The Marvin Lewis era officially begins its 16th season when the Cincinnati Bengals kick off against the Indianapolis Colts today at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Several changes were made to staff in the offseason and the Bengals parted ways with some veteran players in an effort to jumpstart the team after a pair of losing seasons, and now it’s time to see how the tweaks will pay off.
The first test comes against a Colts team that also has struggled in recent years and is looking to get things going under new coach Frank Reich.
Here are five things to watch in Sunday’s game:
1. O-line improvements
The Bengals revamped their offensive line with only one returning starter from last year back, and this is the first look to see if the changes prove to be improvements.
With Clint Boling back at left guard and veteran newcomer Cordy Glenn taking over at left tackle, Andy Dalton’s blindside is well covered, but the rest of the line is mostly unproven at the NFL level. Right tackle Bobby Hart is a fourth-year player who started for the New York Giants previously, but wasn’t considered the most reliable lineman, and right guard Alex Redmond, who supplanted Trey Hopkins as starter, only has five games of experience under his belt. Rookie center Billy Price is making his NFL debut.
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Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor was pleased with the performance in the preseason, particularly in pass protection, and expects that to carry over into the regular season.
“I think you have to believe what you do in practice and what you do when you train and what you do in preseason is what’s going to happen the first game,” Lazor said. “There is no such thing as rising to the occasion. You play like you train and that’s what we expect.”
2. Running game needs a boost
It’s tough to gage the running game from the preseason, as the Bengals were giving so many different guys carries no one could really get into a rhythm. Now, Joe Mixon should be shouldering the load and it’s important to get off to a good start.
The Colts are working through a new defense that was adjusted to focus on the pass rush, so Cincinnati needs to keep the offense in short yardage situations as much as possible.
Lazor wants more from the running game, but will it come together as he hopes?
“I think we probably ran the ball as much as anyone in spring OTAs and I think we started training camp running the football,” Lazor said. “I rely on all of those reps. We had certain things we wanted to get done in the preseason games and I think we accomplished those things. I just go back to what we’ve done in practice every day, I think it’s gotten better and better and that’s what we expect.”
3. Bates gets comfortable
Rookie free safety Jessie Bates will be starting his first NFL game in his home state and expects a lot of family and friends in attendance. He’s got a difficult task in the secondary with Colts quarterback Andrew Luck back from injury that sidelined him all of last year.
Though Bates is new to the league, he’s quite familiar with Luck. He even worked a camp for Luck as a senior in high school.
“It’s a big challenge,” Bates said. “…He’s an intelligent quarterback, very athletic, but I feel we have a very good game plan for him.”
Indianapolis’ running game has a lot of question marks with new starter Marlon Mack limited by a hamstring injury this week in practice. He’s listed as questionable for the game. Frank Gore, who is now with the Dolphins, was the team’s leading rusher last year.
4. Atkins vs. Nelson
Colts rookie guard Quenton Nelson will have a chance right off the bat to prove his worth as the overall No. 6 pick in the draft this year.
Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins is set to give Nelson his first introduction to blocking in the NFL, and that’s not an easy matchup for anyone, let alone a rookie in his first game.
“It’s a big matchup and a great challenge for him in his first start to go up against one of the elite defensive tackles in the league,” Colts coach Frank Reich said on a conference call Wednesday with local media in Cincinnati. “He will have his hands full. It’s interior line play, so he’s not always handling him by himself but there will be, I’m sure, some one-on-one matchups between those two guys.”
5. Eifert is back
Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert will be playing his first game since Sept. 14, 2017, after missing most of last year with a back injury. He was limited in the preseason, appearing for just 14 snaps in the third game when starters play the most, but says he is ready for Week 1.
“I feel like every injury has been kind of a fluke thing so it’s not even a thought when I go out there,” Eifert said. “Right now I feel great, I’m confident and ready to go. It’s part of the game. It happens. I’m past it and moving forward on positive notes. I’m taking steps week by week to get where I am now, which is to start the opening weekend of the NFL. I’m just excited and looking forward to it.”