Only a smattering of pundits are giving the Bengals a chance this week. They haven't impressed enough people to form a large enough bandwagon to be picked to go on the road and beat an established quality team like Atlanta. The Bengals are just a bunch of big-named players with no glue holding them together, they say. Bums, they say.
Well, perhaps "they" are right. It's possible that our projections and expectations of this team went a little wild. They looked great on paper and pretty decent in the preseason, but under the big microscope of the regular season their audition as a contender has been paltry and underwhelming.
Nonetheless, I don't expect Atlanta will steamroll these castaways. Corner any wild animal where it feels trapped and it will become dangerous in a heartbeat, and the same holds true for the Bengals. The Falcons are a good enough team to take Cincinnati's best shot and still come out on top, but I bet that best shot will indeed present itself under the cascading metal roof of the Georgia Dome in Week 7.
For that to happen, the Bengals need not play the perfect game. Instead of desperately trying to live up to the Falcons' level, they should attempt to bring Atlanta down to theirs. The Dirty Birds know how to win games but with a few key efforts administered just right, they can become mighty pedestrian—and until we see otherwise, that's all we can expect from our striped friends.
Falcons offense vs. Bengals defense
Matt Ryan, Michael Turner and Tony Gonzalez are all fine players, but the straw that stirs the drink for this offense is wide receiver Roddy White. It is my opinion that if a defense can take away White, it can force the Falcons to become predictable and easier to dictate.
The problem is, White just isn't going to sit back and allow that to happen. After watching the last three games of his, I feel this guy is vastly underrated and is as valuable to his team as any other receiver in the league. He is a legitimate deep threat, is good at finding open spaces in zones and has an excellent report with his quarterback. Often times, Ryan will look past his initial receiver underneath in hopes of scoring bigger yardage with White in the second level. The tandem doesn't want to settle for check downs; they're more aggressive than that.
With Johnathan Joseph hurting, Leon Hall will have to take White, which doesn't help. What does, though, is that Ryan doesn't appear to have the most cannon-like of arms. He is certainly capable of what most of us would define as a deep pass, but the ball simply doesn't boom from his hand and it often floats to receivers. I don't want to take much away from Ryan because he is a very solid young quarterback, but Hall plays with excellent fundamentals and technique and if it isn't a foot race to the end zone, I like his chances against a player like White. I would look for safety help when White does try and extend the field, but I would also expect Hall to play him in man coverage on short to medium routes.
Assuming White is somewhat contained, the next passing threat to worry about is the venerable Tony Gonzalez. This man could already be in the Hall-of-Fame had he retired five years ago, but like Ray Lewis, the guy simply doesn't know how to age properly. Every young aspiring tight end should watch lots and lots of tape of Tony Gonzalez, and would then be supplied with a thorough understanding of how the position should be played. I could keep going on about him, but I think you get the picture.
Gonzalez is Atlanta's quintessential safety valve. They can always rely on him getting at least a couple of yards every time they throw his way. He is most utilized in play-action stuff, particularly when Ryan rolls out of the pocket after the fake hand-off and hits Tony G. near the sideline. They love this play. They also use him as a decoy on underneath routes while White runs across the middle on short crossing routes. A few times in their games, I've seen two or more defenders drift Gonzalez' way and inexplicably leave White wide open in the process. Bengal linebackers are poor in coverage and these kinds of breakdowns will fillet them beyond repair if they occur. They must recognize play-actions, locate Gonzalez, and also somehow not lose sight of White. It's a difficult process, but it isn't asking too much from an NFL linebacker. If Gonzalez has close to 100 yards, and White doesn't, the Bengals defense is winning.
They have a few peripheral receivers who each have their own strength—Michael Jenkins is large, Brian Finneran is reliable and Harry Douglas is very fast with an old-school name—but the deep Bengal cornerback crew should be able to make these randoms an afterthought overall.
Even though Atlanta has what I would describe as an average offensive line, their tight ends and receivers do a good job of sealing the edges on outside run plays and are a big part of their offensive success. Their run game is centered around the tree-stub legs of one Michael Turner. At 5'10'' and 245 pounds, Turner is a nightmare for smallish defenders to take on and typically requires gang tackles to finally get him on the ground. The weird thing is, he seems most effective running off-tackle on stretch hand-offs and not as adept at grinding inside (though he did have a 55-yard run up the gut against Cleveland in Week 5). For the inside runs, they have another back named Jason Snelling who weighs 20 pounds less, but runs between the tackles like a much heavier man. Turner tops out around 18 carries a game or so, with Snelling closer to 8 or 9 attempts. This running game will almost always be too daunting of a challenge to shutdown completely, but if the Bengals are able to set the edge on off-tackle hand-offs and combine the pair for 120 yards or less, they will have succeeded overall against the run.
Bengals offense vs. Falcons defense
The Falcons defense is different than what the Bengals are used to. They aren't very big or brutish, they don't have a lot of star power, and they don't get super complicated in their scheme. They are light and fast, and should challenge Carson Palmer to throw on them.
Last week, Philadelphia manhandled Atlanta's front line in the first half. Not only did the Eagles win physically, they tricked the Falcons on a few key gadget plays that went for big scores. Once Andy Reid had fooled them a time or two, Atlanta was forced to bite on every fake thereafter, and suffered multiple long scoring drives against them as a consequence (along with three others that fizzled out in missed field goals). The Bengals offensive line looked tough for the first time all season last game; if these trends continue, Cincinnati's chances of a win increases exponentially.
Of course the main beneficiary of such a development would be Cedric Benson, and hopefully Bernard Scott too. In my last post, I discussed how I wanted Scott's touches to increase, but Benson is still the prize cattle around these parts and there's no reason not to show him off down South too. If the line is able to establish a push against the smallish defensive line of Atlanta, they should stick with it and not get cute by "being aggressive" in the passing game. If Cincinnati finds itself with the lead late in the game again, it stands to reason that the coaching staff should now protect their lead with a strong running campaign combined with their trust in a formidable defense. If Palmer turns it over one more time late in the game, I'm going to lose my shit. It's as simple as that.
When Palmer does need to throw, the execution has to improve. Routes need to be sharper, passes must be delivered more accurately, catches need to be made. No one said that the Bengals have to be a passing team, they just need to be better when they choose to do so. If Palmer only throws it 20 times or less, something has gone right. The higher the attempts, the worse the score. Allow this team to run the rock as much as possible, but demand they make the play that gets the first down when passing situations do arise. The leaders of this offense are sage veterans; they should know what it takes to get it done. Do it!
When they do "do it", they should try some quick hitters to their bigger receivers, Terrell Owens and Jermaine Gresham. The Falcons don't look like sure tacklers, especially in the flats. Atlanta does sniff out screens well, but quick throws to the sidelines could have some explosive potential in them. Within the depth-chart, after Dunta Robinson—out with car-collision symptoms—the Falcon secondary gets more and more vulnerable. As long as the play-calling does its best to not get out of hand with the pass attempts, this team is the perfect defense to have a modest but confident performance through the air against.
The self-imposed setbacks have to end here or else the season does too. The Atlanta Falcons are a Super-Bowl caliber team that has immense talent on offense. It's in their dome, with their fans who feel really good about their team. This is a major chapter in the story of the 2010 Bengals. The outcome to this game will dictate the futures of many men in the visitors locker room on Sunday. To keep the season alive they must stop Roddy White, contain the Atlanta run game, stick their own run and be sharper in limited passing downs. The Bengals must mature into a more technically sound group of veterans in order for this thing to work. I still think that they can, but at this point I need proof. So until I see some....
Falcons 27, Bengals 23
Mojokong—it stings like the dickens!