Five Things to Watch: Bengals at Cowboys

Ja'Marr Chase PIT
Ja'Marr Chase looks to build on dominant performance in Week 1.

The Bengals hit the road for the first time this season when they take on the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on Sunday. The game will feature key matchups on both sides of the ball, while a pair of Cincinnati starters are set to line up against their former team.

Here are five things to watch between the Bengals and Cowboys on Sunday:

1. Ja'Marr Chase vs. Trevon Diggs

This is Geoff Hobson's "Matchup of the Game." Fans will get a look at two of the NFL's premier stars going head-to-head in Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase and Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs.

Chase, who took the league by storm last season with a Bengals single-season record 1455 receiving yards, opened the 2022 campaign with a sensational performance against the Steelers. He caught 10 passes for 129 yards and a game-tying touchdown with two seconds left in the fourth quarter, all while being moved around at different spots in the absence of Tee Higgins. Not to mention, he played 100 offensive snaps and was admittedly exhausted during those final few drives as quarterback Joe Burrow kept feeding him.

"He was dominant," said offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. "The effort it took to be dominant was incredible. The stamina, the mental focus, it was one of the most impressive individual performances I've seen. Maybe ever."

Chase is used to drawing coverage from the opponent's top corner. On Sunday, that comes in the form of Diggs, who in 2021 had a league-high 11 interceptions en route to being named first-team All-Pro. Cincinnati's ability to get Chase the ball, both on intermediate routes and when taking downfield shots, will figure into how effective the Bengals offense can be. But just as notable will be the instances when Diggs looks to take a chance and anticipate one of Chase's routes, an instinct he has gained a reputation for.

"He makes a lot of plays," Burrow said in his Wednesday news conference. "He's not afraid to take chances, he's going to jump routes and you've got to be aware of who you're throwing a 50-50 ball to when he's covering him, because he's going to go make a play. I think he was a former receiver at some point in his career, so you have to be aware of that."

2. Game Plan for Micah Parsons

When Joe Burrow was asked what stands out to him about the Cowboys defense, he wasted no time referencing their Pro Bowl linebacker.

"Micah Parsons — he's a really good player," said Burrow. "We've got to have a plan for him, got to be aware of where he is at all times. He can wreck the game if you let him."

The reigning AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, Parsons picked up right where he left off in Dallas' season opener against Tampa Bay, collecting five tackles with two sacks. He is one of just five players in NFL history with 15 sacks in his first 17 games as a pro. For Cincinnati to come away with a win, the offensive line — coached by Frank Pollack, who served on the Cowboys' staff from 2013-17 — will need to keep Parsons in check.

What makes Parsons so difficult to plan for, according to Burrow, is his versatility at the line of scrimmage.

"Usually, you have a pass rusher and he lines up on one side of the ball, and you can kind of have a plan for him," said Burrow. "He rushes outside, he rushes inside, he rushes right, he rushes left. They blitz him from the linebacker position. So you've always got to be aware of where he's at."

Sunday's game is a matchup of the 2021 Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year. Ja'Marr Chase took home Offensive ROY honors last season after recording the most receiving yards (1455) by a first-year player in the Super Bowl era. Parsons grabbed the defensive honor after recording 64 tackles, 13 sacks and three forced fumbles. This is the third consecutive season that the league's top offensive and defensive rookies from the previous year meet in Weeks 1 or 2. The Offensive Rookie of the Year (Kyler Murray in 2019, Justin Herbert in '20) bested the Defensive (Joey Bosa in '19, Chase Young in '20) on both occasions.

3. Cincinnati's Secondary

The Bengals in Week 1 held Steelers quarterback Mitch Trubisky to a 55.3 completion percentage (21 of 38) and 194 yards for a passer rating of 78.2. Zac Taylor said in his Monday news conference, "Our guys were really tight in coverage and made it difficult for them. They really gave us a winning performance."

Those winning performances have become commonplace for the Cincinnati secondary, which continued a dominant trend last Sunday that began during the 2021 postseason.

Dating back to the AFC Wild Card win over Las Vegas on Jan. 15, The Bengals have held five consecutive quarterbacks to a passer rating of 100 or lower. It is the longest stretch of games in which Cincinnati has not allowed a 100+ rating since 2017, and it becomes even more impressive when noting that two of the QBs faced — Derek Carr and Patrick Mahomes — finished in the top 10 in the league in passer rating during the 2021 regular season.

Over this five-game run, quarterbacks throwing against the Bengals are 117 of 195 (60.0 completion percentage) with a 9-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

With Cowboys starter Dak Prescott sidelined by a thumb injury sustained in Dallas' opener, the Bengals are preparing to face Cooper Rush, who has started one game in five NFL seasons. If Cincinnati is going to pick up its first win, expect a big play or two coming from the veteran-led secondary.

4. Turnover Battle

After losing the turnover battle in Week 1, the Bengals will face another ball-hawking defense this Sunday, as Dallas in 2021 led the NFL with 26 interceptions and had one in its opener versus Tampa Bay. But if recent history offers any indication, it is that Cincinnati will keep the turnovers limited at AT&T Stadium.

Prior to Week 1 against Pittsburgh, the Bengals had thrown multiple interceptions in a game nine times in the Zac Taylor era (2019-present). In six of those instances, the next week saw Cincinnati have a pick-free performance. Burrow has accounted for four of those multi-INT games, and responded with a 3-1 record and a 10-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the contests that followed.

5. Chidobe Awuzie, La'el Collins Return to Dallas

There will be perhaps added motivation for two Bengals players on Sunday, as cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and offensive tackle La'el Collins face their former team for the first time.

The Cowboys used their second-round pick in 2017 to draft Awuzie, a standout corner from the University of Colorado. He went on to play in 49 regular-season contests (42 starts) for Dallas over four seasons, amassing 213 total tackles, four interceptions and 37 passes defensed. Since signing with Cincinnati as an unrestricted free agent in March of last year, Awuzie has been a key component of the Bengals' defense, helping the secondary frustrate several high-level passing attacks during the postseason run to Super Bowl LVI.

"He's a pro's pro," said Zac Taylor. "He takes it very seriously, he's a student of the game — he's just really impressive. I thought he had a great training camp last year and had a great season, then I thought he had a really good training camp this year and is off to a really good start. That's what we expect from Chido and that's just been the standard that he's set for himself."

Collins, who signed with Dallas as an undrafted college free agent in 2015, became a cornerstone member of one of the NFL's best offensive lines over the past seven seasons. He started 61 of his first 62 career games, and helped the Cowboys rank in the top five in rushing offense each year from 2015-17.

For Collins, the return to his old home stadium will bring a unique significance compared to most games, but his approach to it remains unchanged.

"Obviously, I was there the last seven years," Collins told reporters on Thursday. "I'm friends with a bunch of guys over there. It's going to be a special moment, but at the end of the day, we're going to Dallas to play football. We're locked in on that."

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