The Cincinnati Bengals will look to extend one modest winning streak and end a three-decade drought all at once when they open the season against the New York Jets on Sunday at Met Life Stadium.
The Bengals have won their last two season openers, but they haven’t beaten the Jets in New York since 1981.
Pregame ceremonies commemorating the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks are sure to be emotional in stadiums around the league, but especially in New York.
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Once the reflection ends and the season begins, here are five things to watch as the Bengals battle the Jets:
Injury issues in the secondary
Darqueze Dennard is doubtful with an ankle injury, and while Adam Jones hasn’t missed a practice, he also hasn’t played since the second preseason game due to a calf strain he suffered two weeks ago in pregame warmups in Jacksonville.
Look for Chris Lewis-Harris or Josh Shaw to play the slot in nickel situations, which should be plentiful with the Jets using a lot of three- and four-wide receiver sets that also will force the Bengals to play Chykie Brown more than they would like.
Brown had an up and down preseason, with the downs being glaring, but he made the roster due to uncertainty surrounding Dennard’s health.
Safety Shawn Williams, who made four starts last year while George Iloka or Reggie Nelson were injured, will be need to be solid in his debut as a full-time starter.
Jeremy Hill’s grip
Everyone on the field will feel the excitement that comes with the season opener, but there probably isn’t a player more eager to start 2016 than Bengals running back Jeremy Hill, whose last play of 2015 was a game-turning fumble in the playoff loss to Pittsburgh.
Hill insists he’s put the fumble behind him, and he certainly hasn’t looked like a guy burdened by the miscue during offseason and training camp practices, when he seemed more loose and vocal.
Conversely, he’s appeared less jocular and more focused in games. His first touchdown of the preseason was followed by a ball flip to the referee rather than one of the celebratory dances he used to perform.
Hill was beginning to get a reputation as a fumbler well before the playoff loss, and it’s something the Jets will try to exploit.
Odds are that Hill will fumble at some point this season, and if/when it happens, it will be interesting to see how he, and the coaching staff, react.
Bengals pass rush vs. Jets line
The Jets led the AFC and were second in the league with 22 sacks allowed last year, while the Bengals had two players with double-digit sacks for just the second time since the stat became official category.
Jets Pro center Nick Mangold, a 13-year veteran, seven-time Pro Bowler and Alter High School graduate, didn’t allow a sack last year. He’ll likely be asked to help guards James Carpenter and Brian Winters deal with Bengals Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins.
New York added four-time Pro Bowler Ryan Clady at left tackle in the offseason, but the Jets have a big question at right tackle, where neither Ben Ijalana nor Brent Qvale established themselves as the starter for Breno Giacomini (Physically Unable to Perform list).
Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who set a franchise record with 13.5 sacks last year, could spend a lot of time in the Jets backfield if Ijalana and/or Qvale continue to struggle.
Strike fast, first
The Bengals are opening the season on the road for the seventh consecutive season, but they’ve won two in a row and three of five since the Andy Dalton and A.J. Green era began in 2011.
The common them in the three wins has been an ability to score first and quiet the crowd. Last year in Oakland, the Bengals scored a touchdown on their opening drive and came away with points on four of their first five possessions to build a 24-0 halftime lead that swelled to 33-0 on the way to a 33-13 win.
Two years ago in Baltimore, the Bengals got a field goal on their opening drive and four more on their next five marches to take a 15-0 lead on the way to a 23-16 triumph.
And in Dalton-Green debut game in 2011, the Bengals scored points on their first three drives to go ahead 13-0 on the way to a 27-17 win.
In 2013 in Chicago, Dalton threw an interception on the opening drive that the Bears converted in a touchdown in a 24-21 Bengals loss. And in 2012, the Ravens jumped ahead 10-0 on the way to a 44-13 rout.
Ogbuehi’s starting debut
Cedric Ogbuehi will have to deal with more than just Jets Pro Bowl defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson in his first NFL start.
The 2015 first-round pick hasn’t played a full game since tearing an ACL in his final college game in 2014, and he hasn’t played at all since suffering a toe injury in this year’s preseason opener. Ogbuehi appeared in the final five games last year, but never played more than 25 snaps.
Drawing on his own experience, left tackle Andrew Whitworth said adrenaline rush of making your first pro start not wears off, it ends up being a drain in the long run. That’s something Ogbuehi will have to fight in addition to fending off Wilkerson, who had a career-high 12 sacks last year.
Old faces in new places
Two of the biggest free agency acquisitions by both teams – Bengals linebacker Karlos Dansby and Jets running back Matt Forte – should have a number of head-to-head battles.
Forte is one of the best rushing/receiving backs in the league and is just two years removed from a 102-catch season, while Dansby’s career has been defined by his skills in coverage.