Posted: 4:00 p.m. Friday, Sept. 6, 2013
Thumping into the regular season come the Bengals, a team with sudden expectations and the highest of football aspirations. Surprisingly, they have become something like media darlings-picked by most to make their third consecutive playoff appearance and by some others to win the whole damn thing.
The media attention is interesting in its nature concerning the Bengals. For the majority of its history the franchise has stood as an easy punchline but for now they believe. Yet don't be fooled; that belief is tenuous, my friends. Even the oldest, most grizzly and ardent Bengals fan, who lives and dies with his team, has lurking doubts behind his enthusiastic frontal lobe. It has nothing to do with the team personnel or coaching, it's simply the permanent scars on the psyche from continuous and immense letdown of the past. For now, though, everyone seems willing to put all that negativity aside and bask in the sunlight of a bright present and brighter future.
And for good reason.
This team came out of training camp in very formidable shape. They handled the Hard Knocks attention well, they dodged injury bullets to Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and Andre Smith, and no one has said anything particularly stupid on Twitter or elsewhere. Despite their youth, they carry themselves as poised professionals which is a credit to Marvin Lewis and the front office for turning the image of the team around in that regard. They feel like they have finally arrived as a heavyweight contender.
Of course, it takes more than sheer professionalism to win in the NFL. Talent flourishes within this locker room and the depth appears stronger than previous eras. The coaching group is upper-echelon and the last four drafts have proven a quality level of scouting and management proficiency. All in all, the time really is now to show that they are at least not playoff apparitions and deserve to be in the conversation of the best teams.
With all that being said, however, I don't love their chances this week in Chicago.
New Bears coach, Marc Trestman, was once the Raiders offensive coordinator in 2002. That's the last I remember of him. That offense was largely a Jon Gruden offense, even though Gruden coached Tampa Bay that season, and it led the league in yardage and also somehow made Rich Gannon an MVP. The Raiders made it all the way to the Super Bowl but were out-Grudened by the actual Gruden. I remember that old Raider offense as a typical west-coast version that had Tim Brown and Jerry Rice catching slants and outs and mixing in a lot of throws to Charlie Garner as well.
A lot of time has passed since then and I only saw glimpses of Chicago preseason games, so I can't tell you how Trestman will plan his attack, but one can guess with the facts at hand.
Jay Cutler is a vastly superior athlete to Rich Gannon. He is surprisingly mobile, has a certified cannon and has scraped himself off of the turf more than your average NFL quarterback. His leadership skills and attitude have been questioned before, but the reports are all smiles and hugs so far with his new coach. Trestman has been called a quarterback guru and Cutler may be the most talented specimen he's worked with. That sounds exciting for Chicago.
The Bears also have two superstars on offense to make life easier for Culter and Trestman. Brandon Marshall is a horse of a receiver; Leon Hall's tackling ability will be thoroughly put to the test against him. Matt Forte is a jack-of-all-trades running back that, when healthy, is among the most dangerous offensive players in the game. Trestman will lean on these two within his scheme-why wouldn't he? Expect to see Forte used frequently in the passing game as well as getting a healthy amount of carries. The Bengals' first-team defense didn't look especially effective when stopping the run, and I know you can't surmise much from the preseason, but I expect it to take a while for them to get that into gear and, consequently, allow a big day from Forte as a result.
The vulnerability of the Chicago offense, though, remains its line. It just seems like this is an area that the Bears cannot solidify through personnel moves. The right tackle and right guard positions are to be manned by rookies on Sunday, and while each may have talent and be ready for the league on their first day of school, history and logic say that they should expect things to go a little bumpy, at least at first. The one element the Bengals' defense should feel best about is their pass rush. The collection of quality defensive ends and tackles they plan on rotating is no joke, and if Chicago thinks it can ignore the combination of such a fearsome front going against such a young right side, it's joking itself. But the Bears know better than that. Look for screens to the right side in the face of the pass rush, in order to take some pressure off of the two youngsters. Also look for moving pockets to the left side that, in theory, should buy Cutler more time and allow Marshall and his supporting mates to get further downfield when they need the big play.
I don't think the Chicago passing game will become comfortable enough to operate the way it wants to. I think the Bengals will sacrifice some rushing yards to better handle the underneath routes by providing themselves space where they can rally to the tackle and prevent the big play. Essentially, the coverage will consistently back up and allow the pass rush to go it alone. This opens up the soft underbelly of intermediate gains that allow for lengthy drives but discourage large offensive chunk plays. The old bend-but-don't-break game will be visible this weekend and is a part of the Zim Clan's modis operandi. Field goals, win. Touchdowns, lose.
Of course, the Bengals offense needs to be more than competent for that rudimentary equation to hold up. There has already been lots written about the talented pieces around A.J. Green and the various ways they will be employed, but I think in this first game, Gruden and company will get too cute and take too long to get their motors running on all cylinders. The Bears defense excels at creating turnovers and even without Brian Urlacher, they have plenty of stars within the unit. They remind me of an AFC North defense in that regard. They will not lie down and give the time Andy Dalton needs to have a great game. Mistakes are likely to be prominent against them and the Bengals need to excel in damage control when they do crop up.
Not having Andrew Whitworth in the lineup certainly doesn't help, but I have always been an Anthony Collins fan and I feel that he is a cut above your average backup offensive tackle. Nonetheless, Julius Peppers, in all of his towering and athletic glory, will line up across form Collins and make his life far more stressful than he is accustomed to. Peppers has his place reserved in Canton for good reason: the man is a monster. If Collins can limit him, it would be an immense triumph for him personally and would calm the issue of Whitworth's absence. Failure, however, could be the key ingredient for a loss.
The Bengals are going to be a good team, but I think it will take them too long to realize that Week 1 means it is the real thing. I see them falling behind early, making some third-quarter noise and coming up just short in the end. I think it will be a mistake-riddled game by both teams and the score will be low. The media niceties will swiftly decline and the players will be angry and disappointed at themselves. If this team is truly different and are really on a higher level, then these previous sentences will be false. If they look the part of a legitimate contender and play a tough, focused game against the Bears, then I will pour the Kool-Aid upon my head and regret I ever doubted them. But the Bengals must prove to me that they know how good they are before I feel entirely satisfied about them. Has this group grown, or are they static characters in Marvin's tome?
Bears 17, Bengals 13
Mojokong-Vegas was here before me.