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Week 15 Preview: A Mission Of Sorrow

During the season, when a player is put on Injured Reserve, all those around him chalk it up as a casualty of war and move on without him.  In a sense, for that season, he is dead.  But when a player actually dies, we are reminded that these guys aren't always wearing their helmets, and though they are stronger and faster than most, human they remain. Only in death, especially while they are young and still playing, do these characters we see so often on television but rarely if ever see in person become mortal men.  
Such is the case with the tragic ending to Chris Henry's life.
It's important to take a moment of solemn recognition for a life lost and to bid him farewell.  Outside of that however it becomes a family matter, which is in turn none of my business.  Death is a larger force than our minds can fully deal with and I won't bother working out the complexities here, but Chris Henry has died and I suppose my way of coping with it is to not continue talking about it. 
That said, goodbye, Slim.
Now that utterly inconsequential event scheduled to take place this Sunday that we refer to as a game, which will change very little in the universe and have no real bearing on civilization, is still a big one to the Bengals as a football team. 
Everyone's flavor of the month, San Diego (founded in 1904 by the Germans), appears to have no chance of losing this match-up with the Bengals.  After all, the Chargers have won eight straight, Phillip Rivers is 16-0 in December, Cincinnati is sputtering and they don't travel well to the West Coast.  Now the team is dealing with personal tragedy.  How could they win?
Allow me.
Like Minnesota, the Chargers are loaded up with weapons.  Rivers, with that pronounced overhand delivery, throws nice gentle floaters to his tall receivers, or he fires it underneath to the ultimate safety valve, tight end Antonio Gates.  He steps up in the pocket on nearly all of his throws and trusts his protection to hold up.  
The Bengals aren't a fierce pass-rushing team, but they will have to get a push from their interior linemen when Rivers steps up to avoid pressure from around the edges.  Tank Johnson sat out of practice Wednesday and Domata Peko is still a few weeks away from returning.  That leaves Pat Sims and the newly-signed fatso, Shaun Smith, mixed in with Johnathan Fanene and Frostee Rucker to collapse the pocket from the inside out.  I would hope to see Mike Zimmer send Dhani Jones up the middle on blitzes to facilitate that process.  While there are certainly some things Dhani cannot do, he has always been a steady pass rusher when he's been asked to blitz.
As for stopping Gates, there are no easy answers.  He's bigger than any nickle-back in the world and he's  a tremendous route-runner that linebackers simply cannot cover; even safeties struggle keeping up with him.  Double-teaming him seems like the only solution, but it comes at a great risk.
The Chargers receivers are large and athletic.  Both Vincent Jackson and Malcolm Floyd have developed into dangerous play-makers.  Each has overcome struggles with dropped passes and Rivers often rewards them with deep-ball opportunities.  Yet they aren't all that fast.  In fact, many times, Rivers just throws it up in their area and hopes for the best, even when they're covered.  
Fortunately for the Chargers, the best has taken place often this season, but the Bengal corners are no joke either and I think they can handle these guys down-field.  The biggest hurdle for the Bengals secondary is to avoid pass-interference penalties when challenging the Chargers big men on deep throws.  They have to be precise in the timing of their jumps and must turn their heads when the ball is in the air.    
The Chargers have run a successful trick-play in consecutive weeks and might continue to dabble with these gadget plays against Cincinnati.  Bengal safeties will have to stay deep on the end-around play so that they aren't beat on something sneaky.  This could allow some additional rushing yardage to the outside on reverses and such, but it likely beats giving up a big play.
They also run other sneaky plays that wouldn't be considered gadget or trick-plays, but are designed around deception and sometimes just plain cheating.  Watching tape of the last two Charger games, one can point out multiple occasions where coach Norv Turner runs the "rub" play---which means a crossing receiver rubs his defender off onto the intended receiver's man, causing a defensive car-crash and allowing the intended receiver to roam free for the catch.  It's really an illegal pick, and it should be called offensive pass-interference.  Like any good coach however, Turner explores the area between cheating and good-strategy, where shadow meets light; The NFL's own Twilight Zone.  
San Diego also runs their screens very well which highlights the combustible talents of the Mighty Mini, Darren Sproles.  This man is the quintessential jitter-bug of a running back who is best used outside in the open field and also happens to be a supremely gifted kick and punt-returner.  The Chargers are not a great rushing team, but their backs are good receivers and their linemen move well down-field.  They like to run play-action passes where the entire team will go left, but one guy will slip to the right and become open in the flat.  
They're a trickster offense.  They can make you pay on a well-timed screen on the wrong blitz or go up top when they want quick-strike yardage.  The key to stopping them remains limiting Gates with double-teams and staying at home on draws, screens, reverses, end-arounds, and anything else remotely sleight-of-handish.  The defensive bonus would be pressure from the line, especially from the middle.  Rivers goes down pretty easily when he feels the heat; it will be up to Zimmer to invent ways to make that happen
Defensively the Chargers appear fairly average.  They aren't a particularly fast group and their secondary has tackling issues.  There are some drives where they look completely incapable of slowing down the opposition's running game and have to rely on exotic blitz-packages to generate any significant pressure on the quarterback.  
The Bengals can run on them.  A consistent power-attack can wilt this defense, and that seems to be all Cincinnati has at the moment.  Once again, the offensive line must keep Carson Palmer upright and really allow him to feel comfortable being surrounded by them.  Last week, the Chargers keyed on Tony Romo's homeboy, Jason Witten, knowing that Romo wanted to throw to him before anyone else.  For the most part, the strategy worked.  The Bengals need to find ways to get their other receivers involved so that Chad Ochocinco isn't blanketed the same way all game.
If Bernard Scott can play, Bob Bratkowski can use the outside which is an area the Chargers' defense looks most vulnerable.  Both Felix Jones last week and Jerome Harrison a week before were able to work outside of the tackle box effectively.  Dallas mixed it up well using Marion Barber up the middle, and Jones to the outside which allowed for two long, sustained drives (disclosure: one of those drives resulted in zero points after Dallas was unable to score four times in a row from inside the three-yard line).  The Cowboys looked especially apt at gaining yards from the shotgun hand-off play.  This play of course, is designed to allow the running a back a moment to find a hole as opposed to straight-line power running.  Delays and draw-plays like this are perfect plays to enhance Scott's skill-set.  I hope he can play, and if he does, I hope the Bengals use him to maximize his potential; they have improved at this over the course of the season.
As for the penalties, I'll only say this: the situation is so out of hand that we who discuss such things in our various football salons are at a loss for an explanation.  To be near or exceed ten penalties in a game even one time is inexcusable; for it to happen four games in a row boggles the mind.  If it isn't rectified, or at least slowed for God sakes, then they really don't stand a chance.  Good teams don't beat themselves.  I'd prefer the Bengals didn't test this claim so rigorously.
So, this has become a tough week for our boys.  Tough beyond comprehension.  No one, not even themselves, know how they will react this Sunday in California.  For the players, the organization and its fans, it still means a lot, but after that recurring life-lesson we all must face, even for these people, it's still just a game.
Bengals 24, Chargers 16
Mojokong---If nothing else, I hope that Chris Henry's three children and their mother carry on okay without him.  It's all so sad.  Such is life.