Just like that, the NFL is officially underway. Nothing like some Patrick Mahomes touchdown passes to get you in the football mood, am I right? The show rolls on this Sunday, as 26 other teams kick off their 2020 seasons.
Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals face a formidable Week 1 opponent in the LA Chargers. We’ll soon know how the rookie quarterback will perform in his first real game action since winning the national title with LSU back in January. But before we preview the Bengals season opener, let’s catch up on some news from this week.
The 53-Man roster and practice squad was set
We've made moves to set our initial 53-man roster. ?
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) September 5, 2020
Last Saturday, the Bengals and every other NFL team trimmed their rosters all the way down to the mandated fifty-three. Players who were cut went to the waiver wire where they could get picked up by other teams. Thanks to their last-place record in 2019, the Bengals owned the top spot on the waiver priority list and thus had dibs on any player they wanted. However, they only elected to pick up one player: offensive guard Shaq Calhoun, who was waived by the Miami Dolphins after starting seven games last season as a rookie. In a subsequent move, Cincinnati released Alex Redmond, a fourth-year offensive guard who was buried in the depth chart after a 2019 season that saw him appear in only three games and serve a 4-game suspension.
Another thing to note from the Bengals cut decisions: Zac Taylor and company elected to keep only two quarterbacks on the active roster: Joe Burrow and second-year man Ryan Finley. Brandon Allen, who was signed back in August as a “quarantine quarterback” was waived and placed on the team’s practice squad. Jake Dolegala, a 2019 college free agent out of Central Connecticut State, was also cut. This move was interesting, seeing as Taylor carried him on the 53-man roster for the entirety of the 2019 season; however, with Burrow in town, Dolegala’s roster spot could be better utilized.
CB Trae Waynes placed on Reserve/Injured List
Roster Update: We've re-signed CB Torry McTyer to the active roster, and placed CB Trae Waynes on the Reserve/Injured list. pic.twitter.com/eyzmXmqV2c
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) September 7, 2020
The $42 million free-agent will begin his Bengals tenure on the injured list after undergoing surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle he suffered lifting weights on Aug. 10. Per the NFL’s Reserve/Injured List rules, Waynes could return to the lineup in three weeks, but given the time needed to recover from surgery, the timetable will be much longer. According to Brian Lee, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, the recovery period is usually 12 weeks before full conditioning is allowed. Given that three month diagnosis, it’s reasonable to expect Cincinnati to be without its big-ticket free agent for at least half the season.
In a corresponding move, the Bengals re-signed cornerback Torry McTyer to the active roster. McTyer is a third-year player who made his Bengals debut last season, appearing in five games. He’ll be depth at the nickel corner position and may see some action when veteran free-agent acquisition Mackensie Alexander is off the field.
Fans will be allowed in Paul Brown Stadium for two games this season
Today, the State of Ohio announced that it will grant a variance to the Cincinnati Bengals to host 6,000 fans at the Oct. 4 home game against the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Oct. 25 home game against the Cleveland Browns. ?
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) September 5, 2020
Paul Brown Stadium will be empty this week, but in October, 6,000 fans will get to attend home games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns thanks to a variance granted by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine. There will be no more than 1,500 fans on each side of the stadium and all entrants will be required to wear masks and socially distance.
The fact that Burrow and company will get to experience some actual, real-life stadium noise this season is exciting, and I’m sure those 6,000 tickets will go fast whenever they become available.
Team captains were picked
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) September 9, 2020
A couple of thoughts here; love seeing the free agents getting some recognition in Vonn Bell and Josh Bynes. A lot is being asked of Burrow as a rookie, and this title adds another thing to that list, but so far there’s no reason to believe he can’t live up to the pressure. It speaks volumes that Shawn Williams is still on this list, especially after losing his starting spot to Bell. He’s clearly one of the most respected guys in the locker room. Also, Gio’s mustache is glorious.
Now, let’s talk some Bengals vs. Chargers Week 1 football, which kicks off at 4:05 EST on CBS.
Four things to know
1. Since 2010, quarterbacks drafted #1 overall are 0-6-1 in their first career starts. Joe Burrow is looking to buck a decade long trend Sunday.
2. After missing most of 2019 with an injury, Chargers All-Pro safety Derwin James suffered a serious knee injury in practice a couple of weeks ago that is going to sideline him for the season. It’s a brutal blow to a team that has a history of awful injury luck.
3. Tyrod Taylor is LA’s starting quarterback. Despite drafting Justin Herbert with the sixth overall pick in the draft, head coach Anthony Lynn is going to roll with the veteran Taylor to start the year. It’s hard to knock this decision, as Taylor is noted around the league as a great mentor. He has a career record of 23-21-1 but has thrown two interceptions in his two career starts versus Cincinnati.
4. AJ Green is in, Geno Atkins and Maurkice Pouncey are out. After tweaking his hamstring in training camp, many were concerned the Bengals star WR might begin the season on a pitch count of sorts, but Zac Taylor cleared that up in a press conference Tuesday. That’s huge news, as Green hasn’t appeared in a game since December of 2018. And there’s also this stat: Since 2014, the Bengals are 7-25-1 without him in the lineup. Welcome back, AJ. You have been sorely missed.
The Geno news is a concerning. He hasn’t practiced this week due to a shoulder injury, and according to Paul Denher Jr., the Pro Bowl defensive tackle has been ruled out for Week 1. It will be the first game Atkins has missed since 2013, and his absence will be noted on Sunday.
Geno Atkins (shoulder) and Shawn Williams (calf) are both out for Sunday. It’s the first game Atkins has missed a game since tearing his ACL in 2013. It will be the first game Williams has missed since 2017. LeShaun Sims is doubtful (personal). Everyone else is expected to play.
— Paul Dehner Jr. (@pauldehnerjr) September 11, 2020
On the Chargers side, starting center Maurkice Pouncey is out with a hip injury. Man, the Chargers can’t catch a break.
Chargers C Mike Pouncey, who missed practice this week with a hip injury, is not expected to play in Sunday's opener against the Bengals, per sources. A Chargers team that already lost its defensive leader in Derwin James now also will be without an offensive leader Sunday.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) September 11, 2020
Three matchups to watch
1. Chargers DL vs. Bengals OL: This one is a matchup nightmare for the Bengals. Joey Bosa, fresh off a massive contract extension, paired with the likes of Melvin Ingram III are going wreak havoc on Bobby Hart and challenge Jonah Williams in his first career start. It will take everything the O-Line can muster to keep Burrow on his feet in his NFL debut.
2. Chargers DB vs. Bengals WR: This is a strength-on-strength matchup, and those are the best to watch. LA’s secondary is pretty stout, even with James missing. Led by a strong cornerback trio of Casey Hayward, Desmond King II, and Chris Harris Jr., Cincinnati’s receivers might be up against the best core they’ll face this season in Week 1. AJ Green, Tyler Boyd, John Ross, Auden Tate, and Tee Higgins constitute arguably the deepest and most talented position group on the Bengals roster, but they’ll have a tough test against the Chargers. It ought to come down to Burrow’s accuracy and decision-making, which many consider the best parts of his game.
3. Bengals LB vs. Chargers RB: Linebackers in coverage… the bane of every Bengals fan’s existence for how many seasons now? It’s hard to say this issue won’t linger in 2020, but the linebacker room has certainly been revamped and injected with youth. The team brought in the savvy veteran Josh Bynes from the Ravens, who will look to lead the defense, and returned second-year player Germaine Pratt who turned some heads down the stretch in 2019. Logan Wilson, who I mentioned in my offseason recap, will look to assert himself as a defensive stalwart for years to come, and Akeem Davis-Gaither, a fourth-round pick this year, is the speedy, play-making linebacker the Bengals have lacked for so long.
The Chargers will certainly look to exploit the Bengals linebacking inexperience with RB Austin Ekeler, who caught 92 passes last year and was just seven yards shy of 1,000 receiving yards. In previous seasons, receiving backs have cooked the Bengals linebackers in coverage, so it will be interesting to see how a new LB group holds up against one of the game’s best in Ekeler.
Two names you’ll hear
1. Hunter Henry, Chargers TE
With reports out that former Clemson standout WR Mike Williams will be a game-time decision, Taylor will need someone else to throw the ball to other than superstar WR Keenan Allen (who got PAID earlier this week). My guess is that Henry, who is already a dangerous receiving threat, sees a significant boost in targets if Williams is out. After missing 2018 with an ACL injury, Henry tallied a career-best 682 receiving yards in 2019. He’s a physical specimen that stands 6-5 and runs a 4.68 40 yard dash. As if the slippery Ekeler wasn’t enough for the young Cincinnati linebacker core to deal with, try adding a vertical threat like Henry into the mix.
2. Jonah Williams, Bengals LT
After missing his entire 2019 rookie season with a torn labrum, the former 11th overall pick will make his debut this week. And boy, will he be in for a big test. Joey Bosa, the league’s highest-paid defensive player, is going to be lining up across from the Alabama product. Williams isn’t shying away from the challenge, though.
Bengals RT Jonah Williams in going up against the Chargers' Joey Bosa on Week 1: "That's exciting. That's what you want in the NFL. That's what we've been practicing for all camp."
— Ben Baby (@Ben_Baby) September 7, 2020
He also provided some great perspective when it comes to what he’s hoping the offensive line can prove in Week 1:
Bengals LT Jonah Williams said the tough Week 1 isn't about proving people the OL isn't bad as much as it is about giving rookie QB Joe Burrow confidence. "With that, we'll gain respect as a unit."
— Ben Baby (@Ben_Baby) September 7, 2020
One way the Bengals can win
Vegas has the Bengals as three-point underdogs. The odds seem stacked against Cincinnati: shortened offseason, no preseason games, rookie quarterback, stellar opposing defense, etc. But when you have a quarterback who elevates the playing level of everyone on the field, which is what we all hope and think Joe Burrow will be, those stacked odds don’t weigh as heavy.
And that’s how the Bengals can win this game. It’s all about Joe Burrow’s performance. The Tyrod Taylor led Chargers offense won’t win this game for LA, much like the Bengals defense won’t win it for Cincinnati. The battle of this game is going to be the Bengals offense versus the Chargers defense. Winning the field position battle and mitigating turnovers is going to be the key to a Cincinnati victory. It doesn’t even have to be turnovers, if LA’s defense forces the Bengals into tons of three and outs and makes the Cincy defense play more snaps than the offense, the Chargers will probably win. But if Burrow is able to see the field well and sustain a few scoring drives, the Bengals could very well take this game from the Chargers.
Realistically, there will be growing pains for the Bengals this season. There’s a lot they’ll have to figure out, and if all goes well, we probably won’t be able to think of them as playoff contenders for another season or two. But this is a winnable game, and what a sweet start to an era a win would be.
See you Sunday.