The Cincinnati Bengals will open the 2017 season at home Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, a team they have beaten six of the last seven times overall and five of the six at Paul Brown Stadium.
A Bengals team already bursting with youth will be even younger in the opener due to the suspensions of cornerback Adm Jones and Vontaze Burfict. The team could have as many as 13 players making their NFL debut, although rookie first-round pick John Ross is a listed as questionable with a knee injury.
Here are six things to know about the Bengals first home opener in eight years.
Maybe the biggest questions surrounding Sunday’s game is how the Bengals will split the carries between running backs Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard and Joe Mixon.
Part of uncertainty stems from the fact that may not even be a predetermined plan. The Bengals could elect to employ all three and end up riding the hot hand.
Using history as an example, it would seem as though Mixon will see limited action. Bernard got four carries in his NFL debut in the 2013 opener, and Hill got four in the 2014 opener.
But the Bengals made sure to get Mixon involved early in the first three preseason games, and he dazzled at times. Four carries would seem to be on the low end of what to expect.
Perhaps the next biggest question is how Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco will perform after missing the entire preseason with a back injury.
Not only will be there be rust to shake, he’ll be working behind an offensive line in flux with three new starters. Flacco has struggled at PBS when healthy, going 1-6 in his last seven starts there with three touchdown passes and 12 interceptions.
“It is a tough place to play, and they are a good football team,” Flacco told Baltimore media. “They have been a good football team for a lot of years now. We have a tough time winning there.”
Like the Ravens, the Bengals will have three new starters – or at least three players in new starting positions – on the offensive line with Cedric Ogbuehi at left tackle, Jake Fisher at right tackle and Trey Hopkins at right guard.
Whereas most of the starters played sparingly in the first two preseason games, the Bengals kept the first-team offensive line mostly in tact for the entire first half. Ogbuehi, Fisher and Hopkins were the only two starters on either side of the ball who saw action in the preseason finale.
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“It’s a work in progress,” offensive line coach Paul Alexander said. “They went through training camp, and I thought they got better each week. I thought in the preseason they got better. Now the next challenge is to do it for real.”
The Bengals gave up 41 sacks a year ago, with Ogbuehi being responsible for a good number of them during his struggles at right tackle. The Ravens have recorded multiple sacks against the Bengals in four of the last five meetings.
Home sweet home
There is always a little more electricity in the air for the season opener, and the Bengals haven’t been on receiving end of that charge since 2009. Which means of the 53 players on the roster, only four have experienced it in Cincinnati – Michael Johnson, Pat Sims, Andre Smith and Kevin Huber.
“Obviously it’s nice for us to open up at home in the normal surroundings,” Dalton said. “We’re going to have the fans behind us, and we have that home field advantage. I definitely think it’s a great way to start the season, as we haven’t done it before. I’m looking forward to this one.”
The Bengals are 4-2 in season openers under Dalton, including three consecutive wins at the Jets (2016), Raiders (2015) and Ravens (2014).
The last time the Bengals opened at home was 2009, when the Denver Broncos stunned them with an 87-yard game-winning touchdown pass with 11 seconds to go for a 12-7 win.
Since the Marvin Lewis era began, Cincinnati has opened at home just three times, going 1-2 in those games.
After missing all of his rookie season with a chest injury, 2016 first-round pick William Jackson is expected to start at cornerback for the suspended Adam Jones.
Jackson played well in the preseason, but he wasn’t tested much on the perimeter, resulting in just one pass defended and four tackles. But the Bengals coaches have liked what they’ve seen throughout the offseason program and training camp.
“He didn’t get the practice time last year, but just going through the details of all the little adjustments we may make and what formations we may get he’s pretty much on top of everything we’re doing now,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said.
“He’s done certain things that have been stellar,” Lewis added. “There are other things that we’re just trying to get him caught up on a little bit, and get him up to speed. That’s part of being a young player. But we know he has the athletic tools and the intellect to play the position.”
Split the uprights
As much as the Bengals want to say the kicking competition is over and Randy Bullock has won the job, it’s clear the leash is short with rookie fifth-round pick Jake Elliott waiting on the practice squad.
Combining his 2016 stats with the 2017 preseason, Bullock is 11 of 13 on field goals. But both of those misses came on attempts that would have won the game (Week 16 in Houston last year and the preseason finale at Indianapolis last week).
It won’t be surprising to see Sunday’s game come down to a final kick. Taking the last two season finales out of the equation because neither team had anything on the line, four of the past six Bengals-Ravens games have been decided by five points or less.
In the ability to finish games was one of the biggest reasons the Bengals went 6-9-1 last year. If they’re in position to finish the opener and a kick goes awry, a change could be swift.