It’s a new era for Cincinnati Bengals fans as the 2020 season begins. Joe Burrow brings a fresh face and national title pedigree under center as the hopeful franchise quarterback for the next decade. Bengals fan will have plenty of storylines to follow as the team plays host to the Los Angeles Chargers in the Week 1 opener. 

Both franchises are betting on their rookie quarterbacks to lead their team to the promised land. In the short term, the Chargers will rely on their veteran QB and an impressive defensive front, while the Bengals should trust their offensive arsenal to produce. With both teams spending money in the offseason, a win Sunday could be the start of one of them leaving the cellar of their respective divisions. 

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Bengals vs. Chargers Storylines to Follow Week 1

Austin Ekeler: The dual-threat wonder

Melvin Gordon decided to holdout last year, and Ekeler stepped in to prove he could marshall this run game. Even with the former top-15 pick returning after four games, the undrafted free agent became the lead runner in Los Angeles’ system for the remainder of 2019. In return for his success, Tom Telesco offered Ekeler a four-year, $24.5 million deal and let Gordon hit the open market. 

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Ekeler isn’t your average runner and won’t be limited to finding his success in the trenches. Last season, he finished with 1,550 total yards, 993 of them coming as a passing threat. Ekeler also is heavily targeted on first downs, finishing the year with 74 rushing attempts, and 44 of his 99 catches at the start of a new drive. 

The Bengals will have to circle No.30 for both their front seven and secondary to watch. The team finished with the worst run defense in 2019, averaging 148.9 yards per game. The secondary, which brought in run-first defenders Mackensie Alexander and Vonn Bell, both have spent more than their fair share of time at the nickel defender role. 

Who will be Waynes’ immediate replacement?

Tyrod Taylor will get the call under center for Anthony Lynn’s squad. Much like Cincinnati extending franchise standout Joe Mixon, Los Angeles made sure to lock up wide receiver Keenan Allen on a four-year, $80 million extension following roster cuts. Now, the Bengals will need to work out how to cover him and Mike Williams.

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Cincinnati will be without Trae Waynes, who signed a three-year, $42 million deal this offseason, due to a torn pectoral injury. William Jackson III should lock down one side of the field, but Allen is perhaps a bit more tricky. Seeing a majority of his production in the slot, the Chargers’ No.1 has been consistently winning against nickel defenders, averaging 12.5 yards per catch since 2017. 

Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo might find it best to play third-year corner, Darius Phillips, in the slot instead of Bell or Alexander. Philips, who led the team in interceptions (four) last season, primarily saw a majority of snaps coming from the nickel position. In competition with LeShaun Sims for Waynes’ replacement, covering Allen’s standout route-running skills is a way for the team to figure out their problems on the outside moving forward.

Joe Burrow against a legitimate NFL defense  

Burrow is going to be the highlight of Week 1 thanks to his Heisman-winning season with LSU. Ultimately, his first test might be his most challenging in the first quarter of the season as Los Angeles only improved their already talented defense.

The Chargers added to an impressive front seven with former Minnesota Vikings star Linval Joseph up the middle. The 31-year-old defensive tackle adds pressure to a formidable duo in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram off the edge. Since Bosa’s selection at No.3 in 2016, the Chargers two edge rushers have combined for 83 total sacks, each surpassing the double-digit mark in 2017. 

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The secondary should cause problems as well, even without superstar safety Derwin James in the mix. Chris Harris Jr.’s addition only adds stability at the nickel role while Casey Heyward saw a better season in coverage than in 2018. Do-it-all defender Desmond King should factor in on blitzes and coverage, while Rayshawn Jenkins finished last season with three interceptions. 

Keep an eye on second-year safety Nasir Adderley as a rover option in coverage. With similar skills to Bengals’ Jessie Bates III, his roaming ability against receivers and his speed could factor into a pass from Burrow ending as an interception.

Players to watch for  

Bengals – OT Jonah Williams: The Bengals technically have two first-round picks set to make their NFL debuts. The 2019 selection from Alabama missed all of last season due to a shoulder injury but impressed immensely on the blindside in camp. After allowing only three sacks in college, let’s see if Williams can be the permanent option at left tackle for the Bengals’ offensive line. 

Chargers – S Rayshawn Jenkins: Yes, Jenkins finished with three interceptions last year, but he did so much more for the Chargers’ defense. Leading the team with 964 snaps in 2019, his ability in coverage improved massively without James at the helm. He is also a willing open-field tackler that could cause trouble for Tyler Boyd and John Ross downfield.