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Last we all checked the Cincinnati Bengals were a Super Bowl team that surprised everyone because they were so young and so suddenly good.
Well, if you return to the scene of last year’s thunderbolt strike, the fire ignited is still burning. And it could get hotter in 2022. That’s because 1,000-yard receivers Ja’Marr and Tee Higgins are just now 22- and 23-years old, respectively, and still getting better.
And, running back Joe Mixon, with three 1,000-yard seasons in the last four years, just turned 26 and could be hitting his prime.
And because quarterback Joe Burrow, about to begin his third NFL season, is already pretty special and might be soon considered elite. Last season he completed over 70 percent of his passes and threw for 4,611 yards and 34 TDs.
Burrow’s Bengals Are Loaded
The 2022 Bengals, on offense at least, promise to be a trigonometry problem for opposing coaches with no great answers.
“You have to pick your poison,” Burrow told reporters Wednesday. “If you’re going to play two high (safeties), you’re going to have to deal with Joe Mixon in the run game. If you decide you’re going to play man (against the wide receivers), then, good luck.”
It sounds ominous for the teams on Cincinnati’s schedule, including the Pittsburgh Steelers in the regular-season opener on Sept. 11.
It certainly seemed that way at times last year, especially later in the year as Cincy’s playmakers gained experience and kept improving. Well, maybe that 2021 improvement that led to a Super Bowl continues this year because the Bengals didn’t exactly graduate anyone.
And that’s exactly what Burrow is expecting.
“We’re, obviously, I would say higher level execution than we were the last two years,” the quarterback said. “More years in the offense. More veteran players. I’m excited about where we’re at. Obviously, a lot of room to improve. But where we’re at right now, I’m excited about.”
The Bengals’ offensive identity is problematic — not for them, for defenses — because although they have Higgins and Chase as 1,000-yard receivers and Burrow as an emerging elite QB, the idea is to be “50-50 run and pass,” Burrow said.
Cincinnati Bengals Would Like To Find More Balance
“You’d like to be able to run the ball really well, which I think we’re going to, we got a great running back and tough, physical offensive line that’s going to open up holes for him,” he said. “And you have to be able to complement that with play-action pass and be able to drop back as well. You got to be able to do everything.”
Last year the Bengals offered a lot of flash but there were flaws. The offensive line was, well, bad. And the defense took a while to get in synch.
The offensive line has been rebuilt with the final piece coming Wednesday when coach Zac Taylor named rookie fourth-round pick Cordell Volson the starting left guard for the opener. The entire right side of the line is new with free agent center Alex Karras, free agent right guard Alex Cappa and free agent right tackle La’el Collins.
So the unit seems solid, at least on paper.
The entire snapshot of this team has Burrow seeing grand possibilities because there’s more experience, more depth and perhaps more confidence.
“The sky’s the limit for us,” Burrow said. “Obviously you have to go out and execute on Sundays. Doesn’t matter what we did last year, what we did the year before, how well we played or the numbers we put up. If we don’t go out and execute it doesn’t matter.”
Bengals Depth Seems To Be Improved
“We have a lot of experience, at the top, but I think we have a lot of depth this year that maybe we haven’t had in the past,” he said. So I’m really excited about everybody that’s in there.”
You’re thinking what about the defense, right? Cincy was 17th in the NFL in points allowed last year.
What about that, Joey?
“Our defense is one the best in the league up front,” Burrow said. “You can tell that those guys have been playing together for a year now. Their communication is really good. Their stunts and blitzes are on point. They’re going to be good.”
It sounds strange but out of everything Burrow discussed Wednesday, he said the guy who needs the most work before the opener is the starting quarterback.
Burrow, you see, had his appendix (or what was left of it after it ruptured) removed in late July. The result was a loss of maybe 20-25 pounds.
So he’s been working to get his weight, quickness, athleticism back since. He’s been drinking protein drinks and lifting. He’s compared himself to a high school kid desperately trying to put on pounds.
And although he said he’s not yet 100 percent, he predicted that perhaps by Friday that might change.
Funny thing because Friday is one day away.
So color the Bengals upbeat about the season that’s on the horizon.
“Everyone knows,” Burrow said, “it’s time to go.”
Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero