The Zac Taylor era officially kicks off today when the Cincinnati Bengals play the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field. What a way to open the season.
Taylor is familiar with the Seahawks as a division opponent the last two years when he was an assistant for the Los Angeles Rams, but the Bengals haven’t played in Seattle since 2011 when quarterback Andy Dalton was a rookie.
Cincinnati won that game 34-12 and the Seahawks went on to finish 7-9 but much has changed in the seven seasons since then. That was their last losing record. They’ve made the playoffs six times, including two Super Bowl appearances and a win to finish the 2013 season.
The Bengals know they are in for a steep challenge but hope to give Taylor a win in his first meaningful game. Here are five storylines to watch in today’s season opener, which will broadcast on WHIO-TV Ch. 7:
1. Going on the run
Running back Joe Mixon played just three snaps this preseason and did everything he could to remain involved, mainly by staying in Taylor’s ear on the sidelines. He’s been waiting to be unleashed and Sunday will be the first time the Bengals really roll out their complete offense.
Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan say they want spread out the carries between Mixon and Giovani Bernard to keep them both fresh, but it’s still uncertain how much they will share the workload.
“There is a ratio,” Callahan said. “I don’t want to divulge what it is. But yeah, sometimes when guys get hot, you let them carry it. You certainly try to divvy up carries and divvy up routes and responsibilities and protections and keep those guys fresh.”
2. Seahawks bolster defensive line
The Seahawks traded away defensive end Frank Clark to the Chiefs just before the draft in April and ended up with two new pass rushers at an even better value. They signed former Detroit end Ziggy Ansah in May and this week acquired Jadeveon Clowney from Houston.
Taylor said Clowney doesn’t disrupt the Bengals’ game preparations. Seattle always has an elite pass rusher, and that’s what he has come to expect.
An imposing defensive line and strong linebacker corps led by Bobby Wagner will make things difficult on the Bengals’ offense, especially with a line that will be without left tackle Cordy Glenn, who remained in concussion protocol Friday and was declared “out” on the injury report. Andre Smith is expected to start in his place.
“Our tackles for the most part are going to have their hands full,” Mixon said. “They have to bow up and get ready. I’m not worried one bit about our tackles and what our line will be able to do. People fail to realize — they always saying our line is week — they don’t remember we have the AFC’s leading rusher. Andy done put up numbers, … TB (Tyler Boyd) put up numbers. They are failing to realize that. But we gonna wake ‘em up soon.”
3. Returning home
The Bengals have two former University of Washington players who will be making a return to Seattle.
John Ross, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2017, is expected to play despite missing all but the final week of preseason practices and will get his first game action in Taylor’s new offense. He has been working back from a hamstring issue that surfaced in the spring.
Rookie second-round pick Drew Sample grew up in nearby Bellevue, Wash., before joining the Huskies. Sample is expected to play a big part in the Bengals’ run blocking this season but won’t get an easy introduction to the NFL on Sunday.
4. Seattle’s rushing attack
The Bengals’ front seven will have their hands full as the Seahawks boast one of the best rushing attacks in the league. In fact, they were No. 1 last year with 160 yards rushing per game.
Chris Carson, a seventh-round draft pick in 2017, is one of the most underrated running backs in the league and was the NFL’s fifth leading rusher last year while averaging 4.7 yards a carry. He’s joined in the backfield by Rashaad Penny, and the Bengals also have to account for Russell Wilson, an athletic dual-threat quarterback.
“They have good backs,” Taylor said. “They know where they’re going up front. They’re always targeted correctly. Their quarterback adds that element that is tough to defend. When you have a running quarterback in the NFL — someone like him, who’s not only a great runner, but (also) a great thrower — you have to respect that as a defensive back, as a linebacker. He also has the ability to make you pay with his feet. That’s an element that can create a lot of rushing yards and really keep defenses on their heels.”
The Bengals had one of the worst run defenses in the league last year, allowing 137.6 yards per game.
5. Prepare for noise
CenturyLink Field is known as one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL, as the Seahawks regularly pack in large crowds. The Bengals have been working on nonverbal cadences and pumping up the music at practices since the spring to prepare for environments like this one, but communication is going to be key Sunday.
“When you’re playing in the noise, you have to have good communication,” Dalton said. “You’ve got to make sure everybody is on the same page – everybody is dialed in and everybody is listening. We’ll prepare as much as we can for it. We know it’s going to be loud with it being the first game of the year, and Seattle is already a loud place. We can’t have the mistakes. We can’t jump offside, and we can’t do things that will set us back. We’ve got to prepare for it and be ready for it mentally.”