The Bengals open the 2023 regular season on the road at Cleveland in the 100th installment of the "Battle of Ohio" on Sunday. The game airs at 1 p.m. on CBS (Local 12 in Cincinnati). Here are five things to watch:
1. Orlando Brown Jr. vs. Myles Garrett
The Bengals' biggest splash in free agency this offseason came in the form of four-time Pro Bowler Orlando Brown Jr., who was brought in partly to take on the elite pass rushers around the AFC North. His debut as Cincinnati's starting left tackle will pit him against Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, whose 74.5 career sacks are the third-most in the NFL since he entered the league as the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2017.
Garrett's ability to disrupt an offensive game plan was noticeable when facing the Bengals last season. In the two Battle of Ohio matchups, he totaled 3.5 sacks that pushed the Bengals back a combined 24 yards, while also swatting down three passes at the line of scrimmage.
Keeping Garrett out of the backfield and allowing the Bengals' playmakers to develop their routes will be crucial in establishing a rhythm offensively. Brown is looking to further establish himself as a premier left tackle in the NFL, and getting the upper hand in his Week 1 matchup would make for a successful debut.
2. Bengals D-line faces high-powered run game
Head coach Zac Taylor has never hesitated to note the physicality of AFC North contests, and perhaps no matchup will highlight that more on Sunday than the Bengals' run defense taking on the Browns' rushing attack. Both teams ranked in the top 10 in their respective category last season, as Cincinnati allowed the seventh-fewest rushing yards per game (106.6) while Cleveland averaged the sixth-most yards on the ground (146.5).
Spearheading the Browns' run game is Pro Bowl back Nick Chubb, who in Cleveland's win over Cincinnati last Halloween had 101 yards on 23 carries with two touchdowns. When the teams met again in Week 14, the Bengals' front bottled Chubb for just 34 yards (2.4 per carry), his second-lowest output of the season.
Shutting down the run has been a pillar of Lou Anarumo's defense, and the side that comes out on top of this strength-on-strength showdown will give its team a substantial edge.
3. Secondary vs. Amari Cooper
Similar to Chubb, much of Cleveland's offensive success against Cincinnati last year mirrored the production of their top wide receiver, Amari Cooper. Cooper had a season-best 131 receiving yards with a touchdown in the Browns' Week 8 win over the Bengals, but was limited to just 42 yards on two grabs in the rematch six weeks later.
Cooper will face coverage from an athletic Bengals secondary that includes his former Cowboys teammate Chidobe Awuzie, who is set to play in his first game since a season-ending knee injury at Cleveland last year, as well as Cam Taylor-Britt, who had one of his top performances as a rookie in the Week 14 victory over the Browns at Paycor Stadium.
4. Wide receiver trio back in action
Sunday will mark the first look of the 2023 season at Cincinnati's dynamic trio of Tyler Boyd, Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. The three wideouts each had at least 700 receiving yards last year, marking one of two trios in the league to do so.
The Browns will need to have answers for a high-powered Bengals passing attack and may have taken a step in that direction on Wednesday, as Cleveland's top corner Denzel Ward — who had been in concussion protocol — returned to practice.
No matter what Ward's status is on Sunday, however, Zac Taylor will look to get his stable of receivers involved early and often.
5. Rookie debuts
Several Bengals rookies are expected to get their first taste of regular-season NFL action on Sunday. Offensively, Andrei Iosivas looks to carry over his performance from a sensational preseason that saw him lead the team in receptions (12) and receiving yards (129). On the defensive side, a trio of defensive backs in second-round draft choice DJ Turner II, third-rounder Jordan Battle and seventh-rounder DJ Ivey could see playing time after each showed flashes of potential throughout training camp.
Perhaps the biggest contribution from the rookie class will come on special teams, where Brad Robbins is set to take on full-time punting duties. Robbins logged eight punts in the preseason, averaging 46.4 yards per attempt with three downed inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Fourth-round slot receiver Charlie Jones may also be in the mix to return punts. Jones was the Big Ten Return Specialist of the Year in 2021, when he had 285 punt return yards and 635 kick return yards while at the University of Iowa.