Ever since Sunday, I’ve been having this nightmare. It’s late in the fourth quarter of a one-score game, and Carolina is punting to the Bengals. Rookie Sam Hubbard rushes in to block the punt. He’s all over it and should block it easily, but suddenly a hole opens up wide in his torso and the punt goes right through it. The Bengals are left deep in their own territory, and wind up losing a tight game as a result. I can’t sleep, man.
Sadly, something just like this actually took place in Charlotte, when the Bengals fell for the first time this season. I still can’t believe Hubbard didn’t send that punt back to the Panthers end zone, where he would have recovered and taken it to the house for the scintillating tying score. From there, who knows? It was blocked. It can’t have been simply a deflection.
But it was, and instead Andy Dalton had time to throw another pair of interceptions, thus doubling his total on the day. Still, I took some encouragement from this game. If you had said beforehand that Dalton would throw four picks, A.J. Green would play just half the game, the Panthers would pile up an extraordinary 230 yards on the ground (paced by Christian McCaffrey’s 184, almost thrice his previous high), and Cam Newton would account for four touchdowns, I think the obvious prognosis would have been a blowout loss. So the fact that the Bengals could have pulled this one out, but for a couple of unlucky breaks, is actually a pretty good sign.
But there are clearly plenty of warning lights. The bugaboos from last year—poor offensive line play and an inability to stop the run—are bubbling up once again. The Bengals are currently dead last in third down conversion defense (52%, yikes). The linebackers are being exposed and tackling poorly. And John Ross, well, the less said about his play the better.
Actually, let’s say some things. Ross got more than his share of flak for mistakes that led to two of Dalton’s picks. I’d split the blame between them on the second one, but the point is well taken: Ross has to keep competing and find that ball, regardless of where it’s thrown.
Still, let’s not use the “B” word just yet. Thanks to the amazing A.J., who made one of the greatest catches I’ve ever seen before exiting with a groin injury, we assume that any highly-drafted receiver should be an instant difference maker. But wideout is an extremely difficult position to play as a young ’un in the NFL. We have all been patient with Tyler Boyd, even as he suffered through a sophomore season of mistakes, mostly mental, that seemed to indicate he was ripe for replacement. Instead, he’s blossoming into a valuable player before our eyes. Ross is doing plenty of unsung dirty work out there, using the threat of his deep speed to clear out openings for the likes of Boyd and even throwing his body into blocking. As Marvin Lewis said earlier in the week, Ross just needs to “free his mind.” Whether he was channeling En Vogue or Morpheus is up to you.
Anyway, it’s on to Atlanta, where yours truly will be in Mercedes-Benz Stadium to witness our heroes tangle with the Falcons. Ordinarily, I’d assume the Birds would score more than 30 points and the Bengals would lose, which is the usual result of Cincinnati visits to the South. Atlanta should indeed score a ton, given the team’s firepower, especially at home, where they’ve scored 68 points the last two weeks (yes, the Falcons are finishing up a three-game homestand).
So the hope is that the Bengals can outscore them, as the Saints did on Sunday. Atlanta is down three key defenders—Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, and Ricardo Allen—and the team was noticeably slower and less disciplined against New Orleans, missing 15 tackles. Remember, Carolina had a shoddy defensive game (against these same Falcons) and rebounded with a better effort when the Bengals came to town. Dan Quinn is a very good defensive coach, but the Falcons are so depleted on that side of the ball that no amount of scheming can fully overcome the talent disadvantage. It would of course help if Green can play (he seems on track to be a full go as I write this) and even Joe Mixon (who is more questionable).
The team just ahead of the Bengals in allowing third down conversions is Atlanta. Only the Raiders and the Chiefs are worse than the Falcons in defensive DVOA (after Sunday the Bengals are 15th). They are dead last against the run in terms of efficiency. Yes, having to tangle with Drew Brees and his orchestra isn’t easy, but there is no doubt that there should be room to make plays when the Bengals have the ball. One key element could be Ross; Atlanta is 31st in the league in defending non-No. 1 or No. 2 receivers, a direct result of the secondary injuries. This could be a great opportunity to rebuild some of the second-year wideout’s confidence.
Atlanta has just five sacks in three games, and their pressure rate is at the bottom of the league, which is good, because the Panthers gave Cincinnati’s offensive line fits on Sunday. Cordy Glenn had his first poor game, the right side continues to struggle, and injured center Billy Price was missed. They need to step up the cohesion at the very least. Speedy Takk McKinley seems likely to play for Atlanta, which will provide the Falcons some desperately needed pass rush threat.
Defensively for the Bengals, many areas need improvement after Sunday. The Panthers used a creative package of pre-snap motion and option play to confuse and confound the Bengals’ D. McCaffrey is good, but not that good. Atlanta’s Tevin Coleman is every bit the player McCaffrey is, so there is no rest for Cincinnati’s beleaguered run defense. Getting linebacker Preston Brown actually out there—remember, we thought he might go against the Panthers—would certainly help, though the loss of Ryan Glasgow to a knee injury was bad news from Sunday that will hurt going forward.
Atlanta is expert at scheming its receivers into mismatches, which is easy to do when the likes of the wondrous Julio Jones, rookie Calvin Ridley (who had three touchdowns Sunday), old pal Mo Sanu, and Coleman are on hand. Right now the obvious tactic for enemy passers is to isolate whomever Dre Kirkpatrick is covering and go that way. The Bengals are fourth in covering opposing No. 1 wideouts, a rating that plummets to 20th when covering No. 2s. In theory that means Ridley will be targeted early and often, forcing Kirkpatrick to improve in order to get the upper hand in this Alabama alumni showdown. But look for the Falcons to bunch receivers and move guys around in order to get Jones and Sanu working on Kirkpatrick as well.
In order to slow—not stop, let’s be real—the Atlanta attack, Cincinnati’s pass rush will be all-important. While the likes of Carl Lawson and Carlos Dunlap haven’t seen their excellent pressure result in tons of sacks (just seven thus far), they’ve been making a difference. Sacking Matt Ryan will be nice, but just getting near him is important—he is a quarterback sensitive to pressure (much like one Andrew G. Dalton). The Eagles put a lot of heat on him in the opener, and the Falcons were held in check. Guard Andy Levitre is done for the year, and right tackle Ryan Schraeder has struggled. There are matchups the Bengals can exploit Sunday, so they have to win their mismatches before the Falcons win theirs.
Will it happen? I’m not usually optimistic when it comes to these matters. I’m pessimistic when it comes to games I attend in person, particularly on the road and especially in Atlanta. No matter how well the Bengals are playing, my reverse mojo will undoubtedly cause them to screw the pooch, as it has so often in the past. So look for the Bengals to return home 2-2, with a crucial, difficult month of games ahead of them.
Hey, why not stay home, Rob? Yeah, I never considered that….
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.