‘MNF’ preview: The potentially Burrow-less Bengals aim to keep postseason hopes alive

 The Cincinnati Bengals (0-2) host the Los Angeles Rams (1-1) on “Monday Night Football” in a rematch of Super Bowl LVI, which will look quite different this time around. Here’s what to watch for with each team:  

When the Bengals are on offense

Joe Burrow’s availability: The most impactful storyline in this matchup will be whether the star quarterback is able to suit up after re-aggravating his calf injury – which he initially suffered during training camp – in Cincinnati’s Week 2 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, Burrow will be a game-time decision for Monday’s matchup. However, his status doesn’t appear to be improving, given that Cincinnati signed Reid Sinnett to the practice squad on Friday and added A.J. McCarron on Saturday. 

Who is Jake Browning?: If Burrow is out, Cincinnati will turn to Browning, a former undrafted free agent out of Washington, to make his first career start. Browning has been with the Bengals since 2021 and made his NFL debut during the team’s season-opening loss to the Cleveland Browns, where he failed to complete his lone pass attempt.

Despite his inexperience at the pro level, Browning has gotten plenty of reps with Cincinnati’s first-team offense dating back to training camp when Burrow first sustained his injury. During the preseason, Browning completed 71.1 percent of his passes for 277 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions across three games. Considering the talent on offense, if Browning can be an effective game manager and limit turnovers, Cincinnati has a chance of winning its first game of the season. 

Will Ja’Marr Chase finally break through?: Burrow’s calf injury has obviously hindered his performance and, in turn, hurt Chase’s effectiveness. The two-time Pro Bowler has caught 10 passes for 70 yards on the season, a surprising lack of production for someone who averages 82.9 yards per game for his career. Regardless of whether Burrow plays, Chase needs to make a significant contribution for the Bengals to win the game.

Aaron Donald: While Cincinnati’s offensive line has improved dramatically since Donald’s two-sack performance in Super Bowl LVI, whenever one of the greatest defensive players of all time takes the field, it’s worth watching. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year put all retirement rumors to rest this offseason, returning to the Rams on a restructured deal that made him the highest-paid non-quarterback in NFL history.

It’s been a slow start to 2023 for Donald statistically, as he has just four tackles and a half-sack, none of which came in last week’s 30-23 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be surprising if Donald delivered a bounce-back game in primetime. 

When the Rams are on offense

Can Puka Nacua extend his historic stretch?: 19 wide receivers were selected before Nacua in the 2023 NFL Draft, but no player in NFL history has more catches (25) or targets (35) through their first two career games than the fifth-rounder. Additionally, Nacua leads the league in both categories by a decent-sized margin entering Sunday’s action, with five more receptions and 10 more targets than Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson. 

Quarterback Matthew Stafford typically spoon-feeds targets to his favorite wideout and with Cooper Kupp still out with a hamstring injury, the record-breaking rookie should continue to serve as the focal point of Los Angeles’ passing game. 

New workhorse back poised for another stellar outing: Kyren Williams, the No. 164 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, has been another young Ram off to an unexpectedly productive start. RB Cam Akers is officially not returning to the team, as he was traded to the Minnesota Vikings, putting Williams in line to be a three-down back, a role he thrived in last week, totaling 111 yards and two touchdowns. 

Williams should see upwards of 15 touches in this game and if the Bengals defense repeats last week’s effort, he should be highly productive, as the unit allowed 178 rushing yards in the 27-24 loss to Baltimore. 

Joseph Ossai’s return could spark Bengals pass rush: The defensive end is on track to make his regular-season debut on Monday after an ankle injury suffered in the final game of the preseason has kept him sidelined. While Ossai is most notable for his unnecessary roughness penalty that helped the Kansas City Chiefs advance to Super Bowl LVII, the 23-year-old was a key rotation piece for the Bengals defense last season, recording 3.5 sacks. 

Most of the criticism has been directed toward Burrow, but Cincinnati’s defensive struggles are more concerning and the solution starts up front. The Bengals are pressuring opposing quarterbacks at a 13.5 percent rate, tied for the second-worst in the NFL, and will need to get to Stafford, who has been sacked just once this season. 

Bengals safeties: Cincinnati is feeling the impact of losing Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell in free agency. Its new safety duo — Dax Hill and Nick Scott — needs to do its part in a game where Stafford should air the ball out frequently. According to Pro Football Focus, Hill is the 31st-highest-rated safety in the NFL, while Scott ranks 76th, the fourth-worst among qualified players at the position.

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