The Cincinnati Bengals are looking for their first 3-0 start in three years when they face the Carolina Panthers on the road Sunday.
The Bengals opened the 2015 season 8-0 and went on to make the playoffs for a fifth straight year but haven’t been back since. This season already feels much different than a year ago when they finished 7-9 for a second consecutive time. Instead of an 0-2 start, Cincinnati enters today’s game leading the AFC North.
Carolina (1-1) is coming off a loss at Atlanta after opening with a win against Dallas.
Here is a look at five things to watch Sunday:
1. Running without Mixon
The Bengals answered questions all week about how the running game will look without Joe Mixon, and now it’s time to find out for sure.
Mixon is out two to four weeks with a torn meniscus, but Cincinnati remains confident with the running game now in Giovani Bernard’s hands. He had just seven carries over the first two games but enjoyed a successful outing the last time these teams met in 2014 when he rushed for 137 yards and a touchdown in a 37-37 tie at Paul Brown Stadium his second season.
“Gio is such a smart player,” Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton said. “He understands every aspect of the position. He knows what we are doing in the run game, pass game, protections and all of it. I definitely have a comfort level with him back there. He’s been so good at it his whole career. We’re fortunate to have a guy like him, with Joe (Mixon) being down (injured), who is reliable and does everything exactly how you want done.”
Another twist to the storyline is that third-string running back Tra Carson went down with an injury in practice Monday and was waived, then reverted to injured reserve. That means rookie Mark Walton could see his first NFL action after being inactive the first two games. The Bengals also signed former Seahawks running back Thomas Rawls but he hasn’t been with a team since the Jets cut him after the preseason and it’s unclear whether he had enough time to get up to speed on Cincinnati’s offense to play Sunday.
2. Test for run defense
The Panthers have a capable running game with quarterback Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey leading the fifth-best rushing offense in the league, but the Bengals have the third-ranked run defense, so which one shines Sunday?
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Carolina averages 134.0 rushing yards per game, while Cincinnati allows just 70.5 yards on the ground.
“It’s a dynamic offense,” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said. “It’s essentially a three-headed monster with (Newton), because he’s able to do any of the three throughout the football game. You have to be conscious and aware of that. It comes down to being disciplined and assignment-oriented on defense.”
The Bengals front seven has been solid with Andrew Billings and Geno Atkins playing well at the tackle spots, and Nick Vigil leading the linebackers at the SAM position.
3. Injury bug biting
Aside from Mixon being out, the Bengals also will be without center Billy Price, who injured his foot in the first quarter against Baltimore and is stuck in a boot for at least two weeks. Trey Hopkins will start in his place but Lewis wouldn’t say who his backup is.
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Additionally, Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson is questionable after suffering a knee injury last week against Baltimore, and linebacker Preston Brown (ankle) was limited all week after missing a game for the first time in his NFL career. Second-year player Hardy Nickerson started in Brown’s place against the Ravens, and Sam Hubbard could get his first NFL start in place of Johnson after a solid showing in Week 2.
“For some of these guys who aren’t as experienced in the NFL, which we have quite a few, it’s a great lesson for them to be prepared and ready,” Lewis said. “They’ve seen other guys take advantage of opportunities when it has come. Now you might be the next guy up who’s in that spot.”
If the Bengals appear banged up, they should feel fortunate compared to what the Panthers are dealing with on the injury front. Carolina has ruled out four players for Sunday, including tight end Greg Olsen (foot), wide receiver Curtis Samuel (medical illness), right guard Trai Turner (concussion) and safety Da’Norris Searcey (concussion), and wide receiver Damiere Byrd (knee) and cornerback Donte Jackson (groin) are questionable.
Carolina also is missing for the season All-Pro right tackle Daryl Williams, who is on injured reserve because of a knee injury suffered in the opener.
4. High-flying offense
Cincinnati has scored 34 points in each of its first two games, but Dalton said the Bengals are just scratching the surface.
Highly touted receiver John Ross is yet to have a breakout game, for example, and tight end Tyler Eifert has been relatively quiet as well. Against Baltimore, the Bengals jumped out to a 21-0 lead and 28-7 advantage before going 30 minutes without another score, and Carolina won’t make it easy with linebacker Luke Kuechly sniffing out plays.
“Even with 34 points, we haven’t played a perfect game,” Dalton said. “We left some stuff out there. We can definitely improve and get better. If we’re saying that and scoring 34 points, that’s a good thing. We just have to keep playing the way we have been and fix the little things. I think we can improve and do better than we have.”
5. No letdowns
The Bengals struggled with giving up points at the end of the first half last year and that’s carried into the 2018 season. The Colts and Ravens both scored in the final minute before halftime against Cincinnati, and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said those momentum killers are an area of concern.
“I think the biggest thing is we have to take advantage of our opportunities,” Austin said. “… The urgency is there, the want to is there, we just have to finish the plays.”