It’s finally here football fans! When this is published you likely will have already watched the season-opening game between the defending Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans, which means the longest summer ever has officially come to a close. The Los Angeles Chargers had quite an eventful offseason, headlined by the departure of future Hall of Famer Philip Rivers and the arrival of Justin Herbert.
However, Tyrod Taylor is going to be the team’s starter for the 2020 season. Yes, the entire 2020 season. I do not expect to see much of the Oregon legend this year. I know that Taylor has his limitations but I am very excited to see what having a mobile quarterback who won’t turn the ball over will look like this season.
While I am cautiously optimistic about the overall outlook of the Chargers in 2020, I am a little pessimistic about this particular matchup for the Chargers. Yes, the Cincinnati Bengals were the worst team in the league in 2019 but a lot of those struggles were due to injury (sound familiar?). The best player on their team (A.J. Green) didn’t play a single snap all season, and neither did their first-round pick, Jonah Williams. Those two are back, plus they actually had a very good draft: Joe Burrow, Tee Higgins, Logan Wilson, and Akeem Davis-Gaither are all players I really liked from this year’s class. They also added upgrades at defensive tackle, cornerback, and offensive guard with the signings of D.J. Reader, Trae Waynes (although he won’t be available on Sunday), and Xavier Su’a-Filo.
This team should be much improved in 2020, and if I were a betting man I would be pounding the over on their 5.5 projected win total. Obviously their division is incredibly tough but, similar to the Chargers, they have the fortune of playing a last-place schedule. Particularly after their bye week, they have a very favorable three-game stretch against the Washington Football Team, New York Giants, and Miami Dolphins. I’m not saying they’ll be world beaters by any means, but I can definitely see them winning six or maybe even seven games.
The headlines will lead you to think this game will come down to how the quarterbacks will play, but that’s honestly every game in the NFL. If your quarterback struggles, your team probably loses (see the Chargers 2019 season). So I will not be focusing on the Chargers defense vs Burrow, instead here are three matchups that I think will determine the outcome of the game this Sunday.
Three Key Matchups For The Los Angeles Chargers Vs The Cincinnati Bengals
1. D.J. Reader and Mike Daniels vs Dan Feeney, Forrest Lamp, and Trai Turner
To me, this is the most important matchup of the game, especially as the Chargers try and work around the hip injury that has caused Mike Pouncey to miss the last several weeks of practice. Geno Atkins is also out for this week’s game, but Mike Daniels and D.J. Reader are still very capable in their own rights.
Interior pressure is something the Chargers struggled with mightily in 2019 (along with outside pressure if we’re being honest), and it’s the primary reason they traded for Trai Turner. Having a mobile quarterback is fine and dandy, but if your offensive line is giving up interior pressure all game long, that won’t matter.
Reader is a massive human being, listed at 6’3 and 347 pounds. He’s the perfect compliment to Atkins and should gobble up double teams all season long. He thrives as a run-stuffing defensive tackle but as the Chargers know, he’s no slouch as a pass rusher either. As a member of the Houston Texans in 2019, he registered two sacks against them and he’s sure to provide quite the challenge again this year.
Mike Daniels is kind of a mixture of Atkins and Reader. He’s battled through some injuries the last two seasons, but from 2013 to 2018 he racked up 25 sacks and over 60 quarterback hits for the Green Bay Packers.
I would expect, and I think other teams will as well, that the Chargers will lean heavily on that right side in the run game in 2020. If I’m the Bengals, I’m sticking Reader in the one gap, between Feeney and Turner and making them prove that they can run the ball effectively. Reader was the eighth highest-graded defensive tackle in 2019, per Pro Football Focus. If you sort that by run defense only, he was sixth. Trailing guys like Aaron Donald, Calais Campbell, and Cameron Heyward. If you are still doubting how good he is, please go watch the Chargers game against the Houston Texans from last season. He ate Pouncey, Feeney, and Michael Schofield for lunch. Turner should help, but don’t be expecting to see the Chargers have much luck running up the middle on Sunday.
Atkins being out is a huge loss for the Bengals. He creates a completely different challenge for opposing teams. He has 75.5 sacks to his name, and he’s been to six straight Pro Bowls. He’s solid against the run too, make no mistake about it, but his best attribute is his incredible quickness. He’s got a great get off, has excellent hand technique to shed blockers, and is a very strong finisher. Some people are talking about “he’s washed up” or “he had a down season” because he only registered five sacks. Well, that’s all fine but he also registered 53 pressures per PFF. He’s still playing at a very high level, and the added presence of Reader should benefit him greatly.
Lamp, Feeney, and Turner better bring their lunch pails on Sunday, because it could be a long day.
2. Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard vs Kenneth Murray, Drue Tranquill, Denzel Perryman, Nick Vigil, and Kyzir White
If you’ve been keeping up with the defensive trends in the NFL, and particularly the Chargers, the last few years, you’ve likely noticed a trend against the ever so popular cover three scheme that Pete Carroll and his disciples employ. That trend is that running backs tend to feast against this scheme. The nature of it focuses on limiting the explosive plays over the top. This approach allows the opposing offense to focus on the options in the short to intermediate range, and that includes the rushing attack as well. It’s a fine plan, especially as the league continues to trend towards a pass centric league, but it can lead to problems if your linebackers in particular cannot rally and make plays in space.
If you have Bobby Wagner, it’s not that big of a challenge. The Chargers have not had Wagner, or anyone even close to his level of athleticism and range on their roster; and it’s led to some major problems in the past. Now, they’ve invested heavily in the linebacker position after trading up for Kenneth Murray and signing Nick Vigil. They now have their most talented group, probably ever. Murray’s athleticism and range were the perfect pairings up the middle of the defense with Derwin James. Now, Murray will be counted on even more without him.
Joe Mixon is one of my favorite running backs in the league right now. He’s the perfect modern back that can do it all. The Bengals offensive line was (and might still be) one of the worst in the league last year. Mixon still put up nearly 1,200 yards rushing. He also proved there’s still more to his game, by becoming more efficient as a pass-catcher. Last season he increased his yards per catch average by over a full yard. That might seem insignificant to some but there’s a big difference between 6.9 yards per reception and 8.2, at least in my opinion.
The last time these two teams played, Mixon had a very solid game, to the tune of 130 total scrimmage yards and two touchdowns. Bengals head coach Zac Taylor rather famously comes from the Sean McVay coaching tree. Their offensive scheme is predicated on a zone running scheme that sets up a hyper-efficient play-action passing attack. Having an effective running back like Mixon, or non-arthritic Todd Gurley is crucial to that aspect of their offense. Especially when you have a limited, or inexperienced quarterback.
We’ve seen time and time again in this league that coaches want to ease their rookie quarterbacks into the league before really letting them loose. Mixon had 278 carries in 2019, and I would expect that number to go well over 300 as they look to keep the pressure off their prized quarterback. Obviously, it will be game script dependent, as all things are in the NFL, but I am expecting at least 25 carries from Mixon on Sunday, and four or five catches as well.
Keep your eyes on Murray on Sunday, not just because he’s an amazingly talented player, but also because he could be the most important defensive player on the field for the Chargers.
3. The Bengals Wide Receivers vs The Chargers Secondary
The return of A.J. Green is an important storyline in this game. When healthy, he’s been an elite player in this league, but it’s been a while for the former Georgia Bulldog. It’s why the team drafted Tee Higgins, out of Clemson, in the second round this year. The team also has one of the better slot receivers in the league in Tyler Boyd, and literally the fastest man in the NFL in John Ross. It really is an excellent group of pass-catchers and gives Burrow a lot of options to throw to.
It’ll be very interesting to see if the Chargers task Casey Hayward with following Green, as they have in the past with other receivers of a similar caliber, or if they ask Chris Harris Jr. to follow Boyd. There’s a reason the Chargers brought over Harris Jr. from Denver and we should get to see it right off the bat.
The elephant in the room is Michael Davis, the team loves the speed and length he brings to the position. However, he really struggles to make plays in space and with the taller jump ball types. He can cover the speedsters pretty well so he should be fine against Ross, but if he gets stuck against Boyd or Higgins that could lead to explosive plays that the Chargers want to avoid.
No defense is going to fully shut down an opposing offense’s passing game, not in the modern NFL. But if the Chargers can limit the big plays from Mixon and this receiver group, they should be in good shape on Sunday, at least defensively.