Joe Burrow hopes to make a triumphant return Sunday as the Cincinnati Bengals host the Minnesota Vikings in the season opener at Paul Brown Stadium.
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer probably feels the same way.
Burrow, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, was playing well for the Bengals last season before a knee injury in Week 10 cost him the final six games. Burrow threw for 2,688 yards with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions before the injury.
How well Burrow will play now remains a bit of an uncertainty. He logged just three meaningless reps in the preseason finale last month in his only game action since the setback. The Bengals, 4-11-1 last season, have gone all in on Burrow with promising young receivers Tee Higgins (67 receptions, 908 yards, six touchdowns) and Tyler Boyd (79-841-4). Cincinnati added to the potential firepower with Burrow’s former LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase, selected with the fifth overall pick in the 2021 draft.
It’s clear the Bengals need Burrow to build on the form he flashed early last season if they’re to make a move in the AFC North.
“I expect to be better,” Burrow said. “I put in a lot of work this offseason that I’m excited to show off — as well as all of our guys have. We’re a much better football team that has prepared the way we need to and understands how to win games now, I think.”
Zimmer, entering his eighth season in Minnesota, was the Bengals’ defensive coordinator from 2008-13 and crafted top 10 defenses with the Bengals four times (2009, 2011-13) before joining the Vikings. It will be his first game back in his old environment.
And while the Vikings have a potent offense, defense will be in focus on Sunday. RB Dalvin Cook (1,557 rushing yards, 16 TDs in 2021), and wideouts Adam Thielen (74-925, 14 TDs) and Justin Jefferson (88-1,400, seven TDs) — himself another Burrow college teammate — give QB Kirk Cousins (4,265 yards, 35 TDs, 13 interceptions) the weapons to match most teams in a shootout.
Zimmer, however, would prefer to see improvement first from the defense, which finished 29th in the NFL last season by allowing 29.7 points per game. Minnesota was in contention for much of the year, but missed the playoffs at 7-9.
“The offense had a lot of good stats, but part of it was they had to,” Zimmer said. “We got to go out and play, and actually do it.”
It may take some time to gel, however.
Linebacker Anthony Barr (knee) is questionable, and both TE Tyler Conklin (hamstring) and OT Christian Darrisaw (groin) were also limited in practice on Wednesday. This comes on the heels of losing TE Irv Smith Jr. (torn meniscus) for the season, and RB Kene Nwangwu and WR Dan Chisena will start the season on IR.
The Bengals had a large roster overhaul. Of the 46 players who appeared in the final game of 2020, 22 are not on the 53-man roster — including eight starters.
Cincinnati will enter the opener relatively healthy with only CB Trae Waynes (hamstring) ruled out for Sunday.
“It’s an exciting time right now,” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said. “We feel good about the guys we have on this team and where we are as we head into the regular season.”
–Field Level Media