In fewer than 24 hours, the Cincinnati Bengals can officially burn the game tape from their AFC wild card-game loss to Houston last January. That's because the 2012 season won't matter anymore. Finally, they will have a new set of film of praise, criticize and rip. After a long, hype-filled offseason that had many picking the Bengals to reach their third Super Bowl, the 2013 season has arrived.
To get you ready for Sunday's opener in Chicago, here are four things from Bengals camp to watch for ahead of the 1 p.m. kickoff:
1. High offensive tempo established early. Cincinnati enters this opener having dropped four of its last five. Last year's Week 1 contest in Baltimore still haunted some Bengals earlier this week when they recalled how the Ravens figuratively punched them in the gut early offensively. Long passes from Joe Flacco torched Cincinnati's defensive backs while Baltimore defenders mauled the Bengals' offense, holding it to 13 points and a 4-for-15 showing on third downs.
With that defeat fresh in mind, the Bengals believe they have to feature an uptempo pace early against a Bears defense that is going through some growing pains. Specifically, with Chicago rookie Jon Bostic likely to see significant playing time at middle linebacker, the Bengals are hoping to expose some weaknesses against an inexperienced player who still is learning a new system. Expect the Bengals to break their huddles quickly and go through pre-snap checks equally as fast.
2. Matchups galore. We'll say it right now: the winner of this game will be the team that wins the most matchups along the offensive and defensive front. As parity on the lines goes, this may be the most intriguing offensive line versus defensive line battle of the entire opening weekend. On offense, the Bears are featuring a revamped offensive line that includes four new faces. Rookies Kyle Long and Jordan Mills are expected to get starts at right guard and tackle, respectively, and left tackle Jermon Bushrod and guard Matt Slauson were unrestricted free agents who were added this offseason, too. How well will that new group fare against a defensive line deemed one of the NFL's more fearsome? That's what you'll have to watch for.
Pay particular attention to how well recently resigned Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins matches up with Long on the interior.
When Cincinnati has the ball, take a look at how well both tackles handle the Bears' ends. On the left side, Anthony Collins will get the start for eight-year veteran Andrew Whitworth, who won't play due to a lingering knee injury. Collins will be facing arguably the best defensive end of the past decade in 11-year vet Julius Peppers, who had 11.5 sacks last year. On the right side, Andre Smith will go against end Corey Wootton. A fourth-year player out of Northwestern, Wootton had seven sacks and a pair of forced fumbles last year.
3. Battle of WR supremacy. Brandon Marshall has certainly warranted respect as being one of the league's elite pass-catchers. But A.J. Green hasn't been so bad himself in two years, either. As Green tries to take that next step this season and enter the same stratosphere of receivers like Marshall, he will need to come through in as many clutch games as possible. As openers go, for a receiver, few games are as clutch as this one. If Green can outshine Marshall, he may begin turning those last few doubt-filled heads.
Marshall enters Sunday's game among the NFL's top seven receiving players since his rookie year in 2006. In that time, he has 7,755 yards. That's 81 yards shy of the No. 6 man on the list, Detroit's Calvin Johnson, who was drafted a year later. In just two years, Green has caught passes for 2,407 yards. If he stays healthy and remains one of Andy Dalton's top targets, Green will have more than 9,600 yards by his eighth season in the league. A big day Sunday could do even more to solidify his hopeful legacy.
4. Rotating 'backers. As a result of Emmanuel Lamur's late-preseason injury, the Bengals have been forced to get creative with their depth at linebacker. They're only taking five true linebackers into the opener, but another player will mix into their rotation on the outside. Look for Taylor Mays, a longtime safety, to move down in coverage and set up closer to the line of scrimmage when he checks into Sunday's game. Cincinnati believes his size and coverage skills will make him the perfect replacement for Lamur in nickel situations. Other linebackers, like Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict, will be playing roles differently than what fans may have seen a year ago.