The steaming Bengals have won their last three and show no signs of slowing down as they head to San Diego for an AFC game against the Chargers. In order for Cincinnati to continue rolling towards the playoffs, it's important that they win key matchups.
Andy Dalton and the offense average 31 points during this three-game win streak. During this time, Dalton has thrown nine TD and zero INT. Not only has the offense been prolific, but the defense has been potent as well. In the last three games, opposing offenses have only entered the red zone five times against the Bengals, resulting in only one touchdown.
After the Browns forced the Steelers into eight turnovers in their victory Week 12, the race for the AFC wild card between the Steelers and the Bengals swung optimistically into Cincinnati's favor. Roethlisberger will find a way to return to the field, however, there will come a point when the Steelers have to rely on Charlie Batch and I'm not sure he still has what it takes to pull through.
The timing of the Steelers being bitten by the injury bug couldn't have happened at a better time for Cincinnati. The morale and energy in Cincinnati is of optimism, hope and belief. I have to believe that people in Pittsburgh are unsure of their team's season at this point. I'm sure the locker room is united around whatever quarterback is chosen but no team can function at its best without a consistent leader.
Right now the Bengals locker room is focused on San Diego and winning a game that they should, in all estimations, win. In order for them to do so, here are the five key battles that they will need to win in order to leave San Diego victorious.
During the Bengals' win streak, their defense has held opposing starting quarterbacks to 183 yards passing and a measly 3.3 fantasy points according to the ESPN standard scoring type. Philip Rivers' gunslinger style will test the Bengals pass defense this weekend as he is on pace to become the first Chargers quarterback to have five consecutive seasons of 3,500 or more passing yards.
One of the main reasons that opposing quarterbacks have struggled against the Bengals is because of their impressive, and improving, defensive line. Veterans Gino Atkins, Domata Peko, Michael Johnson and third-year player Carlos Dunlap anchor the line, while Pat Sims, Robert Geathers and Wallace Gilberry provide depth up front.
The Chargers are 0-3 when they score less than 20 points in a game so to give themselves a chance, they need 21 points. Chances are Dalton and the Bengals offense won't give up a ton of points on interception or fumble returns. The same goes with special teams—they are pretty evenly matched up. and while there may be one game-changing special teams play, there probably won't be more than that.
All that being said, it's going to come down to Philip Rivers and whether or not he can get the short passing game going. The Bengals showed some vulnerabilities last week against the Raiders where they gave up yards after the catch.
In order for the Chargers to win, Rivers needs to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers with nothing more than a five-step drop. Seven-step drops allow too much space for quick players like Gino Atkins and Michael Johnson to take advantage of Charger offensive linemen.
It will be Rivers' responsibility to recognize coverages before the snap, identify his reads and go through his progression very quickly. If he tries to stay in the pocket too long or make a play with his legs, I don't see good things in store for the Chargers. If he can get the ball out of his hands quickly and keep the game at a decent tempo, the Chargers can pull this one out.
Adriel Jeremiah Green, better known as A.J., has become one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL. With 1,022 yards receiving and a league-best 10 touchdown catches on the year, last week was the first in 10 that Green didn't catch one.
Luckily, other receivers stepped up and the Bengals came away with a win. This weekend, Green will travel to San Diego to face off against FS Eric Weddle and the Chargers defense.
The Chargers gave up 355 passing yards last week to QB Joe Flacco and the Ravens; including the timeless 4th-and-29 conversion on a one-yard pass to RB Ray Rice.
On average, the Chargers defense gives up three plays of 20 yards or more each game. Anything that deep will involve FS Eric Weddle in one way or another. Either he is a primary read and his decision determines where the ball goes, or Dalton looks in one direction to make Weddle think he's throwing that direction, and then throws it to the other side; hence, eliminating the safety's instincts from impacting the play.
If the Chargers give up three passing plays of over 20 yards to the Bengals, I have to believe that A.J. Green will be the target of two of them. I don't expect Quentin Jammer or Antoine Cason to be able to stop Green off the line, making it a competition between Green and Weddle for jump balls.
I think A.J. Green will win this matchup as well but at the same time, I acknowledge that it's a lot easier for a defensive player to make a play than the offensive player. All the defender has to do is get a finger on the ball. The offensive guy has to get control the ball to the ground and get two feet in bounds. I think Weddle will make a play or two down the field but at the end of the day, Green wins this battle.
Chargers TE Antonio Gates needs just one more receiving touchdown to tie Lance Alworth as the Chargers' all-time leader. He currently has 368 yards receiving on 32 catches and four touchdowns.
A key for the Chargers offense will be to utilize the short passing game. Gates will be pivotal in the success of the short passing game with short routes and delayed releases.
Bengals strong-side linebacker Manny Lawson will have the responsibility of slowing down Gates. While Lawson may find himself in coverage against Gates, his role is going to be most important in slowing Gates off the line. If I were Norv Turner, I'd use Gates to catch short passes on a delay all day.
In short, I would use Gates as an extra blocker to start the play. He can help the offensive tackles contain the athleticism of Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap outside. After getting a block on the defensive ends, I'd keep him within eight yards of the ball running short routes. Manny Lawson's job is to recognize when he's staying in to block and when he's running a route, even if its delayed.
I think the experience of Antonio Gates will give him the edge in this matchup although Manny Lawson will have his share of positive plays as well.
Any successful playoff team has a successful run game. The Chargers don't have a shot at the playoffs but the Bengals do, and the performance of their run game against the Chargers could be an important test to their offense.
When the Bengals signed Benjarvus Green-Ellis, affectionately known as The Law Firm, he hadn't fumbled at all in his NFL career. Bengals fans were stunned when Green-Ellis coughed up three fumbles in back-to-back games at the Redskins and Jaguars earlier this year.
However, the last two weeks The Law Firm has been much more consistent in the run game with games of 101 yards against the Chiefs and 129 yards rushing against the Raiders.
Unlike those two AFC West teams, the Chargers run defense is tied for fifth in the NFL in rushing yards per game. If Green-Ellis and the Bengals run game can continue to thrive against the stout Chargers defense, it will give them the confidence, evidence and relevance to make a serious push for the playoffs.
As for the Chargers, Ryan Mathews has been a disappointment this year. With under 600 yards in nine games, Matthews hasn't lived up to the five-year, $26M contract that he signed in 2010. The Bengals defense has given up an average of 94 yards rushing to the other three AFC West teams this year. That amount would equal one yard less than Mathews' season high, which he got against the Browns in Week 8.
This matchup could go either way. The winner will be the first one to reach 75 yards rushing. Ultimately, the Chargers offensive line will have its troubles and Mathews won't be able to break loose. The Law Firm will have another break out run of 20-plus yards and will take this matchup.
In order for the Chargers to have a chance at beating the Bengals, they have to contain the Bengals front line. Cincinnati has been able to get good pressure on opposing quarterbacks with just four defenders allowing them seven defenders to drop into pass coverage. The Bengals' ability to pressure quarterbacks with fewer people provides a significant disadvantage for an opposing offense.
The Chargers should be able to slow down defensive ends with chip blocks from the running backs and help from Antonio Gates on the edge. It will come down to whether or not the center and guards of the Chargers can contain the dominant force of Cincinnati's defensive line.
Chargers guards Tyronne Green and Louis Vasquez, along with center Nick Hardwick, have the task of slowing down the blossoming Bengals inside defensive line. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins leads the Bengals with seven sacks while nose tackle Domata Peko stuffs up the middle with 32 tackles.
The Chargers did a good job of this last week against the Ravens' run-stoppers, Haloti Ngata and Ma'ake Kimoeatu, holding them to a combined eight total tackles, none for loss.
Chances are, with the Bengals' stunts and blitz packages, the Chargers will have to dedicate three players to block Atkins and Peko and one Bengals linebacker on every play. If the Bengals don't blitz, the Chargers will have three players to block two Bengal defenders (maybe four if the Chargers' running back stays in).
That sounds like a lot, but the Bengals D-Line has accounted for 10 of the team's 12 sacks in the last three weeks. The edge here goes to Peko and Atkins. With the way their pass defense has been playing lately, Peko and Atkins have no reason to hold back in the pass rush, knowing that their linebackers and defensive backs are playing well.
All in all, the Bengals should leave San Diego with a win. The Bengals defensive line is playing angry, the linebackers are playing great sideline-to-sideline, the offense is dangerously growing and, as a whole, they seem to have taken Marvin's "nasty" comments to heart. The Chargers have struggled with their offensive execution and play-calling and I don't see them overcoming that all of a sudden to beat this surging Bengals team.