Cincinnati Bengals: Questions for Week 1 vs. Bears

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Cincinnati BengalsThe preseason is complete and it’s time for the real thing. After much off season hype, even being picked by some to be the next Super Bowl champions, the Cincinnati Bengals open their 2013 campaign on the road this Sunday in Chicago. Many questions surround the team as the regular season begins and the men in stripes start their quest to get over that proverbial “hump” and become serious contenders.

1. Can Andy Dalton become the quarterback that this team needs to be successful? We’ve all heard about the successes that quarterbacks have in their third seasons at the helm and this will be the third for Dalton. The questions about his arm strength will continue to be in play, but perhaps the one thing this team needs most from their quarterback is some fiery “red head” leadership. The weapons For Dalton are all in place but it is time for him to make the Bengals his team.

2. Will James Harrison bring that “nasty edge” to an already talented defense? Harrison didn’t see a lot of action in the preseason but when he was on the field, he made an immediate impact. Does he become the vocal leader of this defense and put a little “nasty” in them all? The Cincinnati defense has all the ingredients to become NFL elite, does Harrison help take them there?

3. How does the defense replace the injured Emmanuel Lamur? Lamur had a fine, though unheralded 2012 season, but is now gone for the year with a shoulder injury. His biggest contributions were in pass coverage as the starting linebacker in nickel packages after coming to the Bengals as an undrafted free agent. Does 2013 UFA Jayson DiManche become the next Lamur? Will Rey Maualuga step up from a poor showing in pass coverage last season? Don’t be shocked to see the team pull in a free agent linebacker off the waiver wire before the opener.

4. Can the secondary hold its own against a schedule full of elite quarterbacks and receivers? A look at the schedule sees the Bengals seeing Brandon Marshall, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady, and that is just in the first five weeks. Looming beyond that are Calvin Johnson, Joe Flacco, and Andrew Luck. The Cincinnati defense is sometimes nearly impossible to run against with their talented front line, so the pressure goes to the secondary and how they stand up against some of the NFL’s best. One thing to watch for will be to see who takes the bull by the horns and grabs the second starting safety position.

5. How do the first two draft picks improve this offense? Bengals fans saw a lot more of Giovani Bernard in the preseason than they did of Tyler Eifert and Bernard was impressive and multi-dimensional, drawing comparisons to James Brooks. Eifert only caught three balls in the preseason games but his work in camp has been outstanding and the double-headed monster at tight end of Eifert and Jermaine Gresham should keep opponents’ defensive coordinators awake at night. The “smash and flash” combo of Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis will allow Jay Gruden and the Bengals some much needed flexibility coming out of the backfield.

6. Will Andrew Whitworth be healthy for the opener and beyond? Unquestionably the leader of the offensive line, Whitworth did not get a single snap in the preseason. If he cannot go, who steps up to fill a very large void?

7. Can Marvin Lewis take this team to playoff glory? Lewis is the longest tenured coach in team history and has built this team into a yearly contender after two consecutive playoff appearances and three in four years, but as we all know, none of those postseason appearances lasted more than one game. Is the pressure on Lewis to take that next step with his team? He has perhaps the most talented and deep roster that he has ever had at his disposal and Cincinnati fans are expecting big things.

Every team in the National Football League is facing similar questions in this week leading up to the regular season openers. In Cincinnati, the answers will begin to become more clear around 1 p.m. ET Sunday at Soldier Field in Chicago.