Kickoff for the 2021 NFL season is finally here.
Bengals fans are encouraged by improved defensive play in the preseason, excited about reuniting one of the most prolific quarterback/wide receiver tandems in NCAA history, and thrilled to see Joe Burrow and crew take the field in new stripes.
This team could be much better in 2021, but there are a few things they need to do. Here are 5 keys to their success this season.
You knew this one was coming.
While the Bengals have improved their overall depth, it is still lacking in some areas. For instance, the starting offensive line is much better than it was at this time last season, thanks to the addition of Riley Reiff and Quinton Spain, who joined the club midway through last year. While there is a lot of talent behind that first unit, there is very little experience. An injury on the offensive line would force one of these young players to develop quickly or put the season in jeopardy.
Coaching Up Front
It is clear that the Bengals’ offensive line needs to step up, both to allow the run game to flourish and to give Burrow time to do his thing. The addition of Reiff at right tackle was huge, and they should have at least stabilized the guard position as well. The biggest factor is the coaching change. If Frank Pollack is as good as we all hope he is, this unit will no longer be a liability and could grow into a strength down the line.
The defensive line was also a huge issue last season. They got pushed around in the run game and failed to put consistent pressure on the quarterback. There have been many changes at this position. Franchise legends Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins are gone, as is Carl Lawson. The addition of Trey Hendrickson and Larry Ogunjobi could make a big difference, as could the return of D.J. Reader and Josh Tupou. The biggest difference however maybe be on the sideline.
This was a group that underachieved last season and at times hung the rest of the defense out to dry. They need to get more out of this unit and that is just what new position coach Marion Hobby was brought in to do.
Outside Cornerbacks Pan Out
Cornerback was a big problem for the Bengals last season. They had William Jackson III on one side, but after Trae Waynes went down, the other side was a real issue.
Now Jackson is gone, and they go into Week 1 without Waynes once again.
Chidobe Awuzie reportedly had an excellent camp and Eli Apple will line up opposite him in Week 1. While starting Apple is not ideal, it is an improvement from where they were at last season. Apple is a talented player, who has failed to demonstrate his full potential at the pro level. Getting the most out of him will not be an easy task, but the skillset is there.
For this team to succeed they need to have strong play from their outside corners. Waynes needs to be on the field and he and Awuzie need to prove that they can get the job done.
The Bengals’ talent at linebacker is countered by minimal experience. They go into the season starting a pair of third-round picks, and only one of them has started a full season.
Germaine Pratt enters his third season. He played at a decent level last year, but he still needs to take a step forward. Pratt could be an excellent player, and the time is now for him to show that.
As a rookie last season, Logan Wilson was impressive and will be wearing the radio helmet for the defensive this year. He has excellent speed and reads the pass well. Both traits give him a chance to be a special player as well.
Wilson is joined by two more talented sophomores. Akeem Davis-Gaither did some good things last year and brings versatility as a blitzer. Markus Bailey is an extremely intelligent player who was only available at the end of the draft due to injury. Both should play a larger role this season.
Burrow and the Boys
For all the improvements on defense and talk of running the ball, this team will go only as far as Joe Burrow takes it. That’s what it comes down to.
Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd are two proven receivers, and we haven’t even seen Higgins’ final form yet, but Ja’Marr Chase stepping up and being an impact player would do wonders for this unit. It’s why he was brought in with the fifth-overall pick.
All three of these receivers along with Auden Tate and C.J. Uzomah working together can make this passing game something special with Burrow at the helm.
Can he find the magic to create big plays as consistently as he did in college?
That’s the question that will determine this team’s success in 2021.