As the Minnesota Vikings prepare for their preseason opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, when they look across the sidelines there may well be a sense of déjà vu taking place because the teams have striking similarities that go far beyond the fact that Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer came over from the Bengals as their defensive coordinator.
Both teams enter the 2016 season with a sour taste in their mouths about how their 2015 seasons ended. Both of them won their respective divisions last year and got to host a playoff game. They both lost – the Vikings due to a missed chip-shot field goal by Blair Walsh that was shorter than extra point and the Bengals by a loss of composure in the final minute against the Steelers that included a pair of 15-yard personal foul penalties that gave Pittsburgh the field position needed for a come-from-behind win.
Neither team has played since then, so, for a first preseason game, there may be a little more emotion on the field that one would typically find from two teams from different conferences that, if not for the preseason, would only meet once every four years – a lifetime in the NFL.
As would be expected from a first preseason game, there is likely to be little resemblance from the players that will be on the field for the majority of Friday’s game to what they field in the regular season. But that doesn’t mean the Bengals won’t be putting their best foot forward against the Vikings.
Offensively, Andy Dalton has developed into one of the game’s most efficient quarterbacks and A.J. McCarron seems entrenched as his backup coming off his relief sting when Dalton got hurt last year. But the battle between Keith Wenning and Joe Licata for the No. 3 spot will start against the Vikings.
The running game is in good hands with the combination of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, a pair of second-round draft picks that have developed into a solid 1-2 punch. They’re locked in as the co-starters. The focus Friday will be on whether veterans Cedric Peerman and Rex Burkhead can hold off youngsters Tra Carson and Bronson Hill for the backup spots.
The receivers are another story altogether. A.J. Green has established himself as one of the premier wide receivers in the league, but, after the season ended, the Nos. 2 and 3 wide receivers, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, fled via free agency, creating a huge void in the receiver corps. Former Patriot Brandon LaFell has been brought in to fill the veteran void and fellow Patriot Brandon Tate in is the mix, but he caught just two passes last year. The result is a slew of young receivers, including second-round pick Tyler Boyd (the Bengals were on the wrong end of the four-receiver run that ended with Laquon Treadwell going to the Vikings), sixth-round pick Cody Core and undrafted rookies Antwane Grant, Alonzo Russell and Alex Erickson. There are going to be a lot of changes at wide receiver and how they perform against the Vikings backups will go a long way to determining who wins a roster spot and who doesn’t.
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A similar problem is playing out at tight end. Tyler Eifert blew up last season, catching 13 touchdowns, but he’s on the Physically Unable to Perform list, opening the door for the backups to compete. Second-year pro Tyler Kroft leads the way, but a handful of others will be looking to make the roster as tight ends or H-backs, including Ryan Hewitt, C.J. Uzomah, John Peters and Jeff Luc. Like at wide receiver, the absence of former standouts will create opportunities for others.
Up front, the Bengals seem set with their starters and primary backups at all five positions, leaving a group of six rookies – fifth-round guard Christian Westerman and five undrafted free agents – to try to fight to win roster spots, something that won’t be easy given the makeup of the team.
Defensively, the Bengals have one of the older units in the league up front. Domata Peko is in his 11th season, Michael Johnson is in his eighth and Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins are both in their seventh seasons. The need to stack the second line of the depth chart is critical because none of them are getting any younger and they’ve tried with value picks in the draft, like defensive ends Margus Hunt and Will Clarke and tackles Andrew Billings and Marcus Hardison. This preseason will be critical for them to push their way onto the roster and start the process of being groomed for the future.
At linebacker, the focus will be on finding a short-term and long-term replacement. Strongside linebacker Karlos Dansby is in his 13th season, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga is in his eighth season and weakside linebacker Vontaze Burfict is going to miss the first three games of the year due to a suspension. Finding players to fill that void won’t be easy, but something that needs to be determined soon and the preseason is no better place to start the serious evaluation process in that regard.
The Bengals have invested in the secondary and have a deep core of young talent that will make this a strength for some time to come. But the team lost Reggie Nelson in free agency, so a lot of eyes will be on fourth-year pro Shawn Williams, who is expected to start opposite George Iloka.
Like the Vikings, the last time the Bengals played a game against an opponent it was a heartbreaking home playoff loss that the players haven’t been able to forget since. They both enter 2016 with the feeling that there was unfinished business and that process will begin Friday night, as both teams begin the defense of their division titles with still a lot to prove.