Bengals benefiting from team overhaul: The last time the Cincinnati Bengals visited Carolina, quarterback Cam Newton was ending his collegiate career with a national championship. Fast forward four years later to the team's last regular season meeting in Cincinnati, Newton, in his fourth season, and the Panthers left neither as winners or losers as the final score read 37-37 - the only tie in franchise history. Needless to say, the Week 3 opponents will have plenty of reacquainting to do Sunday.
Much like Carolina, both the Bengals roster and staff underwent a massive overhaul during the offseason. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor - in his first full season in the role - headline the team's six new assistant coaches, the largest number of staff changes during head coach Marvin Lewis' 16-year tenure. The starting lineup saw five changes - three along the offensive line and two on defense. Under Lewis, Austin and Lazor's direction, the Bengals currently sit as the lone undefeated/untied team in the AFC North after winning both games 34-23 and are playing some of their most complete football in years.
Defensive tackle Geno Atkins and defensive end Carlos Dunlap - more on them in a minute - are leading the charge for a defense that has absolutely stifled the run game. The Bengals held the Colts and Ravens to a combined 141 yards on the ground, the third least in the NFL, and are allowing 3.2 yards per rush attempt. The defense also ranks second in pass deflections (17) and is tied for the eighth most sacks with six.
Austin served as the Ravens' secondary coach when they won Super Bowl XLVII and is already bringing an aggressive defensive mentality to the team. In 2017, Cincinnati finished with 14 takeaways; against Baltimore, the Bengals generated three, upping their total to five for the season.
The offense is headed up by eight-year veteran quarterback Andy Dalton and his gaudy 108.5 passer rating. After starting 2017 with four interceptions and zero touchdowns, Dalton will enter Week 3 of 2018 with six touchdowns and one interception. Four of those scores belong to star wide receiver A.J. Green, who has been one of the premier wideouts in the game since entering the league with Dalton in 2011. The offense's 68 combined points ranks fourth in the NFL. It's also worth nothing that, despite the personnel changes, the offensive line has managed to keep Dalton upright, allowing only one sack so far.
"From the onset of this offseason, we (knew) the things we needed to do to get better. I thought we have done a fine job at that," Lewis said after the Ravens game. "We are only two games into the season, so we get to prove it over the next 14 (games) as well. The things we set out to do, we have accomplished thus far.
"We are checking those boxes, so we feel pretty good about things."
How will Carolina's O-line hold up vs. Dunlap & Atkins?: Speaking of keeping a quarterback upright, the Panthers' offensive line will have its hands full protecting Newton from two of the league's best defenders, who have combined to miss just one game since these teams last met. In that meeting, the pair combined for five tackles, but let's just say that a lot has changed since then.
So far in 2018, Atkins has nine tackles and three sacks - tying him for third most in the NFL. The 2011 fourth-round draft pick finished the 2017 season with 46 tackles, nine sacks and his sixth Pro Bowl selection. Dunlap comes into Week 3 with one sack and the most pass deflections for a non-defensive back in the NFL with four. In 2017, the 2010 second-round draft pick tallied 46 tackles, 7.5 sacks and seven pass deflections. He earned his first two Pro Bowl selections in 2015 and 2016.
During training camp, Dunlap was very vocal about the potential of the defensive line. "We want to lead the league in sacks. Whatever number it takes," he said. "(So) we have to do a better job against the run. That's our big focus."
He continued, "We've definitely got depth. This is one of the few times we've had this many guys that can get after it as 1A and 1B. (In 2012) the young guys were coming in as the pass rushers. Now we have starters and young guys coming in to rush.
"This is one of the best D-lines I've been a part of pass-rushing wise."
Cincinnati will likely look to further prove Dunlap correct in Week 3. Carolina's O-line issues have been well-publicized with the most recent blow coming following Week 1 when Daryl Williams was placed on IR. Against Atlanta, only two players (Greg Van Roten and Ryan Kalil) started in the same position as they did against Dallas. Atkins and Dunlap have combined for nine QB hits thus far.
Mean A.J. Green: Green will face the Panthers for the first time in his career after missing the 2014 meeting with a toe injury. In two games, Green leads all NFL receivers with four touchdowns and has 11 receptions for 161 yards. In Week 2, Green lit up the Ravens secondary for three TDs in the first half. It was a dominant showing, and his assessment of the Ravens' coverage post-game may have provided a blueprint for Panthers cornerback James Bradberry and the defense.
"It's hard to double me in the slot. It's hard to take me away in the slot when I have so much freedom because I have so much freedom to run all over the place," Green said. "I think they backed off (the blitz). We were gashing them a couple of times."
Green finished the game with five receptions for 69 yards. In 2017, Green earned his seventh straight Pro Bowl selection and finished with his sixth 1,000-yard season. The offense's success has long depended on Green's connection with Dalton and 2018 is already shaping up to be one of the best, if not the best, years the duo has produced.
Mixon missing in action: During the Week 2 win against the Ravens, running back Joe Mixon exited and re-entered the game several times with a knee issue. It was revealed a few days after that Mixon had to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery and would miss at least two weeks.
"It felt weird. My knee was hurting. Other than that, it's just the mental side of it," Mixon said after the game. "You always want to play at 100 percent (health), but when something is bothering you it's hard mentally."
After contributing 179 rushing yards - the second best in the NFL - and the team's lone rushing touchdown in the Week 1 win over the Colts, Mixon was building steam as the team's primary back. Veteran running back and UNC product Giovani Bernard is expected to start in Mixon's place. Bernard has 25 rushing yards on seven carries this season, as well five receptions for 26 yards. His versatility out of the backfield alongside the efficient Dalton could be a big factor for the recovering offense.