Only the Bengals could lose without actually playing… OK, technically, Cincinnati remains 5-3 after a weekend on the golf course instead of the gridiron. But the news on Sunday that A.J. Green, the most indispensable Bengal up to and possibly including Andy Dalton, had a season-jeopardizing toe injury sure felt like an “L” to all of us.
From the second the trainers broke John Ross’ 40-yard dash record to get Green’s shoe off after his catch in the dying seconds vs. Tampa—a grab that set up the game-winning field goal, natch—I had the uneasy feeling it was worse than Green’s postgame “I jammed it, I’m OK” quote led us to believe. As has been the case in this decade in particular, seemingly small injuries have a way of taking down key Bengals for periods far beyond the initial diagnosis. So I was never sure Green would be good to go after the bye, and now it seems assured he misses the next two games. I wouldn’t get your hopes up that Adriel Jeremiah is back in action for the Browns game on November 25, either.
So the Bengals—unless Marvin Lewis and Teryl Austin cooked up some incredible defensive turnaround during the week off—will have to beat the New Orleans Saints in a gunfight minus their biggest howitzer. That’s a tough ask. Drew Brees & Co. just draped 45 on the previously undefeated Rams and are second in the NFL with 35 points per game and fourth in DVOA.
And yet there are some reasons to feel, let’s say, not totally pessimistic about Sunday’s game. Playing at home rather than in the Superdome is, of course, an edge. New Orleans is famously spotty when playing road games outdoors in brisk (or worse) temperatures. Sunday isn’t expected to conjure memories of the Freezer Bowl, but it won’t be room temperature either.
Despite the offensive pyrotechnics, the Saints actually are rather pedestrian at wide receiver, to the point where they’re bringing Dez Bryant off the couch to don the Fleur-de-lis. Michael Thomas is an extraordinary wideout, but past him they don’t scare you on the perimeter. Bringing in Dez could be a good signing, one that Cincinnati arguably should have made. Forgetting the fact that such a move is out of character for the franchise since the T.O. debacle, the truth is Brees will get much more out of the slow but competitive Bryant than Dalton likely would have.
Obviously, where the Saints become special is the running back combo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. The latter in particular is having another exceptional season, second in the NFL in rushing DVOA and 10th in receiving among running backs. AK-47 seems well-suited to strafe Cincinnati in the passing game, especially with Nick Vigil still out and Vontaze Burfict likely to be. Minimizing the damage wrought by the backs will be crucial to upsetting the Saints.
Barring an injury to Brees, and probably even if one does occur, New Orleans is going to score, well, hopefully not 45 but certainly more than 15. Can Cincinnati possibly keep pace?
The Saints are one of a recent series of opponents who are somehow worse than Cincinnati on defense this season. Ranking 28th in DVOA and 27th in points allowed per game, they have been particularly horrendous against the pass. As anyone who saw them play the Rams Sunday, the Saints’ run defense is strong—amazingly enough, they rank third in DVOA against the run. Part of that, of course, is that they’re so easy to throw it against (29th in the NFL). The Saints’ secondary is dead last in stopping opposing #1 receivers, which makes Green’s absence deeply unfortunate. Mitigating that is the fact that the Saints are also last against #2 receivers, meaning Tyler Boyd figures to have a day regardless of how often he’s targeted. The Bengals desperately need Ross to return to the field and stay on it. And it wouldn’t hurt for Josh Malone or Alex Erickson to step up.
The Saints struggle almost as much as Cincinnati when it comes to defending passes to running backs. Alas, the Bengals have yet to fully use Joe Mixon or Gio Bernard as receivers, certainly not to the extent New Orleans has. Kamara has 66 targets, quite a bit more than Bernard (21) and Mixon (28) combined. Granted, they’ve been in and out of the lineup, but as anyone who has seen the games knows, Cincinnati is badly underutilizing its sure-handed backs. Hopefully, watching all that Saints film will give Bill Lazor some ideas.
Kamara and Ingram get plenty of pub, but so far this season they’ve been helped mightily by the excellence of the Saints’ offensive line. While New Orleans ranks fifth in Adjusted Line Yards and has allowed the fewest tackles for loss or no gain, the team is near the bottom in the Football Outsiders stats called Second Level Yards and Open Field Yards. These measure the gains beyond the initial scrimmage blocking, thus isolating what the line is doing to open holes. So it would appear that the PR should be going toward the likes of linemen Ryan Ramczyk, Terron Armstead, and Max Unger.
Cincinnati’s O-line has been better than expected—ninth in Adjusted Sack Rate and mid-pack in Adjusted Line Yards. But Mixon and the other backs are top 10 in Second Level and Open Field Yards, meaning that, despite their seeming inability to break tackles consistently, the Bengals runners have been doing work beyond what the line is clearing for them.
On paper, it’s hard to find a path to victory this weekend. But, of course, they don’t play the games on paper—they play them inside your television set. New Orleans has had to gin it up three weeks running now for road games in Baltimore and Minnesota followed by Sunday’s showdown with the Rams. A tangle with the Super Bowl champs looms next week, followed by a Sunday nighter with their hated rivals from Atlanta. This one screams “trap game letdown!”
The Bengals are currently 5 1/2-point underdogs, and Cincinnati is generally very frisky as home dogs. Green’s absence is bad news, but the team has a history of stepping up some when the star is down. Cincinnati is a kind of surprising 5-7-1 with AJ out or missing most of the game, and Dalton’s passer rating in that baker’s dozen is a decent enough 80.3—and that counts games back when he was young and doughy.
Maybe most of all, this is the way the NFL works. The super hot team gets loved on for a week or two, then falls in a game it’s expected to win. Despite being a solid six seed at the moment, the Bengals have little to no respect nationally (or locally, for that matter). They don’t deserve much, frankly, but beyond the two-week Pittsburgh-K.C. nightmare, finding ways to win has been the Bengals’ jam this year. Winning against the latest “best team in the NFC, maybe the entire league?” would be off-brand for Cincinnati, but not the NFL writ large.
A slim reed to hang our hopes upon? Sure, but much, much stranger things have happened.
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.