COMMENTARY | While much of the focus for the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers clash on Monday Night Football will be directed towards Bengals' quarterback Andy Dalton, wide receiver A.J. Green and strongside linebacker James Harrison, the biggest impact on the outcome of the game could come from the Bengals who actually have just as much to prove.
Maybe it was the hangover from a newly ink-dried, $55-million contract or the effects of not quite being in midseason form yet, but Bengals' dominating and often double-teamed defensive tackle Geno Atkins wasn't so dominating in the Bengals' season-opening loss. One of the best at backfield penetration among interior defensive lineman, Atkins was absent for the most part and didn't even record a tackle in Week 1.
Atkins had one chance to salvage his game against the Bears on a 2-and-20 from the Bengals 46 yard line with 10:04 left in the fourth quarter, but an uncalled push in the back from Chicago Bears center Roberto Garza against Atkins allowed Bears' QB Jay Cutler to escape a sack in the pocket and scamper for an 18-yard gain that led to the game-winning touchdown drive for the Bears.
All eyes will be on Atkins this week, especially those wide-open ones of Kelvin Beachum who has drawn the challenge of replacing injured starter Maurkice Pouncey against perhaps the best defensive lineman in the NFL when Atkins is his usual self.
Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga
As much fanfare as has been given (and will be given on MNF) to the Bengals' Harrison for his scrapping the black and gold of the Steelers for the stripes of the Bengals, the likelihood is that Harrison as a 4-3 base strongside linebacker will have about as much impact on the game as the Bengal he replaced -- Manny Lawson -- had last year (two tackles) in the Bengals 13-10 playoff-clinching win against the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
Another Bengals linebacker -- second-year, undrafted weakside LB Votaze Burfict -- will likely have a much more significant impact on the game because he is a tackling machine who ranges all over the field. After a thigh bruise against the Bears rendered Burfict limited in practice early in the week, the Bengals leading tackler from 2012 is expected to be full speed for Monday night.
As prominent as both Harrison and Burfict may be both on the field and as storylines, perhaps the Bengals' LB to watch the closest Monday night is the man in the middle -- Rey Maualuga -- who will be more motivated than any other defender on the field to compensate for his play during the Bengals' Week1 loss. Overall, Maualuga played well against the Bears, but his personal foul with a minute left in the game last week effectively ended any chance the Bengals' offense would have had to get the ball back before the game ended.
The Bengals' top two picks of the 2013 NFL draft -- running back Giovani Bernard and tight end Tyler Eifert -- look like they will both be substantial contributors to the offense in 2013.
Bernard has the early look of a big-time player in the mold of fellow smaller-sized, second-round draft picks Ray Rice (2008) and Maurice Jones-Drew (2006). Bernard's burst to the second level in the inside run game combined with his edge speed and pass-catching ability already make him a dangerous weapon despite his lack of NFL experience.
Eifert should also give the Bengals an extra edge as a passing target against the Steelers because of his versatility to line up split wide, in the slot, tight to the line and even in the backfield. Both Eifert and Bernard have to split time on the field with starters RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis and TE Jermaine Gresham but should see increasingly more snaps as the season progresses.
The dimensions added by both Bernard and Eifert are something the Dick LeBeau coordinated defenses of the Steelers over the past decade have not seen from the Bengals. After Monday night, LeBeau and the rest of the country may know a whole lot more about both rookies.
Robb Hoff has worked as a freelance researcher for ESPN's production and news departments for more than five years. He posts his NFL draft predictions each year at footballnostradamus.com
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