One of the more interesting games of week one, the Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals are considered two teams cut from the same cloth, winning with strong defense and special teams with efficient offense sprinkled in. Could one of theme take a step forward?
#5. Devin Hester vs. Adam Jones
Punt returners normally don’t make a list like this unless in extreme circumstance. Considering Adam Jones and Devin Hester are both highly accomplished return men and that the Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals defense are two of the best in football, it’s fair to say these two men could have a profound impact on the outcome. Hester is back to returning full time, no longer hampered by the responsibilities of playing wide receiver. Jones is no less dangerous, averaging 11 yards per return last year including a touchdown. Their impact on field position is immensely important to this contest.
#4. Andy Dalton vs. Jay Cutler
Given the importance of quarterbacks on a football field, it’s surprising Andy Dalton and Jay Cutler rank so low on the list. A big reason for that is the quality of the defenses they face. In this game it is less about how explosive either of them are and more about how many mistakes they make. Turnovers were telling for both last year. Dalton threw 16 interceptions and lost four fumbles while Cutler tossed 14 interceptions and also lost four fumbles. Both must play well to win but considering the mirror image of the teams, it could turn out being who makes fewer mistakes that decides the winner. It’s worth noting Cutler threw three interceptions the last time he played Cincinnati, while Dalton has never faced the Bears defense, which led the league with 44 takeaways last year.
#3. Matt Forte vs. Ray Maualuga
This battle is actually a double-sided affair. Ray Maualuga is one of the more reliable run defending linebackers in the league, a key reason why the Bengals don’t fret too much about the run. Matt Forte is an obvious threat on the ground, rushing for over 1,000 yards last year. However, the real test of this matchup lay in Forte’s receiving ability. Head coach Marc Trestman said Forte’s greatest strength was how he could line up anywhere and catch passes. Pass coverage is not a “forte” of Maualuga’s, and figures to become something the Bears will try to exploit with their dynamic dual-threat running back.
#2. Julius Peppers vs. Anthony Collins
There is no question the biggest injury heading into this opening game lay on the Bengals offensive line. Their Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth is doubtful with a knee injury. This will force them to plug six-year veteran Anthony Collins into the starting lineup. Collins played just five games last year and hasn’t started since 2011. His first assignment is not exactly the kind that will ease him into the role. The Chicago Bears will throw All-Pro defensive end Julius Peppers at him all afternoon, hoping to harass Andy Dalton to the point where he is getting sacked or better yet causing turnovers. Collins is definitely the weak link. Cincinnati only hopes he can hold his own.
#1. Geno Atkins vs. Kyle Long
There is no doubt though where the real action will be on Sunday. Everybody is going to watch the four-quarter duel between All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins and rookie guard Kyle Long. Atkins comes off a season where he compiled 12.5 sacks, making him the best interior pass rusher in the NFL. Long was the first round pick for the Bears in the draft. Though initially considered a reach by experts due to limited starting experience in college, his clear physical prowess and ascent to the starting job has those same experts very intrigued. Considering a star like Atkins is his first real test as a pro, it should make for an exciting, if dangerous opener for the Chicago Bears offensive line.