Getting To Know The Cincinnati Bengals
The Los Angeles Chargers are coming off arguably their worst performance of the season after the division rival Broncos handled them last week. The offense has been an inconsistent puzzle of a unit, meanwhile, the defense has been OK against the run lately which is an improvement but now they can’t get off the field because the pass defense is a disaster.
They have maintained their spot in the playoffs due in large part to head-to-head tiebreakers over the Browns, Raiders, and Steelers. However, the window for those last two wild card spots is shrinking every week so a win this week over the 7-4 Bengals would really be a feather in their caps. Let’s dive into the Bengals.
2020 Season In Review
There was a lot of excitement around the Bengals heading into the 2020 season. How could there not be after they drafted Joe Burrow, the previous Heisman winner, with the first overall pick? They had been a rebuilding team for a few years after the Andy Dalton and AJ Green era had phased out, so getting Burrow was considered a massive win for the franchise.
The start of Burrow’s Cincinnati career certainly had its ups and downs, as is generally the case for all rookie quarterbacks who are designated the franchise savior from day one of their careers. There were incredible flashes, such as the incredible near comeback on Thursday Night Football against the Browns and the upset win over the Titans, but ultimately Burrow’s season would end prematurely after he tore multiple ligaments in his left knee against the Washington Football team in Week 11.
The Bengals would end up 4-11-1 on the season after Burrow missed the last six games of the season and all eyes turned towards an offseason mission to improve the support system around the face of the franchise.
Key Additions And Departures
Along with needing to better support Burrow, the Bengals also needed to replace a lot of key starters on defense. Longtime stalwarts Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, and Pacman Jones had finally moved on and the Bengals had money to spend. Their three bigger free-agent signings have all worked out very well. They signed edge rusher Trey Hendrickson to a big deal after he priced himself out of New Orleans. Hendrickson is currently in the top five among edge rushers in every major category: total pressures, sacks, and pass rush win rate. He’s been a fantastic addition and has been an upgrade over Carl Lawson after many were surprised that the Bengals let him walk in free agency.
The other two big signings were in the secondary where they agreed to terms with former Cowboys cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, and longtime Steelers slot corner Mike Hilton. Awuzie has become their de facto number one corner and has been extremely solid. He’s maintained a high PFF coverage grade and is only allowing a reception on 53% of his targets, along with a 78 passer rating when targeted. Hilton has been a steadying presence in the slot for the Bengals and brings a little bit of nasty that they didn’t have. He is what the Chargers thought they were getting in Chris Harris *sigh*. The Bengals also signed Larry Ogunjobi to bolster their defensive line, and Eli Apple and Ricardo Allen to provide veteran depth in the secondary.
Despite the national outcry, the Bengals didn’t add a whole lot in the offseason along the offensive line. They signed right tackle Riley Reiff to a one-year deal, and he has been a viable starter, which is exactly what he has been for most of his career. They did draft three offensive linemen in Jackson Carman, D’Ante Smith, and Trey Hill, though. Carman is the only one of the three who has started games, but Hill and Smith are promising depth pieces for the future.
The other part of that coin is obviously the decision to reunite Burrow with his former college bestie Ja’Marr Chase. Obviously, a lot of us will argue that Rashawn Slater should win offensive rookie of the year, given his elite play at a more important position, but Chase has objectively been outstanding so far during his rookie season. He’s currently sixth in the league in receiving yards and could easily pass 1,000 yards this weekend. He’s also recorded eight touchdowns this year and has pretty clearly picked up where he left off with Burrow two years ago.
There was a lot of skepticism in the media surrounding the Bengals this season. Most of it was centered around the perceived lack of elite playmakers on defense and a general consensus that the Bengals didn’t really upgrade their offense all that much. Chase was always going to provide an element of explosiveness that they didn’t have last year, but the offensive line is essentially the same group with Reiff instead of Bobby Hart. To be fair that is a massive upgrade in itself but the skepticism remained all the way up until the season kicked off, and was even amplified somewhat as there were reports in training camp that Burrow was struggling with his confidence after the knee surgery from last season and then there were all the drops by Chase in the preseason games.
It’s safe to say that the Bengals have overachieved to this point of the season. They are firmly in the playoff hunt when most people thought they’d be lucky to squeeze into the wildcard conversation this year. Hendrickson, in particular, has proven to be a fantastic addition and the rest of their additions have been really solid and frankly, that’s still an upgrade for their roster.
I think some of the hesitations with trusting the Bengals this season was due to their very tough schedule down the stretch. Matchups with the Raiders, Steelers, Chargers, 49ers, Broncos, Ravens, Chiefs, and Browns after their bye week was and is considered a tough schedule. ESPN’s Mike Clay has their remaining schedule as the seventh most difficult in the league. (The Chargers have the seventh easiest according to Clay.) So they will certainly have their work cut out for them but I see no reason any more to doubt that they’ll continue to exceed outside expectations.
History Against The Chargers
These two teams have played each other 37 total times in their histories, and the Chargers have the series edge 22-15. They of course played as recently as last year, when the Chargers eked out a win in Burrow’s first start after Randy Bullock missed a potential game-tying field goal as time ran out. Tyrod Taylor made his one and only start for the Chargers that day and played ok. He ran the kind of offense that Anthony Lynn always wanted: ball control and no turnovers. The Chargers got 31 carries and 144 yards on the ground from Austin Ekeler and Joshua Kelley in the 16-13 win.
Two of the 37 matchups between these two franchises have come in the postseason. The most recent one came in 2014, in Mike McCoy’s lone playoff victory in San Diego. The defense led by Eric Weddle, Donald Butler, and a young Melvin Ingram got after Dalton and forced three turnovers as the Chargers cruised to a 27-10 wildcard victory. The other playoff matchup came all the way back in the 1982 AFC Championship game when the opposite happened and the Bengals defense made life very difficult for Dan Fouts and the Chargers offense and cruised to a 27-7 victory. That Bengals team lost to the 49ers in the Super Bowl which sparked the Bill Walsh 49ers dynasty of the ’80s.
Ultimately I believe this to be a very difficult matchup for the Chargers, and unfortunately, a lot of that is due to health. The Chargers very well might have the more top-tier talent on their roster, but the Bengals absolutely have the deeper roster. Hendrickson, Ogunjobi, Sam Hubbard, and DJ Reader are a significantly better defensive line than the one that just wreaked havoc on the Chargers last week in Denver. The skill-position talent on the Bengals offense is outstanding as well with Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, CJ Uzomah, and of course Joe Mixon.
If Matt Feiler and Asante Samuel Jr do end up playing this week, I will feel better about the Chargers’ chances of coming out of Cincinnati with a victory, but even then I won’t feel great. The Chargers have simply been too inconsistent to feel comfortable picking them to win. Because of that, I’ll be taking the Bengals this week 30-20.