BENGALS LG CORDELL VOLSON VS STEELERS DTS CAM HEYWARD AND LARRY OGUNJOBI
Sunday's marquee matchup in the opener with the Steelers (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) pits new Bengals hired gun right tackle La'el Collins against everyone's defending NFL Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt.
But the more intriguing and the showdown with maybe the bigger impact finds the rookie Volson making his NFL debut against Heyward, the future Pro Football Hall-of-Famer who has the most tackles and passes defensed by an NFL tackle in the last four seasons.
A graduate of North Dakota's nine-man high school football league in a county with a population slightly more than the 3,500-seat capacity of Joe Burrow Stadium in Athens, Ohio, Volson could end up Sunday playing before the most fans ever to watch a football game in Cincinnati.
And if Heyward isn't enough, there's also Ogunjobi on some passing downs. Larry O. as he's known around these parts is making his first start for the Steelers on the same field he broke his foot in the last game of last year here at Paycor in the Wild Card, ending his lone season with the Bengals with seven monstrous sacks.
The Steelers may not have Big Ben. But they are still the Steelers and that means they have led the NFL in sacks the last five seasons. In his 11 seasons, Heyward has peppered the Bengals with 10.5 sacks, 19 quarterback hits and seven passes defensed, his most against any team.
"Obviously he's earned our trust and the trust of the organization," says Ted Karras, the new veteran center making his first Bengals start next to Volson. "He has kind of a quick baptism going against Cam Heyward here. I think he's very much up the challenge.
"Cam's played for such a long time. You really can't throw anything at him that he hasn't seen. He's a very large man. He plays really hard and he plays the game the right way. It's always fun to go against guys of that stature and see what you're made of."
Volson is made of the hearty stuff of northern North Dakota ("two-thirds of the way to Canada") and the Bengals thought it was sturdy enough to take in the fourth round after he played for four national champions at North Dakota State. When word broke last month that he had won the left guard job, his high coach at Drake-Anamoose High School texted congratulations.
Volson's response didn't surprise Chris Arnold.
"Just keep chopping wood," Arnold says. "That's what he said. And that's the way he's always been. He's always going to try and win the job."
If Sunday is a big deal in the Ohio Valley, try the entire state of North Dakota.
"I get calls from neighboring districts all the time telling me how great it is," says Larry Heim, Drake-Anamoose's superintendent and athletic director. "What a great thing for our kids and our community."
Just the other day Heim saw a third-grader in an elementary school of 70 children wearing a No. 67 Volson Bengals jersey. "I'm sure there's more on the way. The kids talk about it all the time."
When Volson's older brother Tanner signed undrafted out of Fargo a few years back, Heim believed he became the first product of the state's nine-man teams to be in an NFL camp since former Vikings running back Dave Osborn at Cando High School 100 miles away. Now Heim thinks Cordell is the first niner to play in an regular-season NFL game since Osborn's 12-year career ended in 1976. And it comes in the fall Volson's school dropped football.
"We've playing six-man for the last four years. When we called for players this year, seven showed up," Heim says. "But the biggest thing we wanted to make sure is that our kids got a chance to play the game. It's a great game."
So Volson's younger twin brothers are now on the roster at Velva High School, about 28 miles away, and are said to be as interesting to watch as Tanner and Cordell. But they still have a couple of more years to go before they become the talk of the Morris Lounge and Restaurant at the corner of Main Street in Drake, population 275.
"We'll have the game on Sunday, but I'm not sure how many people we'll get," says Lisa Uhlich, the owner. "It's such a rural community with farms and ranches that it's hard for people to get into town depending on the season. The people who are coming in talk about him quite a bit. There's not a day that goes by that I don't hear somebody talking about it. He's really charismatic, a sweet kid and its fun to watch."
Heim's sense is that two and three families may end up getting together for some watch parties at homes. What they'll see may make them Bengals fans for life in quite a show with Burrow leading the AFC champions into the start of another thrill ride.
Burrow's dad Jimmy actually coached at North Dakota State when his son was starting elementary school, but Joe says he hasn't talked to Volson about it much.
But he's got a good idea of what he'll watch on Sunday.
"He puts in a lot of work," Joe Burrow says. "He's earned his spot. Gets in there and practices really, really hard. And then he comes studies really, really hard. Comes back better than he was the day before. I'm excited to see him play. I think I know what I'm going to get out of him. He's going to play really hard. Tough. Physical. He's going to make mistakes. Rookie mistakes. That's how it is with any rookie offensive lineman. I'm excited to watch him."
Word out of Pittsburgh is despite Burrow and his air band, the Steelers are focused on shutting down the run. They're still stinging from running back Joe Mixon's career-high 165 yards the last time they were in this building.
If anyone knows Volson and Ogunjobi, its Bengals nose tackle D.J. Reader. Reader and Ogunjobi are both from Greensboro, N.C., and Reader battled Volson this training camp. With the 6-6 Volson tipping it at 315, Reader likes his length.
"He's bigger than most guards. He's got long arms. He's going be a good player," Reader says. "He goes hard. He does all the right things. He's got a good first punch. He fights. You really can't make the guy have fight if he doesn't have it and he's got fight.
"Larry goes hard all the time. And he's quick and knows how to use his hands on the pass rush."
Volson's crowded hour is almost here.