Chargers vs. Bengals: Who Has the Edge at Every Position?

Andrea Hangst@FBALL_AndreaFeatured Columnist IVDecember 31, 2013

Chargers vs. Bengals: Who Has the Edge at Every Position?

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    For the second time this year, the Chargers and Bengals will meet. This time, it's in the playoffs. Who has the edge on paper?
    For the second time this year, the Chargers and Bengals will meet. This time, it's in the playoffs. Who has the edge on paper?Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    For the third straight season, the Cincinnati Bengals have reached the playoffs. This year, they have done so as the AFC North champions and the conference's third seed. 

    They will host the 9-7 San Diego Chargers in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs, with the game scheduled to kick off on Sunday at 1:05 p.m. ET. This will be the second time the Bengals have faced the Chargers this year. They defeated the Bolts, 17-10 in San Diego in Week 13. 

    The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since 1990, but hosting the Chargers while having an undefeated regular-season record at home increases the odds that they can be more than one-and-done this year. But San Diego is a solid team, and Cincinnati will have to be at its best—nothing will be handed to the Bengals in the postseason.

    So how do these two teams match up? Read on as we examine each key positional battle between the Bengals and Chargers to see which team has the edge.

Bengals OL vs. Chargers DL

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    The Cincinnati Bengals offensive line is one of the best in the NFL. Quarterback Andy Dalton has been sacked only 29 times on the season and took no sacks when he faced the Chargers during the regular season. Cincinnati also averaged 3.6 yards per carry while having one of the most balanced offenses in the league.

    In pass protection, only the Denver Broncos line ranks higher this year, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Football Outsiders ranks the Bengals offensive line 11th in run-blocking and fifth in pass protection.

    Although the Chargers aren't one of the top sacking defenses in the league, they have taken opposing quarterbacks down 35 times this year and are a threat to Dalton on every dropback. In the Bengals' favor, however, is how few times he has been sacked during the latter part of the season—just three times since Week 10.

    The Chargers will have trouble getting to Dalton, if his offensive line keeps playing as it has. And stopping the run may not come easy to San Diego's defensive line on Sunday, either. The Chargers give up an average of 107.8 rushing yards per game and 112.1 on the road but allowed 164 in their regular-season loss to the Bengals. In fact, their defensive line ranks dead last against the run, according to Football Outsiders

    The matchup to watch will be between Chargers right defensive end Corey Liuget and Bengals left tackle Anthony Collins. Collins only moved into the starting left tackle spot when left guard Clint Boling suffered a season-ending injury, which switched then-left tackle Andrew Whitworth to guard. 

    Since Collins took over the job, he's given up no sacks, no quarterback hits and eight hurries. Liuget is a starter but is used situationally, primarily as a pass-rusher. He leads the team with 5.5 sacks and also has six quarterback hits and 22 hurries. If any Chargers defender is going to get pressure on Dalton, it will be him.

    Collins, however, has done a great job of protecting Dalton. We'll see if he gives way on Sunday. Dalton has completed just 38.8 percent of his passes while under pressure this year, so he needs his line and Collins in particular to play well so that he can do his job effectively.

    Nonetheless, the facts that Dalton has been sacked so few times since the offensive line was rearranged and that the Chargers couldn't get to him in San Diego give the edge to the Bengals here, especially at home.

    Advantage: Bengals

Andy Dalton vs. Chargers Pass Defense

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    Andy Dalton can often be his own worst enemy, putting forth poor performances for seemingly no reason. This has not been the case as much at home, where he hasn't lost this year. But he's still struggling with his accuracy when under pressure and has thrown at least one interception in all but five games this season.

    The Chargers pass defense can certainly come up big against him this week.

    When the Bengals beat the Chargers in the regular season, Dalton didn't have a great game. He completed only 14 of his 23 passes for 190 yards, one touchdown and one interception, while running the ball was the major theme of the offense. 

    However, that was on the road, where Dalton has a 60.63 completion percentage and has thrown 13 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. This week, he'll be at home, where he's fared far better. His completion percentage at home is 63.53 percent, and he's thrown 20 touchdowns to just nine interceptions. 

    Ultimately, San Diego's defense ranks 29th against the pass and allows 281.4 passing yards on average on the road. The only thing that could stop Dalton this week is himself. 

    Advantage: Bengals

Bengals RBs vs. Chargers Front Seven

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    The San Diego Chargers defense may initially seem quite good at stopping the run. After all, it ranks 12th in rushing yards per game allowed at 107.8. However, that doesn't tell the whole story.

    That low number is boosted by how successful teams have been passing against them, to the extent that they don't need to run much in order to gain significant chunks of yardage. Opponents average only 23.5 rushing attempts per game against the Chargers, which is the third-lowest number of attempts in the league.

    On top of that, San Diego's run defense ranks near the bottom of the league in yards per rush attempt allowed at 4.6. It's little wonder that the Bengals put up 164 yards of ground-game offense when the two teams met on December 1.

    In that meeting, BenJarvus Green-Ellis led the Bengals in rushing, with 92 yards and a touchdown on his 20 carries. That gave him a 4.6 yards-per-carry average, far higher than the 3.4 he's averaged on the year. Considering that the Bengals do their greatest damage when they run up the middle of the offensive line and the Chargers' front seven is dead last in yardage allowed on runs in that direction, Green-Ellis should again have a big game. 

    The Chargers also struggle to contain the edges of the field in the run game, which bodes well for the "lightning" component of Cincinnati's two-back system. As a result, Giovani Bernard will also make an impact on Sunday. He is averaging 4.1 yards per carry this year, and coincidentally that's also what he averaged against the Chargers in the first meeting. 

    Obviously, San Diego's biggest weakness this year is its defense. And the Bengals have weapons, both in the run and passing games, to exploit them. Their running backs should again perform well against the Chargers in the postseason opener.

    Advantage: Bengals

Bengals Receivers vs. Chargers Secondary

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    With Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton not taking many sacks as of late and playing so much better at home than on the road, the Chargers' best bet to stop him will be to stop his receivers. However, Football Outsiders ranks San Diego's pass defense as the worst in the league, while Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranks it 31st in pass coverage. 

    Starting Chargers strong safety Marcus Gilchrist has allowed 24 catches on 33 targets, for 237 yards and three touchdowns. He also has two interceptions. Cornerbacks Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall have given up a combined eight touchdowns to one interception this year.

    Only free safety Eric Weddle has been a bright spot in San Diego's secondary, allowing catches on just 69.1 percent of the passes thrown his way and giving up zero touchdowns while notching two interceptions.

    They will all have their hands full trying to contain Bengals receivers A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Andrew Hawkins and Mohamed Sanu—not to mention tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert. Though the Bengals' first meeting this year with the Chargers was not pass heavy, Bengals receivers did have some good performances.

    Green had five catches on seven targets for 83 yards. Hawkins caught all three passes thrown his way for 65 yards. Jones had 12 yards on his two catches and three targets. Only the tight ends—whom Weddle is often lined up against—should have a hard time against the Chargers secondary this week.

    Advantage: Bengals

Chargers OL vs. Bengals DL

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    When defensive tackle Geno Atkins went down with a torn ACL in Week 9, the worry was that he would take the Bengals pass rush with him. Fortunately that has not been the case, as the team has amassed 43 sacks on the season. While down from the 51 sacks in 2012, the number proves the Bengals defensive front seven is more than just one man alone.

    Their current sack leaders are defensive ends Wallace Gilberry and Carlos Dunlap, who each have 7.5. Also, 14 members of the defense have at least a half-sack this season. However, the Chargers offensive line has done a good job of protecting quarterback Philip Rivers, giving up 30 sacks on the year, which is down from a brutal 49 last season.

    The Bengals may not be able to rattle him much on Sunday. 

    Cincinnati sacked Rivers twice in Week 13, hit him three more times and pressured him 15 times. That's a pretty good performance by both the Bengals defensive line, which managed to get sacks, as well as San Diego's offensive line, which gave up only two when a year ago it could have easily been four or five.

    San Diego's line is also strong when it comes to run blocking, ranking third per Football Outsiders. It has allowed the Chargers to run the ball the sixth most in the league on average per game, which helps further protect Rivers. They average 122.8 rushing yards per game, four yards per carry and 6.5 rushing first downs per game. 

    Teams don't run the ball much against the Bengals—just 24.1 times per game on average—much like the Chargers. However, unlike San Diego, Cincinnati doesn't give up exorbitant rushing yards on those attempts. The defense ranks fifth in rushing yards allowed per game at 96.5 and allows an average of four yards per rush.

    When they met earlier in the season, the Chargers rushed 24 times for 91 yards, giving them a 3.8 yards-per-carry average—basically, they ran to the Bengals defense's averages. That's a success and something they can repeat this week. 

    Although San Diego has a much-improved offensive line, the Bengals defensive line is neither very giving nor prone to making massive mistakes, especially at home. The Chargers get a lot of credit for how well they've kept Rivers upright and helped get the run game working, but in this matchup, the Bengals get the edge.

    Advantage: Bengals

Philip Rivers vs. Bengals Pass Defense

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    As noted in the examination of the Chargers offensive line versus the Bengals defense, Philip Rivers is much better protected this year, having been sacked 30 times compared to 49 last year. He was sacked twice when the Chargers and Bengals met in Week 13. In the 17-10 loss, he completed 23 of his 37 passes for 252 yards, threw one touchdown and one interception and averaged 6.8 yards per pass attempt. 

    On defense, the Bengals rank fifth in passing yards allowed per game at 209. That number drops to 198.4 in home games. Most impressively, they rank second in opponent yards per pass attempt at 5.4 and third in opponent yards per completion at 9.2. Rivers' performance in Week 13 was atypical of how the Bengals defense has handled passing offenses this year. 

    That's because he is an adept quarterback. He is Pro Football Focus' second-ranked quarterback this year (subscription required). He has completed an impressive 69.5 percent of his passes and has thrown 32 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. He has the highest accuracy percentage in the league.

    While everyone is marveling at Peyton Manning's broken records and Tom Brady's ability to win despite his receivers, Rivers has quietly put together an All-Pro season.

    That's why he already outperformed the Bengals pass defense once and should do it again on Sunday. Although Cincinnati has a formidable pass rush and a good secondary and has limited eight of its opponents to less than 200 passing yards, that's just not how things work with Rivers.

    Granted, the Bengals can still win with him throwing for 250 or even 300 yards. But if he's blowing up their averages, he and the Chargers get the edge in this particular battle.

    Advantage: Chargers

Chargers RBs vs. Bengals Front Seven

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    The San Diego run game is dependent on Ryan Mathews, with Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown sprinkling in a little help.

    Mathews has 285 carries for 1,255 yards and six touchdowns. He is averaging 4.4 yards per carry and 78.4 yards per game and is tied with wide receiver Keenan Allen for the most first downs earned on the team with 54.

    Woodhead has 106 carries for 429 yards and two rushing touchdowns. He is averaging four yards per carry and is also a threat in the passing game. Brown plays a bit part with 45 rushes for 157 yards and a touchdown.

    As noted before, the Chargers haven't shied away from running the ball this season. They are averaging 30.4 rushing attempts per game, more than all but six teams in the league. Teams have shied away from running against the Bengals, however, doing so on average 24.1 times per game for 96.5 yards.

    In Week 13, the Bolts rushed 24 times against the Bengals for 91 yards and 3.8 yards per carry. Mathews led the way with 61 yards on 14 carries, while Woodhead added seven rushes for 22 yards. Unsurprisingly, they were met most often by tackling leader Vontaze Burfict and linebacker Rey Maualuga, who combined for 23 total tackles.

    Maualuga, Burfict and defensive ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap will be among the defenders who will factor into how well or poorly the Chargers run the ball this Sunday. Given the home-field advantage and the 91 total yards of rushing offense the last time the Chargers tried to run against the Bengals, Cincinnati's defense has the upper hand.

    Advantage: Bengals

Chargers Receivers vs. Bengals Secondary

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    Like any team, the Cincinnati Bengals haven't escaped injuries this year. Most of them have come on the defensive side of the ball and in the secondary in particular. 

    They have already lost cornerback Leon Hall for the season, while fellow corner Terence Newman missed the final games of the season with a sprained MCL. His status for Sunday is unknown.

    That has forced second-year cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick into the starting lineup to join Adam Jones and made Chris Crocker the starter at the slot corner position. Rounding out the Bengals secondary are safeties George Iloka and Reggie Nelson. 

    The Bengals would be best off in the secondary if Newman can return healthy for this game. This season, he has allowed catches on only 48 of the 80 passes thrown his way, for 612 yards and three touchdowns to two interceptions. He'd be an upgrade over Kirkpatrick, who, despite having three interceptions, has also given up three touchdowns on the 23 receptions he's allowed.

    Cincinnati would also benefit by containing the Chargers' most dangerous weapon: rookie receiver Keenan Allen. He has 71 catches on his 105 targets for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns, and he has 16 receptions of 20 or more yards. If the inexperienced Kirkpatrick has to try to stop him, things may go poorly for the Bengals.

    Allen isn't the only dangerous receiver on the Chargers. Don't forget veteran tight end Antonio Gates, who has 77 receptions for 872 yards and four scores, and the speed pair of Eddie Royal and Danny Woodhead, who are averaging 42.1 and 37.8 receiving yards per game, respectively. 

    When these teams met in Week 13, the Bengals gave up six catches on 10 targets for 106 yards to Allen, and that was with a healthy Newman. The good news is that they gave up few receiving yards to any other Chargers player; none had more than 45. 

    Still, the multi-level Chargers passing attack could cause Cincinnati's secondary trouble, especially if Newman is unable to play. Though the Bengals have many defensive backs with first-round draft pedigrees, the Chargers have the upper hand as far as their receivers are concerned.

    Advantage: Chargers

The Final Tally

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    The Bengals beat out the Chargers in these eight matchups, 6-2:

     Cincinnati BengalsSan Diego Chargers
    CIN OL vs. SD DLX 
    Dalton vs. Pass DefenseX 
    CIN RBs vs. SD Front SevenX 
    CIN WRs vs. SD SecondaryX 
    SD OL vs. CIN DLX 
    Rivers vs. Pass Defense X
    SD RBs vs. CIN Front SevenX 
    SD WRs vs. CIN Secondary X

    Of course, matchups alone and on-paper analysis are quite different from what happens in actual football games, especially in the playoffs.

    The Bengals, with their 34 or more points per game at home over their last five contest and their undefeated streak at home, are certainly favorites over the Chargers. However, Andy Dalton's inconsistency as a passer compared to Philip Rivers' outstanding season could turn this game into a shootout, which the San Diego quarterback could use to his advantage.

    However, the Bengals are the hot team right now, even if they are flying under the radar. All signs point to the Bengals ending their playoff wins drought since 1990 and heading to Foxboro in the AFC's Divisional Round.