Zac Taylor joked that he never thinks about the fact he hasn’t won a game in Cleveland going into his fifth season as Cincinnati Bengals head coach. He didn’t come out and say that 0-4 road record against the Browns eats at him, but it is something he hopes to change as the Bengals head north for their opener Sunday.
The Browns have won five of the last six and eight of the last 10 meetings in the “Battle of Ohio,” and the Bengals are 2-6 against the in-state rival under Taylor with two wins in four home games.
Cincinnati has been talking about getting off to a faster start in 2023 than the past two seasons, and with back-to-back AFC North games to kick things off, that could be key to the overall goal of playing an AFC Championship game at home.
“There have been tough ones up there,” Taylor said. “I’m trying to think about every situation we’ve been in. A Thursday night game, a week 18 game before the playoffs, a Monday night game last year. I barely remember the first year. It was late in the season. It was a close game. We throw a hole shot to Alex Erickson. They’ve all been different experiences. Certainly, we need to play better and coach better.”
Here are five storylines to watch in the season-opener:
1. First look at new safeties
The biggest question for the Bengals this season is how they overcome the departure of safeties Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell, and Sunday is the first real look at the new safety tandem of Nick Scott and Dax Hill. Bates and Bell were known as one of the best duos in the NFL because of their chemistry and communication as much as their talent and aggressive play, and that won’t be easy to replicate.
Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said he was pleased with how Scott and Hill have looked together so far, but “the proof is in the pudding” so he hopes to see it on the field Sunday.
Scott said he and Hill spend a lot of time on their own together working to build that relationship, and they have “plenty of trust for one another,” which is a big key.
“Me and Dax are going to be fired up to start that journey together,” Scott said. “I’m just looking forward to starting that connection because it is different once you start playing in the game. You just jell different so I’m excited to see what that’s going to be like to play off each other.”
2. Watson to test secondary
The Bengals not only have a new safety tandem but also two cornerbacks with something to prove, and Deshaun Watson is a quarterback capable of making defenses pay for mistakes.
Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie is playing his first game since tearing his ACL at Cleveland last Halloween, and he’s joined on the outside by Cam Taylor-Britt, who served as Awuzie’s replacement but now is the new full-time starter following Eli Apple’s departure.
Watson has played just six games since 2020 because he sat out in 2021 with the Texans while demanding a trade. After he got his wish in 2022, he missed the first 11 games with the Browns because of suspension after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct, and he was up and down in his return to the field. He completed 58.2 percent of his passes for 1,102 yards and seven touchdowns with five interceptions, but the Bengals are aware of the talent that made him a first-round draft pick in 2017, and they don’t plan to fall into the trap of thinking this will be an easy opponent to defend.
“He’s one of the better quarterbacks in our league for sure,” Anarumo said. “He can run, can throw, he’s proven he can do it at the highest level and finish in the top whatever numbers-wise in our league. We’re certainly not sleeping on him.”
Watson has weapons like wide receivers Amari Cooper, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Elijah Moore and tight end David Njoku to target, and Nick Chubb opens up the passing game with an ability to dominate on the ground.
3. Burrow ready to go
Taylor confirmed Friday that Joe Burrow would play Sunday, after saying all week that the Bengals would have to wait and see how he reacted to practices this week.
Burrow made it through the toughest practice of the week Thursday without any setbacks, and Taylor said he looks good and has been consistent in his practices since returning from a strained right calf injury last week.
A new contract in hand also perhaps takes a weight off Burrow’s shoulders as the Bengals look to get off to a faster start in 2023 than the past few years. Burrow is 24-17-1 in his three seasons as a Bengal, but 1-2 in openers, and Cincinnati was 5-4 going into the bye week the past two years.
Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said there’s no different way of preparing to try to ensure a better start this season, but Burrow has faced different challenges each of his four preseasons and the nature of his calf injury puts him in a better spot than when he was coming back from ACL surgery in 2021 and an appendectomy in 2022.
“He looks great throwing the ball, you can tell he is in shape and his ... his timing is good,” Callahan said. “All those things still didn’t seem to be affected at all. So that was a positive thing. … I think he’ll be able to make a pretty quick jump back into the into the fray.”
4. Offensive line chemistry
Left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. faces a big test in his first game with the Bengals with the task of trying to block Myles Garrett. He said he embraces that challenge as a chance to prove what he brings to a team that previously has struggled stopping Garrett from impacting their quarterback. Garrett has 11 sacks in nine meetings with the Bengals, but he’s beaten Brown for just one sack in five times they have faced one another.
On the other side, Jonah Williams will be trying to showcase that he can be a more than serviceable right tackle after he initially took it personally that the Bengals were replacing him at left tackle. The coaching staff has been pleased with the effort he’s put into making that transition while also coming back from surgery to replace a dislocated kneecap. He easily won the starting job early in camp.
Brown’s performance might be most important Sunday, keeping Garrett at bay, but Williams could be a big key to the team’s success if he can hold up at a spot where La’el Collins didn’t live up to expectations last year. Cincinnati also is hoping the continuity in the interior offensive line spots will make for a more connected unit and cohesive offense.
5. Injury reports and availability
The Bengals’ injury report was clear except for defensive end Joseph Ossai being ruled out because of a high ankle sprain suffered in the preseason finale. Taylor said he is making good process and is close to a return but that won’t be Sunday.
Cleveland received some good news Friday with cornerback Denzel Ward clearing concussion protocols and available to play Sunday. The only player the Browns have listed as questionable is safety Juan Thornhill. Wide receiver Marquise Goodwin was limited this week because of illness, but he is expected to play, and the only other player that seemed possibly in doubt was defensive end Alex Wright, who was limited early in the week because of a knee injury. Wright was a full participant Friday.
Bengals at Browns, 1 p.m., CBS, 1290, 1530, 95.7, 102.7, 104.7,