Hub Arkush: Key matchups, players to watch and more for Bears vs. Bengals

The Cincinnati Bengals are an improved football team coming off a big opening-day upset of the Vikings at home, but a close look at the tape shows an uneven performance against an opponent of unknown quality, while the Bears played poorly and lost badly to one of the NFC’s better teams.

Bengals coach Zac Taylor would be in a make-it-or-break-it season with most franchises, but things work differently with Bengals ownership. Interestingly, he made his bones as a Sean McVay disciple and is another one of the NFL’s many young offensive gurus. His offense is much improved but still mistake-prone, while the Bengals’ defense is a work in progress and short on playmakers.

The Bears are 2½-point favorites, and the over/under is 45½ points.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Bengals defensive backs vs. Bears receivers; Bengals wide receivers vs. Bears cornerbacks

The Bengals’ top cornerback, Trae Waynes, and No. 3 safety Ricardo Allen will be out with hamstring injuries. Their third corner, Darius Phillips, will try to go, hobbled with a thigh injury. The Bears are certain to test journeyman corner Eli Apple and Phillips with their speed guys and use tight ends Cole Kmet and Jimmy Graham to stress safeties Vonn Bell and Jesse Bates III.

Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins are nice wide receivers, and Ja’Marr Chase looks like a budding superstar. They are certain to challenge Bears corners Jaylon Johnson and Kindle Vildor. The Bengals will attack the nickel and see if safeties can help out this week.

COACHING DECISION TO WATCH

Will Bears coach Matt Nagy open up his playbook?

It is easy to see why Nagy focused on quick-developing, get-the-ball-out-ASAP plays last week. It was the best way to keep Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey from dominating, but not to the exclusion of any attempts to get over the top and leverage his newfound speed.

Will he again focus on efficiency over explosives? Or will he open up the playbook for his offense this week, and if he, does will he remember his ground game?

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Bengals RB Joe Mixon, WR Ja’Marr Chase, DT B.J. Hill; Bears TE Jimmy Graham, OLB Khalil Mack

Mixon is the focal point of the Bengals’ offense. He piled up 33 touches last week, including 29 rushes. Although a rookie with only one game played, Chase may be more dangerous than any of the other Rams wideouts, and Hill is extremely active and sacked Kirk Cousins twice last week.

Why Graham got only 13 snaps vs. the Rams is a bit of a mystery, but he’s still a red-zone nightmare for defenses, and after allowing five sacks last week, this Bengals O-line is made for a breakout game from Mack.

THE X-FACTOR

Bears QB Justin Fields

Fields, and how effectively Nagy uses him, will be the X-factor every week until he is the starter.

WILD-CARD PLAYERS WHO COULD SURPRISE

Bengals TE C.J. Uzomah and DE Sam Hubbard; Bears OLBs Trevis Gipson and Jeremiah Attaochu

Uzomah was a developing young Y tight end until missing all but two games last season. He will make plays if the Bears focus too much on Mixon, Chase and Higgins.

Hubbard is a nice but not special edge rusher likely to spend most of the afternoon squaring off against the Bears’ left tackle.

The Vikings succeeded coming in waves at Burrow in Week 1, and although Mack and Robert Quinn need to take over this game, Gipson and Attaochu will get their chances to make plays, as well.

THE FINAL WORD

Bears 30, Bengals 20

The real question here is how much better are the Bengals than last year, and are the Bears worse, and if so, how much? With only 60 minutes to judge so far, it’s impossible to say.

But the Bears still have the more talented roster and should be on fire and desperate for a win in their home opener in front of a full house for the first time in almost two years. I wouldn’t expect it to be pretty, though. The Bears have a lot to fix.


Hub Arkush

Hub Arkush

Hub Arkush is a Bears/NFL Insider for Shaw Media