[EDITORS NOTE: CJ contributor Jake Liscow is expanding his talents through the realm of Pro Football Focus. He breaks down the Bengals-Bears matchup and adds a little more behind the story on his authored PFF 3TFO posting.]
Pro Football Focus publishes a weekly feature, "3 To Focus On", previewing key matchups in each game by examining the statistical tendencies behind players and teams. I had the opportunity to write the Bengals-Bears 3TFO this week, and want to dive a bit deeper into the numbers and provide a PFF perspective for CincyJungle.
The first matchup we're all watching this week is in the trenches. I broke down the Bengals defensive line against the Bears offensive line for PFF, and there's not a ton more to say on that topic. The Bengals have the edge, where Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap should have opportunities against rookies on Sunday:
The Bears’ interior line will need to deal with Geno Atkins, whose 12.7 Pass Rushing Productivity score last year was the second-highest in the league. Kyle Long was a preseason standout at right guard, but most of his success came in the running game for the Bears. For example, Long surrendered two pressures to Oakland in the preseason finale. Matt Slauson will man the other guard position, and has a track record of average to above-average pass blocking work. Roberto Garza, the only returning starter from 2012 held up with a 98.1 Pass Blocking Efficiency last year. If the Bears bring help to the inside, rookie right tackle Jordan Mills will have his hands full with Carlos Dunlap, who almost always rushes from the left side of the defense. Dunlap was the Bengals’ best edge rusher last year with a 10.3 Pass Rushing Productivity score from the left side. On the right, Michael Johnson’s 8.8 Pass Rushing Productivity was seventh among right side rushers. He could cause problems for left tackle Jermon Bushrod, whose 93.7 Pass Blocking Efficiency was near the bottom of the league last year. With the individual matchups favoring the Bengals, the Bears may need to bring extra help in protection to give Cutler more time in the pocket.
If Garza helps with Atkins frequently, other Bengals pass rushers may need to win matchups. Garza played to neutral grades against the Lions twice last year, who feature the tandem of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley on the inside, who were both slowed down against the Bears in pass blocking last year. I think Atkins is a better player, and will have more success. But even if he doesn't, I like Johnson against Bushrod, who was streaky in pass blocking last year, and even more I like Dunlap's chances against fifth round rookie Mills. Assuming Dunlap can stay on the field, he is the Bengals' best edge rusher by Pass Rusher Productivity and needs to make the most of his chance against the rookie.
When the Bengals have the ball, the primary pass blocking challenge will almost certainly be Anthony Collins taking on Julius Peppers. Peppers' PRP from the right side in 2012 ranked #5 among 4-3 defensive ends, where teams traditionally line up their best pass rushers. Collins, going into his sixth year as a pro at the still-young age of 27, last had extensive starting experience in 2011 and 2010. He graded positively in pass blocking in every single one of those games, surrendering minimal pressure. In the preseason, he gave up 4 hurries on 60 pass blocking snaps, and demonstrated the quick feet and solid pass blocking ability that may be starter-worthy on some other teams in the NFL.
The next major matchup I think we need to watch on Sunday is how the linebackers handle Matt Forte, especially in coverage. Forte looked good in the preseason, and we still don't know exactly what the Bengals will do for their second nickel linebacker.
Burfict is the Bengals’ best returning cover linebacker (with just a neutral coverage grade) and the team is considering Maualuga or Taylor Mays for the nickel ‘backer spot. Maualuga looked better in coverage in the preseason, with a +1.7 grade on 32 coverage snaps, including a pass breakup along the sideline, but was woeful in 2012. Mays, on the other hand, has decent size for a safety, but doesn’t have experience playing linebacker and has been an inconsistent cover man in his career. Whoever is out there will have their hands full, as Forte showed good preseason form, forcing three missed tackles on three receptions.
Whether we'll see Maualuga, Mays, or someone else at nickel linebacker remains to be seen, but they'll have to find a way to bring Forte down in the passing game, assuming the staunch run defense we saw last year shows up in the first place.
The last intriguing matchup I looked at in the PFF piece is Brandon Marshall vs. the Bengals Secondary, and A.J. Green vs. Charles Tillman. The Bengals don't try to keep their best cornerback on the opponent's best receiver - Leon Hall plays right corner and slot corner - so, the Bears can get Marshall matched up on whoever they want. Adam Jones held up quite well in coverage last year, and the Bengals' biggest weakness in coverage came on post routes, which Marshall only ran four of in 2012. It will be interesting to see how the Bears try to attack the Bengals defense, with Marc Trestman supposedly installing some West Coast concepts that might result in Cutler getting more protection, giving Marshall more time to get open deep, where he played quite well last year.
Green, I think, draws the tougher assignment in Tillman. Tillman might not cover Green on every single play of the game, but last year he followed elite receivers like Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, and Larry Fitzgerald for most of their snaps. Green was quoted today about ball security, as Tillman's reputation (he forced 10 fumbles last year) has made its way into the Bengals' meeting rooms. Still, there are weaknesses in the Bears' defense - at least the way we see it at PFF. It looks like the Bengals should be able to find space with Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, especially in the middle of the field, as Jon Bostic and James Anderson can be exploited out of two-tight end sets.
The numbers point to the game coming down to whether the Bengals can win on the defensive front against the Bears' new line, and the turnover battle. If Andy Dalton and the Bengals can avoid mistakes at the hands of the opportunistic Bears' defense, I think the matchups favor them in the end, but there will be some very fun individual battles to watch on Sunday.