When the Chicago Bears open their season against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, it will be a matchup featuring two playoff-caliber teams going head-to-head with quite a few good matchups to watch for.
Like the Bears, the Bengals went 10-6 in 2012. Unlike the Bears, however, was that the aforementioned record was good enough to get the Bengals into the playoffs. Although they weren't great on either side of the ball last season, Cincinnati is much more balanced than the Bears, as they had the eighth-ranked scoring defense and 12th-ranked scoring offense in 2012.
The Bengals have a few standouts on both sides of the ball, led by wide receiver A.J. Green and defensive tackle Geno Atkins. Both are widely regarded as some of the best in the league at their respective positions. However, the Bears have players who are capable of combating them.
The first game should also be a good chance for the Bears to show off one of their new toys, as tight end Martellus Bennett should have some favorable matchups.
While very few are actually picking them to make the Super Bowl, the Bengals have gained steam as a sleeper this season, which is contingent upon the play of quarterback Andy Dalton. This is a factor that should sound familiar to Bears fans.
The Bears have a very good chance at putting the Bengals behind the eight-ball with a loss in their first game. Below are a few matchups they need to win on Sunday in order to get off to a 1-0 start.
Bears TE Martellus Bennett vs. Bengals LB Rey Maualuga
The Bengals have a pretty stout defense, but Maualuga is a huge weak spot that the Bears can exploit.
As can be seen in the infographic from Pro Football Focus, passing in Maualuga's direction was almost a sure thing for opponents last year, as opponents completed 66 passes for 713 yards against the Bengals inside linebacker.
The Bengals didn't face many West Coast offenses or athletic receiving tight ends last year, but the Bears can build off of what the Texans did against Cincinnati in last season's AFC Wild Card game.
Houston tight ends Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham combined for 12 catches and 120 yards in said game, thanks in large part to Maualuga's inability to keep up with them.
In this clip, Daniels can be seen easily beating Maualuga with a simple inside move, and the end result was a big gain for the Texans.
Daniels is known as a very good receiving tight end, so he should be able to beat a middle linebacker in most situations. Graham, however, has just 29 career receptions. In the video to the right, you see Graham running a simple crossing route, and Maualuga was unable to keep up.
While both the the Texans tight ends are above-average athletes, neither compares to what Bennett brings in terms of size and speed.
Last season, Bennett went against the Bengals as a member of the Giants and caught four passes for 37 yards. He could have done much more damage if not for inaccurate throws by Eli Manning. Manning missed Bennett on at least three occasions, one of which would have been a touchdown with a good throw.
The offense the Bears run this year will likely resemble the Texans system a lot more than what the Giants ran last year, which means the tight end will be put in a better position to make plays.
If the Bears can take advantage of Maualuga early on, it will force them to use a defensive back on Bennett. If that happens, they'll have a mismatch elsewhere, either with Brandon Marshall receiving single coverage or with a linebacker being forced to cover running back Matt Forte.
Of course, much of this is dependent on the Bears ability to block.
Bears OG Kyle Long vs. Bengals DT Geno Atkins
As good as Kyle Long has looked in preseason, he might be over-matched in his first regular season game.
Atkins is widely considered to be the best defensive tackle in the NFL, and he will be lining up against Long quite a bit on Sunday.
The Bengals star is the complete package, as he was graded the best defensive tackle in the league at stopping the run last season, and he has also racked up 20 sacks over the last two seasons.
As you see in the video to the right, he is strong at the point of attack and athletic enough to get down the line of scrimmage to make plays.
I would expect the Bears to give Long a lot of help, but the Bengals defensive line is stout all the way around. They need Long to be able to hold his own, both in the passing game and the running game.
If Long can win this individual matchup, the Bears should have a lot of success against a very good Cincinnati defense.
Bears CB Charles Tillman vs. Bengals WR A.J. Green
While the Bengals added more offensive weapons through the draft, if the Bears are able to stop A.J. Green, they have a great chance of coming away with the win.
Including the playoffs, Green failed to reach 100 yards receiving in six of the Bengals seven losses last season. Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton relies heavily on his top target, as he received over 30 percent of the team's targets last season.
While that's not exactly Brandon Marshall-like territory, if the Bears can shut Green down, they should be able to handle the rest of the Bengals offense.
Luckily for the Bears, they have one of the best cornerbacks in the league.
Tillman gave up 1.04 yards per coverage snap, the eighth-best rate in the league amongst cornerbacks who played 75 percent of their team's snaps last season.
But even that doesn't quite explain how good he has truly been. As noted by Pro Football Focus' Sam Monson, the fact that the Bears' play a Cover 2 scheme hurt's Tillman's coverage statistics.
Tillman has shown that he can hold up amongst the NFL's elite receivers. Over the past two years, Detroit's Calvin Johnson has caught just 20 of the 50 passes thrown his way against the Bears. He also only has one touchdown in four games, which came against blown coverage by the Bears' safeties, who were subsequently benched after the game.
Another one of the game's top receivers, Houston's Andre Johnson, caught just four of his 10 targets for 35 yards against the Bears last year.
While Tillman had help in both cases, it wasn't nearly as much as most cornerbacks receive.
If holding Green under 100 yards is the barometer for the Bears, they should have a good chance to win. Also, Tillman did not allow 100 yards in any game last season.
This is a matchup of two of the NFL's best players at their respective positions, and the winner could very well determine which team wins the game.
*All advanced statistics courtesy of ProFootballFocus.com, unless otherwise noted.
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