The wait for Cincinnati Bengals football is finally over.
After an offseason of OTAs, the draft, training camp and preseason games, the 2018 season officially begins when the Bengals head up I-74 to face the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.
While a lot of the game's focus will center on Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and his return from a torn labrum that cost him the 2017 season, here are some key areas to focus on as the Bengals look to win their fourth regular season opener in the past five years.
1. Under Pressure – Quietly the Bengals have put together a fearsome front seven that has depth, versatility and explosiveness. It showed during the preseason where the defensive line was solid generating 12 sacks through the first three games and 13 overall.
The Bengals have at least three major pass-rush threats that can have the ability to reach double-digit sacks in 2018 with Geno Atkins (9.0 sacks in 2017), Carl Lawson (8.5) and Carlos Dunlap (7.5) in the fold. Adding Michael Johnson's five sacks from a year ago and some new energy on the line with Sam Hubbard and more playing time for Andrew Billings should create havoc for opposing offensive lines all season long.
The Colts made it clear this past offseason that building up the offensive line in order to better protect Luck was paramount. Indianapolis selected guard Quenton Nelson with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft and are placing him between eight-year veteran Anthony Castonzo (who was listed on this week's injury report) at left tackle and fifth-year lineman Ryan Kelly at center. The right side, however, is the side to watch with Matt Slauson starting at guard and Joe Haeg at right tackle. That is where Dunlap and Lawson could make noise throughout the contest.
2. Red Zone Efficiency – Last season Cincinnati ranked 12th in red zone efficiency scoring on 24 of 43 red zone attempts (55.8 percent). While it ranked in the top half of the league, there is a lot of optimism in Bill Lazor's offense that the rate should increase in 2018 thanks to a new system and an improved offensive line.
To push the red zone efficiency number higher, Lazor and the offense worked a lot in practice on those situations. Lazor has experimented with various route combinations and personnel groupings for that part of the field while also improving the team communication and play timing.
When Cincinnati's red zone offense is clicking, it usually translates into victories. For example, the Bengals found a lot of success in the red zone in 2015, with A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and Jeremy Hill converting a high number of their opportunities into scores. That was a big part of a 12-win season and winning the AFC North.
The Colts will showcase a remodeled Tampa-2 defense. Indianapolis finished in the bottom third in total defense (30th last season) in five of former head coach Chuck Pagano's six years. One positive though was the Colts D in the red zone allowing 52.9 percent of opponents to score, good for 16th in the NFL.
One of the preliminary concepts of the Tampa-2 defense is to run through the middle linebacker, who reads what type of play the offense is running. He will drop back into coverage on pass plays or attack the ball carrier in run support. In reality, it is meant to help the back end of the defense by creating what can be called a "three-safety set" with the middle linebacker dropping further back than in the traditional Cover 2. It can lead to a lot of yards, but be incredibly difficult for teams in the red zone trying to convert in between the tackles.
It's a tried and true cliché but can a team actually rely on a scheme — in this case the Tampa-2 — keeping teams out of the end zone if it's giving up lots of yards?
Bengals fans will find out the answer soon.
3. Secondary Options – While a lot of attention will be focused on the Andy Dalton-A.J. Green connection, many are wondering who will step up as secondary options on offense. There are players with a good track record in Eifert and Giovanni Bernard and a couple of high ceiling options as well in Joe Mixon, John Ross and Tyler Boyd.
Eifert is one of the best in the NFL in the red zone and stretching defenses in the middle of the field, but his usage remains one of the biggest question marks heading into the season. Eifert played just two games last year because of knee and back injuries and began training camp on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list as a precaution while easing him into full practices.
Easing Eifert back should increase the opportunities for players like Ross, Mixon and Boyd. The trio each caught a highlight-reel touchdown from Dalton during the preseason. Their ability to stretch the defense and create mismatches in space should help control the game tempo and put points on the board.
Kickoff: 1 p.m. Eastern.
Television: The game will air on CBS-TV. Broadcasters are Andrew Catalon (play-by-play), James Lofton (analyst) and Jane Slater (analyst). In the Bengals' home region, it will be carried by WKRC-TV (Ch. 12) in Cincinnati, WHIO-TV (Ch. 7) in Dayton and on WKYT-TV (Ch. 27) in Lexington, Ky.
Radio: The game will air on the Bengals Radio Network, led by Cincinnati flagship stations WCKY-AM (ESPN 1530) and WEBN-FM (102.7). Broadcasters are Dan Hoard (play-by-play) and Dave Lapham (analyst).