If Fangio and company want to make the playoffs, they can’t afford to overlook the Cincinnati Bengals. With both teams at 7-6 and facing tough remaining slates, Sunday is critical for the way it can offer a little breathing room. Losing would mean winning out may not be enough for the Denver Broncos, as an 0-4 record against AFC North teams in a conference where tiebreakers could ultimately decide the final wildcard teams.
Best to avoid such a scenario.
Cincy’s been an easy team to overlook this season because, like Denver, they haven’t played a lot of primetime games. With that said, they’re a strong foil for what the Broncos want to do on both sides of the ball, which makes the individual matchups critical for determining the outcome. Here are three matchups that warrant extra attention this week.
Patrick Surtain II vs. Ja’Marr Chase
The last time these two met, the game also had playoff implications, so it’s fitting that their first NFL battle does as well.
If the season ended today, Chase would be my pick for Offensive Rookie of the Year. He’s Burrow’s favorite target and leads the Bengals with 98 receptions, 15 of those went for 20+ yards, six passed the 40-yard mark. The former LSU Tiger has already established himself as a topflight alpha receiver and has the athletic ability, catch radius, and play strength to dominate most matchups.
Surtain isn’t most matchups, however. The Broncos’ top corner has quickly emerged as one of the best cover men in the NFL and has the talent, technique, and ball skills to serve as a perfect foil. Opponents are completing less than half their passes against him this year and his ability to crowd Chase at the line of scrimmage and impact his release should lead to a rough day for the Cincy receiver. Surtain’s ability to disrupt the catch point could lead to turnover opportunities this week: Chase leads the league in drops, and some of them have been rather ghastly.
It isn’t realistic to expect Surtain to shut Chase down completely, but he’ll need to make him work for his numbers and cap the chunk plays to prevent the Bengals from knocking Shurmur off his game script.
“Not Surtain” vs. Tee Higgins
Throughout last year’s draft process, there was a constant debate out of Cincy about whether the Bengals should take Ja’Marr Chase or Penei Sewell. With a shaky offensive line and a second year passer who finished his rookie season with a torn ACL, the argument was Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd were already a solid receiving corps and Sewell would provide Burrow a reliable bookend across from Jonah Williams. The protection as a whole could improve for it.
Obviously, the Bengals took Chase. Doing so pushed every other member of their receiving corps one rung down the ladder and it’s made their passing offense much tougher to stop because of it. Higgins’ lack of twitch impacts his effectiveness on routes that depend on sharp cuts, but his size, long speed, hands, and ability to go up to win above the rim makes him a mismatch weapon as a secondary option.
Higgins usually lines up on the boundary, which means he’ll face off against Surtain and Ronald Darby when the Broncos secondary mans up. Surtain has the length and strength to win more than he loses against the 6-foot-4, 216-pound receiver, but Higgins presents an issue for Darby because of the size and strength difference, and the Bengals could capitalize by asking him to play bully ball on third downs and around the goal line. By Sports Info Solutions’ charting, the veteran corner has only broken up four passes this season and he’s allowed 60.7% of targets thrown at him to be completed. Burrow’s probably going to test him early and often.
Teddy Bridgewater vs. Lou Anarumo
The Bengals defense is among the biggest surprises in the league this year and Anarumo’s play calling on passing downs is a big part of it. The defensive coordinator is doing a fantastic job maximizing his personnel considering he has one pass rusher that’s able to consistently win one-on-ones.
When opponents find themselves facing a 3rd-and-long, Anarumo doesn’t hesitate to overload the line of scrimmage with six or more potential rushers and dial up various games to create opportunities to hit the quarterback. Sometimes they’ll overload the protection with a jailbreak, but they’ll more often send five with a stunt to try to force the offensive line into a missed assignment. Other times they’ll drop seven or even eight into coverage.
What makes the Bengals’ pressure scheme a chore is how Cincy’s defense has athletic big bodies along the interior who can push the pocket or set picks for loopers, and Anarumo doesn’t hesitate to use any number of body types as his additional rusher.
Germaine Pratt was a college safety turned linebacker, and he brings the size and athleticism to create problems. Former Steeler Mike Hilton has long had a reputation as one of the best blitzing corners in the league, and Bridgewater would be wise to keep an eye on him pre-snap for any hints at a nickel blitz. Safety Von Bell has also rushed 21 times this year. He’s quite good at timing up his blitz for maximum impact.
The Bengals will typically play a cover one, three, or four variation behind their pressure packages. If they’re defending a good bit of grass, Anarumo has no problem calling a zone coverage and sitting back to rally to completions to prevent yards after catch.
It speaks to the way Cincy improved its secondary this past offseason that it can dial up pressures utilizing both Bell (24) and Jessie Bates (30) as threats. Their versatility makes them unpredictable, which will stress Bridgewater’s ability to find the right target post-snap. Bell’s game reminds me of T.J. Ward’s: he’s got the skillset to erase Noah Fant or lay the pain down in the middle of the field. Bates is at his best in the deep center field, but he has the range and coverage chops to play a robber role and bait quarterbacks around the middle of the field.
If Logan Wilson was healthy, he’d also be a threat in these pressure packages. His absence creates a weakness for Bridgewater to exploit, as the backup Joe Bachie is a replacement level player with clear limitations in coverage.
It’d be a good week for Shurmur to dial up easy completions for Jerry Jeudy, Noah Fant, and Albert Okwuegbunam so Bridgewater can subvert the pressure scheme. With Chidobe Awuzie on the COVID-19 list, there could also be shot play opportunities down the left boundary if Teddy can escape the rush.