The 2021 Cincinnati Bengals projected this season as a "New Dey" for the franchise, and things sure felt fresh in their 27-24 season-opening overtime win over the Minnesota Vikings.
Cincinnati controlled the game tempo with their defensive front seven, leaned on a fresh Joe Mixon coming off a great training camp, and counted on their rookie kicker to nail his first career game-winning field goal.
The opening chapter of this season produced a Bengals team that met adversity head-on. They found a way to win a season opener at home for the first time since 2007.
Here is our Three Down Look of all the action from a steamy day in the jungle.
First Down: Bengals Revamped Defense
Reports all across training camp indicated this Bengals defense is turning over a new leaf. Financially that should be expected after starting the season spending the second most of any NFL team on their defense. Yet, the NFL world at large wasn't buying it.
The stock is rising after week one. Cincinnati shut down Dalvin Cook and the highly-touted Vikings ground game, all while limiting Kirk Cousin's options on the outside. Cook finished with 61 yards on 20 carries, good for -6.7 EPA (expected points added).
DJ Reader, B.J. Hill, and Larry Ogunjobi showed they can be an elite rotation on the interior. The trio combined for three sacks, three QB hits, and four tackles for loss. Cincinnati got instant impact plays from Hill, who finished with three tackles and two sacks mere weeks after the Bengals flipped him for Billy Price. Ogunjobi had six tackles (two for loss) and a sack.
The entire front seven was active all day long, which allowed Jessie Bates III, Vonn Bell and company to tie up loose ends. Chidobe Awuzie and the entire secondary did a great job containing Justin Jefferson. The second-year receiver caught just five of nine targets for 71 yards. He finished with 1.1 EPA and the worst success rate (positive EPA rate/play) of any Vikings pass catcher.
Eli Apple is the clear weak link in this phase of the game. Yet Cincinnati is expecting Trae Waynes back sooner rather than later. His open-field tackling ability leaves this unit with few holes.
Second Down: "How Ya Doin?"
If Bengals fans only listened to national outlets over the past month, they'd be quite surprised at the final stat line from the Bengals 2021 first-round pick: five catches for 101 yards and a touchdown.
Ja'Marr Chase played lights out in his debut that featured a rainbow touchdown that LSU fans know all too well.
Chase (9.0 EPA) trailed only Cousins (10.2) in total EPA on the day. He was the only player in the game to average over one EPA/play. It was a hyper-efficient outing that featured all the reasons why this front office decided to draft Chase over Penei Sewell.
Sunday was a record-breaking day. The performance shattered stat lines from previous Bengals' rookie receiving debuts.
Hitting the deep ball was a constant struggle in 2020, which hampered the rushing attack in the process. Minnesota had to respect Chase, aiding Mixon's bell cow outing. The running back finished with 127 yards and a score on 29 carries, becoming the first Bengals rusher to tally 100 yards in a season opener since Cedric Benson in 2011.
Who knows how Chase fairs the rest of 2021, but Sunday could be the snowball that avalanches him towards a season like Jefferson had in 2020.
Third Down: Money McPerfection
Evan McPherson hasn't missed an in-game kick since 2020, and the Bengals benefitted greatly from that fact on Sunday. For years, Cincinnati fans had to tremble when drives stalled between their opponent's 30-yard-line and midfield.
According to Taylor, Mcpherson was "nails" on Sunday, smashing both his field goal opportunities. One from 53 yards at the beginning of the fourth quarter and another 33-yarder to ice the victory in overtime.
The whole team believes they are scoring once they cross midfield, and that is an infectious mindset. A year after their kicker stole a week one victory away, the Bengals righted that wrong to start the 2021 season on a perfect note.
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