Biggest Questions Facing Bengals in Week 1 Contest with Bears
Less than 24 hours away from the official start of the 2013 NFL season, several questions still remain for every team in the league. Thanks to HBO's Hard Knocks, fewer of those questions exist about the Cincinnati Bengals, who gave fans an inside look into the team's preseason.
However, many topics remain unanswered or at least uncertain for Cincinnati heading into the season opener at Chicago. Some of these questions are new as a result of injury. Others have been looming throughout the offseason. Regardless, here's a look at the five biggest questions facing the Bengals going into their matchup with the Bears.
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Today, the Bengals officially placed wide receiver Andrew Hawkins on the reserve/injured list. This doesn't mean he'll miss the whole season, but it does mean he can't see the field until Week 9 at the earliest.
With Hawkins as the team's second leading receiver last year with 51 catches, Cincinnati has questions about who will fill his spot. The Bengals' willingness to play two tight end sets will help to elevate the issue, but relying on a tight end to fill the slot receiver role every play just isn't realistic.
Receivers Mohamed Sanu and Dane Sanzenbacher will have the opportunity to step into that role during the first half of the season.
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Going into this past offseason, offensive tackle was certainly a position of focus for the Bengals. With Andrew Whitworth coming off of a Pro Bowl season and Andre Smith landing back in the Queen City after testing free agency, the tackle position should be secured by now, but it's not.
Whitworth has hinted that he expects to be "doubtful" for the season opener, and Andre Smith appeared on coach Marvin Lewis' first injury report of the year. Also, longtime Bengal tackle Dennis Roland was signed back with the team to fill Andrew Hawkins' spot after being cut last week.
Rookie Tanner Hawkinson has shown versatility and promise leading up to the season and will see plenty of reps this season, although they could come from a variety of positions along the line. Veteran Anthony Collins will also be expected to step in.
With Julius Peppers rushing each play, the offensive tackles will have their hands full come Sunday.
Strong-Side Linebacker Depth
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While James Harrison has a firm grasp on the starting spot at outside linebacker, behind him there are now many questions following the season ending injury of Emmanuel Lamur. Lamur showed promise throughout the preseason but, unable to fight the injury bug, won't see the field this season.
Reservations at that position has Cincinnati experimenting. Bengals Editor Geoff Hobson tweeted this morning that safety Taylor Mays could fill Lamur's spot in the nickel package.
Veteran, and former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, James Harrison should do just fine at the position by himself but at 35 years old and into the latter part of his career, his backup is hardly insignificant.
Passing Defense vs. Cutler and Marshall
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The Cincinnati defense finished the 2012 regular season as the sixth-ranked defense in the NFL. Allowing an average of 20 points per game, the Bengals hope to carry that momentum into 2013.
The Bengals' front office, led by VP of Player Personnel Katie Blackburn, made a point to keep as much of the 2012 team intact as possible. Grouped within that effort was re-signing cornerbacks Adam Jones and Terence Newman. Next was finding a playmaking safety, which came in the form of rookie Shawn Williams from Georgia, although he won't be starting.
Going into Week 1 against the Bears, rest assured that Jay Cutler will test them. With Brandon Marshall outside and first-year head coach Marc Trestman's propensity to encourage his quarterbacks to throw the checkdown, Chicago's passing offense could find some success in the middle of the field.
Emmanuel Lamur was the team's best cover linebacker, but he won't be playing this year due to a shoulder injury. Secure tackling will be necessary, as yards after catch could rack up against Cincinnati otherwise.
Can Dalton Make the Leap?
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Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has led the club to the playoffs in both of his first two seasons in the NFL. However, after losing to the Texans in the AFC Wild Card Game both times, Dalton's resume is still widely considered incomplete.
Head coach Marvin Lewis and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden have both emphasized that Dalton is their guy and isn't going anywhere, although that's believed to be in jeopardy if Dalton fails to win a playoff game in 2013.
The front office and coaching staff have done a great job of surrounding Dalton with the weapons he needs to succeed. That will be tested in Chicago going against a defense that finished 2013 with the highest turnover differential in the league.