53 yards or longer. They made 15 of them, which is less than half.
McPherson’s right leg doesn’t give a damn about history. It only knows the net behind the posts.
A little over an hour later, McPherson was called upon one more time. He made three extra point attempts throughout the game, and from the same distance, he split the uprights yet again as the overtime clock hit triple zeros. Per The Athletic’s Jay Morrison, it was just the second time a rookie kicker made a field goal to win at the overtime buzzer.
IT'S VICTORY MONDEEEEEEY— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) September 13, 2021
Can we get a WHO DEY?! pic.twitter.com/ZITpIRxrSd
It was his first-ever walk off field goal. His first time being lifted by his teammates in game-winning fashion.
The first of many, we can safely assume.
Outside of Chase and McPherson, the only other rookie who really played was Cam Sample, and his impact was marginal. As the backup to Sam Hubbard, Sample played 29 snaps, with 10 of them at left defensive end, per Pro Football Focus. Sample also played a healthy amount of pass-rushing snaps inside at 3-technique and 5-technique. He did end up getting a hit on Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Jackson Carman and Trey Hill weren’t expected to play and sure enough they did not, but the two players starting in front of them were the weak-links on the offensive line. Xavier Su’a-Filo and Trey Hopkins allowed a combined five pressures, and Hopkins was charged with two sacks.
Hopkins isn’t going to be benched any time soon, but you have to figure Su’a-Filo’s seat is pretty warm. Carman finished the preseason on a high note and the coaches should want to grant him exposure some time this season. He might end up becoming the more favorable option if Su’a-Filo continues to be a consistent issue in pass protection.
This is going to be a tough section to fill out this year when the rookies are playing well. For this week, we’ll go off of our preconceptions from the preseason.
Based on the last month, one could’ve expected Darius Hodge to play more than just a single snap in his first game. Hodge, who was a menace in his three exhibitions, watched from the sideline as Sample and recently-acquired Wyatt Ray got the snaps behind Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson.
Have things changed for Hodge? It’s a bit too early to say with any conviction, but this wasn’t ideal for his path to true relevancy.
Like Hodge, Chris Evans will surely get his opportunities this year, they just didn’t come this week. Evans never saw the field on offense as he was relegated to the punt return unit. We all knew the backfield was going to be a Joe Mixon monopoly. As the year progresses and the offense starts to truly find itself, Evans should add a fresh element in due time.
Did not play
- Tyler Shelvin (inactive)
- D’Ante Smith (inactive)