Shootout Coming in Carolina

The Bengals put their undefeated record on the line against the Battering Cam, Luke Kuechly, Christian McCaffrey, and company.

Well, that good feeling lasted, what, four days? The Bengals’ 2-0 start is what we all hoped for, and the way they took it to the Ravens last Thursday night was certainly inspiring. But now begins a tough two-game road trip that, while it won’t define the season, will let us know if we have a true contender or one that has to scrabble and claw for every win.

It begins Sunday in the Carolinas, which hopefully will have dried out after Hurricane Florence blew through, followed by another difficult road test in Atlanta. The month afterwards is suddenly brutal, with games coming against the unbeaten Dolphins, our old pals in Pittsburgh, and the two highest-powered offenses in football, Kansas City and Tampa Bay—but let’s cross that bridge later. This is exactly why the two initial wins were so important, because they provided much-needed cushion for a young squad.

Unfortunately, the injury bug is starting to inject toxins into the Bengals’ bloodstream. Joe Mixon, who has put up 236 yards from scrimmage in two games and is just beginning to fulfill his immense potential, is down for what the team says is two weeks after getting his knee scoped. If he plays in any of the next four games, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Meanwhile, Wednesday brought news that rookie center Billy Price will be out at least two weeks and probably more thanks to a foot injury sustained against the Ravens. Trey Hopkins replaced Price Thursday and played pretty well, especially in the passing game, but a sizable reason the team struggled to move the ball in the second half after rolling up 28 points in the first 30 minutes was the offensive line not getting the job done. Hopkins’ comparative lack of athleticism hurt the running game, and matters won’t get easier against Carolina’s rugged front seven. Tra Carson, who showed off an intriguing blend of shiftiness and power and was poised to be part of the gameplan against the Panthers, got injured in practice, bad enough that he was waived, presumably to be re-signed if and when he heals. Brian Hill, a back who is similarly tough and wiggly, was a tough cut in preseason and is now with the Falcons. A position of strength has been badly reduced in a short amount of time.

That leaves just the redoubtable Gio Bernard and rookie Mark Walton. Gio is as tough as they come, much better between the tackles than his size and rep would suggest. But asking him to carry the load alone for a month is a lot—and his knee is balky, too. Walton showed little in preseason and is built similarly to Bernard. The team was left to find a depth back on the waiver wire, Thomas Rawls, last seen running wild at Paul Brown Stadium in 2015 when the Bengals beat Rawls’ Seahawks in an OT thriller. Alas, that was some time ago—a generation in Running Back Years. I fear Cincinnati will find itself a little light in the loafers in the running game for a while.

The question is whether Carolina will take advantage and force the Bengals to be one-dimensional. The Panthers were gashed badly by the Falcons on the ground Sunday, to the tune of 170 yards, 107 of them from Tevin Campbell (the first back to put 100-plus on the Panthers since, wait for it, Thomas Rawls in 2016). It was a goulash of bad tackling, poor gap control, iffy angles, and what coach Ron Rivera decried as “lazy” play. It stands to reason that a unit sporting Luke Kuechly and a deep front won’t have back-to-back stinkers, so the Bengals will need to be good again in the passing game.

Fortunately, Andy Dalton is enjoying a particularly strong stretch. Indeed, he’s now played a full 16-game “season” with Bill Lazor as offensive coordinator and over that period has thrown 31 touchdowns to just nine interceptions, for 3,434 yards. He has hardly been Pat Mahomes out there, but given the limitations up front last season you have to be encouraged. Of course, this is generally where we tip over the edge and ride the steep drop of the DaltonCoaster, which is nearly as puke-inducing as the Diamondback at Kings Island. Beating the Panthers on the road will mean more than merely avoiding past horrors—Dalton needs to go out and win this sucker with his arm.

Last time we saw Cam Newton, he was in full Superman mode, throwing for two touchdowns and running for a third (and 107 yards) in that insane 37-37 tie at PBS in 2014. In retrospect, it was the game that began his slingshot rise from injured mess to league MVP in 2015. Through two games in 2018, Cam has somehow morphed into an accurate checkdown passer, something he’s never been in his cannon-armed career. His completion percentage sits at 70.4%, an astonishing number for a passer whose precision is in the 10-20 air yard range, not in the short game that the Panthers have used so far as the result of trying to get running back Christian McCaffrey the ball in space. Stopping McCaffrey is the key to a Bengals win, but his matchup with the Bengals’ linebackers screams trouble.

As is often the case, Cincinnati’s defense is playing well against wide receivers so far while running backs are having their way in the passing game—in two games, backs are averaging 13 catches for 72.5 yards against the Bengals. Part of that is by design. Giving up the short pass and forcing Andrew Luck and Joe Flacco to use 8-12 plays on a drive is sound strategy, and Teryl Austin’s Cover-4 shell looks have accomplished the goal of taking away chunk plays.

But McCaffrey is a handful, as he showed against the Falcons: 14 receptions on 15 targets (the lone incompletion a throwaway he had no chance of catching) for 102 yards. He has 20 catches in two games, an insane 40.8% of his team’s total receptions. That’s unsustainable, of course—the question for the Bengals’ defense is whether Carolina’s temptation to go to their mismatch weapon overwhelms the rest of the Panthers attack, as it did at times against Atlanta. Cincinnati may well let McCaffrey get his and take away everything else, which seems doable. Carolina’s wideouts don’t scare anyone with their separation ability, and they have hit just one play for over 30 yards so far in 2018.

The X-Factor, as it was in 2014, is Newton, particularly as a running threat. When he lines up with a run-pass option to either hit McCaffrey in space or run into the spaces McCaffrey clears out, he’ll put Cincinnati’s second-level defenders in a tricky spot. A key returnee in this area figures to be Preston Brown, who has hardly played since his interception early in the Indy game. If his twitchy ankle lets him go at Carolina, his instincts and tackling ability will provide some crucial counterpunch to Newton’s running ability in particular.

So far the emphasis on takeaways, talked about all offseason, has had the desired effect. Five in two games, and the safety trio of Shawn Williams, Jessie Bates, and Clayton Fejedelem has been at the center of all but one. (Anyone remember George Iloka?) It feels like the safeties need to come up with another turnover to tip the balance in this one. Can they do it again in winning time, as they have in the first two games? It’s a lot to ask, but that feels like the difference between staying undefeated and taking the season’s first L.

Let it ride! I’m thinking Cincinnati pulls this one out in another shootout with the Battering Cam.

Robert Weintraub is a Fulcher 2 Stay contributor and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. He is also the author of three books. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

 

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